A dutiful nation queuing at temples of the tawdry: Andrew Stephen in Cornwall, or maybe Disneyland

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I HAVE NOW lived in Washington for five years, and whenever I dream nostalgically of England it is always of childhood holidays: of timeless summers at my grandmother's cottage in Stippy Stappy, St Agnes, Cornwall; of magical days on the beach; of deep-red fuchsias, orange montbretia and heather mingling so harmoniously with each other amid the ruins of the tin mines on the cliffs.

Oh to be in England now that August's here was how I felt on the umpteenth sunless, humid day in the upper nineties in Georgetown. So to Cornwall we came, to St Agnes: this time bringing my own children to investigate the same rocky crags and pools that I had explored at their age. Perhaps there would be time for cricket on the beach, home-grown broad and runner beans, Choral Evensong at Truro Cathedral - and, of course, Cornish cream.

But, as we exiles continually have to remind ourselves, Britain has changed. It is a shock to find that the very air Britons now breathe has become a major national problem, that Michael Fish has lost so much hair, that British parents scold their children more publicly and viciously, that we have an English cricket captain who is accused of cheating.

Yet my holiday here has shown me the ways in which Britain is undergoing more profound changes. The St Agnes I remember - and I am not that old, being younger than, say, Jeremy Paxman - was a remote village with real regional characteristics. The bread, the milk, the accents, even the conversation: all differed significantly from everywhere else, blessing those of us lucky enough to experience that life with its rich diversity.

But the era of Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch has put paid to that. Real Cornish accents have all but disappeared. Midland and Northern emigres who flocked to Cornwall in the Eighties have found their bungalows almost unsellable in the Nineties, the seas unpleasantly polluted, social services depleted, and agriculture in deep trouble - campsites now being the latest desperate crop gamble by many farmers.

I fear the most significant symbol of all, though, is the proliferation of Murdoch's satellite dishes - pulling in the very same, mostly American drivel, that is being watched simultaneously by young people growing up to know no better in the Grampians, or Norfolk, or the Lake District, or St Agnes. Instead of that rich diversity, a kind of spoon-fed mediocrity is in danger of stupefying Britain - via newspapers, radio or television.

In so short a time, it seems to me, this combination of the Thatcherite and Murdoch legacies has transformed Britain into a deregionalised, excessively homogeneous little country dutifully and self-centredly dedicated to consumption - its people now flocking with a mysterious willingness towards a consumeristic acceptance of (and perhaps even eagerness for?) the shoddy.

I'm certainly not claiming any voyeuristic superiority over all this, for I quickly found myself becoming a quiescent British consumer in a way simply unimaginable in America. We paid pounds 5.25 per adult to get into The Poldark Mine, for example. It is one of a vast number of would-be American-style Cornish theme parks, and there is nothing quite so depressing as Cornish theme parks of the Nineties ('unless you're in Devon', a friend later told me). The problem is that such places efficiently extract your money but otherwise do not offer US efficiency, style, panache, or even fake friendliness of the have-a-nice day variety.

I had been attracted to The Poldark Mine by a picture of children apparently having a wonderful time in bumper boats. But when we got there, the reality was a grubby little pool badly in need of a coat of paint, the boats out of action and partly covered by tarpaulins. Further into the park, there was a huge, snaking queue for Lyons Maid ice-cream which was being doled out by one slow- moving teenager. Being British consumers, none of us uttered a murmur. We just queued, later moving to the restaurant, where we were unapologetically told that they were about to run out of meals.

A Swedish pilot I met was bemused by all the tawdriness and lack of service he was finding in Cornwall; he could not understand why, in a part of Britain where tourism is by far the most important industry, the Perranporth Tourist Office was so unhelpful (it was closed for lunch when I was there). That same evening, at about 9.15, I found a launderette which swallowed pounds 2.70 but then refused to issue water. Then I spotted a notice saying 'Last Wash 9pm', and realised that the water had been deliberately turned off even though the launderette itself was open. It would be out of business in five minutes in the US.

There was plenty that was wonderful and that I will take back with me to the humidity of Washington this week. That peculiarly British blend of the smells of sea air and fish-and-chips is still intoxicating; I love those souvenir shops that sell rock, children's cricket bats, and shrimper's nets. Choral Evensong was sung beautifully by the men and women of the Clerkes of Old Sarum (though the reactionary side of me would have preferred boy trebles singing the Smith Preces and Responses). The broad beans were quite as delicious as I remembered them, making up for the mounds of synthetic Cornish pasties and factoryprocessed cream.

But, above all, it is the natural resources of Cornwall that endure, despite the pollution. The St Agnes coastline offers excellent swimming and surfing and some of the very best cliff walks in the world, with blackberries freely available if you venture off the paths.

So the question remains: with all these wonderful resources free and available, why have the British increasingly gravitated towards inferior commercialism? Is it because Britons were genetically conditioned by the Second World War to suffer and queue without complaint, making them easy prey for the hard-selling Eighties and Nineties?

Or is there some twisted form of Victorian puritanism at work, which holds that life is worthwhile only if you waste hard-earned money on products that are actually demeaning and nasty? I would love to know the answers. In the meantime, modern Britain remains for me a mystery.

Alan Watkins is on holiday.