Contrasting Padstow’s festivals

Helen Cornish, ‘Not all singing and dancing: Padstow, folk festivals and belonging’, Ethnos 81.4 (2016), 631-647.

From the early twentieth century the Padstow Obby Oss festival, welcoming the arrival of spring, has attracted the attention of folklorists, journalists and other tourists. In more recent times, the throngs of sightseers have been joined by academics, particularly anthropologists and sociologists. Fewer of them however bothered to visit Padstow during its mid-winter festival, known before 2005 as Darkie Day and officially since then as Padstow Mummers’ Day.

This article contrasts the two festivals, with the aim of resituating them in ‘wider political discussions’ and in the fashionable social anthropological trope of ‘complex and overlapping relations of belonging, time and place.’ The familiar problem of course is that these complexities often dissolve generalisations and we are left little wiser at the end of the day. Helen Cornish’s piece makes a few intriguing observations and offers a reasonable analysis of the contrasts between the two Padstow festivals but adds relatively little to what is already known.

The article begins by situating Padstow’s festivals in a popular renaissance of festival culture. The most iconic festivals are imagined as ‘steeped in oral tradition and local customs’, while their origins are usually ‘lost in the mists of time’. Padstow’s two festivals both fit this bill. However, in reality, this is a myth.

The earliest documentary evidence of the Obby Oss is comparatively recent, 1803 or 1813 depending on the source, while the festival went through major changes in the mid-nineteenth century when bacchanalianism was confronted by the forces of teetotalism. In similar fashion, Darkie/Mummers’ Day has undergone change over time. Both festivals in their present form are products of the late nineteenth /early twentieth century revitalisation of folk festivals.

In this article, Helen Cornish narrates the importance of the Obby Oss in the tourist calendar and in official tourist literature and contrasts this with the embarrassed silence over Darkie/Mummers’ Day. Whereas Obby Oss has an unproblematic meaning for locals, the wider Cornish public and tourist marketeers alike, Darkie/Mummers’ Day is replete with problems because of the now culturally dubious practice of blacking-up.

This produced loud accusations of racism in the period before 2005 as the new sensibilities of a multiculturalist British society clashed with a more slowly changing local custom. But external criticisms merely triggered a closing of ranks among locals who perceived them as an attack on their sense of belonging and place. The article concludes that ‘belonging to Padstow is privileged by participants and residents’, over and above the expressions of a wider Cornish identity (flag, revived language, tartan) that have been appended since the 1970s.

Controversies around the blacking-up therefore caused no little squirming within a Cornish Revival that had unreservedly adopted Obby Oss as a symbol of Cornish distinctiveness but had few words to say about Darkie/Mummers’ Day. Nonetheless, revivalists had to defend the festival from outsider criticism. Some argued that it was merely an innocent variant of the ‘guising’ common in nineteenth century Cornwall; others that the blacking-up element was an alien English intrusion brought to Padstow by the popularity of minstrelsy in the early 1900s. Some defended it as an expression of the independence and individuality of Padstow; others saw it as embarrassing or naïve.

This article points out how in these debates festival participants in Padstow ultimately engaged critically with Cornish regionalism as well as Englishness or Britishness. For them the ‘defence of Padstow’ was paramount. Yet, as Helen Cornish points out, festivals are not just ‘intimately localised’. These days they cannot escape ‘globally mediatized ways’, which was the problem Padstow’s Darkie/Mummers’ Day faced at the turn of the millennium. The article concludes that the festivals are situated and interpreted ‘beyond the highly localised and emotional experiences of participants’.

Of course, we might also ask how the emotional responses of external commentators, especially those who felt entitled to emblazon their opinions over social media despite not having attended the festival, also structured attitudes. The unfortunate truth that Padstow’s mid-winter festival-goers ultimately faced was that their naivete about race could not escape the attention of the ‘emotionally charged category of race’ that pervades discourses in guilt-ridden, post-colonial [sic] England.