Poets lead Cornish revolt against `English imperialism'

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The Independent Online
The Greeks had Byron, the Bolsheviks Mayakovsky. The Cornish have Bert Biscoe. All good uprisings need their poets.

Last week Bert and his fellow bards Pol Hodge and Alan Kent were giving voice to the feelings of nationalist rebellion that may appear on Saturday when hundreds of aggrieved Cornish men and women are to march on London. They will be marking the 500th anniversary of another such trek, which ended in bloody disaster for Cornwall.

In May 1497, thousands of Cornish men rallied at the village of St Keverne and set out for the capital to protest against heavy taxes imposed by Henry VII and the abolition of the right of their ancient Stannary parliament to veto English legislation. Led by Michael Joseph, a blacksmith better known by his Celtic name, An Gof, and Thomas Flamank, a lawyer, they reached Blackheath and then were routed by Henry's soldiers; An Gof and Flamank were hung, drawn and quartered.

Now, in the age of the self-assessment tax return, what angers their descendants are the centuries of English "cultural imperialism" that have left their homeland broke, ignored and losing its identity. Cornwall might mean china clay, tin mines and cream teas to you, but it once had independence and still has its own Celtic language, kept alive by enthusiasts. Five-hundred years after An Gof, the Cornish spirit is beginning to stir.

Reading last week in the cafe of a clay-mining museum near St Austell, Alan Kent made an impassioned attack on the dilution of the Celtic way of life:

When I hear seasonal Truro


Talking earnestly about


I remember that Flamank

Is just out of the window

And Joseph is at St Keverne,

Yet my country, for lack of will

Has gone to hell.

Paul Hodge read eloquently in Cornish about King Arthur, Merlin, and the curse of the national curriculum; and Bert Biscoe intoned portentously: "We are the sum of the stones we are..." Then all three joined in a shout of "Freedom, Freedom, Freedom!" Outside in the twilight, three giant clay hose nozzles began to look like anti-aircraft guns.

Though the roots of the current rebellion lie in the Middle Ages, when the English Crown began to absorb the Celtic nations, much of its momentum derives from the county's economic state. Cornish wages are among the lowest in Britain and unemployment compares with the worst inner- city areas; violent crime is rising.

Alongside this, the county derives a huge income from tourism - pounds 750m in 1995. But, says the Rev Brian Coombes, 63, Grand Bard of the Gorsedd, the Celtic cultural guild, Cornwall is not just a country park or a theme park. "We are a Celtic nation. We have our own language, our own way of looking at things. Here, there's a close link between everyday life and the spiritual that you don't have in England. Tourism can't provide work all year round."

Last week's Queen's Speech set out a framework for Scottish and Welsh devolution, yet all the Cornish have to look forward to is the prospect of some form of regional development agency and a vague promise of "regional status".

Bert Biscoe, 45, who is also a Cornish Independent county councillor, is dismayed by the lack of progress. "We have spent 20 years educating a government on what the priorities of Cornwall are, and we view this new government with trepidation. Contact with the incoming Labour government has been minimal. We have to open up new lines of communication with Labour just as we were beginning to make progress with the Conservatives."

The European Commission recently designated Cornish an officially recognised living language, but GCSE exams in Cornish were abolished last year due to "insufficient interest". And the audience for Mr Biscoe and co is not large. At the reading, only five people joined your correspondent to hear Cornwall defended so passionately. Two were Bert's mum and gran.