- The Invention of Tradition edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger
Cambridge, 320 pp, £17.50, March 1983, ISBN 0 521 24645 8
One of Arnold Toynbee’s Laws was that, in any civilisation, mannered imitation of the past was a Bad Thing: he chose the Poles’ decision to reconstruct the Old City of Warsaw after 1945 as an instance, and would have much preferred to see them raze the ruins and build a ‘city of towers’ on modernistic lines. In a similar way, Victor Hugo remarked of the post-Napoleonic Bourbons that ‘nothing is more decrepit than at the moment of its restoration.’ The editors of this volume might agree with such sentiments. Their book contains knowledgeable and entertaining contributions. Hugh Trevor-Roper discusses the origins of Scottish kitsch; David Cannadine the (not at all remote) origins of British royal ritual; other contributions concern British rule in India and Welsh cultural identity (treated more respectfully than Trevor-Roper treats poor old Scotland). Eric Hobsbawm both introduces and concludes the book with essays of great penetration and learning on ‘the invention of tradition’ as a kind of phenomenology of the bourgeois mind.
David Cannadine’s essay on the British Monarchy is a most enjoyable romp, with a hard core of common sense. In the early 19th century, no Duke of Norfolk existed to make sure that everyone performed their ritual to his satisfaction; no Richard Dimbleby existed to ‘sell’ the royal performances to the public. This would not have been an easy task, for the performers missed their cues, arrived drunk, took the wrong places and, in some cases, giggled throughout the ceremony – George IV’s coronation being all the more preposterous for the hammering of his ex-wife-to-be at the gates. In those days, there was much anti-royal sentiment, and what appeared to be tradition was richly scoffed at: an English cartoon of the French Restoration contained the legend, ‘Son of Saint Louis, Ascend to Heaven. You do no good upon this Earth.’ As the century proceeded, and often despite Queen Victoria’s own wishes, the monarchy’s servants or managers chose to step the business up. The monarchy became much more public; an early version of the Hollywood British State emerged, with more than a touch of Busby Berkeley. Is it accidental that British monarchs’ taste in artistic matters nose-dived?
Still, in England there was at least a thread connecting the monarchy’s ritualistic practices in Regency days with the earlier traditions of Divine Right times, in which rituals and pageants had a religious significance. For England was, and is, the last of the anciens régimes: so far as central institutions were concerned, and much else, the Enlightenment never happened, partly because there was a cut-price version a century before, and partly because it was being practised locally, in the Industrial Revolution North, or Scotland, or the colonies, where the money was made. No one in England carried out the standard practices of Enlightenment or French Revolution. Horses were not stabled in churches and in university colleges; bizarrely-named officials were not replaced; law books were not hurled into the Thames, and the Common Law in all of its Medieval glory went on and on (I think ours is the only country where you can ‘gazump’). Whatever would it all have been like if Richard Cobb’s fantasy, the département de la Haute Tamise, had ever come about? No doubt the pastiche-monarchy would, on its restoration, have been even more keen on inventing traditions for itself than was the case. Certainly, it changed: but it was symptomatic of England that George III, went off his head, whereas Louis XVI had his cut off.
Enlightenment did happen in Scotland. Even in the early 18th century, the citizens of Glasgow regarded the traditional garb of the city’s officials as ludicrous, and in need of severe rationalisation; in Scotland – unlike England – there was a formal law to abolish serfdom; town-planners, codifiers of law, abolishers of torture, drainers of marshes and what-not, all came to the fore. There was a most peculiar backlash, which Trevor-Roper has had a wonderful time in describing: by the later 18th century, a Romantic version of the Scottish past was in full flood, and resulted in the dressing of canny Edinburgh lawyers and granite-faced Aberdeen accountants in a mass-produced 19th-century version of the primitive clothing which had flourished among the wild and feared ancestors of the Highlanders – whose wholesale removal, in the Clearances, no doubt did much to supply the money for it all.
Original Highland dress was Gaelic-Irish in origin: i.e. a blanket with a hole in it. Tartan seems to have been Flemish in origin, just as Scottish country dancing (and the music) owed much to France. If Trevor-Roper is to be believed – and I think he is rather too Lowlandly antiseptic – the kilt, or short skirt, came about when an English Quaker merchant, dealing with the MacDonells of Glengarry, saw a good profit in exchanging their timber for his cheaply-produced and rather more rational version of the Highland outfit. By 1740, Highland regiments – e.g. the Black Watch – had received this as a uniform; two generations later, after a Scott-inspired revival, the tartan was systematised. Cluny Macpherson bought his one off a Lowland peg, where it had been marked ‘No 55’. A little later, George IV, at Edinburgh, held a fancy-dress ceremony for his Highland feudatories, most of whom, by then, were well-launched on the road south. How much one sympathises with the subsequent effort of Thomas Chalmers and the Disruption to adhere to a concept of Scottishness that respected honest content, not bogus form.
But events in Scotland could almost serve as a parable for what was to come elsewhere. As Eric Hobsbawm well appreciates, new nations and nouvelles couches sociales equally sought fake trappings. His lengthy essay on ‘Mass-Producing Traditions: Europe 1870-1914’ (which rounds off the book) is an excellent description of this strange phenomenon: Bismarck-as-Teutonic-Knight; newfangled posh schools with Latin songs; the hongroiserie of the Budapest millenary exhibition; the French Republic’s Marianne, with one breast exposed in radical town-halls, and no breast exposed in modéré ones; historical stamps (the first of which was Portuguese, to commemorate Henry the Navigator in 1894); the European empires all putting up huge buildings of a mock-historic kind – thus obeying another of Toynbee’s Laws, that such edifices usually mean impending collapse. This whole rich and intriguing book leads, in the end, to two melancholy reflections. The self-conscious opponents of mock-traditionalism – the ‘modernists’ of post-1900, with all their hygiene and ultra-rationalism – cannot, now, claim the easy triumph which they once foresaw; and History, as a university subject, really stems from the world of Pastiche.