“Living traditions”

Some little time ago, when I was sitting in a small tavern not far from the river, the door of the place swung open behind me, and there came striding in one of the Kings of the Saxon Heptarchy.  He was a big, blonde, handsome man, with something of that sleepy swagger which has in all ages been the innocent affectation of the German blood.  His tunic was belted and clasped with big barbaric jewels; he had a clumsy, iron-hilted sword; he was cross-gartered up to the knee. And, by a custom which royalty has since, most unfortunately, abandoned, he wore his crown on his head, even when he went into a public-house.

This potentate sat down opposite me, and ordered a pot of beer, for beer is probably one of the few things that are still found surviving out of the Heptarchy.  I fell into respectful conversation with him, and he told me that he was the King of Wessex, and mentioned his very ugly name.  I tried to remember the facts about that prince, but found them a little foggy in my mind.  I said to him delicately: “Excuse my asking so personal a question, but, with the exception of your military reputation, I am disgracefully ill-informed about the rest of your career.  Let me see now — pray forgive my curiosity — but were you ever baptised?”  The question seemed in some mysterious way to offend him.  He said that he had been baptised, like other people; but it was (I understood him to say) “a long while ago,” and “he did not remember the ceremony.”  I said of course it was a long while ago, as it must have been somewhere in the ninth century; but I thought that, even amid the numerous social functions of the King of Wessex, he might remember the moment when, if ever, he embraced Christianity.  By this time he had emptied his pewter pot and I reverently requested permission to have it refilled, a course of action which alone, I believe, averted a serious misunderstanding between that noble barbarian and myself.  He explained, somewhat gloomily, that he didn’t care much about centuries, but that they were rehearsing for the pageant and had got him to be King of Wessex.  Then circumstances began to arrange themselves in my mind, and by the time that a little more beer had disappeared on both sides of the table, I fell into a comparatively friendly conversation with him, for he was hearty and sensible and companionable and a man, in short, much more like a fighting Saxon King than any of the pompous versions of King Alfred in most statues and poems and plays.

And I came away from the conversation with the feeling that these pageants of which the English grow so fond are open to a certain criticism; that they have a defect which prevents them from being the really national things they might otherwise be.  Of this defect my friend the King of Wessex was a large and magnificent example.  A local pageant ought to be a festival of real local patriotism, which is one of the finest things in the world.  It ought to be concerned with the real pride of real people in their town.  Therefore, it ought never to consist of mere dead history; but, as far as possible, of living traditions. Legends should be honoured, if the legends are really current; lies should be honoured, if the lies are really told.  Old wives’ tales should be represented, if the old wives really tell them.  But mere historical coincidences of place and person, the mere fact that such-and-such a man did stand for a moment in such-and-such a spot — these we do not require in a popular pageant.  Suppose they have a pageant in Pimlico — I hope they will.  Then let Pimlico lift up in its pride anything that it is really proud of, if it be only the parish pump or the public-house sign.  Let Pimlico parade whatever Pimlico delights to honour, whether it is its best donkey, its blackest chimney-sweep, or even its member of Parliament.  That is all dignified and reasonable.  But it is not reasonable to send somebody to read up dry history until he discovers that William Wallace stopped three minutes at Pimlico on his way to execution, or that on the spot now occupied by the Pimlico Police-court Caractacus made a speech to the blue and bellowing Britons.  There is no patriotism in the thought that some alien and uninteresting person stood on the soil of Pimlico before Pimlico existed.  The parish has no living legend of the thing.  Whatever be the cause of that faint poetic melancholy that does seem to hover over Pimlico, it cannot be referred to any regrets at the fate of William Wallace.  However blue the modern Britons may look and feel in that district, it has no connection with the blueness of ancient Britons.  There is no true Pimlico sentiment in celebrating names which can be discovered in the British Museum Library, but cannot be discovered in Pimlico.  If Pimlico has any real memories, I care not of what, of prizefighters or dandies, or gentlemen deservedly hanged, let her celebrate those traditions.  If she has none, let her celebrate what is happening to her now, that at least she may have some traditions in the future.

Illustrated London News, 8 August 1908.

Published in: on August 13, 2008 at 6:00 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. “A local pageant ought to be a festival of real local patriotism, which is one of the finest things in the world. It ought to be concerned with the real pride of real people in their town. Therefore, it ought never to consist of mere dead history; but, as far as possible, of living traditions.”

    What lambent speech, full of truth! A parallel may be made with his recommendation to journalists: “not facts first, truth first.” Dead facts or “historical coincidences” do not matter, but the living relationship of ideas and events to living people does. There is then continuity and life, passion and mirth; in effect, that which is most human.


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