Why ne­glected Cornwall needs a lit­er­a­ture of its own Max Liu,

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Max Liu

Irecently met a young au­thor who was writ­ing a book of non-fic­tion about a Cor­nish fish­ing com­mu­nity. It’s a timely sub­ject, as fish­er­men’s long-felt an­tipa­thy to­wards the Euro­pean Union was a key driver in Cornwall vot­ing for Brexit, even though the county has re­ceived mil­lions of pounds in fund­ing from Brussels since be­ing awarded Ob­jec­tive One sta­tus in 1999. It’s a time­less sub­ject, too, ex­plor­ing a way of life that has en­dured for cen­turies. The writer, who grew up in Lon­don, spoke thought­fully about com­ing to a place as an outsider and try­ing to put peo­ple’s voices on the page in a way that doesn’t amount to ap­pro­pri­a­tion. Based on our con­ver­sa­tion, and the ex­tract I’ve read, I think it could be an im­por­tant book.

A book about a Cor­nish fish­ing com­mu­nity is good news be­cause the county is an oddly over­looked place and we need writ­ers to tell the truth about it. Ev­ery­body knows that Cornwall boasts a dra­matic coast­line and beau­ti­ful beaches. Thanks to the Tate gallery, many peo­ple know artists have been drawn to my home­town of St Ives for more than a cen­tury. The area has nur­tured great po­ets, too, with Peter Red­grove and WS Graham liv­ing and writ­ing there in the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury. But Cornwall doesn’t fig­ure much in prose, or at least not in a way that amounts to a con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture.

There are re­cent nov­els set in Cornwall, but they tend to be about a ro­man­ti­cised past (Poldark casts a long shadow) or sell a fan­tasy of the place to tourists, mak­ing life there sound quaint and triv­ial. The fan­tasy is dam­ag­ing be­cause, be­hind the ve­neer of Seasalt cloth­ing and Doom Bar ale, the re­al­ity couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent: not only is Cornwall the most re­mote county in Eng­land, in terms of ge­og­ra­phy and trans­port links, but it is also one of its poor­est, with a high sui­cide rate to boot.

To ex­plore these con­di­tions imag­i­na­tively, Cornwall needs a lit­er­a­ture of its own. What do I mean? Well, first let’s ac­knowl­edge the ex­cep­tions that show you needn’t grow up in a place to write au­then­ti­cally about it. Pa­trick Gale’s novel A Per­fectly Good Man (2012) cap­tures the tex­ture of every­day life in the county, while Helen Dun­more’s de­scrip­tion of DH Lawrence walk­ing up the hill my dad lives on in St Ives, in her novel Zen­nor in Dark­ness (1993), makes my spine tin­gle. More than any­one, Graham, who came from Scotland and would have turned 100 last week, wrote about the land­scape and peo­ple of west Cornwall with such vi­sion and in­ten­sity that he brought them to life for me.

We push for di­ver­sity in the arts be­cause we recog­nise that peo­ple need to see them­selves in films, nov­els, plays, art gal­leries. They also need to see their places. Graham, Gale and Dun­more show me my places, but they can­not do so with the eye of some­body who has been shaped by them.

At my school, there was a di­vide be­tween the Cor­nish and non-Cor­nish. It was ar­bi­trated by those for whom hav­ing three gen­er­a­tions in the lo­cal grave­yard was the min­i­mum cri­te­ria for be­ing Cor­nish. This made me mis­er­able, be­cause it felt like the height of parochial­ism, but I recog­nise it now as de­fen­sive­ness from peo­ple who saw their lo­cal cul­ture be­ing eroded by the de­cline of tra­di­tional in­dus­try, its re­place­ment with tourism and the rise of sec­ond-home own­er­ship. Still, when I de­scribe a lit­er­a­ture of our own, I’m not ad­vo­cat­ing ex­clud­ing any­one, but in­stead en­vis­ag­ing the kind of speci­ficity that makes stories uni­ver­sal. As the poet

Tom Leonard writes: “The lo­cal is the in­ter­na­tional/the na­tional is the parochial.”

Cornwall is a county, not a coun­try, but the Cor­nish should take in­spi­ra­tion from their Celtic coun­ter­parts, in par­tic­u­lar the stag­ger­ing num­ber of ex­cel­lent writ­ers in Ire­land to­day. Sally Rooney, whose sec­ond novel Nor­mal Peo­ple has just been named Waterstones’ Book of the Year, fol­lows Lisa McIn­er­ney, Donal Ryan and many oth­ers whose voices were forged amid the wreck­age of Ire­land’s eco­nomic crash. For decades now, Scot­tish writ­ers such as James Kel­man, Jan­ice Gal­loway and Alan Warner have shown that their com­mu­ni­ties can be the scenes and sub­jects of great art. Kel­man cap­tures the rhythms of speech in his na­tive Glas­gow, and McIn­er­ney gives us the de­tails of life on a hous­ing es­tate in Cork, in ways that tes­tify to the unique power of fic­tion about a place writ­ten by its own peo­ple. “My cul­ture and my lan­guage have the right to ex­ist,” said Kel­man af­ter win­ning the Booker prize in 1994. He added that what he had said would “ap­ply to Liver­pudlians and the Cor­nish”. A quar­ter of a cen­tury later, some are ev­i­dently de­ter­mined it will. This year, Natasha Carthew, a self-de­scribed “work­ing-class coun­try writer from Cornwall”, pub­lished her first novel for adults, All Rivers Run Free. Next month, Faber will pub­lish King­dom­land, the de­but col­lec­tion by the Cor­nish poet Rachael Allen.

But why does it still fall largely to out­siders to write about the sub­jects that have been un­der my nose for years? I have al­ways felt some­thing of what Aus­tralians used to call a “cul­tural cringe” about com­ing from Cornwall. Per­haps one of the ef­fects of grow­ing up in a de­prived and re­mote place is lack­ing the con­fi­dence to write about it, whereas oth­ers seem bet­ter equipped to tackle what they find there. It’s one thing iden­ti­fy­ing your cringe, another over­com­ing it. But of this I’m con­fi­dent: at a mo­ment when Bri­tain feels frag­mented in com­pli­cated ways, indige­nous writ­ing can help peo­ple cel­e­brate their dis­tinc­tive­ness at the same time as ful­fill­ing lit­er­a­ture’s great mis­sion: that we all un­der­stand each other a lit­tle bet­ter.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: GETTY IMAGES

St Ives at low tide

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