The madness of tradition

Friday, 4 March 2016

The word ‘traditional’ has positive connotations for a lot of people. Applied to food, beer, pubs, architecture, English hamlets, village greens and annual festivals, it’s tourist-friendly fodder, the kind of stuff that stops us thinking about nasty things like conflict in the Middle East, social inequality and the prospect of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister.

And then there’s traditional music, the distilled whimsical genius of the international human community.

But apply ‘traditional’ to concepts like society, morality and rivalry, and suddenly you’ve abandoned the fiddles, thatched cottages and Sunday cricket for repression, feudalism, bigotry, homophobia, misogyny, and war.

In The Rebels’ Riot Feast – whose chances of publication, right now, seem as slim as my two young heroes’ chances of liberating the sacrificial animal and ending the ancient bull baiting carnival – the argument of “But it’s a tradition!” is used as a defence for the continuation of a popular blood sport. And yet, as I wrote the first draft of the book, the ‘evil’ of this particular tradition – English bull running – faded and became something much more complicated. It seems to me now that there was more innocence than evil involved. The pressure of history and the lack of an articulated, realistic alternative feeds the status quo.

The upholders of traditions such as bull baiting, fox hunting, blasting migrating birds out of the sky on Mediterranean islands, and a hundred other blood sports, have been encouraged all their lives to follow the ‘old’ path. As have the upholders/victims of all traditional society, morality and rivalry. They are victims of a traditional values and expectations, intellectual children, unable to resist the approving eye of their forefathers – fucked up (to paraphrase Philip Larkin) by their mums and dads.

I started out, when writing this novel, thinking in terms of a ‘brick wall of tradition’. But it’s not made of brick at all – it’s something far less easy to knock down. More like a river or sea of tradition. Swimming against tides and currents is what my characters are trying to do. Turning away from approval to address something far less certain and cosy. Something far less traditional.

None of which leads neatly into a plea for more pledges. But your generous donations will certainly help me buy a new soapbox.

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