The Culture of Cousin Jacks: Cornwall during WWII

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An elderly Cornishman recalls his rather puzzling boyhood in wartime Cornwall, although not necessarily in England

Land's End. Photo by Brian C. CoadLand’s End

About 1937, a Spanish ship laden with casks of sherry and carboys of Canary wine ran ashore during a gale and broke up on a rocky beach near my home. The news spread rapidly, as it still does in Cornwall. My Uncle Bob, with his little Austin 7 car, was one of the first to the rescue – not of the ship’s crew, but of its cargo.

Luckily he had a couple of carboys stowed in the back seat before the police and coastguard arrived and was able to drive away without attracting their attention. But he had many unkind words for them, both on that evening, when he visited my father to show off his spoils, and for several years thereafter.

The gist of his message was that the damn English would not let good Cornishmen get away with anything anymore, and the sooner we seceded the better. Back then the English, although they had conquered the Celtic fringe County of Cornwall five centuries earlier, were still the bad guys of the world, the oppressors, and Cornish adults continued to pass the message to us kids.

Old Castle. Photo by Brian C. CoadOld Castle

Indeed, the English were a big trouble to the Cornish. For a long time, and particularly during the previous century, they had worked hard to destroy the three trades which (along with mining and fishing) were the backbone of the Cornish economy and culture – smuggling, piracy, and wrecking of ships by posting false navigation lights on the cliffs.

Besides, one English King had banned the Cornish language (when I was a child it was known only to a few dozen academics), while another had made his eldest son Duke of Cornwall, a precedent followed by all subsequent Monarchs.

So little did the Cornish care for the English that virtually none of the several hundred villagers with whom I was acquainted had ever lived in that perfidious land, except in time of war (when they went where they were sent) or to pass through it on their way to ports of embarkation for journeys overseas.

Perranporyh. Photo by Brian C. CoadPerranporyh

I knew no one who had visited London. I knew practically no one who had not lived in Australia, South Africa, Canada, or the United States. I even had an uncle from Argentina and an aunt by marriage from Portugal. Thus it was taught to me, in that first ever and still colony of England, that there were good places to live anywhere on Earth, except amongst the English.

Thus, despite the fact that everyone in Cornwall read daily newspapers written by English journalists and printed in London, or tuned their radios (those who could afford them) to the BBC, or voluntarily (more or less) paid their taxes to the English Government, that old cultural paradigm of hate (or at least distrust) of the English lingered on.

I had the good fortune to get a scholarship to a rather good boys’ school. The masters were, if you like, establishment English. The Headmaster, Dizzy Wetherall, a World War I fighter pilot, puzzled me when he repeatedly told us: Always, when you can, associate with people who are different from your peers. You will find them far more interesting.

Near St. Ives. Photo by Brian C. CoadNear St. Ives

I pondered on this long and often, wondering why, if that was so, it did not apply to the English.

Presently I had a bit of an answer. Some of the newspapers and magazines I read at the time were viciously anti-Jewish. My little eleven or twelve year old mind had concluded that Jews were all purple and had tails.

Then there came a great influx of German Jews into our school. Britain, remember, during that period leading up to World War II, was the only country to make even a half-hearted attempt to rescue the Jews of Germany from Hitler. The Jewish boys who came to our school were neither purple nor did they have tails. They were just like the rest of us, except that they spoke, perhaps, rather better English.

If the Jews were not as I had been told they were, what else was not as I was told it was? Everyone – even the Masters at school – said I was of the Cornish culture. I believed I was. But what was the Cornish culture, anyway?

St. Michael's Mount. Photo by Brian C. CoadSt. Michael’s Mount

I knew a bit about other cultures. To our remote cottage came, every so often, Sikhs with large suitcases selling colorful silk scarves and French men on bicycles selling strings of onions. At school there were a few boys from India, a Hong Kong Chinese, a boy named Pablo from Guatemala. These people were different from me and my kind. No doubt about that.

Yet, at the same time, they were very much the same as us. Another thing Dizzy Wetherall drummed into us: The true mark of a gentleman is that he is able to get along with every kind of people. I tried hard to get along with these different kinds of people. At any rate, to my own satisfaction, I succeeded.

Then came the War. Then came the invasion of evacuee children from London, thousands of them, swamping us natives. Despite the cultural prejudice I did my best to get along with them, too. I (we, for most of my peers did the same) managed very well. The Cornish dialect is much like the American, with burred R’s and slightly nasal sounds, quite unlike Cockney, which is close to Australian.

Within half a year, most of the evacuees were speaking broad Cornish.

Truro. Photo by Brian C. CoadTruro

Anyway, all this prepared me for the Army. Just after the war ended I was posted to a British Military Hospital in Italy. Talk about cultural diversity! Relatively few of the World’s cultures exist in the United States. All of them were present in war-end Italy, – ten thousand, twenty thousand?

Remarkably, thanks to my Cornish training, I had no particular difficulty in getting along with any of them. Now, if only vaguely, I was able to see why it is part of the Cornish culture to be interested in, and to get along with, all kinds of people.

From time immemorial the Cornish were miners. Most of the tin, copper, zinc, lead and silver used in the early part of the Industrial Revolution, which laid the foundations for our modern wealth, came from Cornwall. Presently other, more easily-worked ore sources were discovered, and Cornish miners engaged in a great diaspora. It is still said that anywhere there is a hole in the ground, you’ll find a Cornishman at the bottom of it.

During this diaspora we became known as Cousin Jacks. I don’t know why, but I do know we could not have succeeded as miners without learning to get along with the locals where the ores were. Thus, for purely practical reasons, the getting-along-with-people part of our culture became established.

Thus it is, I’d guess, with every culture. Its hallmarks initially arise for practical reasons of economics and survival. But what is a culture anyway? My Italian experiences set this question ringing in my head, where it has reverberated ever since. If people are so much alike, what is this culture thing that makes them seem different?

My conclusion is, a person’s culture is what the person does without thinking about it.

And there let’s leave it, for now.

Text and photos are Copyright © 1999 by Brian C. Coad. All rights reserved.

Brian C. Coad’s “hard” science fiction stories have appeared in Analog and in Azimov’s Magazine.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The preceding post originally appeared in the online multicultural journal New Tribal Dawn, which published essays, fiction and poetry from 1999 to 2007. Although the journal is no longer active, we are preserving its fine literary archive here for posterity.)

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