This Is ‘My’ Cornwall? – Place, Emotional Geography & Identity West of the Tamar

“And no-one will ever move me from this land,

Until the Lord calls me to sit at his hand.

For this is my Eden, and I’m not alone,

For this is my Cornwall, and this is my home.”

(From ‘Cornwall My Home’ by Harry Glasson)

Redruth - the town of my Cornish ancestry.

Redruth – the town of my Cornish ancestry.

What is it about a land that can compel someone three hundred miles away to feel more passion and love for it than they do for their own local area? How can it be that a land that, officially is not a country, can provoke such stirring passion as that demonstrated by Harry Glasson in his song lyrics at the start of the piece?

It can be partially explained by the phenomenon of ‘Place’ – a term mainly used by social scientists and human geographers to examine ‘belonging’. As Tim Cresswell puts it: “(It) suggests ownership, or some kind of connection between a person and a particular location…It also suggests a notion of privacy and belonging” (2004: p1). In his seminal study on the topic, ‘Place and Placelessness’, E. Relph recognises that “Most geographers…treat place…as synonymous with region” (1976: p2). He also critiques Lukerman for using “place, region, area and location…interchangeably” (ibid: p3).

Whilst these notable academics above have identified for us what ‘place’ is, there is still a major question left unanswered. Why are people’s emotional attachment to the ‘place’ of Cornwall so strong, whether or not they may live in the territory, elsewhere in the UK, or around the globe? It is to do with an inherent sense of ‘difference’ that you meet as soon as you cross the River Tamar. This sense of ‘difference’ was neatly summed up by Lieutenant-Colonel C.J.H. Mead, who quite simply stated: “Cornwall is not England; its people are Celtic and Brythonic. Isolated from England almost entirely by the River Tamar…the (Cornish people’s) Celtic temperament and isolated geographical position have given them very definite hall marks” (cited in Westland: 1997: p31). Royal Holloway, University of London’s Professor of Cultural Geography, Phil Crang adds further spice to the pot by asserting that place is: “(Where) insidedness is distinguished from outsidedness…it is where we feel ‘at home’, where things ‘fall into place’, beyond which we feel ‘out of place'” (1997: p157).

Linked indelibly with identity is Emotional Geography. Renowned contemporary Cornish literary figure Alan M. Kent believes firmly that “Once the region has its established emotional geography, it becomes harder and harder to resist” (Kent: 1997: p60). It is this that answers the first question posed in the opening paragraph. Whilst millions of people may ‘love’ Cornwall due to family holidays, or the way the land is shown in television representations such as Poldark or Doc Martin – this ‘love’ is not, for me, true Emotional Geography. What I will term the ‘definitive Emotional Geography’ of Cornwall has to be some form of self connection. Whether that be through being born in the land, having ancestry or being an ‘outsider’, but making a concerted and consistent effort to take part in and respect the indigenous culture of Cornwall. One of the more famous ‘outsiders’ to have a deep love of Cornwall was John Betjeman, on whom Philip Payton used an as example of an outsider who tried to

“construct conduits of legitimacy and belonging. These might be Cornish twigs somewhere distant in a family tree, or some other long-established connection with Cornwall, or even a sense – like Marion Bowman’s ‘cardiac Celts’ – that somehow deep in one’s heart, one feels profoundly Cornish” (2007: p186).

As we are presently straying very close to the perennially dangerous ground of what is necessary for someone to be truly Cornish, we will quickly move on!

Cornwall’s unique culture and identity was referred to as long ago as the twelfth century by Geoffrey of Monmouth who believed firmly that “Cornwall had possessed a separate identity even before the creation of Scotland and Wales had taken place” (cited in Stoyle: 2002: p13). Jump forward some three hundred years, and we come to Richard Carew’s famous ‘Survey of Cornwall’ where he states, that upon being spoken to in English, the locals would reply: “Meea Navidna Cowzasawzneck” (“I will speak no Saxonage.” Note that Sowsnek, the word for English in the Cornish language derives from this). Joanie Willett links this sense of self-identity to Durkheim’s ‘Structual Interpretation’ – shared norms and values within a culture or way of life. This has wider ripples in terms of ‘National’ Identity, which, for Willett is “a group of people brought together by geography, in the sense of occupying or identifying with a specific territory” (2008: p185). Willett went on to carry out a fascinating study about whether inhabitants for the territory of Cornwall were English, Cornish or British. The headline finding that she made was, out of a sample of 150 people, 58.7% identified themselves as Cornish rather than English or British. Other key statistics were that 51.3% felt that a love of Cornwall made up all, or a large part of who they felt themselves to be (ibid: p195).

With Cornish identity receiving a further boost with the announcement of protection under the Framework Convention of the Council of Europe, and the slow but sure resurrection of the Kernewek language, the elements of pride of ‘place’ and the Emotional Geography of Cornwall is set to grow ever stronger.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Crang, Philip (1997): ‘Regional Imaginations: An Afterword’ in Westland, Ella (ed): ‘Cornwall: The Cultural Construction of Place’: 1997: University of Exeter Press: Exeter.

Cresswell, Tim (2004): ‘Place: A Short Introduction’: Blackwell: London.

Kent, Alan. M (1997) ‘The Cornish Alps: Resisting Romance in the Clay Country’ in Westland, Ella (ed): ‘Cornwall: The Cultural Construction of Place’: 1997: University of Exeter Press: Exeter.

Payton, Philip (2007): ‘John Betjeman and the Holy Grail: One Man’s Celtic Quest’, in Payton, Philip (ed): ‘Cornish Studies 15’:, University of Exeter Press, Exeter.

Relph, E. (1976): ‘Place and Placelessness’: Pion: London.

Stoyle, Mark (2002): ‘West Britons: Cornish Identities and the Early Modern British State’: 2002: University of Exeter Press, Exeter.

Westland, Ella (1997): ‘Cornwall: The Cultural Construction of Place’: 1997: University of Exeter Press: Exeter.

Willett, Joanie (2008): ‘Cornish Identity: Vague Notion or Social Fact?’ in Payton, Philip (ed): ‘Cornish Studies 16’: University of Exeter Press, Exeter

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Whilst writing this piece, it was disappointing to hear that comedian Jimmy Carr had been making public derogatory comments about the Cornish and the Cornish language on Channel Four. With the protection afforded to Cornwall by the Framework Convention, his comments could well be considered as now being illegal. He has, it seems been reported to OFCOM.

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3 comments

  1. PaulS · November 2, 2015

    It should be noted, that similar equivalent comments could be made about almost any other nation or tribe on the planet. The emotions and attachments described are far from being unique to Cornwall and we should therefore look for the real reasons behind the nearly universal relationship various historic peoples have to their land, language and culture. I say ‘historic’ simply because these relationships may not apply at all or in a different way to urban populations around the world.
    The obvious candidates for these attachments are social: place of birth and growing up, social network, the establishment in youth of environmental, cultural, language ‘normal’ against all future experiences are unconsciously compared and judged – and found wanting simply due to the relative unfamiliarity of one or more aspects of any new experience and environment.
    Cornwall fits the Cornish like a glove, just like Ireland fits the Irish and Laplanders fit Lapland. Simples.

    Like

  2. bgilby2014 · November 5, 2015

    Absolutely right Paul. The idea behind the article was not to suggest that Cornwall/the Cornish have a special attachment unlike any other nation, but rather to present some academic literature which has covered emotional attachment to Cornwall.

    Like

  3. sdf · June 4, 2016

    whoah this blog is great i like studying your articles.
    Stay up the good work! You realize, lots of
    individuals are looking around for this information, you can aid them greatly.

    Like

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