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Proper Job! What National Minority Status Means To The Cornish
Jeremy Allen , April 29th, 2014 06:27

Cornish lad Jeremy Allen looks at what the recent decision to grant the county national minority status means to its residents. Photo from Shutterstock

In 1550, Sir Humphrey Arundell and three other Cornish insurgents were hanged, drawn and quartered by the Crown at Tyburn, located approximately where Marble Arch now stands. The Catholic martyrs, who spoke Cornish and worshipped in Latin, had gone on the rampage in protest at the arrival of the Common Book of Prayer in 1549. The new litany written in English was issued at the behest of the nine-year-old Edward VI, undoubtedly under the influence of his ‘protector’ and uncle the Duke of Somerset and the reformist Archbishop of Canterbury, who ruthlessly accelerated their own doctrine while kicking against the religious orthodoxy in the far-flung corners of the Kingdom. Resentment among parishioners - many of whom only spoke in the Cornish tongue and who knew just enough Latin to make services meaningful - turned into an uprising.

The Prayer Book Rebellion began with a siege of St Michael’s Mount inhabited by loyalists, and was ended finally when Cornish and Devonian rebels were put down in Exeter by an army of 3,000 troops. Led by Lord John Russell, they continued into Cornwall for further sacking, plundering and butchering as retribution. This show of might from ruling authorities was not the first time the language and traditions of the county had been vilipended by the sovereign nation, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

The Cornish language faded out in the 18th and early 19th Century with the last woman known to speak it as her mother tongue - Dolly Pentreath - dying in 1777, and a county that was mineral rich (it paid twice as much tax as neighbouring Devon for half a millennia because of its tin) is not the province of wealth and self-reliance that it once was. But still the Cornish identity endures. For its lack of financial clout in the 21st century, Cornwall’s vibrant and unique culture is in the ascendency, with communities pulling together in celebration more now than in any time in living memory.

“There are loads of amazing Cornish festivals going on now, and there's more every year,” says Cornish comedian and writer Kernow King, real name Edward Rowe. “By them happening, we're celebrating and preserving and growing Cornish culture all the time. There are loads of festivals now, absolutely loads of really good stuff going on.”

Is he talking about Penzance’s revived midsummer festival Mazey Day for instance?

“Yep, and not just that. You got the Rock Oyster Festival, Falmouth Week, Trevithick Day, there's Porthleven's Food Festival which is getting mega, food festivals in Bude, music festivals, Golowan Festival…” People are having a go at speaking Cornish again, too.

“It never was totally dead,” says Ed, “and now there are more people who are fluent. I've got friends in London who are way better Cornish speakers than I am.”

Does Kernow King speak Cornish?

“A little bit, yeah. I try and learn a little bit more all the time. It's good - you bump into someone and it's 'hello', 'how are you?' [in Cornish] and I'll do my little bit, and then we'll revert back to English. I like the fact that people on social media and youngsters pepper their English with Cornish words, which is really nice to see.”

Kernow King is even taking the Cornish language on the road when he plays gigs in Manchester and London.

“My show is called 'Splann',” he says, “which means 'splendid' - and I get the audience to talk Cornish at the start for a laugh. A bit of conversation, a naughty word and then away we go.” Such proactivity is not quite on par with the Prayer Book Rebellion, but it’s good to see a Ponsonooth boy taking some initiative. He’s not the only one.

When filling out the Census three years ago I ticked the “other” box when it came to nationality. Although technically an Englishman back then, I wrote ‘Cornish’ because although I’ve been living away from the county for nearly two decades, I feel Cornish. My other motivation was that it was the smallest of snooks to the world’s largest arms manufacturer - Lockheed Martin - whose UK subsidiary was contracted to conduct the £150 million nationwide survey. For whatever reason personal or political, 84,000 people felt compelled to do the same in 2011. That figure is high when you realise there are just over half a million people living in Cornwall (and bear in mind many of those moved there from outside the county to retire), and it’s especially high when you consider the demographic that registered themselves as Cornish did so independently in the face of any official recognition. Well they may have been cajoled slightly by Kernow King; he didn’t write ‘British’ on his census form either.

On a trip to Bodmin last Thursday, Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury , declared the Duchy would receive the same status - and thus the same rights and protections - as other “national minorities” in Great Britain. Before then there had been no official recognition of Cornwall’s shared common identity and culture, but now, like the Celtic nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is. Dick Cole, the leader of Mebyon Kernow - Cornwall’s most high profile devolution party - spoke of “jubilant scenes” in the county when I spoke to him on the phone on Friday afternoon, adding “it was unbelievable last night”. Unbelievable or not, it does beggar the question, what does ‘national minority’ actually mean?

“In the British context, the concept of national minority gives recognition to those groups within the British state,” says Dick. “Traditionally this has been for the Irish, Scots and Welsh, and I am delighted that this protection has been extended to the Cornish. For myself, I believe that the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities will seek to strengthen the cultural diversity of the UK.”

How does the Council of Europe define it?

“The Framework Convention does not contain a definition of the concept of ‘national minority’ as there is no general definition agreed upon by all Council of Europe member states,” says its website. “Each party to the Framework Convention is therefore left with a margin of appreciation to assess which groups are to be covered by the Convention within their territory. Individuals are free to decide whether or not they wish to be treated as belonging to a national minority.”

So far so unclear, but the thrust seems to be that it’s about personal collective choice. The Cornish Council, which has attempted and failed to attain this status recognition three times before the recent declaration, is less equivocal. Inclusion in the convention will recognise the ‘distinctiveness’ of the Cornish, help strengthen the confidence of its youth and encourage them to identify with their cultural identity, help strengthen the ‘Cornish brand’ and “create stronger links between communities and a greater understanding of shared values”.

So what does being Cornish actually mean then? Presumably the idea of separateness stems from a lack of Romanisation in the county when much of the rest of England was annexed, but any notions of pure celtic bloodlines are folly, surely?

Simon Reed, a Cornish history expert and author of The Cornish Traditional Year and Wassailing: The British Midwinter Blessing Custom, says he does see himself as a Celt when asked, but adds, “I am a realist in the sense that it’s a modern identity based on similarities between modern peoples. I don't plan to paint myself in woad any time soon.”

“I'm not sure that there are such things as Celts,” says leftwing former Liberal Democrat councillor, Ruth Lewarne. “Don't they have big moustaches and light hair? They do in Asterix the Gaul. My dad was half Welsh and half Cornish and he looked like he was in the Mafia. Some say anyone who wants to be Cornish can call themselves Cornish, but that renders it all meaningless. I haven't heard a sensible answer yet.”

So one presumes if it’s not so much to do with ethnicity, then Cornishness must be a more nebulous concept. There are an estimated six million people of Cornish origin around the world, with as many as a quarter of a million cousin Jacks migrating in the second part of the 19th Century in what’s become known as the Cornish diaspora. ‘A mine is a hole anywhere in the world with at least one Cornishman at the bottom of it’, goes the saying.

“I think it can mean whatever you want it to mean,” says Kernow King. “It can mean everything but it can mean absolutely nothing, but I think for me it just means that we can proudly state we're Cornish. We're on equal footing with other Celtic nations which is important to us. Perhaps people don't know why Cornwall has been given this status, and they say 'Why hasn't, say, Suffolk?' and they get a bit shitty, and here's our chance to say 'Cornwall was its own country at one point, and what’s more it's got its own language.’”

The Cornish language is the only language recognised under the Council of Europe’s protection charter in England. The Government has paid out more than half a million pounds to the Cornish Language Partnership and announced a further £120,000 of funding in March 2014. Critics might suggest that’s a lot of money being paid out for a language Unesco said was “extinct” in 2009 (prompting protests in Kernow and a retraction from the UN the following year). It also raises questions about how you protect language.

“Regional languages have for centuries suffered at the dominance of certain languages,” says Cllr Dick Cole, “often reducing the number of speakers to the point that languages retreat from vast areas of certain nations. The Charter supports vital activities in terms of cultural traditions, education, broadcasting and so much more, raising confidence about the language, helping it to grow and thrive.”

“One of the advantages of that status is it does give access to tiny amounts of funding to support the language,” says Simon Reed. “The only real way of protecting a language is by using it, even if it’s small bits and bobs like ‘Myttin da’, which means ‘good morning’. Gradually over the last hundred or so years the number of Cornish speakers has reached around three thousand, the largest growth area being the under 40's. There are events like Yeth-An-Werin where people get together in pubs and speak nothing but Cornish, there is the Cornish Language Nursery in Truro, a Cornish Language Radio service and Cornish language weekends.”

“I dunno about protecting [language and culture],” says Kernow King. “I suppose you can protect them but it's better to celebrate them. Probably by celebrating them you protect them!”

Cornish is not the only Brittonic language undergoing a revival. “As you may know, France tried hard to destroy our language and culture in Brittany,” says Breton musician Yann Tiersen - who lives off the West Coast of France on the remote Ushant Island. “In the 60s it was forbidden ‘to spit and to speak’ Breton at school. So we are relearning our language as the Faroese people have successfully done.”

Yann’s partner, a Brittany native, wrote ‘AR MAEN BIHAN’ in Breton, which was then translated into Icelandic and Faroese for his new album, ∞ (Infinity), which comes out on Mute in May.

“In fact Ushant Island is only 100 miles from the Cornish coast and 200 miles from France,” Yann adds in an email, “so we are far closer to Cornwall.”

So firstly the Cornish language is protected under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, then the Cornish are declared a ‘national minority’ by the Council of Europe. This can be leading only one way, surely? Is a constitutional shake-up on the horizon?

“Yes, I am in favour of devolution of power, to the lowest possible levels anyway, especially if the region in question has a distinct identity or geography,” says Simon Reed. “I would like to see this as the start of a rosy future, but truthfully the challenges here are just as much about poverty, the lack of opportunity, low pay and lack of housing as they are about culture, identity and history.”

Would he welcome independence?

“I believe in a federal United Kingdom, so I am not in favour of Cornish Independence. I am comfortable being Cornish and British, although I know some aren't.”

One wonders, should the Scottish vote ‘yes’ in the upcoming referendum, how this might impact on the Cornish way of thinking, even if many would rather not leave the union.

“Regardless of how Scotland votes, Mebyon Kernow believes that there needs to be a mature, respectful and wide-ranging debate about the future of the whole of the United Kingdom and how it is governed,” says Dick Cole. “We believe there is certainly a desperate need to address the unequal constitutional relationships between the various nations and regions of the UK, as well as the centralising influence of London and the South East of England. We will be doing all we can to put the future constitutional status of Cornwall at the very heart of this debate, and we will be campaigning for a National Assembly for Cornwall.”

“I dunno man,” says Ed Rowe cautiously. “I don't think people want to be a separate nation. I don't know enough about politics and the running of a country to comment to be honest. Hopefully [this charter] will give young people a chance to look at their history and think 'you know what, I'm in a good place, I don't need to move to London to get a job'. The amount of people who write on my Facebook, 'I had to leave to find a better job that pays more money' is ludicrous.”

If the news agenda in the South East is all about Oligarchs buying up property in central London, then the indigenous folk of Cornwall who survive on low wages in an area where the cost of living is as high as anywhere in the country, are not getting a look in where the property market is concerned, and haven’t been for a long time.

“It's Cornwall's biggest problem to be honest,” says Kernow King. “Second homes are a real hot topic at the moment, and you can't even really call them homes, because people don't live in them but for a few weeks a year. House prices are insane, wages are still some of the lowest in the country. It's all a bit of a nightmare on that front and I'm not sure what the answer is. Maybe people should be charged more council tax for a second home. You go into some coastal towns and villages at night time and there are only a couple of lights on out of a few hundred houses. They're empty.”

“How long have you got?” says Dick Cole. “The whole housing market is dysfunctional and the Government needs to intervene. There needs to be new housing and planning policies, greater investment in affordable homes for local people, controls on second homes, a rent control act...”

“Build properly affordable council houses and make some available to buy, but don't build loads,” says Ruth Lewarne, “it just attracts incomers and Cornwall is being ruined by its evil planners pandering to the market. No more market houses, we need Lake District-style protection! At the moment we're one of the biggest growth areas for housing and supermarket building, and the place is beginning to look like shit as a result. Also rent controls are absolutely bloody essential.”

If most of Cornwall’s primary industries are now moribund (Thatcher shut the tin mines in the 80s, Major ceded control of fishing waters to the Spanish in the 90s) then in the age of austerity, tourism is at least booming. It’s no coincidence that the horrific portmanteau ‘staycation’ was coined in this recent era, and it’s no coincidence either that the Prime Minister now takes his holidays in the South West. Has David Cameron’s love affair with Cornwall made up for any of the suffering the county has endured at the hands of the Conservatives?

“David Cameron is not having a love affair with Cornwall, just because he goes to some of the more affluent parts for his holidays,” says Dick Rowe. “It is fantastic that the Cornish now have national minority status, but in many ways Cornwall still misses out. Only on Friday, Cameron backtracked on a promise that “money was no object” in dealing with the massive damage caused by the winter storms.”

“David Cameron loves the Padstein version of Cornwall which is about as far removed from my life as possible,” says Simon Reed. Padstein is yet another recent linguistic portmanteau which merges Padstow with Rick Stein, the celebrity chef who has made such an impact on the town with his businesses, both aesthetically and economically. His presence is divisive though, and in 2007 he received threats from Cornish nationalists the CNLA (nicknamed the Ooh-arr-ay).

Kernow King says he has no political affiliation other than rating Cornwall’s present politicians, though he sees David Cameron’s patronage of the county as a positive thing.

“He's a big fan of Cornwall which is obviously great, but I'm not sure whether it makes us feel more included where Westminster is concerned, just cos he's come here on holiday.”

He called his own child after a part of Cornwall didn’t he?

“He did, Endellion, which is up near Port Isaac. He obviously loves it down here.”

Clearly he does, but given that cuts are still in place, Cameron has to take his holidays in Britain rather than, say, Brazil, to show that we’re all in it together. Otherwise people might get a little bit upset.

“Yeah, yeah they probably would,” says Ed. “It's up to him really. I wouldn't hold it against him if he wants to go to Brazil, and when he's not Prime Minister he'll probably fuck off to the Maldives.”

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