Saturday, 2 May 2009
As someone with a semi-professional interest in English folk customs, I have an unhealthy tendency to idealise them. I love Morris dancing (see the picture on the side of the page!) and mummers' plays, and folk song, and the seasonal traditions which mark spring and harvest and winter. Now you know and I know that a lot of those traditions have been recovered and to an extent reinvented in the past few centuries, and hardly any of them are as genuinely antique as we would like to think (or as some sites on the internet would lead you to believe!). It's easy to want them to be not only old but pure, unsullied by artfulness or self-awareness; so it's helpful sometimes to be reminded that every tradition is only ever enacted by human beings, and if it's done with too much reverence, or without a sense of humour, the tradition is liable to become artificial and false. The custom of hundreds of people gathering on Magdalen Bridge at dawn on the first day of May to listen to madrigals and welcome in the spring is a beautiful - and truly ancient - tradition. I'm grateful to be reminded every year, nonetheless, that lots of people there are drunk and noisy, that the sound system is never quite perfect, and that getting up at 4 in the morning ruins you for the rest of the day! Those imperfections are part of the tradition too.