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9 July 2023

The right don’t own tradition, but they can keep Morris dancing

How do we connect with the past when this impulse is often exploited by the worst people imaginable?

By Hannah Rose Woods

I’m very attached to my almanac. There is something inexplicably reassuring about its annual mish-mash of moon cycles and tide tables, folk festivals, wildlife facts, gardening tips and zodiac. I like very much that no one has troubled themselves to explain why these categories might add up to a coherent world-view – these things have simply always been the stuff of almanacs. As a reader you take what feels interesting or useful.

It does something for me, this populating of the calendar with seasonal rhythms and borrowed traditions. July’s entry is a mix of Wimbledon finals, Sea Sunday, St Swithin’s Day and Cancer Season. Meadowsweet flowers are growing in clouds in damp meadows for anyone in the mood to forage a cordial. At the end of the month, in the night sky the Delta Aquariids shower will produce up to 20 meteors an hour, but the full moonlight will hide all but the brightest trails.

July, the almanac tells me, occupies an odd place in the ritual year. Almost every month is lent an atmosphere by the traditions and celebrations attached to it in the past, but July’s historic meaning is discerned by the absence of merrymaking. Britain’s traditional festivities tended to fall in the breathing spaces of the agricultural calendar, and July was one of the most labour-intensive bursts of all: haymaking time. Which causes my almanac to do something extraordinary, and tell me that I should “relish that difference” – this one moment in the year when my own easeful summer diverges so enormously from what it would have meant in the past. “Your ancestors would be proud,” I am told, “to see how far you have come, sipping a glass of cold wine and laughing in the sun.”

I am not sure this is true at all. But it is a useful reminder that the traditions I gravitate towards have very little to do with the past itself, and much more to do with how I would like to enjoy the present.

It is something I think about a lot, as a historian of Britain writing at a time when those in my profession seem to be regarded by the political right as trashers of the national past determined to tarnish the country’s self-image in the present. We could be mired forever in a debate about how we should feel about the past, or relate to history on an emotional level, but sometimes I just want to say: I am also capable of being an old-fashioned weirdo! I too enjoy watching cricket matches on village greens and can be moved to tears by Ralph Vaughan Williams!

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Not that it’s just Britain. When I see a picture of a nice historic building on Twitter I often discover that it has been retweeted onto my timeline from some kind of fascist-adjacent reactionary account with a classical statue for a profile pic. They have a grievance against modernity for crushing the human spirit, but seemingly no sense of contradiction with their fandom of Elon Musk. The concept of standing in an orchard with a wicker basket and a floaty vintage dress has been co-opted by cottagecore-loving “tradwives” whose hashtags are the titles of white supremacist manuals.

How do we navigate the need we all have to feel personally connected to the past – even as we know that these pasts we reach for are ludicrously idealised – when this impulse is also used as a vehicle by the worst people imaginable? I think it is at least slightly comforting to know that there is nothing particularly new about this dilemma – the weaponising of tradition has its own long tradition. No one has a political monopoly on the past.

[See also: Britain’s race delusion]

That said, there is one English folk tradition I absolutely cannot get behind: Morris dancing. I’ve just endured the annual weekend when they descend on my town in a veritable Summerisle of folk horror, all dancing sticks and leg bells and men covered in crow feathers.

I’ve inherited this view from my mother, who has never got over the terror, as a small child, of being wassailed by Morris dancers and unwantedly bonked on the head with an inflated pig’s bladder. But it seems they follow her everywhere. She once came to visit me when I was a student, only to find that Cambridge was hosting, that very day, a national convention of several thousand Morris dancers. No sooner had we escaped to the one Morris-free pub we could find in the city than a Morris man came in wearing a horse’s skeleton.

I keep up the hatred for her, really. It’s a family tradition.

[See also: Why Britain isn’t as broken as you think]

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This article appears in the 12 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Tabloid Nation