Why neglected Cornwall needs a literature of its own 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.
St Ives at low tide