According to L.P.Hartley's famous quote: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” But, if the past is history, what is tradition? Are they one and the same – or two separate entities? A visit to Rochester's Sweeps' Festival got T. Thurai thinking.

Tradition: fact or fiction?

Some years ago, I attended a series of workshops run by a specialist in popular history whose work included the examination of English folklore traditions. I was astounded when he told me that many of the traditions that we regard as having been unchanged for hundreds of years, often have their origins in the recent past.

His words came back to me when I attended the May Day celebrations at Rochester’s Sweeps' Festival. For three days, the streets were filled with teams of whirling dancers and the sound of accordions, fiddles, clashing sticks, clogs and jingling bells. There were Morris men with blackened faces, rag coats and top hats trimmed with pheasant feathers; Morris women resembling witches (flowing hair, sunglasses, black skirts and Doc Martins) and others whose garb had a distinctly Tyrolean flavour.

But, to my mind, the most representative of British culture on this wettest of week-ends was the troupe of female dancers who wore matching transparent macs over their brightly covered clothes. There are various Morris teams whose costume and dance vary according to their ‘tradition’, such as Cotswold, Border, North West or Molly dancing. However, I am convinced that what the various Morris styles need for real authenticity is the addition of a permanent Pack-a-Mac team.

Heresy? Not really.While elements of mumming, guising and “morysk” dances can be traced back to the mid-15th century, Morris dancing - as we know it - is a relatively recent phenomenon. Having captured the imagination of a number of English folklorists who set about recording remnants of various village traditions, Morris dancing was revived in the early 20th century. The oldest association of ‘sides’ – The Morris Ring – dates back to 1934. However, it was the 1960s that witnessed the renaissance of Morris dancing with many new teams being formed, including mixed and women’s sides.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Rochester’s Sweeps’ Festival – in its current form – only dates back to 1981 when it was revived by local businessman Gordon Newton. While sweeps’ festivals are said to have originated some 400 years ago, like many other folk festivals, the Rochester festival is an essentially modern celebration. But is it any less valid for that?

The answer lies in the relationship between tradition and history. As a historian, I tend to think of the past in scientific terms. What are the facts? Can they be proved? What is the evidence?

As a commentary on the past, tradition can often be misleading. It is a clue to aspiration, rather than fact. It says more about how people wish to view themselves in the present, than what they did in the past. Unlike history, tradition is an invention which can sometimes lead to an alarming distortion of the truth.

An extreme example is Italy’s ultra right-wing party, the Lega Nord (Northern League), whose supporters, on occasion, dress up as medieval knights to underline their claims to racial purity. Similarly, the Nazis invented a tradition of Aryanism and folklore which was both fallacious and cynical. (The word ‘Aryan’ is derived from Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Hindu religion, while the swastika – also Hindu in origin - is a good luck sign thousands of years old).

When researching 1950s Ceylon as the background to my novel, I was astounded at how certain politicians – with an ethnic axe to grind – quoted the country’s mythology as established fact and, therefore, justification of their own claims to racial superiority.

What typifies the British spirit is not Morris dancing itself, but the way in which it has been handled. It is a testament to British rationality that Morris dancing represents entertainment; its only serious connotation being with real ale rather than ‘realpolitik’.

Tradition is a useful measure of a country’s sanity. If it is sufficiently daft to provide material for numerous comedy sketches (think The Two Ronnies), it reveals a nation capable of laughing at itself. You need freedom to do that.

So, do I support Rochester’s Sweeps’ Festival?

Absolutely.

Will I return?

Definitely.

All power to clogs, bells, Jack-in-the-Green and all things traditional – because no-one takes them seriously.

 For more information on T. Thurai’s novel “The Devil Dancers” click here

 To find out what’s on in Rochester and Medway, click here