Challenging negative stereotypes of Cornwall and its people

Believe it or not, the Cornish can occasionally be the butt of stereotypes. We’re ‘slow’, ‘backward’ or ‘living in the past’. Sometimes we collude with these, for example through the use of dreckly, turning the stereotype back onto its users in an ironic and postmodernist way. This is good for a laugh but some of the stories told about Cornwall have a more seriously negative effect. They help lock us into a peripheral and marginal status in relation to a centre that‘s perceived as more ‘dynamic’ and ‘innovative’.

How can we best challenge such negative discourses? A recent academic article by Joanie Willett offers one possibility. She argues that if the general public were made more aware of how the Cornish economy was actually performing and the skills gaps that exist, they could generate a new more positive and exciting narrative that might challenge older, demeaning myths (and newer ones).

As it is, according to this article, we’re stuck in a time warp where fishing, farming and mining are the only things ‘Cornish boys [sic] can do’. Blissfully unaware of the Cornish digital technology firms, creative industries and niche food producers who are blazing a path to post-industrial and post-carbon fuelled prosperity, the Cornish public persists in comforting and nostalgic memories of days long past. This helps reproduce the delusion that the only activity in Cornwall is tourism. If only we were more aware of the skills gaps.

This argument is interesting but is it too cynical to wonder if reversing negative stereotypes of Cornwall and the Cornish demands a little more than an informed knowledge of the local economy? Moreover, digital technologies, Cornish Camembert and the like aside, to some the Cornish economy looks more like a Ponzi scheme, driven by speculative housebuilding aided and abetted by central and local government. Estate agents then flog the extra houses as holiday homes or entice a new population duped into thinking Cornwall is a ‘lifestyle’.

To increase knowledge of the Cornish economy we first have to come to some sort of consensus as to what that economy involves. Is it zero hours contracts, low pay and a growing precariat? Or is it the gleaming new sectors breathlessly flourished and drooled over in planning documents? And what about the major employment sectors, which are actually healthcare and education? Or it might just possibly be all of these.

For a more detailed summary of this article see here.

Legend, history and selfies at Tintagel

In its marketing strategy for Tintagel English Heritage decided to emphasise its legendary aspects and links to the Arthurian myth. The only problem with this was that there were actually no physical objects at the site on which they could anchor the legends. So they installed some in the shape of the statue of the anonymous knight and the carving of Merlin’s face.

Merlin returns

A recent academic article by Laura Hodson has evaluated what expectations people bring with them to Tintagel and how they react to the place in the light of those. It did this by subjecting to analysis just under 400 reviews on TripAdvisor in 2018. Of course, this might well tell us more about the kind of person who completes a TripAdvisor review rather than be representative of visitors to Tintagel.

Around a half of the reviews made no reference to legend or history. They either had no expectations at all or came for the scenery or for personal and family reasons. Reviews focused on the extortionate price charged by English Heritage for entry and the difficulty of climbing up the steps to castle and island. This has now been solved by English Heritage’s post-modern bridge. All we need now is a lift.

Reactions of those reviewers who made some reference to legendary or historical expectations was more polarised. Contrary to what might be expected however, it was some of the reviews with historical references where imaginations were sparked, not those attracted by legend. For the latter (around a fifth of the total) did not lose themselves in the swirling mists of legend as they stalked dreamily around the Island at Tintagel. Instead they were largely content to take a quick selfie next to the knight, usually assumed wrongly to be Arthur himself. The statue has apparently done nothing to change a shallow and superficial visitor experience.

Given this, maybe English Heritage should focus on the fascinating early history and archaeology of the site rather than play around with elusive legendary connections. Having failed to provide any perceived educational benefits its continued (mis-)management of this site must surely come into question. Perhaps the Duchy of Cornwall, which owns the place, should now do the decent thing and transfer its management from English Heritage to a Cornish-run body aware of its proper significance.

An extended critical review of this article can be found here.

‘A hideous and wicked country’: travellers on Cornwall

We all know Cornwall is a picturesque place. In fact, although it is viewed as such now, it wasn’t always seen in that light. The countless images of Cornwall’s cliffs and coastline that are produced and circulated by visitors and locals alike these days would have come as a surprise to the travellers of the early 1800s. They saw its landscape as ‘dreary’ and ‘deformed’. It lacked the essential attributes of fashionable picturesqueness – trees and inland water in the right proportions.

Picturesque Cornwall

Much has been written over the past couple of decades about changing attitudes to Cornish landscapes and the rise of the notion of a picturesque Cornwall. A recent article by Tim Hannigan provides another contribution to this growing academic literature. He details the familiar story of the move towards constructing a ‘different’, non-metropolitan ‘other’, an exotic place of escape and mystery. This imagery, later avidly adopted and then reinforced by twentieth century tourist marketing, is described through the analysis of texts from 1809 to 1907.

Hannigan’s article also adds a more novel reflection on the response of a native writer to outsider travel writing. Instead of seeing native attitudes and travellers’ accounts as necessarily opposites, he suggests there may be a degree of enjoyment in reading accounts of oneself and one’s place as ‘exotic’ or ‘different’. Such ‘auto-exoticization’ implies a degree of collusion between outsiders’ accounts and the reactions to those accounts by insiders, a useful insight.

(For an extended critical review of this article see here.)

Fishy business: research on Cornwall’s inshore fisheries

Two relatively recent articles on the Cornish inshore fisheries and the men employed in them are reviewed here. The first looks at access to healthcare and identifies the constraints facing ‘fishers’. The second contrasts the Cornish inshore fisheries with the coastal fisheries of Tuscany. It identifies the strategies employed by the small-scale fishing sector in the face of structural change in EU fishing policy and the UK administration of it. Direct-selling and diversification are cited as possible strategies to sustain these traditional fisheries.

Mevagissey harbour

On a wider note, it’s interesting that there’s a steady flow of academic articles addressing the fishing industry, despite its small size and limited current role in the Cornish economy. We await articles on the healthcare issues of supermarket workers, the problems faced by the workforce of fast-food outlets or call centres, or the sustainability of shopkeepers in Cornwall’s market towns. It’s good that Cornish fishing is receiving continuing attention. But are the more numerous workers in other sectors being inadvertently ignored in the academic fascination with a ‘traditional’ Cornish industry that is intrinsically bound up with ideological constructs of Cornwall?