Saturday, 17 November 2007

A Town Tale

Yesterday, I was in Redruth, a town that seems to be dying. It is as different from London, or even Truro, Cornwall's 'capital', as it could be; and yet, in many unexpected ways, it has more life than either.

Sixty years ago, in 1947, my father was transferred to the grammar school in Redruth, after spending the War in rural Wales. Like me, commuting the wrong way from Truro now (in my case, for my weekly singing lesson), he took a bus through villages that must then have been alive with tin workers and their dependents to the epicentre of Cornwall's industrial heartland. Redruth, then, was Cornwall's core, its beating heart. Now, it's like a heart on bypass.

The shops are empty. Even though it costs a mere forty pence to park for an hour, the Tesco carpark, on the outskirts of town, (where supermarkets always seem to crouch, incidentally, like a besieging force), is free. There is even a bus. The EU funds that have been pumped into the heart of the town, to regenerate the beautiful and atmospheric old marketplace and Fore Street, cannot ressucitate a body that is ailing - and failing, for want of new blood. But would Reduth have died without these funds, these regeneration committees, these bureaucrats? No, I don't think so.

I went into Warrens', a bakery-cum-cafe, and had a cup of tea and a donut for less that the price of a single cup of tea in Truro, or a third of a cup of tea in the metropolis. In fact, in Harrods Food Hall cafe a couple of weeks ago, I paid ten pounds for a pot of tea and two stale pastries. My daughter had a glass of tap water which, I assumed, was free. The thought of what I had paid for that snack made me ashamed when I overheard the conversation in Warrens'.

They were talking about a local woman, in her twenties, who worked in a chip shop but had hazarded a fiver on the national lottery and won a million. The woman behind the counter was impressed. 'But,' she said. 'Could you afford to lose a fiver?' The consensus seemed to be no. The topic then turned to a programme currently running on BBC2 called 'The Secret Millionaire', a pretty nice concept for reality TV (which so often deals in ugly human exchanges) in which a self-made millionare visits some poor, run down community, looking for people to help. The programme ends with the rich person returning in his/her usual daywear of Armani suits and Rolex watch to make their charitable gifts. It is affectingly and sensitively done, and although the concept is at least a series old now, it never fails to touch and surprise. Well, the people in Warrens' thought it was wonderful - in the fullest sense of the word. They were full of wonder that such a concept could exist at all.

I was full of wonder when, having asked for a custard tart with my tea and been told there were none, the woman who could not afford to lose a fiver went out of her way to grant my wish: 'Not to worry, my handsome - I'll find you something with custard in.' It's been a long time since anyone called me 'my handsome' or gone out of their way to anticipate my needs in a simple transaction like that. 'I can see your face light up,' she said, so pleased to have granted my wish. And it was quite wonderful, on a cold day, in a terminally ailing town. The custard in that donut was like liquid gold.

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