Notes on a Gothic Adventure in Cornwall

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Way back in October, I spent another week away in Cornwall, although this time with my girlfriend rather than on “deep assignment” at Urbanomic HQ.

For the first half of the week, I was sick with my first cold of the season. The second half of the week, it was my girlfriend’s turn… We got up to lots nonetheless but that dual autumnal burn-out was a very difficult one to get over. It lasted for most of the rest of the year, in fact, and it was so mentally corrosive that I ended up completely forgetting I’d even started this post in the subsequent haze.

As such, it’s a bit of a futile endeavour to try and finish it. I wanted to write about things whilst they were fresh but now it’s almost 6 months ago. Nevertheless, reshaping what was already here will no doubt be useful. I really want to write something long-form on Cornwall at some point and this is not it. I suspect there are far more conversations needed with Robin before something more substantial can coalesce between us but there is certainly something there, waiting for its moment. (There is another Cornwall visit on the cards so we’ll see what happens then.) For now, this is an attempt to write down a couple of things before they fall completely out of my mind-sieve.

Here’s what I (can remember that I) did on my holidays…

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My old post, “Lovers Flighton the Yorkshire Gothic and Deleuzean patchwork, has continued bubbling in the background on this blog since I first wrote it. It was the most important post of last year for me. It galvanised something in my thinking — much more than its precursor: “State Decay“, despite that post being considerably more popular — and so I’ve been trying to extend this out into something much more long-form and rigorous, taking in some of the other areas of the UK that share a natural and cultural affinity with the Gothic, but it’s not happened yet. It’s a project that feels so big I think it will have to be book number two. But I really need to finish book number one first…

Daphne Du Maurier has felt like the next literary genius worthy of consideration within this project but linking the Yorkshire and Cornish moors felt like a pretty tenuous leap to make, at first, without enough to justify ignoring their 300-mile disconnection. However, walking through a collector’s fair in St. Ives back in October, I came across a second-hand book stall which was selling about six different editions of a book by Du Maurier herself called Vanishing Cornwall, an exploration of her adopted home that poignantly made the Brontë connection for me. She writes:

The four surviving children, Charlotte, Emily, Anne and the brother Bramwell, had a Cornish mother whom they barely remembered, and a Cornish aunt to instruct them in their most formative years. This heritage played an undoubted part in the development of later genius, and if Emily Bronte, and Wuthering Heights, will always be associated with the Yorkshire moors it must not be forgotten that both her mother and her aunt had on their own doorstep, through childhood and adolescence, the wild moorland scenery, the stories and the legends of West Penwith.

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Whilst I cannot profess to have any Cornish relatives to instil me with a moorland mentality, my mother, whilst she was still lucid, would obsess over Du Maurier’s book Rebecca. (Until last year, I didn’t think Du Maurier was “cool” at all because my Mum liked her so much. How wrong I was!) My main memory of going to Cornwall, as a kid, aside from listening to lots of Limp Bizkit, is going to see “Manderley” — although, in the most wonderfully disorientating fashion, I’ve since realised that this visit has become an oneiric entanglement of fact and fiction. I vividly remember the feeling of seeing “Manderley” in the flesh but the vision of the house in my mind’s eye is very much confused with the images of the place conjured up by Alfred Hitchcock and whoever did the set design for a stage adaptation my Mum dragged me too one time at the Hull New Theatre.

So, as much as I have previously played up a kind of tongue-in-cheek Yorkshire nationalism on this blog, in orbit of the prospect of an independence movement, it must be said that what has stuck me most about my various jaunts around this weird little island is that Yorkshire shares many strong affinities with other counties and countries, that are all rooted in the futile Celtic resistance of English imperialism. (Yes, at “home” as well as abroad.) The attraction of moors and the eerie countryside more generally seems, to me, to be based in a Gothic refusal to conform to a consolidated sense of Englishness. As such, my affirmation of my home’s difference is most important to me because it is a difference shared.

The affinities that Yorkshire shares with other territories around the United Kingdom are precisely rooted in this Hobbesian horror — darkened corners of this kingdom that may not have identified with but nonetheless live in the shadow of leviathan, moulded to its shape over centuries by state oppression and class war. The combined heritages of neglect and, in particular, mining mean these affinities go back a long way. I remember feeling this most intensely in Wales. In fact, many other Yorkshire folk I met whilst I was living in Wales a few years back spoke of a very similar natural affinity to its landscape and cultural identity, and people I’d meet in Wales who’d been to Yorkshire would acknowledge the same thing.

These anti-English, or more broadly anti-imperialist, folk traditions — which is to say, folk traditions that survive today as an indirect but no doubt conscious two fingers up to English cultural erasure — are directly linked to the occult, and this is likewise an attraction I have felt existing between Wales and my Yorkshire home — I lived down the road from the Welsh birthplace of Arthur Machen, for instance — and also to Cornwall.

This is to say that, everywhere I’ve lived — except London, notably — it always felt like class consciousness and an affinity with the occult have gone hand-in-hand and Cornwall is no different. Its history of tin mining collides with its various archaeological sights and the mists of its moors. In Cornwall with Robin, this sense of an occultural weather was felt most prominently as we trekked across moors in thick fog and fine drizzle, in search of a crop of standing stones with only an Ordinance Survey map for guidance, carving out a meandering path, avoiding the map markers for abandoned mine shafts.

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With far less fog on this October trip, our situation was less moored and more marooned. We found the various standing stones and outcrops with ease and, with the sun blaring down on us, we instead elected to spend a lot more of our time along the coast.

However, it is worth noting that, with visibility high, you get a sense of Cornwall’s illusory island mentality when, from some vantage points on the moors, you can see the whole Cornish peninsula stretch out in front of you with the sea encroaching on both sides. At Land’s End, where we spent one of our days, this sensation is heightened further still, with the expanse of the sea in front of you taking on the weight of the whole of this weird little nation as it unfolds for infinity behind you.

You feel like you’re at the absolute ends of the earth, with the land not stopping, transitioning from earth to beach, but petering out as jagged rock, as if the land forgets itself, dissolving into the abyss like everything else.

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A little further round the coast at Lizard Point, the feeling is much the same. Whilst Land’s End is the furthest flung extremity of England, Lizard is its most southernly point. Rather than visit it for this fact alone, it was the first coastal spot on a secret musical sightseeing tour.

Countless times I had listened to Brian Eno’s track of the same name, thinking what this place might actually be like. It did not disappoint as a treacherous bit of coast littered with shipwrecks, caves and seals, although the wealth of tourist activity did dilute the mystery somewhat.

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This was the case at a number of other musical spots as well. We went to Logan Rock too, for instance, looking for the Logan Rock Witch but found nothing but a quaint dock and a picturesque sun trap.

However, as is the case with many other popular tourist spots in Cornwall, there is a sense that you would find the atmosphere you were looking for if you were to return at a less sociable hour. It felt like, to see Cornwall properly, when it wasn’t trying to sell itself, you had to see it at night.

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St. Michael’s Mount was another Aphex Twin tourist landmark but this one, at least, retained the wonder of its spectacle. It also had an intriguing and potent Gothic history.

On a wall in the visitor centre, it says:

In medieval times, St Michael was thought to determine whether the souls of the recently dead went to Heaven or Hell.

Holy places on hills and mountains were often dedicated to him as the mediator between God and man, which was the case with St Michael’s Mount. We still honour this tradition.

It is surprising, reading this, that there are no other St Michael’s Mounts in Cornwall. It is a part of the world drenched in the sublime. This is felt in equal amounts of terror and wonder. Indeed, there were times when these coastal settlements felt somewhat like they were trying to harness something not of this world, sometimes against better judgement.

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We visited one hamlet, for instance, that was nothing but a dock and a few cottages. New houses and a caravan park had been recently built not far away but there was a sense that the original settlers here had not wanted to be bothered. They were tucked very much into the landscape.

It felt like Innsmouth, with the harbour only there to keep up a pretence whilst they communed with something from below. Because the harbour didn’t go out to sea. It simply added a further barrier to something from within an already cloistered cove, embedded within an already existing natural frontier. It felt like something untoward was being kept out. But you couldn’t say what.

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We spent a lot of time finding places such as this along the coast. I took hundreds of pictures of them. Too many to fit in this post. One other particularly notable example of this kind of sublime communion, however, was the Minack Theatre — an open-air theatre built over a 50-year period directly into the cliff face.

It was built, originally, to perform Shakespeare on during and after the war. If I remember correctly, one of the first plays performed there was The Tempest and what a perfect play to perform on this coastline of all coastlines.

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Further examples exist inland. There are standing stones and stone circles everywhere. Walking through them, you might feel something pass through you. Everyone seems to be built on the perfect spot where land and sky fold into one another.

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This is something felt more profoundly than anything on this trip. Of course this strip of land is littered with the archaeological detritus of sun worship.

I’m reminded, at every turn, of Bataille’s text The Solar Anus, describing this great entropic churn back to the plane of immanence. The Cornish coast feels attuned to it. It is the land’s end, England’s end, and it knows it. It loves it. Cornwall is born where England comes to die, its corpse tossed around by the tide.

Plants rise in the direction of the sun and then collapse in the direction of the ground.

Trees bristle the ground with a vast quantity of flowered shafts raised up to the sun.

The trees that forcefully soar end up burned by lightning, chopped down, or uprooted. Returned to the ground, they come back up in another form.

But their polymorphous coitus is a function of uniform terrestrial rotation.

The simplest image of organic life united with rotation is the tide. From the movement of the sea, uniform coitus of the earth with the moon, comes the polymorphous and organic coitus of the earth with the sun.

But the first form of solar love is a cloud raised up over the liquid element. The erotic cloud sometimes becomes a storm and falls back to earth in the form of rain, while lightning staves in the layers of the atmosphere.

The rain is soon raised up again in the form of an immobile plant.

Animal life comes entirely from the movement of the seas and, inside bodies, life continues to come from salt water.

The sea, then, has played the role of the female organ that liquefies under the excitation of the penis.

The sea continuously jerks off.

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