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In Britain, Cornwall Pays No Mind To Royal Wedding


At Britain's royal wedding on Friday, the cameras will point at Prince William and Kate Middleton. But really, a whole country will be on display. The British will parade in all their ancient finery, and they will appear united in celebration. Look a little closer, though, and you'll find it's not quite so simple.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES: You want to know how to annoy the British? Call them English. The English themselves don't mind. But remember, they share their islands with others.

Mr. BERT BISCOE (Cornwall Politician): We are a people within the political and cultural complex which is the British Isles in the 21st century. We are one of the British peoples - as are the Welsh, are the Manx, as are the Channel Islanders, as are the Scots.

REEVES: Bert Biscoe is a local politician from Cornwall. Look on a map - you'll find Cornwall in the bottom, left-hand corner of the British Isles. It's a big finger of windswept land jutting out into the Atlantic. The map says it's part of England. But for the Cornish, those born and bred there over generations, this peninsula's a homeland, says Biscoe.

Mr. BISCOE: We are a nation. Nations can exist within states.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

REEVES: The first tourists of the spring are arriving in Mousehole Village in the far west of Cornwall. The village is a cluster of stone cottages woven together by narrow alleys tumbling down a hill to the sea. There's an old inn, and a bright-red telephone box.

This is a world away from London, where the pubs and palaces are now festooned with the Union Jack - the red, white and blue flag of the United Kingdom - in readiness for the royal wedding.

There is a flag flying outside a little store beside Mousehole Harbour. It's black and white, and Cornish.

(Soundbite of singing)

REEVES: In the Methodist church hall, Mousehole's male voice choir is going through its paces. Half of these snowy haired, flurried-faced men can't read music.

(Soundbite of singing)

REEVES: But their singing's made the choir famous. Choir practice is followed by pints of ale in the King's Arms.

Mr. PETER ROBINSON (Choir Member): We've got electricians, carpenters, mechanics, farmers, fishermen, loads of teachers.

REEVES: Retired policeman Peter Robinson's been with the choir for 35 years. He says there's just something different about his people.

Mr. ROBINSON: We're not English. It's like a sense. Well, the word in Cornwall is we belong. We belong to Cornwall. You know, we're not just Cornish - we belong here.

(Soundbite of singing)

REEVES: A pub sing-song begins, and choir chairman Reg Osborne has a go at defining the Cornish.

Mr. REG OSBORNE (Choir Chairman): They're a little bit cussed, they know their own mind, and they're going to stick to it. And they like their traditions and their own culture, and they'll do their best to maintain it. And I'm pleased to be one of them.

(Soundbite of singing)

REEVES: Quite a few English also live in these parts. To the annoyance of locals, many more own vacation homes. The true Cornish are in a minority.

Mr. ALEX EVERITT (Retired Jeweler): I was getting the seagull - shall we say crap - out of the boat.

REEVES: Down on Mousehole's Harbour Beach, Alex Everitt's preparing to go sailing. He's a retired jeweler. Everitt's lived here for some 30 years, but still can't claim to be a Cornishman.

Mr. EVERITT: No, obviously I can't. You have to be fifth generation to be Cornish. I'll never be Cornish. I'll always be a border jumper, as they call us - or a marion(ph) or an Emmett(ph), which is an ant.

REEVES: William and Kate will be married in London, 250 miles from here. For Everitt, they may as well be on another planet.

Mr. EVERITT: Of course, my response would be, what's their names? We know we don't care. I mean, obviously, Prince Charles is Duke of Cornwall. But you know, it doesn't mean a lot.

REEVES: You won't be watching on telly?

Mr. EVERITT: Absolutely - I haven't got a TV. I don't have one.

REEVES: Bert Biscoe, the Cornish politician, says there's a reason this part of Britain is so different.

Mr. BISCOE: When the Saxons came, they came in through the Thames, really, and started pushing the Celtic peoples back to the edges - to Scotland, to Wales, and to Cornwall.

REEVES: That was more 1,500 years ago. A few hundred years later, a deal was struck.

Mr. BISCOE: In 936 A.D., King Howell of Cornwall, and King Athelstan of Wessex -this is before England existed - they reached a treaty which secured the River Tamar as the boundary between the nation of Cornwall - or Kernow, as we call it in Cornish - and Wessex. And that boundary has stood ever since.

REEVES: Biscoe describes himself as a devolutionist. He wants far more autonomy for Cornwall. For a long time, people with his views tended to be marginalized. They suffered a setback a few years ago when a tiny, shadowy group calling itself the Cornish National Liberation Army popped up. The heroic freedom fighters did absolutely nothing beyond writing rude graffiti telling the English to go home and threatening several English celebrity chefs.

These days, though, Cornwall's devolutionists are taken more seriously, especially now that the Welsh and Scots have their own parliaments. They've made significant gains. Cornwall's national dish, the Cornish pasty, was recently given protected status by the E.U. and, says Biscoe, the Cornish language is back.

Mr. BISCOE: One of the great cultural triumphs of Europe is the revival of the Cornish language, from a state of very near-death - last gasp.

Mr. ALAN KENT (Writer): (Reading) (Cornish spoken). He'd a say we're not a people, I'd a say come and join us, you'd a say we've no language, I'd a say come and speak with us, you'd a say we've got no border...

REEVES: That's writer Alan Kent, reading one of his own poems.

Kent's one of hundreds of people who now speak Cornish. Kent's also one of a sizable number of people in Britain who want the monarchy abolished.

Mr. KENT: I mean, Shakespeare in 1600 was exposing the folly and the stupidity of kings. We know that kings are not God-given. They are just normal people like the rest of us. So a system which would be comparable to that of the USA would be - in my view - very, very positive.

REEVES: What will Kent do when Britain's celebrating the wedding of William and Kate not long from now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KENT: I will be doing something completely different than royal wedding.

REEVES: Television will be off?

Mr. KENT: Yeah, yeah.

(Soundbite of singing)

REEVES: Back in the King's Arms, the Mousehole Male Voice Choir is in full swing. William and Kate don't really seem to interest these men much. The wedding clashes with an important choir festival here, so the singing policeman, Peter Robinson, says he won't be watching. But he adds...

Mr. ROBINSON: I'm very pleased, you know, for Prince William and Kate Middleton. I think they're, you know, a super young couple.

(Soundbite of singing)

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News.

(Soundbite of singing)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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