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  • Writer's pictureMark Howitt

Help! I Think I’m A Nationalist

The last – indeed, the only – time I have visited Cornwall was on a family holiday sometime in the mid-1970s. We got there using the long since discontinued British Rail Motorail service, which transported us, and our car – an Austin 1800 – overnight from Stirling to Newton Abbot. For a fortnight we stayed in a bed and breakfast in Camelford, a town on the northern edge of Bodmin Moor. From there we explored the beautiful (and relatively visitor free) Cornish coastline, and made extensive use of our National Trust family membership cards.

Prior to a week ago, the last time I was at the Lyceum theatre Studio in Grindlay Street, Edinburgh was the autumn of 1982. Then it was the Heriot-Watt University student union, and it was there one Friday that I went to a club night hosted by Radio 1 disc-jockey John Peel. In between spinning the discs (Talking Heads, Joy Division, Scritti Politti, etc.), we got chatting, I offered to buy him a pint even, this politely declined on the grounds of having a weak bladder, in retrospect a very John Peelian thing to say. At the time I was 17, John was 43. I am now 58.

None of this is of itself important, merely to illustrate that if there is one guarantee in life, it is that things change. And simultaneously, very much stay the same.

Seamas Carey is 30. He is a Cornish artist, multi-instrumentalist, comedian, piano tuner and presenter of the podcast series The Reason Why. Evolved from the podcast, his show, Help! I Think I’m A Nationalist explores issues of Cornish identity, second homes, over-tourism, gentrification, lack of infrastructure, endemic poverty, pride, xenophobia, separatism, and - of course - nationalism. Any of this sound familiar to Scottish ears?

It's a complex situation. Although born in Cornwall, Carey admits to both loving and hating it. He himself is unable to afford to live in his hometown, houses are regularly purchased as second homes, left empty for 10 months of the year and affordable housing is a dream for many. None of this has dented his feeling of fierce pride for “the finger of granite, gorse and sand, jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean connected to the arse end of Britain”.

After assuring the audience that they are in a “safe space”, Carey’s character starts as that of a normal bloke teaching us some Cornish phrases and songs. But gradually his demeanour changes to that of an unhinged separatist stripped down to his St Piran’s flag underpants spouting a rapid-fire history of the Cornish Nation before taking pot-shots at, among others, Rick Stein and wild swimmers. Laugh out loud stuff if ever there was, but all the time questioning our assumptions of Cornwall, its relationship with the rest of the UK and nationalism generally.

This is what theatre should be about: music, shouting, laughter, audience participation, educating, provoking, challenging.

Help! is brilliant, that rare show worthy of its five-star rating and meriting a standing ovation at the end of the performance. But this is Edinburgh, we don’t show our emotions, we don’t do standing ovations. The day I was there, at the end of a whirlwind 75 minutes of thoughtful entertainment from Seamus Carey there was only one member of the audience on their feet clapping. That person was the gawky student who 40 years previously had been dancing by himself to the Talking Heads “Once In A Lifetime”. Same as it ever was, same as it ever was …

The Fringe run of the show is now finished, but Carey is returning to Scotland in October to tour Help! visiting Oban, Lochaline, Tobermory, Iona and the An Crùbh community centre on the Isle of Skye. In these small Highland venues, I reckon the impact will be even stronger than it was in genteel Edinburgh. Go and see him, sing, shout, stand, give the man the praise he deserves.

Kernow Bys Vyken!!

Image: Steve Tanner

First published on Bella Caledonia

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