How do you like your tradition?

Essentially perfect small town joy or ridiculous and contrived ceremonial fiction?

I was watching this ace video about the shrovetide madness that takes over in several small English towns in February each year and just gurgling with joy at the completeness, the perfect, hermetic correctness of the whole thing. It’s a kind of unarguable tradition. So rooted in the life of these communities. It just is.

The loons in Ashbourne and half a dozen other communities have been crashing around en masse with a huge, leather ball (this year’s Atherstone game was a particularly wild one) for eight hundred years (it might be six hundred, or nine hundred – nobody seems to know) and they see no good reason to stop.

And the obvious contrast that jumped out at me was with the other tradition that we’re all supposed to be engaged with right now – the coronation of a new monarch – a tradition so overblown, so pretentious, so deliberate, that it sucks all the air out of the very idea of tradition, leaving us with the pathetic tradition failure of King Charles and his pen holder, in which a flunkey is berated for not knowing the exact detail of a ritual that was probably brand new.

Part of the Coronation Claims submission form provided by the UK Government for the 2023 coronation of King Charles III - the full text of the form is at the URL linked from the image
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There’s an enormous national effort going into the production of authentic-looking tradition for this coronation. The government has set up a scheme, for instance, that permits people to fill in a form and claim ‘a historic or ceremonial role’ in the event. The Coronation Claims Office “…will ensure we fulfil The King’s wish that the ceremony is rooted in tradition and pageantry but also embraces the future.” Basically, people with plausible stories will get an invitation to put on some kind of costume and attend the coronation. And in this way tradition is made.

We know that most of the traditions of the contemporary monarchy were invented in the late 19th Century – either from whole cloth or based on rituals forgotten since the middle ages – in response to the institution’s last really big crisis of esteem. Some of the traditions are even newer. The big revival of royal tradition began with Victoria’s spectacular diamond jubilee celebration in 1897 and the first true state coronation – with all the parades and public showbiz – was Edward VII’s in 1901. Before that they’d essentially been private events, not really for the hoi poloi. Permitting subjects to cheer from the side of the road was a breakthrough for royal engagement with the populace. It is well known that the new king hates all this.

British life, like that of any modern nation, is a pattern of tradition and novelty; eternal and brand new; authentic and pretend. The rituals of our monarchy, though, are a suffocating simulation that makes a joke of the whole idea of tradition. The institution’s desperate effort to retain legitimacy in a changing world has turned Britain into a tradition factory, a manufacturer of low-grade historical fiction, a fake state.

  • The video is a lovely half-hour doc from a football channel called Copa 90 that’s won loads of prizes.
  • The key text in our recent understanding of British royalty as elaborate invention is David Cannadine’s essay in this excellent book.
  • Everybody knows the royal traditions were invented but the question is, do you care?
  • This article by Simon Heffer from the New Statesman is about the crisis produced by Victoria’s withdrawal from public life that triggered the monarchy’s massive renewed investment in tradition (paywall).
  • The crazy mediaeval football thing is surprisingly widespread and might be the origin of actual football.

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