Talk about tradition…

How do you like your tradition? Essentially perfect small town joy or ridiculous and complicated ceremonial fiction?

I was watching this terrific 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 authenticity 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 (watch the video – it’s insane) for nine hundred years (it might only be five or six hundred years, nobody really knows) and they see no good reason to stop now.

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 phoney, that it sucks all the air out of the very idea of tradition, leaving us with the desperate nonsense of King Charles and his stupid pen holder.

There’s an enormous national effort going into the production of tradition for the 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 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 first true state coronation – with all the parades and public ceremonies – 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.

British life, like that of any nation, is a pattern of tradition and novelty; eternal and brand new; polished and shonky. The rituals of our monarchy, though, are a suffocating simulation that make a joke of the whole idea of tradition. Royalty has turned Britain into a tradition factory, a manufacturer of low-grade historical fiction, a fake state.

  • The video is a half-hour doc from a football channel called Copa 90. It’s beautifully made and a really good example of the kind of high-quality content that never makes it to your telly.
  • The key text in our recent understanding of British royalty as elaborate invention is David Cannadine’s The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the ‘Invention of Tradition’, which is the anchor essay in this excellent book.
  • The crazy mediaeval football thing is surprisingly widespread and might actually be the origin of proper football.