27 June 2009
pirates and palm trees: this is england?
Penzance – I have made it to Penzance, and yes, there are pirates. I am at the end of Cornwall, the long finger of land that is Britain’s southwesternmost extremity, on a road trip with my regular traveling companion (and fellow WWOOfing enthusiast) Stella. We originally had a larger posse, but due to a confluence of events—including an unexpected rash of centipede hatchings that is keeping a biologist friend in lab for the weekend—it’s just the two of us. Cornwall has a reputation as a place apart from the rest of England, and there’s no better testimony to that fact the bizarre and alarming existence of palm trees here. And just as Salem, Massachusetts has embraced and profited from its witches, so has Cornwall’s largest town capitalized on its pirates. We unwittingly timed our arrival here with Mazey Day, Cornwall's traditional midsummer festival, and there are pirate costumes and skull-and-crossbones banners aplenty. The local pop music station goes by the name of Pirate FM.
Pirate antics aside, Cornwall is as serious about its regional identity as anywhere I have seen in the UK except for Scotland. The Cornish flag—a vaguely pirate-like white cross on a black field—is much more popular than the Union Jack, just as I saw far more of St. Andrew’s cross in Edinburgh. At the Mazey Day festival, vendors sell cards featuring doctored photos of Gordon Brown and Barack Obama holding oversized pasties, the region’s culinary gift to the rest of Britain. As we drove in toward Penzance, we heard a Pirate FM DJ interview a representative of the Cornish Language Partnership at its festival booth. The government-funded Partnership tries to preserve the Cornish language by offering courses in it, much like in parts of western Ireland where state subsidies are trying to keep Gaelic from disappearing. We stopped by their booth and picked up their free “Cornish for Beginners” brochure. Despite my enthusiasm for languages, this kind of enterprise strikes me as a fool’s errand. As my Cameroonian friends reminded me not long ago, people will talk the way they want to talk, and one can no more hold back that tide than command the waves to halt.
Speaking of waves, we also took an expedition out to Land’s End, the point where Britain finally surrenders to the Atlantic. Once you get past the tacky and overbuilt tourist facilities, it’s a marvelous landscape of cliffs, blue water, and rolling heath: