I read with some interest the recent announcement that Cornwall is to be given minority status in Britain. Like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Cornwall can now officially be seen as having a distinctive location, history, language and culture. This kind of news is always interesting on multiple grounds, not least of which is that it prompts thinking about what is happening to the ‘United’ in the United Kingdom. It is especially interesting to me, however, as many of my ancestors boarded ships in the 1860s ‘bound for South Australia’ (the song is as popular in Cornwall as it is in Oz). They were part of the small army of impoverished Cornish tin miners brought to dig in the part of my home state still known as the Copper Triangle/Copper Coast(1). Collectively known as ‘Cousin Jacks’ (and more recently Jennys), South Australians of Cornish descent mark their heritage publicly through festivals, language classes and, of course, the ubiquitous pasty.
Like many with a Cornish connection, I grew up with the weekly pasty-making ritual. Like her Australian mother, grandmothers and great grandmothers, my mother did a big weekly bake – once a cost efficient use of scarce fuel. The wood oven, sat next to the electric stove, was fired up at dawn regardless of the weather, and the day’s labour began. Cakes, biscuits, soup, a roast dinner and pasties. It took all day. My childhood job was to prepare the vegetables and crimp the pasties after they had been assembled. As I got older I did the whole pasty assembly while my mother moved on to jam tarts. My mother made pasty pastry with lard; she was light-handed with all kinds of pastry, sponges and scones. I never made the pastry. I was no good at it, and am still hopeless. Chewy is a kind description of any pastry I turn my hand to.
But, in truth, I never actually liked the pasties very much and a lot of the time they literally made me sick, they were just too rich. Pasties might have been good for the whiskery men in family photos, and those who fondly memorialise hard labour down the mines in the freezing cold, but they were not for an easy-going childhood in a hot climate. I don’t make them now and the pasty practice has I’m afraid died out with me, although I could probably still write out the ingredients if anyone really wanted to know.
Another habit of the Cornish side of my family was going to the library. A long tradition of self-education and of joint education through the miner’s lodges, and later the unions, was handed down in my family in the same way as the pasties and the bake day. Once a week we went to the library. We all took out as many books as we were allowed and we made sure that we had read them all by the time we had to take them back the next week. We read at breakfast and lunch-time. We read in the evening, after a judicious ration of radio and later television. I read long before I went to school. Despite only ever having a few books of my own, I was a very well read little person. My growing up coincided with the explosion of post-war educational opportunity and it was hardly surprising that a reading girl was sorted and selected through the school system. My generation were the first in their working class families to get to university in any numbers, albeit still a miniscule minority in the elite university population, an accomplishment only made possible by a complex conjunction of events, not the least of which was being seen to be adept with particular kinds of words and texts.
However, unlike making pasties, my book habit hasn’t died out. It lives on. I still read morning, noon and night. I have an enormous library of books and yes, I’ve read a lot of them and definitely read some of all of them. The book habit has been an essential everyday practice for me in academic life and I’m miles better at any kind of work with literatures than most other aspects of research. I love reading in and out of my area. (It’s not of course all that matters and other things have the same stature for other researchers as reading does for me).
I’m pleased to say that the next generation of my family also reads a lot. I really don’t care about the pasties dying out, but I would care a great deal if the love of books and reading stopped with me. The Cornish legacy I value and work to maintain is reading.
I can see, looking at the post ‘minority status’ musings coming out about Cornwall, that there is a lot to be said about reclaiming language. But it’s as if language was and is all about speaking – and maybe singing the odd robust shanty. I doubt that reading was a Cornish tradition in particular, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just a family idiosyncrasy. I really can’t see how that could be the case since, until recently, reading was a habit only sustainable for most people because of some kind of institutional support – libraries, lodges, unions, worker’s associations, schools, churches. I guess I’d just like to see that acknowledged. Maybe something besides pasties, romantic views of being underground, floral dances and famous folk will get a bit of publicity in the Cornish years to come. A reading Cornwall would be a Cornwall I could really relate to.
(1) This kind of ‘heritage’ naming is highly problematic. See comment below.