An unconscious change of taste and habit

Before we went away, I had started reading A.L.Rowse’s “A Cornish Childhood”, first published in 1942, a book I bought last month in a second-hand bookshop in Wadebridge. I knew him by reputation and was aware that this is a book every Cornishman should read and I hadn’t yet done so. Now we are back, I have picked it up again.

This morning, I read the following – (he is talking about his grandparents singing):

“I daresay they were the last generation in which the fullness of old Cornish customs and ways were maintained. For all these same songs were sung by my mother’s parents . . . while the next generation, their children, were incapable of singing them. There was an unconscious change of taste and habit going on which let these old things die, so that by the next generation again, mine, they had practically gone and we never heard them.”

These mirror my thoughts about my own grandparents’ and their subsequent generations – there is an unconscious change of taste and habit going on which lets these old things die. There are customs and ways that have flowed through those generations but, at the same time, there are many more that have been lost. This may or may not be a good thing.

I am not thinking of formal ritual and ceremony but the small accumulations of wisdom from which families and communities grow. As a young man, the usual and customary appeared trivial to me and inevitably lost out to the excitement of the new. If I am honest, this continued even as I grew older into the digital era. It is a generalisation to say this but the desire to master new technology and reap the information that it breeds seems of have gained traction over the search for wisdom. When I eventually drew breath and turned to revisit the past, fondly remembering snatches of my youth, I found that there were wide gaps in my memory and few people left to help me fill those gaps. However, the same digital technology that I have enjoyed has given us the means to avoid making the same mistakes. We can now record, review, understand and cherish the more worthy elements of the past. The growth of heritage websites would seem to indicate that I am not alone in thinking this.

Every generation is a source of wisdom. That wisdom will have a greater or lesser importance to successive generations. This is why we should leave a personal record in whatever form is open to us, even if that record sometimes seems shallow, trivial and obvious. Without doubt, there are certain customs and ways that it would be good to lose. But that’s for each generation to judge in the light of their own needs. Digital technology has given us the means. It’s for those who can to pass on what knowledge, skills and attitudes we own and not to judge their value to a future world we will never see.

Thirty years ago, there was a popular saying “It’s not what we say, it’s the music we play”. It still applies. If we stop playing the music, what then?


A Cornish Childhood by A.L.Rowse

The cover illustration on my copy – (published in 1998 by Dillansow Truran), features “Young Anglers at Hayle” by Stanhope Alexander Forbes (1857-1947) which I like very much. Although painted a few years before I was born, it reminds me of my own youth.