getting things done for people

A little touch of Onen hag Oll

The first person to suggest to me that it might be an idea to get involved in local government was John Equagoo Cockle. He was a resident of Trelander on the East Side of Truro, a former seaman, a raconteur and controversialist who, for many of his neighbours and townsmen, was a guardian of the spirit of Truro. He was possessed of a warm, deep voice which had in its time wooed many hearts in many ports and which, in his latter years, excited much appreciation when he took up the self-imposed career of serial phone-in broadcaster on a Radio Cornwall which was much less hidebound by corporatism and much more celebratory of Cornish life than we find it today.

At his funeral, not held as many Truronians would have expected, in the Salvation Army’s Citadel in Kenwyn Street, where his stowaway father had found love, work and warm support in his early years in Truro, but in Church up the rich end of town, by Lander’s Monument, close to his childhood home in Fairmantle Street, we heard of a man for whom life had always been hard, who had travelled the World, a human being (a Cheyenne as Dustin Hoffman might have describe him) whose laughter and ethical concern had played constantly across his face, and for whom his town, his city, his home port was inspiration and cause. As John’s coffin was carried out of the Church the Vicar stepped forward to announce that the deceased had requested that a tape be played.

The thought played across my mind that here was this great Cornish-African man, after a lifetime of pretence that all was well in body and soul, leaving behind a tirade against his oppressors, against those who had made his life miserable by discriminating against him – that here was a crie de couer.

The Undertaker pressed ‘Play’ and Mevagissey Male Voice Choir sang ‘Good Night Ladies’. The chorus is ‘Merrily we roll along, roll along, roll along!’ The Church laughed and laughed and John Equagoo Cockle went to his eternal rest with a smile on his lips.

I tell this story because it lays the lie to the myth that, in Cornwall, there is an innate tendency towards endemic discrimination. It is a myth born and nurtured in places which do not know Cornwall and which tend to judge communities and places by the behaviours and standards they experience themselves and which, in a form of inverted arrogance, they assume must be the case everywhere!

I also tell this story because, as with so many other people from diverse cultures who have become part of Cornish life over the centuries, John Equagoo Cockle understood himself as a Cornishman, as an African, and again as British. He melded those identities in himself and, in his way, reshaped those cultures to accommodate him and his identity. He was also a merchant seaman, and a Trelander ‘boy’ – both identities of great value!

The issue of ethnic diversity is a complex one here in Cornwall which is, itself often the object of quizzical, institutional discrimination. When I began the campaign to secure for Cornish people the basic right of statistical visibility through being assigned a code as an ethnic group, it was John who rang up late at night to find out how things were going and to spur me on. I had first to carefully and repeatedly explain the situation to officials for whom the challenge of trying to embrace a concept outside the rigid confines of the status quo could easily have been misinterpreted as ‘disctrimination’. I had to provide evidence of the existence of a Cornish ethnicity, as well as of people who actually chose to describe themselves as such. John Cockle was one of them. I had to argue constantly with disbelieving and scornful suits and crats throughout Deskland! John was always there, nagging! The beginning of the end of the indignity of statistical invisibility was achieved by a strange mix of people from a variety of backgrounds who all found themselves bonded by a common ethnicity.

Last summer, during the commemorations of the Normandy Landings, I played a small part in an aural history project to capture impressions, experiences and accounts of events of a wide selection of people. During conversation with the Project’s mentor he recounted what he had heard from a group of black American GIs who had been stationed here and went in with the first wave of invading troops. The Americans had segregated camps, with black GIs camped on levelled mine waste (not good ground to camp on!). My interviewee told us that he had watched the great American heavyweight champion, Joe Louis, box at Wheal Busy!

The GIs recounted that their experience of behaviour towards them whilst they were in Cornwall contrasted so markedly with what they were used to that their experience fuelled their personal desire to change things for the better when they got home. In a small way, it seems, Cornish people and Cornish communities played a part in inspiring the fight for civil rights in the USA which played out throughout my childhood and teenage years. No doubt the influence of non-conformist liberalism which thousands of Cornish people brought with them into American society contributed to the perspectives of those who eventually swept away the old order. That influence remains.

Again, that very strong Methodist-Liberal tradition which courses through Cornish life even now, and which has been carried by Cornish people all over the World, to the Americas, Antipodes, Africa and elsewhere, placed Cornwall in the forefront of civil action to support Wilberforce in his great struggle to abolish slavery. Even today, there are very few Cornish people who take sugar in their tea – a habit first ingrained as a means of protesting against the exploitation of slave labour by ruthless sugar planters.

Cornwall, like other distinctive places, is assailed with the outcomes of assumptions made by individuals and institutions in distant places. Perhaps the worst such distortions emanate from well-meaning people who think they know Cornwall because they once spent a week cavorting in a disco in Newquay!

The culture of this place is founded upon principles of egalitarianism – there is not a wage-slave mentality in Cornwall. Women have always been partners – able to inherit; the adders of value, the imposers of quality control on the farm, in the fish market, at the mine. This egalitarianism affected the relationships between classes in Cornish society, which were much more founded upon mutual dependence and respect than we find elsewhere in the UK. The impact of the physical environment upon the nature of culture means that, by and large, similar relationships and similar principles inform community and economic life today. Hence, for instance, the predominance of micro-businesses and self-employment.

Cornwall challenges the individual; it forms robust communities; it lives closely with the elements and, most importantly maintains a strong interest in and relationship with the outside World. There are many small scattered settlements, but we should not necessarily assume that people in them are isolated or deprived as a result. In many ways they tend to accumulate better knowledge and wisdom than those scurrying from airport to airport, continent to continent, channel to channel! The difficult thing for people who are in a hurry is to stop long enough to hear the words of the man who speaks slowly from his place beneath the tree!

At the height of Cornwall’s economic power, when it was one of the pioneering powerhouses of the industrial revolution, Trevithick travelled the world advising and developing technologies. As decline set in Cornish people travelled far and wide, coming into contact with many people from many diverse backgrounds. They worked together – and when you are underground there are no discriminations – teamwork and discipline make the difference between life and death – and Cornish people brought the ethics and principles of their traditions to bear in forming communities wherever they settled. They also brought their experience of diverse cultures and peoples home and blended them into our forever evolving culture and perspectives.

One last influence – of a distant culture touching and enriching the life of the people of this place. When I was playing rock music and trying to fend off the realities of a community which was showing real signs of economic and social decline (and not buying my records!), and life in Cornwall really was pretty gloomy, I lived in Penzance.

Out of the blue, suddenly, as people are wont to materialise in Cornwall, there appeared a man whose rhythm, celebration, complete lack of inhibition and joy – all of which had survived the ravages of Idi Amin, exile and loss – lifted our hearts, reinstated the dance, beat a drum of rebellion and made cold winters warm. We knew him as Tito – he formed and led Zambula. He died last year. I have no reason for including him in this piece except that I have been determined to ensure that his contribution to Cornish life, which can be glimpsed everywhere, is, for a moment celebrated in this grey building. He ignited and excited, and he brought his culture and rebellion into this place and helped to prepare us, in a small way, for the changes which have occurred ever since.

Now, I do not seek to paint a picture of a crusading nation venturing out into a cruel world to right all wrongs. I certainly do not claim anything faintly resembling perfection or blamelessness. I simply wish to redress the balance in terms of ensuring that judgements made by others, especially when they view this place from afar without looking before they pontificate, and where they influence policy and resources, should be set in the context of actual experience, and not of imagined or assumed behaviours. Whether they be in New York, Brussells, London, Taunton or Exeter – we in Cornwall have the right to expect respect, dignity and recognition.

It would be a foolish person who stood here and said that there is a degree of liberalism and openness in Cornish society which sets us apart from the mainstream in terms of attitudes and behaviour, and that we have no work to do to achieve meaningful equality and respect for all people in our communities.

There is, undoubtedly, a distinctive historic and environmental Cornish experience.

However, there is no room for complacency. We have challenges to face. What I strongly believe, what I stand for, and, by and large, what I have experienced in Cornwall, is a principled desire to strive for genuine equality, for unsentimentalised compassion, for the attribution of respect for the dignity and quality of all cultures, and for understanding and support for all persuasions, creeds and distinctions.

After all, what the Cornish people seek for themselves is respect, dignity and recognition. If we seek equality, then we must be prepared to offer the same, often in greater measure, to others. That must be the objective of any society, or any group, genuinely and uncynically guided by non-conformist, liberal principles of social justice and democracy.

If any group of people in British society has learned from experience to quietly nurture and hand on their culture and identity in the face of media-driven homogeneity, aggressive peer-pressure, derision and denial, then it is the Cornish throughout the twentieth century. That experience, and the resilience of the Cornish people in the face of that oppressive tide – a resilience which is most profoundly attested by the rebirth of their language – also serves as a means of understanding, sharing and recognising what it is like for others to experience similar, and often much worse, discriminations. There can be no doubt but that the Cornish experience over the past 100 years fits it well to address the modern challenges of building a genuinely egalitarian, compassionate and open society.

One of the key legacies of that experience is that minority cultures do not survive by sealing themselves off in a Korral of exclusivity and purism. Culture and identity are inevitably shaped by the physical environment in which they are found, and for this reason that culture and identity will be there for all those who experience that environment, for them to adopt, and for them to contribute to and shape. I am glad to say that I know many Cornish Muslims, Cornish Chinese – a deliciously creative Cornish-Hungarian film Director for whom the Cornish language is his medium of first choice – Cornish Asians, Black Cornish, Cornish-Irish, Cornish-Poles, Cornish Italians – and so on.

That is the story of post-modern Cornwall, and it is a story which is there for the taking by all those who wish to accept the challenges of living, working and playing in this most physical of places. Part of the challenge is about contributing. Part of the challenge is about caring for those for whom the challenge may not be the best or right thing. Part of the challenge is to ensure that, in a global culture, the community of Cornwall, the Cornish, contribute their experience, their creativity, their diversity and their energy to the whole.

Cornwall has an exciting future, full of potential, full of opportunity. It is important that we understand those fundamental principles, borne out of our lengthy experience of this most challenging and surprising of environments, and that, in the context of modern life, we develop them and hand them on to future generations.

Cornwall has a fight on her hands to achieve cultural recognition; to achieve forms of governance capable of positively releasing and fulfilling potential; to achieve an economic equilibrium founded upon innovation, quality and looking forever outwards for opportunity, partnership and friendship. We lie at the core of a community which is spread around the world and which is increasingly coming to rediscover fundamental, bonding principles – principles which I believe can be glibly summarised by the concept of ‘Onen hag Oll – One and All’ – a mission statement for dignity, respect, recognition, care, community, individual achievement and reconciliation.

As a key part of putting all this into practise Cornwall Council is not simply going
through the motions of churning out a wad of A4 with Race Equality Scheme scrawled in Times Roman on the cover. This is a genuine and far-reaching effort to involve, to understand, to provide and to respond. I would like to insist that all those for whom the basic principles of dignity and respect are driving forces would get in touch and have their ten pence worth – I suspect I must content myself reluctantly with merely hoping they will – although this hope will be spurred on by some caring, compassionate nagging and cajoling!

I’m fed up with consultation – we only live once. Policies and strategies are vital to the conduct of an organised and civilised society – I guess even the Queen in her hive has to sit through endless spatial strategy meetings with her drones while the workers keep the pollen flowing in! Let us make this something better than consultation. Let us make this the celebration of, and a real development of, an engagement right across our community, throughout the nation of Kernow and outwards to all those for whom Cornwall is an inspiration, a root, a benchmark – let us make this a reaffirmation of our commitment to dignity, equality and respect for one and all –

Kernow bys vykken – lowena dhys - onen hag oll