Michael Tate writes about the autobiography and remarkable life of the late Howard Curnow.
It was in April 2020, soon after the start of the first Covid lockdown, that I was contacted on social media by Harry Glasson.
‘Have you received an email from Howard Curnow’, he asked.
My reply, I’m afraid, was ‘No. Who’s Howard Curnow?’
Well, over the next twelve months, I found out! As I read through his life story and listened to more of his tales in the all-too-few meetings that the pandemic restrictions would allow us, I came to acknowledge Howard as one of the most remarkable men, let alone Cornishmen, that I had ever met.
He had done and achieved more than most people would in a hundred lifetimes. And he wanted to leave a record, primarily for his family and their descendants.
Howard Curnow, the third of seven children born to a Cornish farmer in St Hilary Churchtown, near Marazion, was to develop, from a very early age, an unflagging determination to preserve and champion the Kernow cause.
By the time he left us, in June 2021, he had earned many accolades, including that of ‘‘Cornwall’s Finest Ambassador to the World’.
His story takes readers on a journey from his birth in 1936, through his childhood on the farm during and after the war, his education, and his career, all of which contributed to this lifelong passion for his homeland.
So, what did he do? Well, where do you start?
Perhaps with the tribute already mentioned, ‘Cornwall’s Finest Ambassador to the World’, which was paid by a fellow, bard, an American, in recognition of his efforts, particularly during the nineties and noughties, to establish, revive and connect Cornish associations and societies throughout the world, in the USA, Canada, Australia, Cuba and elsewhere. He crossed the Atlantic countless times during this period, making new friends, meeting old ones, and bringing them news and greetings from the homeland, while encouraging them to cherish and celebrate their Cornish identity. He also launched a magazine for the Cornish diaspora, which was published for many years until the internet took over.
But that’s just part of the story.
Here in Cornwall, for instance, among his most spectacular achievements were:
masterminding, in 1993, a celebration of St Piran by almost a thousand schoolchildren on the Perranporth towans, an event that became the forerunner of the St Piran’s Day festivals that now take place all over Cornwall;
planning and leading a march to London in 1997 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of An Gof’s Protest March;
taking a group of Cornish students, aged 10 to 18, to the 2009 ‘COP ’15’ Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, which generated a good luck email from Ban Ki Moon, secretary general of the United Nations, and where the overseas TV news gave them the accolade of putting on “the best little show in town.”
Long before any of this, however, Howard had already been invited to become a Bard, taking the Bardic name ‘Kernow’ at the Gorsedh Marazion in September 1990. The ceremony took place on the very weekend that he hosted what he called the ‘Grand Curnow Homecoming’, an event which saw some 350 Curnows from all over the world turn up at the family farm in St Hilary, and which sparked his determination to spend the next 20 years attempting to reunite Cornishmen all around the world.
What else? Well, he:
served 41 years as Hal-an-Tow Crier at Helston’s Flora Day;
served 12 years as Chairman of Cornwall Wildlife Trust
spent 20 years running hundreds of Cornish tours for ‘overseas Cornish’ visitors
persuaded Lys Kernow (County Hall) to fly the Cornish flag outside its offices in Truro
as a Helston schoolteacher, planned and led the UK’s first ‘work experience’ outings
played hockey for his ‘country’ (Kernow)
built his own house on the family’s farmland in St Hilary
The stories behind these accomplishments I learned initially from handwritten notes that Howard sent me before we were able to meet and before he managed successfully to download computerised drafts on to a memory stick.
His first attempt to send me something by post sparked an amusing story.
‘What’s your address, Mike’, he asked.
I gave my house and road, finishing with ‘Par, PL…’
‘Stop there’, he cried.
‘I’ve never written a PL postcode yet and I’m not starting now’, he roared, before going on to tell me about the battle he and others had had with the Post Office to resist, in vain, the imposition of a Plymouth postcode on the Cornish.
The package duly arrived addressed to ‘Mike Tate, Hillside House, Biscovey Road, Par, KERNOW’ – (in caps).
Towards the end of 2020, Howard’s health began to deteriorate. He had beaten cancer once, but it had returned with a vengeance. Communication became increasingly difficult, but he was determined to press on and, by the time he entered a Penzance nursing home, in spring 2021, we knew he was happy with the text as it stood – and he had himself already designed the cover.
Very sadly, Howard passed away in June 2021, before Kernow ow Bro/Cornwall my Country could be published (incidentally, the title was inspired by Harry’s song, ‘Cornwall my Home’. Howard loved it.
Howard’s lovely wife Elizabeth, with the help of her good friend, and experienced marketing executive, Dee Reeves, was nonetheless determined to press on with the book and, in September last year, she hosted its launch party at Mounts Bay Sailing Club, one of Howard’s early haunts.
We were honoured by the attendance of Colonel Edward Bolitho, Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, Pol Hodge, the new Grand Bard, and Nick Tregenza and Carolyn Cadman, President and Chief Executive respectively of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, as well as, of course, Harry Glasson. As Elizabeth said, Howard would have been so proud.
With a foreword by national radio broadcaster Petroc Trelawney, (who acknowledges the important part that Howard, as his mentor at Helston School, played in his own career), Howard’s life story is living history, not just the tale of one man’s extraordinary life, but a fascinating window on to Cornish society, its traditions and character. Dare I say in this company that Howard has done as much as anyone to revive interest in Kernow, not just among the Cornish in Cornwall, but among its descendants worldwide, and its many visitors.
We heard a month ago that Kernow ow Bro had won the Memoir Award at the Holyer an Gof Publishers annual ceremony. Presenting the award, Kim Cooper, Principal Librarian at the Cornish Archives and Studies Service, Kresen Kernow, described it as “a detailed account of the author’s life, his passion for his homeland, his life experiences and world travel cementing contact between the Cornish diaspora and his native Cornwall”. The award was presented to Elizabeth, who commented: “Howard would have been so proud to be honoured in this way by his fellow Bards.”
From a personal point of view, I can only say how proud I am, too, to have known Howard, and how sorry I am that I wasn’t able to spend more time with him. He was a very special man, a very special Cornish man.
Kernow ow Bro/Cornwall my Country is published by the Estate of Howard Curnow and copies are available for just £15 from The Cornish Store, Falmouth. Or from Mike Tate, who can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 07730 683324 .