Trepiddle’s Finest is back, and it’s like he’s never been away. Perhaps that’s because he hasn’t, but that’s not the point. Pete Cross has a new collection of scribblings out, and now it’s December I’ll throw in my first festive cliché and tell you it’s a perfect stocking-filler. And even Devonians may be tempted to splash out, because while he’s bleddy proud of that St Piran flag tattoo on his chest (actually, that’s just a rumour), Pete’ll still give most of us up-country buggers the time of day.
Described as ‘another choice selection of Pete’s ‘Backalong’ columns for Cornwall Today, (here’s my review of the first) he carries on where the last left off, proving (if he needed to) he’s no one-trick Levant pit pony. Just looking at the cover, I was laughing. Not because of his profile pic, but an anti-endorsement from Minty Fumble, who those who read part one will recall as the acclaimed author of A Puffin on the Aga.
As a Cornwall Today subscriber, I’d read most of these pieces, but all are worth revisiting. What’s more, some of the earlier columns were new to me, left out last time and pre-dating me receiving that reassuring monthly thud on the doormat (that sounded better in my head).
While Backalong had its roots in his return to Cornwall after his London years, it’s not the tale of some over-paid executive quitting the Big Smoke and heading for a slower-paced life among amusing yokels, ‘finding’ himself. Pete’s premise was more about returning to a county he loved but had changed immeasurably (for good and bad), giving accounts of his findings. If you want a modern take on Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, maybe look elsewhere, but that format’s been done to death.
Of course, the Cornwall some ‘incomers’ crave might not actually exist. It’s one seen in Doc Martin (Pete describes Portwenn as ‘a place blissfully free of the vagaries of 21st century deprivation, where a dim-witted full-time policeman has nothing to do and everyone lives in a lovely whitewashed cottage with a sea-view’) or that thankfully short-lived Dawn French/Catherine Tate sitcom Wild West.
Equally, Pete’s Cornwall doesn’t seem to be the one Caroline Quentin gushes about on ITV travelogues, featuring over-priced bijou b’n’bs and twee craft concerns. If you want that, you’ll find plenty of examples on the shelves, just right for those wanting to wind down from a busy week in the city at a novel-writing seminar with Richard and Judy in Portshallow Bay. But maybe I’m wrong. Besides, as he puts it, ‘Living in Cornwall is idyllic. It says so in all the magazines.’
I get it that, as the author admits, Cornwall for many is ‘just that place with the pretty beaches, and pasties, and pixies, and that nice Rick Stein.’ But the county he writes about is more like the one I know and love, a place I’ve been visiting for nearly 45 years.
He’s got five years on me (Pete’s weathering better, but I put that down to his dream location) but started a family later, and much of what he mentions I can relate to. Okay, he prefers rugby and spent much of his youth skateboarding, but we’ve plenty in common. He’s well-travelled, having seen a fair bit of the world, and now he’s home, I can equate to all that through visits with my young family, having put my own wider travels aside for a while, revisiting childhood haunts and discovering new ones.
Would-be columnists should note, there’s an art to talking about yourself and not being too revealing. We don’t want to see pictures of your tea and daily selfie. But Pete comes over as humble, self-effacing, understated and funny (subtly so, not sledgehammer funny), and can also write. That last point may seem obvious, but the more print, online and social media columns and opinion pieces I read, the more I appreciate an ability to turn a phrase and write with colour, understanding less is more.
His columns are tongue-in-cheek, not to be taken too seriously, the author laidback enough to resist adding gags every couple of paragraphs. In short, to read his column is to like the bloke and know you’d happily have a pint with him, even if you might not fancy a day helping him dig out his furzey bush (not a euphemism) or joining him on his annual fishing trip if the sky’s looking a little odd.
Enough waffle. This time the subject matter includes PC’s take on how the county’s changed since The Life of Brian was banned in ’79, the best way to tackle your overgrown garden, an account of Kernow’s kick-start that ensured the success of the 2012 London Olympics, mispronunciation of place names, the abundance of lifestyle books on the market (hats off to Minty Fimble again), sheds, 21st century weather, and updates on his beloved chickens and geese.
Then there’s the joy of outdoor festivals and quoits, lots about bird-watching and the wondrous chough (as also featured in his 2007 children’s story, Shadows in the Sky, as reviewed here), musings on Cornish tartan (yep, you heard right), tree echiums, the heart-warming tale of Keith the Robin, media hysteria over shark-infested waters, how to survive camping and van holidays, an appreciation of parsley (not the lion from the Herbs), and the basic principles of living an idyllic Cornish lifestyle.
Throw into that mix talk of beer, pasties, the struggle to master social media, the resurgence of Cornish cuisine, observations on drifting into middle-age, scary statistics about gastropods, and you’re even closer to understanding PC’s DNA. Then there was his horror at being mistaken for a tourist once. Boy, did I laugh at that, waking up my better half, who wasn’t best pleased.
There are also insightful deliberations over the East-West divide (not just a North-South thing when it comes to comparing areas of UK affluence and deprivation), Cornwall’s official recognition as a national minority group (whatever that really means), Truro’s bid for capital of culture status, thoughts on the Tate St Ives and the gasometer it replaced, and how the Race for Space might lead you to St Mawgan in the future.
Finally, factor in taxidermy, couch grass, and celebrations of our national sport of queuing, the pleasures of coastal walks, Christmas memories, pipe smoking, the victory of books over e-books, The Archers, and Cornish identity, and Poldark of course. Mr and Mrs Pete are huge fans of the latter, and over the course of several pieces on the subject you sense relief that the BBC reboot was not only a success but also truly respected Winston Graham’s literary legacy.
I remain jealous of the fact that Pete can sod off to the beach when his lads finish school, gazing into rock pools at low tide and plunging into those invigorating waters. Granted, there’s lots on my doorstep in Lancashire I don’t always appreciate, and I know the grass is greener elsewhere, but it certainly appeals. That doesn’t make it idyllic. There’s hard graft involved, and this is real life, not postcard romanticism. But all the same …
It’s not just about locations, culture and proud history either. There’s no pretentiousness, the author happy enough just inspiring an ‘approving nod or even, on occasion, a chuckle’ from these pieces. Similarly, he’ll not claim guru status when it comes to surviving modern life (he can’t even tell you where his other flip-flop went), but I prefer Pete’s steer on philosophy to most.
But I’d best let you go now, because it’ll be selling like hot saffron buns down at Goon Gumpas this month, so you’d best get in there quick. Just one note of caution – if you do feel the need to then read it on the loo, don’t let him know.