The better half, Bella and I went for a week in Cornwall. We stayed in a cottage near Falmouth. It was on a farm with pigs, some of which we ate; it was all entirely satisfactory. I had not been to Cornwall for some forty-five years and the other two had not at all. Nevertheless the county was a large part of my upbringing. My mother’s maternal family were all Cornish and she herself was born in Millbrook, just in Cornwall on the banks of the Tamar, the river that divides Cornwall from the rest of the World. Her father was from Devon, but he was a mild man and his ancestry tended to be discounted.

We would drive down the A303 (motorways not yet having been invented) at Christmas and for our summer holidays. My parents decided that, traffic being what it was, they should drive through the night. We children slept in the back of the car but when it was the summer holidays we would be woken up at about five o’clock for breakfast at Stonehenge. We would lean with our backs to the great stones at dawn drinking my mother’s Everything Soup and eating cold sausages. The great stones, I am glad to report, survived all this, as presumably now they wouldn’t. We would visit venerable and sometimes terrifying relations in Fowey, Polruan, Falmouth and Mousehole, and, in the down time, rush with the family dog around the beaches in our Aertex shirts and discover caves.

We were never in any doubt that Cornwall was separate, one of the five great Celtic nations: not in England; not in the West Country.

In between being a child and becoming grown up I went back without my family. I discovered the folk clubs of the Sixties. I heard Ralph McTell when he was unknown, Clive Palmer after his first, and authentic, outing with the Incredible String Band, Barbara Wootton – so majestic live and so disappointing now on CD – Henry the Jug and John the Fish. I sat unfocused on St Ives beach, while ethereal girls drifted this way and that, dressed in Laura Ashley.

I found love, after a fashion, though not with a Laura Ashley girl. Then, having fallen out with my inamorata and with my best Cornish friend, who thought that she was his inamorata, I left and didn’t go back: until last week.

Cornwall is still separate. There are deep mysterious lanes, hedgerows with flowers unseen elsewhere in our island since the 1950s, and at the end, sticking out into the Atlantic beyond St Ives, is West Penwith, the ‘headland of slaughter’ as Daphne du Maurier translates it, possibly fancifully. The better half, who has a more practical approach to these things, noted that the sea was never far away and you could swim and kayak in the estuaries. Our local estuary was called Carrick Roads, which sounds like an American poet, and she did indeed kayak on it and then run home.

(By the way: what a waste of space Tate St Ives is. I had naively thought that it would show the work of the great St Ives artists of the 50s, Feiler, Lanyon, Hilton, Frost, Nicholson and so on, who challenged the abstract expressionists of New York gesture for gesture. But no. There is no permanent display. There was a paying show of dazzling vacuousness, the usual café and shop and a lot of unused space.)

When we had crossed the Tamar and left England behind, Bella, smelling the sea, took on her avatar as Swims Like Seals and prepared herself to surf. This turned out not to be straight forward. There were signs at the entrances to the beaches as follows:

No Dogs.
No Aertex.

The ban on Aertex could be coped with, as most cafés on the beaches sold PODLARK®-themed smocks and billowy shirts, which you could slip on over the top, but the ban on dogs was a real problem. Finally we found a bit of industrial waste abutting the sea in Penzance, where, to judge by the detritus as well as the absence of a sign, nothing was forbidden. The better half threw a strand of seaweed with a rock attached as far as she could throw it. Bella plunged in, disappeared for a minute or so, broke surface and swam to shore bearing the seaweed and rock, whose neck she proceeded to break. A small crowd built up on the esplanade, mainly guest-workers of the Cherokee diaspora. Word had spread. They muttered appreciatively, in their own language.

We also had problems with Bella at Rick Stein’s restaurant. The Rick Stein empire has spread out from Padstow and reached Falmouth. There are two entrances, the take-away and the restaurant. Dogs are admitted through neither. We had fish and chips from the take-away. The fish tasted so fresh that it can only have been frozen, and the chips were so-so, but the better half had conceived a desire to cover herself with chilli crab, so we went back the next night to the restaurant, having arranged a dog-sitter.

We both got food-poisoning. I don’t complain about that; any restaurant can serve fish that is off. What upset me was the shandy that they sell. This is branded as ‘Chalky’. Chalky was Rick Stein’s dog. In the early television series before he died, peacefully I hope, he could be seen gambolling on fishing boats, riverboats, in galleys, generally getting under the feet of the celebrity chef. I do not recall the line: ‘In the name of health and safety, Chalky, begone.’ This is rank hypocrisy. If I can’t have my dog by my feet don’t put yours on the soda bottles.

I don’t blame Stein. Like Stalin, he loves us and is unaware of what is done in his name. If the television is anything to go by, he is anyway on a beach in Australia cooking termites on hot rocks.

But I think he should be told.


Norbert Dentressangle and the Perfect Wave

Portugal is full of exiles. Notoriously, many are British. Some of these are not a savoury sight, clad in grubby shorts, flushed red in face and eye, sitting in bars to which Portuguese people no longer go and complaining. Less well known and much more dignified is a small group of Cherokee ancestry, who live near the beach to which we went. They speak a strange patois, half Cherokee and half Portuguese. Rob has acquired a nodding acquaintance with this tongue, which may prove invaluable for artistic reasons which I will come to later. He was therefore able to understand that some of these people, who had come to the beach to watch Bella surf, had given her a name according to their own tradition. They call her ‘Swims Like Seals’.

As we drove back to England, Swims Like Seals lay in the back seat of the car, morosely dreaming of the Perfect Wave.

The better half has an ‘app’ on her phone, which tells us where to go. A helpful man describes the towns and roads along our route. He is not strong on the pronunciation of foreign place names but he does his best. ‘Castile’, for example, perhaps the proudest word in a proud language, is rendered as ‘car stealer’. Nonetheless he is generally reliable. He took us off the motorway to see the centre of Rouen, but that was quite nice as we could then say that we had seen the cathedral. The worst bit was in Seville, where at the critical moment the connection died. You might imagine Seville: timeless, stiflingly hot, silent, the smell of the orange groves and the muffled peal of cathedral bells; a tradition of cruelty, mystery and faith. The Seville bypass, though, on which we found ourselves mid-morning on a Monday, was not like that. Huge lorries hurtled by us as we hove to on the hard shoulder; the better half gripped the steering wheel as if it were the throat of the nice man from the ‘app’ and shouted, explaining that it was all my fault. But we sorted it out: we looked at a map.

The motorways, as in England, were full of lorries. They all look similar, same number of wheels in the same places – no doubt as a result of EU regulation – except for the dressing. This includes irritating cartoon figures and improbable advertising claims. As a result I always find the vehicles of Norbert Dentressangle reassuring. They are a sober claret colour, and decoration is confined to his name and website address. There is a modest logo, a road device cleverly incorporating the letters ‘ND’. One can imagine Norbert being bullied into this by an alliance of his eldest son, Jean-Hippolyte Dentressangle – more imaginative than sound perhaps – and his accountant.

“You have to move with the times, ND,” they may have said.

“Go on, then,” he would have replied gruffly – or ‘Va t’en’, as they say in French.

I imagine Norbert as taking an old-fashioned and fatherly interest in the welfare of his drivers. He can’t relax at night until he knows that they have all arrived at their destinations and are accounted for. Preferably in his view this means tucked up in bed, although he knows that for those travelling through Spain the attractions of the roadside ‘hotels’ in that country – thinly disguised brothels – may have been irresistible and some of the lads may not be tucked up in their own beds at all but pumping away at some lazy Spanish whore. Norbert takes the view that ‘boys will be boys’ but he doesn’t mention the Spanish ‘hotels’ to Mme Dentressangle.

“Come to bed, Norbert,” she calls, kindly if perhaps a touch impatiently.

He sighs and closes his big ledger. He taps it reflectively with his big haulier’s fingers and then goes upstairs to join her.

What is it, incidentally, about the Spanish? They really have become rather unbuttoned. Whatever happened to Catholic repression? We stopped at one point to get something to eat. The sign on the road had suggested a sensible motorway facility with a choice of M&S or Burger King. Instead it took us to an appalling inn, where, because Bella was a health and safety issue, I had to stand with her in the rain outside while lorry drivers puffed the smoke from vile-coloured stogies at me. The better half went in to get a slice of sausage and some chips and she reported later that the bar was full of members of the sex-worker community, presumably waiting until the drivers had finished their sausage and their smoking and needed relief.

Of course my musings about the Dentressangle family are probably wide of the mark. Maybe ‘Norbert’ is not a Christian name at all but a surname recording a merger or acquisition at some stage involving Norbert interests and Dentressangle ones. And the name ‘Dentressangle’ gives one some pause. What can its derivation be? Presumably ‘dent’ or ‘tooth’ is involved, and ‘étrangler’ or ‘strangle’. That would be a concern. No doubt a visit to the website would clarify all, but one would rather not: one would rather live with one’s dreams.

Anyway it provided an hour’s distraction as we bowled along through the anodyne landscape of Les Landes. Swims Like Seals slept on. Rob, I like to think, has already benefitted from his fortuitous introduction to the members of the Cherokee-Portuguese community. During our time at his house I urged him to relieve the plain white of his veranda wall with a large mural painting of a member – or members – of the Native American community: possibly Geronimo, possibly Buffy Ste. Marie, possibly both. I was surprised and pleased that he liked this proposal: ‘took it on board’, as we are encouraged to say these days. I like to think that even now he is crouched with one or more of them on the beach, examining rough drawings in the sand: an aquiline eye here, a feather there.