If the notion of Cornish independence doesn’t bring a smile to your face; the fact that the leader of Mebyon Kernow, the Cornish independence party, is called Dick Cole should. Now say that quickly. Now say it slowly. You have to respect a man who has dedicated his entire life to the love of something so few will ever understand. Dick ‘ole could just as easily give it all in; call himself Richard and go back to his career as an archaeologist. For Dickhole and his fellow countrymen and women, it isn’t as simple as the usual “You’re not from round here” mentality. Their cause acknowledges the bewitching nature of separateness that runs deep once you cross the River Tamar.
For someone who isn’t comfortable in the language of their own emotion, put simply, I was visiting Cornwall to run away from my problems. I did flirt with the idea of self-help through literature, but all I could find were books with insufferable names like “ The little book of Hygge — The Danish Way to live well” which read more like an IKEA salesperson with a blocked nose pitching futons and mountains of scatter cushions than it did as a critical analysis of anxiety. Then there were the vaguely Asian sounding titles of “Ikigai” and “Wabisabi”. It speaks volumes about how we deal with mental health as a culture that we feel inclined to seek out hokey oriental mysticism and flat-pack life lessons before having a candid conversation with a loved one or professional. Cornwall is defined by a particular sense of place; nowhere else on this fractious little island is there such a dramatic diversity of landscape. I had escaped to Polzeath; a wind-blasted village tucked neatly into the pocket of a cove, gauged from the foot of the country by the ceaseless elements of Celtic Sea. The homes of Polzeath tumble around the vista, all leaning precariously on tippie-toes towards the beach. The singular road acts as the main artery of the village connecting everything to the wild everlasting ocean. It all served as a simple but inescapable reminder that in the grand scheme of things, even in this tiny little place, I was nanoscopic and inconsequential.
Wherever you are in Polzeath, the ocean is with you. The spray dances on the breeze, covering everything in a gossamer mist of crystalline salt. Every man woman and child look as if they sprang from the ocean into existence. Happy apostates with tangles of sun-bleached hair and irrepressible smiles who fling themselves into churning danger for fun. There seems to be a spiritual kinship with the waves; an understanding of something deeper and altogether more wholesome than my cynicism allows me. I wanted a slice of whatever it was. Ignoring the warnings of my girlfriend, her family and the swirling mass of grey clouds forming overhead I committed myself to a late afternoon swim. I wrestled with some neoprene for a while and eventually found myself tucked inside a wetsuit, looking exactly like someone had filled a condom full of mashed potatoes and then proceeded to kick it to the beach. With the sensation of a bone-shattering chill creeping across my extremities I waded through the white spume for a while. Until I stood in the panoramic grey where the end of the world meets the start of the ocean. In my fretting mind, this is where I found catharsis, here I could internalise my anxiety and do battle royale with the elements. In fact what happened was an emotionally confused twenty-six-year-old man swallowed a lungful of frozen seawater and fish piss, all the while being tossed around by the relentless push and pull of the tide like a crying baby in a washing machine. To add insult to salty injury, a labrador swam circles around my flailing attempts to right myself in the unforgiving wash. The elements had won. Downright stupidity is symptomatic of an inability to understand one’s mind in relation to waning mental health. Anyway, no one ever talks about the pervasive effects of the perennial sogginess of Cornish life. I realised this as I shivered my way home draped in the secondary uniform of the beach-bound locals; a sodden jumper apparently made from an old man’s pubic hair that smelled somewhat reminiscent of rot and church.
Eventually, I stumbled into the village of Padstow and found peace of mind. Just outside a fish and chip shop. There was an iodine pang in the air; this close to the sea everything is fresh. Wherever the word “fish” insidiously appears on a menu without any qualification of what is inside the batter you can bet good money on it being the skulking impersonator Pangasius. An intensively farmed catfish from South-East Asia that masquerades as the “fish” in spiritless chippies up and down the country. Thankfully, in Padstow, I wasn’t short of options. Everything here is cooked to order, the fish doesn’t fade under the dingy yellow glow of a warmer; you are made to wait for it. It gives the community of soggy regulars time to chatter inconsequentially amongst themselves. While their choice of fish is dipped in batter and dropped into the blistering bronze oil. The real secret to good fish and chips is in that oil. Only beef dripping can burn at a high enough temperature to instantaneously sear the batter. What happens next is serendipity. The fish steams itself in hermetic deliciousness. I ate outside because that’s as far as I could get. Caught in a vortex of rising steam and acidic vapour from the shattered golden batter. All the while sucking and blowing in a constant battle with the plummeting temperature, the satisfying crunch reverberating through my inner ear. It whipped me clean back to my earliest memory; walking home from the local Chinese chip shop with my mum. She beamed down at me with eyes full of colour overflowing with love the way mothers do. I came to just below her hip, I remember because that is where her hair fell. I could hardly keep up; she had poked a hole through the newspaper wrapping just small enough for me to liberate a few chips for encouragement. Small puffs of sweet and tangy perfume billowed out as we walked along hand in hand. It is silly but this is as happy as I can ever remember being. Outside that fish and chip shop in Padstow, after all of those years, I felt that happiness again for a fleeting moment. Sometimes that is all we need.