Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Grace Under Pressure – The Survival And Development Of The Cornish Language and Culture

Until recently, I wasn’t even clued into the existance of a distinctive Cornish culture, or that an actual language ‘Kernowek’, a close relation of Welsh and Breton existed. My knowledge of Cornwall stretched no further than gluttonous visions of clotted cream scones drenched in strawberry jam best complimented by lounging in a pollen blanketed field within close proximity of the nearest patronising “oooh arr”cliche. My Antipodean boozing sidekick Ashley, was somewhat more blunt in his scientific analysis. “They love their cider down those neck of the woods” was the best he could contribute to the ever more fascinating topic. On the path to the greatest Celtic enigma of all, battery acid moonshine and diabetic wet dreams were kicked into touch, as as taunchly preserved mystery became a revelation that demanded further investigation.

Eire, Alba, Cymru, Mannin, Breizh and Kernow. How often would these tongue twisters stimulate the senses of an average Daily Mail and Irish Independent die-hard? Judging by poet Pol Hodge‘s recent request that Her Majesty QueenElizabeth II offer a royal apology for what Hodge refers toas the “Cornish Holocaust” of 1549 during which major forgotten atrocities were committed, Glosury College was savagely annihilated in an inferno sparked by mercenaries loyal to the crown, (shockingly, some of the perpetrators were Welsh), it would be reasonably safe to rule out any enthusiasm by the former at least.

Many among us will have some degree of enlightenment when discussing the ‘Celtic Nations’. There is for the most part,an awareness that Mannin (The Isle Of Man) is a nation to a large degree, complete with it’s own Celtic language Gaelg, an independent parliament, and of course, the fact that it is not officially part of the U.K. Breizh (Brittany)has long been a source of some of the finest musicians ever to grace Celtic shores, and a vehemently proud boast of individuality poles apart from their Gallic ‘landlords’. Sometimes this defiant stand reaches worrying proportions,coming to a head recently with Yannig Baron’s hunger strike in protest at church authorities’ attitudes towards Breizhoneg in the mother tongue’s own school system. Any among us who may be unfamilliar with Eire, Alba, and Cymru,should fetch their coat now. But the greatest ‘enigma’ of all, the age old Celtic terrain still refered to in error as an English county is the Duchy of Cornwall, or Kernow to be precise.

Hallowed social scientists indulge in feasts of knowledge,bestowing casebook upon casebook of theory upon the Celtic brethren and sisterhood, hoping to decipher the crusade o fpreservation and just what it means in so called lay man’s terms, but outside the musky aroma of a professor’s private quarters, elements more substantial than academic cannon fodder thrive. For that is what the Celtic psyche is. Living thriving communities, pulsating entities proudly preserving ancient rites through ultra modern technological amenities. Cornwall, smugly dismissed as a poor relation, is no different to it’s fellow Brythonic and Goidelic kith and kin in it’s everyday affairs. To view Cornwall as somehow inferior, is on a par with the underhand slurs the Meath Gaeltacht often has to endure in Irish socio-political chit-chat. Any individual refusing to grasp the reality of Kernow and it’s place in the modern world when they pull their headout of the sand, should pick a verbal barney with the Agan Tavas fellowship, and they would soon retreat to thei renclave, tail firmly riveted between their legs. It was on-line that I became savvy to just how the Duchy is using these technological amenities to focus worldwide attention on their corner of Western Europe.

Tim Chapple, member of Cornish language Punk/Garage rockband Krena is no exception to the rule. While trawling the net recently, i came across his rather impressive CornishMusic website. Here is a call to arms, a challenge to people still sucking on rock candy and swimming slovenly in stereotyped pools of strong cider. The site layout goes hand in hand with the general mood of Cornwall 2006. Gazing from a distinctly Celtic seaside panorama, past, present, and future all glow radiantly. This isn’t simple wishful thinking. Chapple does not suffer fools gladly. Here is a man who has seen both the light of modern progress, as well as grim days when Kernowek barely raised a ripple on the terraces. He is well aware of how important his label ha sbecome to Kernow‘s home grown talents.

“Bands such as Dalla, Pan Celtic contest winners Krena(Chapple is Bass Guitarist), Skywardya, and Bagas Degol havebeen performing in Kernowek for some time, and we are continually coming across younger musicians incorporating the Cornish language in their work. Our label encourages and promotes the diversity of all styles in Cornwall – we are here to promote the wonderful music of all genres coming out of the region – we have no distinctions or barriers. A band like Krena for instance mixes some brutal rock music with lyrics in Kernowek – an admirable mix”.

Chapple goes on to add that “We will be working with new recordings by poet and musician Bert Briscoe very soon -well known for his direct involvement in Cornwall’s literary, musical, and political scene”.

Recently, the rather impressive and impossible to pigeonhole group Bagas Degol, received a resounding thumbs up from Channel 4 Teletext, no mean feat when considering the often picky and no frills nature of their reviews. Tim explained how things are generally turning to bloom for the scene in light of recent kudos. “When we began Top Of The Hil lrecordings back in 2003, I don’t think that either of us(Tim and wife Ros) had any idea how long the label would last, or how far we would get. While we are never going to rival the major labels, we have a lot to be proud of. Our CDs have been shipped to Europe, America, Canada, Australia,and have sold incredibly well across the U.K. We’ve had airplay on many radio stations, and received positive reviews from international publications such as Froots andSing Out, as well as fantastic local and national media support. We put out some great stuff last year – highlights would have to be albums from Julian Gaskill (Technology WillMake Us Better) and Gwelhellin Goth (Bad Provincial Boy),stuff that may not exactly be mainstream, but is vital and exciting, and needs to be heard. Cornwall has so much going for it. the amount of talent we’ve come across is unbelievable”.

“We will continue to capitalise on the fact that Cornish music is different – [it] has an individuality and magic about it that has something to do with it’s remoteness and traditions. The future looks very bright indeed”.

‘Utilising the Internet has been a major coup for the bastions of Cornish culture. Political ideologies of both a semi-loyal nature to London, and views of a more seperatist leaning have cemented Cornwall in the public eye as an entity often and in some cases far removed, from the attachment to Englishness and even Britishness. Art and music have similarly managed to gain a foothold in the phenomena. If a group like Bagas Degol conjurs up visions of a petrified Edward Woodward soiling his underwear as he frantically pleads for the intervention of Our Lord, the nplease do us all a huge favour by making contact with Earth real soon. On so many levels, the net has managed to slice from the equation ‘mainland’ colonial rebuke merchants with their smug jibes aimed at an ‘imaginary language’. Hostile attitudes regardless of their validity, are best served in measured doses, and when the situation backfires, a messy serving of humble pie is slopped up for the disgraced party.Look at the success Krena’s bass slinger has met in cahootswith his P.C.

“I am continually surprised about the contacts we make overthe Internet through our main site” Chapple recently joining Krena, has brought even greater recogntion to the crusade. A successful appearance at thePan Celtic music festival in Ireland (Co.Kerry, May 2005)has flung open new doors for the label. Pinpointing the flavours that wooed the judges tastebuds would not be difficult. Krena offered an unorthodox blend of searing guitars and loud intimidating drums, spurred on by the finest Kernowek laced battle cry since at least the 16th Century. A brew that would have been impossible to resist in the heat of the passion.

Still basking in the glory of the visit to the Irish SouthWest, the battle plans are concisely laid out. “It is a fact that the traditional way of marketing music has changed away from the high street retailer, and this has provided a lifeline for companies such as ourselves to get music that’s a little different, a little quirky perhaps in the public’s eye. the major retailers on the high street are wrong to think that people only want ‘Top 40 artists’ – there’s a huge market for music like ours over the Internet – in that respect we feel vindicated – especially after the hard times we had with distributors and buyers in the beginning”.

When the first revivalists of the 20th Century led selflessly by Henry Jenner and Robert Morton Nance began topainstakingly piece together the many scattered pieces ofthe priceless artefact, it sparked a chain of events that has roused the Duchy ever since. Some may have surrendered all hope when names like Alison Treganning or DollyPentreath began to attract moss to their headstones, and the emotive words of Rev.Stephen Hawker rang shallow into the mass of apathy, But Kernow today owes so much to these people, in fact the very lifeblood of today’s resurrection is pumped through the sacrifice these people made so that their Celtic heritage could never fade into oblivion. Bi-lingual road signs stand proudly across the landscape,even nightclubs are playing their part to encourage the development, offering such information as”Telephone/Pellgowser“. Kernowek has become a much desired form of communication in tandem with the current success of Gaelg amongst their Manx cousins. Music of course in any society, does not stand idly by and allow other forms o fexpression to steal it’s thunder.

Sea shanties, traditional Celtic folk tunes, and religious hymns proudly sung in the native tongue have regained their place in the greater structure of that priceless artefact. Iasked Tim Chapple if Cornish music would ever penetrate in tothe mainstream and if this would be a good thing, bearing in mind the often fickle attitudes of teenagers, and cash idolising ‘Pop Idol’ types. His response pulled no punches.”Ha! who can tell! – all I know is that a Cornish musical scene which depends entirely on the past for it’s inspiration will eventually wither and die – it must incorporate new sounds and ideas to survive, while retaining the essence of Cornwall… I grew up watching bands like The Ramones and The Clash, and nobody feels more Cornish than I do – I draw parallels with the current Welsh scene with bands like The Super Furry Animals – the Scottish scene -with bands like Peatbog Faeries et all. There’s no reason why the Cornish scene shouldn’t develop in a similar way”.

From Corineus and Chesten Marchant right up to modern day warriors like Krena and their ilk, armed with the pulse of a glorious past and well on the way to rousing an equally spectacular future, the swords and shields of age old Cornwall give way to an artistic march of destiny in the 21st Certury, more vibrant than ever, unshaken by the occasional flare up of disharmony within it’s own ranks. The progress made since the 1967 revival still remains in the hearts and minds of many, reminding them of what could be lost if caution gives way to an impatient surge for complete autonomy. Mel Gibson’s experienced cry of “HOLD!” during the battle scene in Braveheart is perhaps the best form of wisdom when trying to bring a dose of discipline to the ranks.

On the corporate front, the gaudiness which subdued Dublin’s Temple Bar in the soulless late 1990s, turning it in from a genuine Bohemian hideaway into a cheesy tourist and pre-wedding debauchery fly trap seems to be having extreme difficulty inserting it’s tentacles into Cornish soil. For every one American tourist trap, there are those loyal to St. Piren’s flag, ready at any second to reject the commodified crap shipped in bulk directly to the mantelpieces of Bob and Doris in Butte, Montana. Just check out the sampler track on Tim Chapple’s web site. The Rolling Sea is evidence of the real substance Kernow is built upon. Perfect Partner for a moonlit-rendezvous with the Shipping Forecast, or a scrapey Barvarian longwave radio station resolutely belting out 1950s Bierkeller-fuelled polkas. These are the unspoken emotions that tingle down the spine of this tune. An anthem for a special time and place, the possibilities of this language and culture are truly universal, to the sea and far beyond.

As Dolly Pentreath would have put it, “Me ne vidn cewselSawznek“. And then some.