International Play-Offs

Well, I can hardly believe it, but this is the very last book of this Placing Myself literary journey around England and, funnily enough, I really have come full circle in many ways. From the first moment I let it be known that I would be challenging myself to read one book from every ceremonial county of England, it has been from the Cornish that I received the most interest, feedback and, occasionally, criticism. Cornwall, many stipulate, is not a county of England, but a Duchy, with an unique historical and cultural identity, rights to political and social autonomy from Westminster, and, overall, a thriving Cornish nationalist movement.

Alan M. Kent's "Proper Job! Charlie Curnow"

Alan M. Kent’s “Proper Job! Charlie Curnow”

So because of all this interest, I’ve been dying to reach Cornwall on this fictional journey since… well, since I was all the way up in Northumberland! The author I have chosen – Alan M. Kent – was nominated by several of my Cornish commenters as someone who identifies himself as Cornish, rather than English or British, and I am so glad I followed the suggestion, for Proper Job! Charlie Curnow has been an outstanding 5/5 star read. Here’s why.

The novel is set on a dirty and dangerous estate called Trelawny, “a shite-hole right at the arse-end of Britain” (12), where live Charlie Curnow and almost all of his friends. From the outset, Cornwall is shown to be a far cry from the stereotypical “fuckers’ holiday destination” that is “always sunny, had kids playin’ in rockpools an’ makin’ sandcastles [and] every cunt walked around smilin’ an’ happy t’live in social deprivation” (122). Instead Kent’s Cornwall, and Charlie’s estate in particular, is filled with “the usual proliferation of dog shit, burnt tarmac, rubbish and broken fences” (11), and most people, young and old, are “on the dole” since all the work in Cornwall was “shite”, seasonal and unpredictable, “either selling fuckin’ ice creams t’cunts down Portreath, or else bagging groceries for second-home owners in Sainsburys” (9). In summary, Charlie and his peers sometimes “hated Cornwall”, colonised as it is by outsiders and tourists (otherwise known as “emmets” (37) from “up the line” (27)). Moreover, these tourists, just like the media and (apparently) the Westminster government, are entirely ignorant of Cornwall’s real battles against drugs and poverty, and the seeming impossibility of establishing “social cohesion” (9).

Filled with frustration at their poor state of affairs, and sick of being on the dole with no hope of a brighter future in sight, Charlie and his friends Yak, Neil and Bev decide to take their fate in their own hands and form a band. Not just a wimpy, lacklustre, cover-songs-only, teenage-years-style band, either; rather, through the combination of good musical talent and hard writing/gigging/practising, they are determined to develop a rock band that will “make the fuckin’ scene” in Cornwall, and “take the world hold by the bollocks” (20) to prove that the county can produce much more than just “clotted fuckin’ cream” (19) and so-called “Cornish butter” (27).

Cornish author of this novel, Alan. M. Kent - an expert on all things relating to Cornish literary and historical culture, apparently.

Cornish author of this novel, Alan. M. Kent – an expert on all things relating to Cornish literary and historical culture, apparently.

As much as Charlie and his friends might profess to ‘hating’ Cornwall, therefore, they are also incredibly proud and nationalistic about their home, aiming to prove that both it and they themselves are worthy of having a definitive place “on the map” (56). Charlie, in particular, is aware (even through all the Trelawny grime and misery) of the truth behind the stereotypical observations of “Cornwall’s ancient and romantic landscape” (7) and the “noble tradition[s]” (37) that are part and parcel of Cornwall historical, Celtic identity; he notices the beauty of the “frost in the air and the moon […] over Carn Brea (18). He knows that “Cornwall used t’be fuckin’ called West Barbary n’people from up the line reckoned we was fuckin’ savages”, and so wants the band to develop a modern identity that is just as “intense…it’s gotta’ reflect where we’re from” (65-6).

There is still a great difference between Charlie’s nationalistic feelings and those of the “fuckin’ middle-class beardie-weirdies” who “sat ‘round an’ lamented lost olde worlde Cornwall” and had “fuck-all else t’do but argue over spellings o’place-names” (128). He has no real interest in their version of Cornwall’s identity, or even of learning the Cornish language which “sounded unnatural as fuck” (133) to him. But, as the band garners more and more interest and success, Charlie is proud to feel like Cornwall is becoming “the centre o’the world” again, “not just some forgotten piece o’it” (226). Heck, “if the bus driver t’Trelawny knew” of Charlie’s band, then that’s all he needs to know that “he’s made it. He knew it had been a proper bleddy job” (246).

Cornwall (aka Kernow - Charlie's surname!) "must have political recognition as a nation", some argue

Cornwall (aka Kernow – Charlie’s surname!) “must have political recognition as a nation”, some argue

Kent is an absolute master of describing Cornwall’s various, conflicting and yet co-existing identities, which appear through perspectives ranging from the supremely nationalistic (as the “’Free Cornwall’ graffiti” [33] around the estate attests to) to the blissfully ignorant of any political undercurrents in the youth- and surfer-paradise. Crucially, there is no single version of Cornwall that its inhabitants and all-important seasonal visitors can agree on. Just as, I suppose, throughout this challenge there have been multiple embodiments of Englishness too. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For now, Kent makes important political points about the subjugation, simplification and homogenisation of Cornish culture. By centring his novel around modern youth, he is also able to showcase the crisis the generation faces in growing up in a county that cannot define itself as it wishes to. Charlie’s efforts to establish himself among his peers and his compatriots reflects Cornwall’s own need, as Kent seems to see it, to redefine itself on its own terms. After all, it is the county’s outsiders (whether that be tourists, national media or Westminster) who insist on perceiving Cornwall in a single, sunny light and who ignore any pressing news that may jeopardise this idyllic vision. Neil and Yak put it plainly when they say:

“I mean it’s hard fur people in Cornwall to be proud o’who they are, ‘cause no fucker on tv has a Cornish accent. You’n be fuckin’ Irish, or Scottish, or Scouse or fuckin’ Geordie – an’ everyone thinks you’m cool, but if y’speak like we, no fucker wants t’knaw ‘ee […] Up the line they think we all have straw ‘angin’ out o’our mouths an’ spend the days makin’ clotted fuckin’ cream” (19).

Stereotypical Cornwall - beachy holiday destination. This is a far cry from the poverty-stricken perception Charlie has of his home.

Stereotypical Cornwall – beachy holiday destination. This is a far cry from the poverty-stricken perception Charlie has of his home.

I’m so glad I have managed to end this challenge on a high, with a book that I enjoyed. Now all that’s left is for me to summarise the year’s reading. With the Scottish referendum well on the way, I’d better get going! See you soon.

 

KENT, Alan M. Proper Job, Charlie Curnow! London: Devon, 2005.

Featured Image: Cornish Nationalists protest to be seen as a people distinct from the English and from the UK. This year, Cornish was finally recognised as an official ‘national minority’ (like Scots, Welsh and Irish) but, for many, this doesn’t go far enough.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/cornish-people-formally-declared-a-national-minority-along-with-scots-welsh-and-irish-9278725.html

Advertisements

The Cornish Question

Aside

I’ve had some great feedback from all corners about this challenge recently – kicking off from a discussion about Cornwall – that has really got my head spinning. To make some sense of it, I thought I’d jot down a few notes in answer to some questions I’ve been asking myself for a while, and that some of you have also iterated.

Firstly, I openly apologise for my relative ignorance on the subject of the distinct Cornish identity – and indeed other regional/historical/personal identities that exist within the diverse area that is officially labelled ‘England’. Obviously, this literary venture aims to go some way to combat my lack of knowledge; I do not, and will never presume myself to be an expert on anyone’s identity. I struggle enough to understand how I might define my own.

Of course, it is not only me who is plagued with this kind of ignorance. That is one of the many problems with the terms ‘English’ and ‘British’ and even smaller designations such as by region (‘North-East’), county (‘Cornwall’) and city (‘London’). Not only do these homogenising labels fail to represent a heck of a lot, but they are often applied to individuals and areas that do not want to be represented by them. As these false representations become more widely accepted at face value, so ignorance of the complexities and disagreements beneath expands, across all aspects of society. I’m just starting to understand how important it is to critique these labels.

  • So why have I chosen to divide the country by its (ceremonial) counties, which are labels in themselves?

This is something I struggled to decide upon for a long time: if ‘England’ is meaningless, surely all its official subdivisions are too. Instead of by its counties, I debated dividing the country by rural vs. urban areas, by trends in landscape, even by motorway routes. Ultimately, however, each of these ideas is as arbitrary as the next.

My final decision was made precisely because the official county designations are so problematic and enforced by the state on people. For example, as has been pointed out to me this week, calling Cornwall a ‘county’ is itself an offence, as it belittles its extensive Celtic history and linguistic uniqueness that gives the region its own sense of distinct nationhood.

I want to investigate the inadequacy of dissecting England’s area in this way: what happens when people don’t consider themselves part of any English county?; might there be similarities and differences between people’s attitudes that have nothing to do with county borders?; how else might people define themselves if not by county?; is there any sign of a discernible national spirit?

  • Isn’t listing authors under these counties a bit hypocritical, being tantamount to assigning them identities that they may not consider accurate?

In actual fact, it’s not where the authors come from that determines where they are positioned on my list, but rather where their books are set geographically. But in short, yes, it is horribly difficult to justify. Who am I to say that the author Alan M Kent is writing about the county of Cornwall, when he considers himself fully Cornish and not part of English administrative or cultural society at all? I did try to get around this and other difficulties by referring, in my plan, to “England-based” rather than simply “English” authors, but obviously this hasn’t been completely successful.

At present, to continue with Alan M Kent as an example, he is listed under ‘Cornwall’ simply because of the arbitrary fact that his Cornish novel shares some of the coordinates of that English county. Some of the other books on the list do not name their settings at all; it is mere critical speculation that has attached them to a certain county and could be utterly incorrect. Regardless, with all the novels on my journey I aim to analyse the representations of place, whatever and wherever those places are considered to be, whether they are clear or blurry, accurate or subjective. The whole point of this challenge is to learn about different points of view; that is also why I’m choosing to blog about it!

  • Why have I chosen to analyse these representations of place through literature, instead of tackling the politics of Englishness head-on?

As much as I hope this journey can stand as a critique of how dangerous and ridiculous it is for anyone – the government, institutions, even little old me – to assign labels of identity to others, it is also a personal journey. As such, I’m undertaking it through the medium of what I have always loved, studied and learnt about the world from: literature. Novels. Fiction. Of course it has struck me that reading ‘one book from every county’ will not teach me all I need to know about life in that part of England; it will teach me one person’s views, and maybe not even that if I get the wrong end of the stick. In a way, I’m just excited to find new things to read.

So the way I’m carrying out this challenge isn’t perfect, it won’t give me answers set in stone…but then again, I wouldn’t expect to find those anywhere.

In fact, I’m not really looking for answers. I’d rather just learn how to ask the right questions.

Your comments this week have helped massively in that, so keep them coming!

With special thanks to the cornish republican for some great links and info