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Did Cornish voters for Brexit just kill off their own language?

Brexit may well pose a threat to some of the few aspects of British culture that we can agree are truly indigenous - its ancient languages.

Cornwall’s majority Leave vote in the EU referendum came as one of last year’s biggest ironies. In 2014, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly was classed as the second poorest region in northern Europe, and had become one of the EU’s biggest beneficiaries. The European Regional Development Fund’s and European Social Fund’s Objective One and Convergence plans aimed at equipping the region’s transport, ICT infrastructure and innovation capacities with hundreds of millions of Euros between 2000-2013.

If you take Cornwall’s burgeoning movement for a regional assembly at face value, the Leave vote would seem like a case in point for those who believe that Brexit was less about economics and much more about British identity and culture. The anti-immigration tone of the Leave campaign brought urgent debate to the question of what, exactly, constitutes “Britishness” and British culture. Yet moving away from Europe may well pose a threat to some of the few aspects of British culture that we can agree are truly indigenous - its ancient languages. It is European frameworks that in recent decades have prompted support to minority language survival efforts.

There’s a Cornish saying that goes: “A man who loses his tongue has lost his land.” Cornish and Welsh are living examples of how this has worked, as the original Brittonic languages that gave way to English after the Anglo-Saxons took hold across the British mainland and shaped these islands’ nations and regions as we understand them today. Their survival is intimately connected to local self-determination. While Welsh, Irish and the Scottish Celtic language Gaelic have gained substantial recognition and usage along with devolved governance, the revival of Cornish has been a harder battle.

A Cornish language revival movement has brought the number of fluent speakers from practically zero at the beginning of the 20th century, to around 500 today. Yet the protection of the language in recent years has been driven more by European initiatives than by British government. Campaigners now fear that Brexit, ironically enough, will close off lifelines to the language’s survival.

In 2001, the United Kingdom ratified the Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which includes recognition and protections for Cornish, Manx Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Scots, Ulster-Scots, and Irish. The Council of Europe is not an EU body, and we will remain an eligible member for as long as we are signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights (EHCR). But Theresa May has long wanted Britain to abandon this, and Brexit is providing the political conditions to question it. In February this year, a cohort of 53 human rights lawyers and experts led by rights organisation 89up were alarmed enough to write an open letter to the Observer asking ministers to ensure that acceding the ECHR remain a condition of Brexit negotiations.

Britain’s membership of the EU paved the groundwork for the recognitions and funding that British minority languages receive today. Quintessentially bureaucratic as it sounds, it was the European classification of Cornwall as a distinct region - rather than merely being part of the collectively richer South-West England - that allowed the EU’s Objective 1 and Convergence funding to flow that way. This in turn strengthened a bid to the European Social Fund (ESF) to set up MAGA Kernow, the Cornish Language Office, which sets out a strategy for the development of the language for the coming years, through initiatives such as classes, broadcasting, and place names. In 2010, ESF funds matched UK government funding of £120,000 towards the protection of the language.

It took until 2014 for the UK government to officially recognise Cornish people and their language as a distinct entity, and it is yet to put in place legislation similar to the Welsh Language Act. Soon after the Brexit vote, the Autumn 2016 budget abruptly ended its funding commitment to the Cornish language. In response to a petition garnering over 10,000 signatures, the Department for Communities and Local Government stated that they have “always been clear that its funding … was time-limited,” and that Cornwall Council should reallocate funds from its budget. Loveday Jenkin, councillor for Mebyon Kernow, the Cornish Nationalist Party and longtime language campaigner, disputes this. She claims that Cornwall Council had been assured of continued funding, but then government “took that out at the last minute.”

Independent councillor Julian German says, “We were asked to re-apply for the renewal of the funds, and were informally assured that the funding would come through the DCLG. But when the budget came out, the funds weren’t there.” In March 2017, the Council of Europe urged the government to reconsider the decision, and recommended establishing BBC support for the language.

Membership of the EU affords several opportunities to support minority languages, whether as part of regional development funds or as direct cultural bids. In 2015, Creative Europe funded Hinterland/Y Gwyll for the second time, a bilingual Welsh/English TV series distributed in 30 countries and Netflix. Further opportunities for support to the languages come from the new Erasmus+ youth and culture fund, as well as Truro’s submission this year for 2023 European City of Culture, on behalf of the region of Cornwall. British cities are eligible to apply until 2019; as a non-EU country after this, we’re unlikely to be marked as a priority.

The biggest fear from campaigners is that, despite rising nationalist sentiment country-wide, multiculturalism is viewed only in terms of foreignness. “Are we interested in multiculturalism and linguistic diversity?” asks independent councillor German. “Or are we looking to a future of a monoglot country?” There’s an argument that Brexit brings a contemporary opportunity to retrieve and redefine a lost understanding of Britishness. If so, this needn’t necessarily even be regressive or overly traditionalist. But despite these claims, without the prompting and support of common European frameworks, there’s little evidence that British cultural diversity will flourish in Brexit Britain.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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