Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Why I Am A Traditionalist (IV)

As I was coming into work this morning, I passed a group of people in Edwardian dress, who were being filmed by a camera crew. For today, June sixteenth, is Bloomsday-- the day on which James Joyce set his novel Ulysses.

I tried to read Ulysses once, but I only got about a hundred pages in. I thought it was boring and pretentious. I think Joyce, though undoubtedly talented, was pretty much a fraud-- even if he believed in his own fraud. And the Joyce industry gives me the shivers.

All the same, I am such a traditionalist that I rejoice (no pun intended) in the institution of Bloomsday. When we began the Irish Chesterton Society, I had the idea of a similar 'Chesterton Day' for G.K. Chesterton. I soon dismissed the idea, however. Should every author have his 'Day'? That would take away from the specialness of Bloomsday, which came about somewhat spontaneously. (You can see some footage of the first Bloomsday here. An account is also given in Anthony Cronin's intriguing book Dead as Doornails, which I have read twice.) If Chesterton admirers want to have some Chesterton-related tradition (other than the various Chesterton conferences, I mean) we should come up with an original idea, and one based on Chesterton's own life, works or character.

I remember, in my teens, looking out at the cityscape of Dublin from a hill in Ballymun, and thinking: "Wow. Today is Bloomsday. Today is Bloomsday. The one day in the year that is Bloomsday. Today. " I felt a kind of amazement at the fact. I thought the bricks of the city themselves must somehow be aware of the fact.

In part four of this continuing post, I want to get a bit more personal and write about my own experience of tradition.

I wrote this recently on my Facebook page, partly as a kind of oblique reflection on the Irish same-sex marriage referendum result:

When I was a kid, I went to a Halloween party that made a big impression on me. I was blown away by how special and Halloweeny everything was. The taste of fruit in my mouth, the crackle of fireworks in the air, kids in costume, the freshness of the Autumn air, horror films on television...Halloween was a special time, different from any others.

And it's always seemed to me a symbol of specialness, tradition and difference. Halloween was Halloween, not Christmas. Christmas was Christmas, not Halloween. Ireland was Ireland, not England or Japan or South Africa. Men were men, not women. Children were children, not adults. Poetry was poetry, not prose. This made the world rich and interesting.

Then I grew up and was distressed that the whole modern world seemed intent on blurring differences, diminishing specialness, and calling this diversity and open-mindedness and cosmopolitanism. It certainly didn't seem like diversity to me. It seemed the opposite! And if it was open-mindedness and cosmopolitanism, well, so much the worst for those things. I preferred specialness. They said specialness was exclusionary. Well, yes. Santa wasn't welcome on Halloween. Banshees weren't welcome at Christmas. So what?

I can't help being like this. I could more easily change my eye colour or fingerprints. And it doesn't matter how many people disagree with me, or what names I might be called. I'm on the side of specialness, always, until my heart stops beating.

I can't remember how old I was when I attended this Halloween party. I do know that by the time I was thirteen I was already mythologising it, as one of the oldest self-written documents in my possession is an account of it. I remember that I wrote it in first year of secondary school. It could have happened the year before or it could have happened years before that. I don't remember.

The actual details of the memory are dim, though it the general impression is vivid. It was in my aunt's flat, and various cousins were present. I am sure I was dressed up, but I don't remember as what. I remember hearing the term 'Catherine wheel' and being fascinated (and pleased) that there were different kinds of firework.I remember nuts and fruits. I think I remember Halloween games, like trying to pick up an apple in a bowl of water with your mouth; but I'm not sure. I remember Halloween movies on the television, though I don't remember what they are. I remember one older boy saying that his favourite part of Halloween was the later part of the night, when all the bonfires had burnt to embers and only a few fireworks were being set off.

Did my fascination with tradition predate this party, or was it born there? I think it must have predated it. Otherwise, why did the experience have such an effect on me?

I can't pass this memory without mentioning other Halloween memories. One is a rather second-hand memory; a girlfriend texted me one Halloween to tell me she was telling ghost stories with some of her friends. I'd been present at ghost story-telling sessions before, but never a Halloween ghost story session. I still wish I'd been there.

Another Halloween memory is the only year I helped with the local bonfire. The suburb where I grew up, Ballymun, was densely populated and, being mostly high-rise, contained a lot of green spaces. This was an ideal scenario for bonfire-building, as you can imagine. In my memory, Ballymun bonfires were towering affairs. I always suspect such things are enlarged in my memory, but I'm not so sure in this case. We lived on the seventh (and top) floor of one of the flats (apartment complexes), and I distinctly remember that the sparks from the bonfire reached eye level, as we looked at it from our window.

Most of the time I was just a spectator, being incredibly shy as a child; but in my teens I made some friends amongst local kids, and helped build the bonfire. We were stockpiling wood months before the eventual construction. It took hours to make.

Of course, it was all illegal, and probably rightly so. I'd heard that the fire brigade went around extinguishing these bonfires, but I never saw it myself. And I saw them burn for hours at a time.

There were patches of scorched earth in the middle of many a field in Ballymun, where the bonfire had been held year after year. I always found something very evocative in these; the ghosts of Halloween past seemed to hover over them.

As I survey my childhood in search of traditions, something occurs to me (rather astonishingly) for the first time ever; we didn't really have family traditions. The Halloween party was an extended family event. On Christmas Day, as well, all my cousins and aunts and uncles would visit the my grandfather, the patriarch of the family (in the same apartment in which the Halloween parties were held).

But in my own nuclear family, I can't really think of any traditions in the sense of Halloween parties or the like. There were many blessings to my background and upbringing-- a house full of books, lively conversation and debate, encouragement to express ourselves artistically and imaginatively, having poetry recited to me from my earliest age-- but tradition was one that was missing. My mother took myself and my brothers to our aunt's farm in Limerick every summer, we had burgers and chip and baked beans for dinner every Saturday, and I bought my comics every Thursday, but other than that I can't really think of any distinctive family traditions.

Of course, we had Christmas traditions, like every family-- though not many of those. But I want to devote a post of its own to the subject of Christmas and tradition.

Myself and my younger brother had some self-made traditions, though they never really got off the ground. One was 'Dairy's Fair'. This was the name we gave to a 'fair', in our home, in which we resold sweets and chocolates for an extortionate price. I remember we would cut Mars bars into quarters and sell each one for twenty-five pence. Adults were indulgent enough to buy them. This wasn't actually done for the sake of the money; even the money part wasn't for the sake of the money, if that makes any sense. It was the fascination of having a 'fair' in miniature. I suspect Dairy's Fair only happened twice.

My brother and myself also had a running game of cricket each summer with some twins who lived beside my aunt's farm. Their names were James and Gerard; James was thin and Gerard was fat. Come to think of it, I think this was also a twice-off tradition. The first time it happened spontaneously, with plastic baseball bats. The second time we had been looking forward to it for the whole year and acquired special cricket equipment in advance. We even made a little trophy to resemble The Ashes. (It wasn't me and my brother against James and Gerard; I forget what the teams were.)

I do remember the second time around was a big disappointment. But isn't that the great besetting ill of all tradition? Indeed, having been rhapsodising about tradition for many years, I've quite often encountered the complaint that tradition is just one big nuisance of expense, stress, tension, expectation, and disappointment-- more trouble and let-down than it's worth. (C.S. Lewis's essay 'What Christmas Means to Me' is a magnificently curmudgeonly instance of this-- although, to be fair, Lewis is complaining about the 'commercial racket' of Christmas rather than merrymaking per se.)

I acknowledge the reality of this phenomenon, but I think it's excessive to turn against tradition because of it. Do we turn against romance because of broken hearts? Hopefully, only for a week or so. Once again, 'abuse does not disprove use'.

Besides, I think the phenomenon works both ways. Sometimes traditions, rather than being hyped up for weeks and months and ultimately letting us down, take us by surprise. This is especially the joy of communal and cultural traditions.

A humorous example of this is this snatch of dialogue from The American President, a film that, in my marriage, is something of a tradition in itself. This exchange occurs during a White House Christmas party, when one of the President's staff interrupts another two who are talking shop:

Robin: Fellas, we haven’t slept in three years. Can’t we forget work for one night and take this moment to enjoy each other as friends? It’s Christmas.
Lewis: It’s Christmas?
Kodak: Yeah, you didn’t get the memo?

Myself and my two brothers also had a tradition of watching horror films while sitting together on the couch, underneath a blanket. When a too-scary scene seemed imminent, we would hide under the blanket.

Much more recently-- about four or five years ago-- I decided to invent a tradition of my own, purely for the sake of inventing a tradition. This is one of the most eccentric things I have ever done, though I have to admit it was self-consciously eccentric. I roped in four of my friends and staged the first Sliggen's Day. The name comes from Mr. Sliggen's Hour, an obscure one-act play by the Irish writer Lord Dunsany (died 1957). I took it at random from the library shelves. We went to the Library Bar in the International Hotel (also the birthplace of the Irish Chesterton Society) read Mr. Sliggen's Hour out loud, and drank red lemonade-- a fizzy drink distinctive to Ireland. (Second item down on this list.) Then we just had a chat.

There was only ever one Sliggen's Day. I tried to arrange a second one, but it was a disaster. After a couple of people told me they couldn't make it, I decided to call it off-- but I forgot to tell one of my friends. She turned up anyway and she was furious at me. (A few days later she admitted she'd overreacted.)

I'll probably try to revive Sliggen's Day in the future. Maybe. Who knows?

If you think I don't have a whole lot more to say about tradition, you are deluded. There's still the subject of Christmas-- and the American traditions I've experienced-- and wider applications of the term 'tradition'-- and more!

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