Saturday, July 30, 2011
Back To Britain - Part 7; St. Ives
As I was going to St. Ives I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks, each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits: kits, cats, sacks and wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?
The answer to this 18th century riddle is apparently 2,801 wives, sacks, cats and kits. The alternative answer is the guy went crazy en route to St Ives and jumped off a cliff.
St Ives, to the uninitiated is about as far south west as you can go without flying to the Isles of Scilly. It's on the far side of Cornwall which has always been a place apart.
To me there are two St. Ives. There is the place my parents took me on holiday as a kid with its teeming streets and brick-a-brack shops. They found a white villa nearby for a good rate which beat the usual remove caravans with backed up toilets that they usually stumbled on, so as we could spend the week on a distant farm, gagging on the smell of cow manure.
The villa was a step up but it's hard not to look back on those days without a sense of shame. Granted this was the 1970s but was there really a humane case for skimping on the hair cuts and for dressing me in bright orange sweaters from the jumble sale and chequered brown flaired trousers. It's fine to look like there's a giant fuzzy microphone on your head if you are in the Jackson 5 but I wasn't even black, although I was probably blacker than Michael Jackson in his later days.
I don't remember so much about St Ives as we spent most of the time on the same beach. We ate Cornish pasties that had the texture of grit and contained nefarious translucent gray material. They were a locally distinctive food, developed for tin miners back in the day.
It wasn't until I was half way grown up, until I'd ditched the orange sweaters and got a haircut that I realized there was another side to St Ives, away from the tourists, who are known contemptuously by the locals who take their money as 'grockles'.
Far from the madding crowds, there are lonely whitewashed homes that look out on empty harbors and backwaters of briney sand. There are streets where artists quietly work their magic under skies that had a mere wisp of the Mediterranean on summer days. There's the Tate Gallery, austere with its white art deco lines over an empty beach ringed with palmed trees. St Ives had beautiful vistas away from those tourists and wives and cats.
It all started with Alfred Wallis, a fisherman who painted boats in a naive but organically inspired way sans perspective. In 1928, a few years after he had started painting, Ben Nicholson and Kit Wood came to St. Ives and established an artist colony. They discovered Wallis and celebrated his direct approach to image-making, which is somewhat Van Goch-like in its directness.
Wallace was feted by the postmodernist. I have an image in my mind's eye of this rustic fisherman being taken to receptions in London and feeling out of his depth.
But Wallace was true to his roots and died in abject poverty. And that sums up St Ives, a mixture of the traditional and the artistic, a strange and beautiful hybrid on the lonely and high cliffs of Cornwall.