A week ago, I chaired my first ever session at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual International Conference, which this year was held at the University of Exeter.
As a part-time Masters student, the initial response within the Faculty of me applying to run a session was a mixture of “You’re Brave/I would never have done that as a MA student!”, and whilst, yes it has had a few fraught moments over the past seven months or so, I can only firmly recommend it to Royal Holloway’s new intake of Masters students.
My own particular research area of Cornish Culture & Identity can often seem a bit like ploughing a lone furrow, as I am diverging greatly from a lot of the excellent research going on in our own immediate community – however, by looking at my immediate context and connecting it to present events around Europe – in particular Scotland, Catalonia and Veneto – I was able to attract a wide and diverse range of speakers for my session entitled ‘The Contemporary Growth of Regional Identity in Europe’.
Unfortunately, as these things often turn out, as the day of the session drew closer, several of my overseas speakers contacted me to withdraw, which left the session without papers on the important situations regarding devolutionary or independence movements in the North of England and Veneto. Consequently, I drew on my links with the burgeoning Cornish academic community, and my session was transformed into an affirming range of papers which dealt with the contemporary sense of what Hechter (1999) termed as ‘Internal Colonialism’, which has gained greater impetus since April 2014 when Cornwall was designated with National Minority Status under the Council of Europe Framework Convention.
The other major consideration with the RGS-IBG International Conference is its sheer scale – it is a conference attended by over 1,400 delegates from all around the world, and around 25 sessions run at the same time, hence you are competing strongly for an audience – unlike on previous occasions when I had made presentations on my research elsewhere where there was only ever one auditorium! I was absolutely delighted that the session drew a large audience of students and academics from all four corners of the globe, and it was exciting to see that Cornish Culture & Identity, plus the inherent sense of ‘difference’ between Cornwall and England was receiving such high profile attention.
Aspiration for One and All? Andrew Climo from the University of Oxford spoke about Cornwall’s historic devolution demands; summarising the fact that up to the late 1990s, calls for Cornish devolution were inchoate, but in 2002, the Cornish Constitutional Convention published its prospectus called Devolution for One and All, which acted as a nexus for the various competing views on future governance. His paper discussed what such a document might look like and how public engagement might be developed.
Julie Tamblin of ‘Learn Cornish in Cornwall’ then presented a historical overview on the three linguistic forms which characterize Cornish culture – Kernowek, Cornu-English and English and made connections between voices from Cornwall and Cornish voices writing back from the diaspora, showing the global influence of Cornish culture.
Mike Tripp, who recently retired from the Institute of Cornish Studies at the University of Exeter presented a paper entitled ‘Where there were two Cornishmen, there was a “rastle”: Cornish Wrestling & Identity’. Dr. Tripp’s paper covered the development of the sport into a widespread ‘traditional’ activity, deeply rooted in the local culture and, prior to the birth of Rugby Union, was Cornwall’s most popular sport. When, in the second half of the nineteenth century the Cornish economy suffered a catastrophic collapse that precipitated large numbers of people to leave Cornwall to find work abroad, the Cornish stuck together in distinct ethnic communities sustaining a strong sense of identity which manifested in the Cornish dialect and wrestling in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand
Finally, and very timely given the recent publication of his outstanding new book, Will Coleman, a bard of the Gorsedh Kernow presented an exceptionally lively paper entitled ‘Plen an Gwari: places of Play, Inclusivity and Resistance’. In this work, Coleman examined how in many places and cultures throughout history, performance has been used to articulate and strengthen the aspirations of minorities and to represent narratives resistant to dominant cultures. Driven by the ‘powerhouse’ of Glasney College in Penryn, the Gwari Meur culture of medieval Cornwall flourished for several hundred years and reached profound levels of artistry in its drama and literature. Related forms also developed elsewhere across Europe but “Cornwall was to do it better, and more intensively, than anywhere else” (Kent, 2010). The Gwari Meur culture was “a vital part of that strategy of resistance [… to Anglicization]” (Spriggs, 2004). It was international in its outlook yet intensely parochial in celebrating its sense of place. It was rebellious, unorthodox, irreverent, profound and a lot of fun. As a cultural totem the plen an gwari is the perfect foundation for the territory of Cornwall as we rebuild our inclusive, forward-looking and celebratory sense of Cornish nationhood.
To some Cornwall may be a county which is quite nice to go to on holiday. Delegates from around the globe left this session with a new sense of the immense pride that the Cornish have in their land. Gaging from questions that were directed to myself and my presenters, renowned focus on this particular ‘peripheral’ appendage of South-West England is about to take place…
Ben Gilby, MA Cultural Geography (Research) Part-Time (2nd Year)