John Maidment's Blog

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Friday 16 November, 2007


TLV mirror



Chinese bronzes

Way back in the mists of time I took my BA degree in Chinese at SOAS in London.  In my first year I took a course in the history of Chinese art and was introduced to Chinese ritual bronzes.  These beautiful objects were mostly made during the Shang, Zhou, Qin and Han dynasties  -- a period ranging from around 1600 BC to 220 AD.  There are many different vessels and other objects: cauldrons, plates, bells, jugs, mirrors.  They are all cast in bronze and covered with elaborate geometrical designs.  The method of casting is known as the cire perdue (lost wax)  method.  The design is cut in relief on a solid model of the object made of plaster or clay.  This is then covered with a coating of wax.  This in turn is covered with a perforated mould.  The whole thing is then fired and the wax melts and runs away.  The molten metal is then poured into the space left by the wax.

My favourite types of bronze are seen in the pictures to the left.  The jue is thought to have been a wine jug.  The two protruding bosses may have had some flexible handle attached to them which allowed the vessel to be lifted and tipped by the "tail" at the back, so the liquid could be poured out of the "beak" at the front.

The second picture shows a TLV mirror, so called because of the symbols decorating it, which resemble the uppercase Roman letters TLV.  No-one really knows the significance of the these symbols, but there have been suggestions that they may have had astrological meaning.  The business side of the mirror would have been highly polished and some sort of handle attached to the central boss of the decorated side.  TLV mirrors date mainly from the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD).

A taotie (glutton) motif on a bronze vessel


Wednesday 14 November, 2007

St Just Plain-an-Gwarri




Origo Mundi

No blog entry yesterday, because I had a hospital appointment in Truro.  I have a cataract operation coming up in a couple of weeks and had to go for a pre-op assessment.  I decided to make a day of it and also kept an appointment with a delicious Fiorentina pizza - spinach, olives and an egg on top, if you're interested. 

I also visited the Truro Bookshop at the Royal Cornwall Museum and bought a copy of Origo Mundi. This is the first part of a cycle of three medieval mystery plays in Middle Cornish, although, oddly, the stage directions are in Latin.  The plays were written, or at least written down, sometime in the 14th century, very probably at Glasney Priory in Penryn, near Falmouth.  The plays were intended for open-air performance in a Plain-an-Gwarri, or Playing Place.  One of the best preserved of these is at St Just in Penwith near Land's End.  They were used for all kinds of spectacles, including Cornish wrestling matches.

The Cornish Ordinalia, as the plays are called, draw on biblical material, apochryphal sources and legend and are at times lofty and religious in tone, but at others bawdy and comical.

Here is a brief extract:

Deus Pater
cous er the fyth a ver termyn
pandra sunsyth  y'th lueth lemyn
lauer moyses

guelen a pren a wraf synsy
ty yv chyften ha dev thy'nny
luen me a greys

Deus Pater
toul an welen ol yn tyen
the'n dor vyskys
ty a wylfyth sur yn pyrfyth
merkyl tek gurys

a thev a ra serponnt yv hy
evth hy guelas ovn a'm bus vy
crenne a wraf

God the Father
Speak by your faith, briefly
What are you holding in your hand now?
Say, Moses

I am holding a wooden staff.
You are our chieftain and our God
I do fully believe

God the Father
Throw the staff, all of it
On the ground quickly
You will see an exquisite
Miracle done to perfection

Oh, gracious God.  It is a snake
Frightful to behold.  I am afraid.
I am trembling

Monday 12 November, 2007

Mn Scryfa




Communications from the past

The Penwith peninsula is particularly rich in antiquities.  Within a radius of about 8 miles from where I am sitting at this moment there are at least three stone circles, two iron-age courtyard villages and half a dozen very well preserved neolithic burial chambers, along with many standing stones and Celtic wayside crosses.  The most fascinating relics, I think. are the inscribed stones.

Mn Scryfa ("Stone of writing") stands high up on the West Penwith moors and bears the inscription: RIALOBRANI CVNOVAL - FIL-. This has been interpreted as meaning "(the stone of) Ryalvran, son of Cuno-uallos".  The syntax is Latin, but the two names are Celtic and mean "Royal Raven" and "Famous Leader".  The inscription has been dated to the early 5th century.

Very close to my house, perhaps only 10 minutes walk, in the village of Gulval, is the Bleu Bridge Stone.  This has the inscription: QVENATAVCI IC DINVI FILIVS.  Again the syntax is Latin  -- very bad Latin. It should read FILII not FILIVS.  The inscription means "(the stone of) Quenataucus, here, the son of Dinuus".  Or maybe it should read QVENATAVCUS and FILIVS.  The interpretation would then be "Quentaucus (lies) here, son of Dinuus". Apparently the two names are Irish and not Cornish.  The inscription dates from the 6th century.

In Madron church, again a very short walk from here, although a puff-stealing one up a long hill, a stone built into the south west wall has the inscription: QONFAL, followed by what may be an earlier inscription: FILIA QVENNCREST.  The interpretation of this inscription is still open to doubt, but there has been speculation that QONFAL refers to the same person as the CUNOVAL of Mn Scryfa. Date: 6th or 7th century.

In the centre of Penzance, standing outside the Penlee House museum and art gallery, is an impressive carved Celtic cross.  The inscription, dating from between 900 and 930 AD, reads: REGIS RICATI CRUX - "The cross of King Ricatus".  Ricatus may have been the predecessor, or even the father, of Howal, the last recorded king of all Cornwall.

There are other inscribed stones and crosses in the area.  For information on these a good source is: Belerion: Ancient Sites of Land's End by Craig Weatherill (Penzance: Alison Hodge, 1981).

Sunday 11 November, 2007


(horse (of) iron)



Words in Cornish

As I mentioned in my blog of 4 November, one of the problems faced by the Cornish language revivalists was how to fill the gaps in the vocabulary of Cornish. One obvious strategy was to borrow an English word and Cornishify it.  An English-Cornish Dictionary (R. Morton Nance.  Marazion: Federation of Old Cornwall Societies, 1952) has quite a few examples of this:

  • captain --> capytayn

  • syllable -> syllaben

  • tax --> toll

Another method involves Cornishifying cognate words from other Celtic languages, usually Breton or Welsh.  Here are some examples of this:

  • dizzy penscaf (Welsh pensygafn)

  • razor  alsen (Welsh ellyn)

  • ripple crygh (Welsh crych)

A third way, used especially for words referring to modern objects and notions, is to compound existing Cornish words.  So, for instance:

  • aeroplane  jyn-ebron (literally machine (of) sky)

  • cinema gwaya-myr (literally show moving)

  • locomotive margh-tan (literally horse (of) fire)

Needless to say, all of these methods and the solutions produced by them have been the subject of controversy.

Saturday 10 November, 2007

The Minack





Just west of Porthcurno (see blog for 8 Nov), there is the Minack (/ˈmɪnk/, meaning "rocky") Theatre.  This, as you can see from the picture, is an open-air theatre cut into the side of a cliff.  It was the idea of Rowena Cade, who lived at Minack House.  The theatre is 75 years old this year and there was a performance of The Tempest in August to celebrate this.  The play was the first to be performed at the embryo theatre in 1932. From June to September each year touring companies from the UK and the USA put on a season of 17 plays

I have been to the theatre a number of times and have enjoyed it very much.  However, I must confess that the Minack has a number of disadvantages when compared to most conventional theatres.  For one thing, the seats are torture after about half an hour, being just granite covered steps cut into the cliff.  Punters are well-advised to take a nice thick cushion to protect their posteriors.  Secondly, it can get very cold, even in the middle of summer.  Perhaps the most serious drawback is that any production at the Minack has to be very, very good indeed, because they all have a very powerful rival -- the view.  You can visit the theatre in the off-season and see for yourself.

The oddest experience I have had at the Minack was many years ago when we took a young lady of my acquaintance who was celebrating her eighth birthday to a production of an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula.  It was a very good production indeed and great fun, with nice special effects such as bats flying over the heads of the audience on wires.  The trouble was that our guest was thought too young to go to the evening performance, so we saw the play in the bright sunshine of an August afternoon.  That rather spoiled the atmosphere.

The Minack is not the only theatre in the area.  The Acorn, in the centre of Penzance, is also very successful.  The last event I went to there was earlier this summer.  It was a showing of a number of short films from the Cornwall Film Festival.  The one that stands out in my mind was an animation for children in Cornish.  It was called Kunin ha Pryv ("Rabbit and Worm").  It's main aim was to teach kids to count in Cornish.  All together now....onen, daw, try....

Friday 9 November, 2007



Celtic radio

One of the little treats I can enjoy more often now I am in Cornwall permanently is to drive over to the Land's End area and park on a cliff overlooking the sea and tune in to Irish language broadcasts on the car radio.  Unfortunately, one can't receive them on this side of the peninsula.

A few years ago when I was here on holiday I tried to figure out the boundaries of the good reception zone.  I had the radio tuned to the correct band and drove to various spots.  I kept getting a French station instead of the Irish I had been listening to near Land's End. was French, wasn't it?  It certainly had the rhythmic qualities of French and there were nasalised vowels all over the place.  The trouble was I couldn't understand it.  After a while, I realised it was Breton.

It's a shame that there are not more broadcasts in Cornish.  I am sure this would help the language revival.  As far as I can discover, BBC Radio Cornwall has one five-minute news broadcast in Cornish per week and that is about all there is.

Thursday 8 November, 2007



Satellite dish at Goonhilly Downs Earthstation



From Penzance on a clear day one can see the impressive satellite dishes at Goonhilly Down on the Lizard Peninsula across Mount's Bay. The visitor centre here boasts one of the fastest internet cafes in the world.

Goonhilly is not the only site in the area which is, or has been, important for communications.  At Poldhu, close to Goonhilly, Guglielmo Marconi conducted some of his early wireless telegraphy experiments.

On this side of the bay, there is Porthcurno.  This is a small village in the parish of St Levan on the south coast of the Penwith peninsula, not very far from Land's End.  Here in 1870 one of the earliest submarine telegraph cables was landed.  It stretched all the way to India.

Two years later, the Eastern Telegraph Company was formed.  This eventually merged with Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Company.  This company eventually became Cable and Wireless, which operated the cable station until 1970.  In 1950 the company set up an internationally famous engineering college which ran telecommunications training courses for students from all over the world.  The college closed in 1993.  There is now a Telegraph Museum in tunnels built into the cliffs which were created to protect the vital communications operation from attack during the Second World War.

We may be out on a limb down here, but in some ways we are closer to the rest of the world than you upcountry folk.

Wednesday 7 November, 2007

The Brisons





The Brisons

There are many rocky islets around the coast of West Penwith.  The Brisons (/ˈbrɪsnz/, I think) lie a mile off Cape Cornwall near the town of St Just.  The name is supposedly taken from the French brisant, which means "shoal" or "breaker".  The picture was taken during a particularly splendid sunset last winter.  The fact that the name of the islets derives from a French word is perhaps appropriate, because, if you look carefully, their outline looks a lot like Charles de Gaulle lying on his back.

Cape Cornwall is the only cape in England and loses out to Land's End by only a few yards for the distinction of being the most westerly point of the mainland.  From here on a clear day you can see the Isles of Scilly, which lie 28 miles off Land's End.  And please never, ever call them the Scilly Isles, or even the Scillies.  Thank you.

Every July some of the hardy locals sail out to the islets and take part in a swimming race back to Priest's Cove just west of Cape Cornwall.  Rather them than me.

Although they look picturesque, the two islets are part of a large reef which has been responsible for many shipwrecks.

Tuesday 6 November, 2007





Literary associations

After an enthralling visit to St Erth Recycling Facility this morning, I had a picnic lunch at Phillack (/ˈfɪlk/), overlooking St Ives Bay (cheese sandwiches - cheddar, not yarg - in case you're interested), and then took a stroll through the dunes and along the beach towards Godrevy.  The lighthouse there was the inspiration for Virginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse.  The Woolf family used to spend their summers in St Ives, servants, pets and all.  They rented a large house in the town each year.

Further west along the north coast is the village of Zennor* and near the village is the Tower House.  D H Lawrence rented this place and stayed there a short time.  Apparently, he was not welcomed by the locals, so one wonders what he got up to.

A living writer who has a house in the area, on the south coast at a place called Boscawen (/bɒsˈkɔ:n/) Rose, is David Cornwell, better known as John Le Carr.

Anyway, it was a very pleasant afternoon, only slightly spoiled by the fact that the public loos at Phillack were closed for the winter.  This anti-social behaviour on the part of the local council should be....well, I'd better not continue.

I was told a few years ago by a young lady, aged 8, that one her family's cats is called /ˈzenɔ:/.  Oh, I said, /ˈzenə/.  That's a nice name for a cat.  She glared at me and said: No, no! /ˈzenɔ:/.  And who was I to argue?

Monday 5 November, 2007





Forwards in reverse

The title of this blog is a quote from poem by a fellow pupil of mine at school when I was about 16.  I wish I could remember his name and more of the poem than this:

Man makes progress backwards
Forwards in reverse

A propos yesterday's blog, Nigel Greenwood writes:

I presume you've come across the authentic-sounding Llawnroc Inn near St Austell. 
Well, it sounds Welsh rather than Cornish -- but once you read it backwards all becomes clear!

I hadn't come across that before, but another reasonably well-known reversal is the name of the cheese: Cornish Yarg.  Yes, you've guessed it. It isn't an ancient Cornish word, but a reversal of Gray, the maker's name.

Another favourite reversal of mine is the name of a Bloomsbury second-hand bookshop: Skoob.  And of course there is Dylan Thomas's fictitious Welsh village: Llaregub.  He cheated though, because he left out a g.

Goodness! That cheese looks nice.

Sunday 4 November, 2007

Henry Jenner




Cornish reborn?

When you come out of Penzance railway station there is a granite slab inscribed Pensans a 'gas dynnergh (Penzance welcomes you).  Just round the corner from the station is a pub called the Longboat Hotel.  This has a large banner across its front which says Mi a Wra Agas Dynnargh Dhe'n Ostel Skath-Hir  (We welcome you to The Longboat Hotel).

When I first started coming to Cornwall regularly as an adult, there was hardly any evidence (apart from the names of places) that Cornish had ever existed.  Now one sees quite a few signs in Cornish and some towns have revived the Cornish versions of their names, which are displayed alongside the English versions.  This is true of the following (at least):

  • Heyl (Hayle)

  • Lananta (Lelant)

  • Lanust (St Just)

  • Porth Ia (St Ives)

  • Truru (Truro)

So is Cornish going to be reborn as a living language?  Cornish disappeared sometime in the mid to late 18th century.  There are various contenders for the last native speaker of the language and no-one is really sure just how much Cornish these last speakers knew.  What is certain is that by 1901, when the Cornish revival movement was formed, the language had been dead for well over a hundred years.  Perhaps the best known of the revivalists are Henry Jenner, Robert Morton Nance and A S D Smith.  Their movement was called Cowethas Kelto-Kernuak (Celtic Cornish Society).

They had very fragmentary evidence for what the language was like.  There were of course the place names and a few surviving Cornish words for geographical features, such a carn (rocky outcrop) and zawn (a deep cleft in cliffs).  There were antiquarian accounts of the language and sparse literature written in Cornish, ranging from folk tales collected by earlier enthusiasts, to sermons and miracle plays which had survived in written form.

The great problem was to decide what form of Cornish to base the revived language on.  The earliest?  The latest?  The other big decision was how to reconstruct words which were not found in the literature.  More on this another time.

One more illustration of the increase in the use of Cornish:  there used to be, only a couple of years ago, an extremely well executed piece of graffiti on a large rock at the side of the main road high up on Bodmin Moor.  It said Kernow nyns yu Englant (Cornwall isn't England).

Friday 2 November, 2007




My blog on speech errors (31 October) made me think of a couple of of expression.  Both occurred in pubs, but I don't know if that is significant.

The first was a comment from a couple of tables away.  "Oh, she's really poorly with a chest infection.  The doctor has put her on those antibotinics."

The second occurred just as I was leaving the pub (not the same one).  "He can't walk.  His leg is all strapped up.  They say he has damaged one of his tendrils."

Fortunately, I managed to make it through the door just in time.

Thursday 1 November, 2007

Mexico Towans




New World names in West Penwith

On my way back from the centre of Penzance the other day I passed a pub called The Peruvian Arms.  Just a couple of streets away from where I live is Nevada Street.  Across the road which runs through the centre of the village is Jamaica Terrace and a few miles north up the same road is a farm called Dakota. In Long Rock on the edge of Penzance there is a Mexico Inn and part of the sand dunes near the town of Hayle is called Mexico Towans.

So what's going on?  Well, the reason for most of these names is mining.  When the Cornish tin mining industry began to decline, the miners emigrated all over the world to find work.  There is a saying here that at one time if you looked down a hole in the ground anywhere in the world the chances were that you'd find a Cornishman at the bottom of it.

The landscape here is dotted with the fingers of mine engine-house chimneys pointing at the sky.  And when buying a house in this area, it is compulsory to have a mine survey carried out just to make sure that your garden or even bits of your house are not in danger of disappearing down a long-forgotten mineshaft.

The mines have evocative names like: Ding Dong, Wheal Jane (from the Cornish yeyn meaning "cold") and Wheal Owles.

The Jamaica names come from earlier connections with sugar plantations in the Caribbean.