Who Cares About Tradition?

We don’t need any deep reason to be interested in the past – it is fascinating in its own right – but many people think that we can’t understand the present without knowing how we got here, and that we should not leave the future at the mercy of change for its own sake.

As life changes around us, often for the better, we sometimes still feel that we lose some things of value, just because they seem out of date, and, looking back, we realise that this has been true for a long time. And it is not the grand issues of life which worry us here – they can look after themselves – but the lives of the ordinary people which are often allowed to be forgotten.

If no effort is made to record things which we value, however unimportant or mundane they may seem to outsiders, our successors will not even know what has gone, and the thread of connection between the generations will weaken and may even break completely.

With these ideas in mind, we at Sussex Traditions plan to gather materials on one particular aspect of the past – our traditional heritage – and make connections with the present, for the sake of anyone interested in what it can tell us about life in the county, and what made, and makes, its people who they are.

The concept of continuity is at the heart of the idea of heritage, and our first task is to gather information on aspects of local life which were passed on down the ages, even though some of them failed to make it to the present.

Our ‘customs’ are a case in point. Over the years, many disappeared; some were suppressed by the authorities (many involved generous amounts of alcohol and the lighting of fires), some died out because society changed and they were no longer viable (children rarely play in the street these days), while many faded away because no one was interested at the time.

But some survived, others have been revived, and, indeed, some have been imported or invented. There is no set time for something to become ‘traditional’, but if Sussex people take to it, and it lasts long enough to be passed on from person to person, down through the generations, it certainly qualifies.

Few customs can be shown to be unique to Sussex – there were November the Fifth celebrations everywhere in the country, and lots of people played marbles, but Lewes and Tinsley Green have not only continued traditions which have faded away elsewhere, but have made them uniquely their own. And ‘tradition’ is often regional – the Tipteerers (Mummers) plays of Sussex were similar to those of Hampshire, but quite different to those of Oxfordshire, and very different indeed from what they did in Yorkshire.

Within living memory, many aspects of life have changed beyond recognition, and, it seems, faster than ever before. In the workplace, mechanisation brought huge changes, and many of the skills which had been widespread and vital for centuries, such as working with horses, blacksmithing and shoemaking, became ‘obsolete’ almost overnight.

Home-life changed just as dramatically. People no longer needed to know how to grow their own food or prepare meals when the supermarket did it for them; their entertainment was beamed in from outside, and many traditions in the home faded as young people decided they would rather embrace the new than follow in their parents’ footsteps.

One thing that people often forget about ‘tradition’ is that it is not static – nothing which involves people ever is. Far from being passed on unchanged down the centuries, every person in the chain adds or subtracts or changes something – usually a small detail, but sometimes a major alteration. ‘We used to dance at Whitsun, but the bank holidays changed, so now we come out on May Day’. ‘My grandmother used powdered eggs in this recipe, so I’ve changed it’, and so on. This is how ‘tradition’, which has such strong roots in the past, can be so alive in the present.

The organisers of the Sussex Traditions project are keen to cover all aspects of life in the county, but some things are a lot easier to document that others. It is relatively easy to find information from the public sphere, but a lot harder to find out what was, and is, going on in the privacy of the family and the home. Customs which take place in the streets, and songs which were sung in the pubs, leave historical traces which we can piece together, but what stories parents were telling their children at bedtime, what food they were eating, and the words they were using around the home, are much harder to get at.

Our remit is very wide, and we can’t advance on all fronts at the same time. In many cases other people are already beavering away in their own areas, and we will be pleased to provide links to them and to advertise their work. Some parts of our site will develop before others, and some topics will be explored fully while others are hardly mentioned, but this is a project which will build – like tradition itself .

Steve Roud October 2016