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On April 15 2019, fire raged through a great cathedral in Paris. Giving voice to the mood in France, President Macron said, “Notre Dame is our history, our literature, our collective imagination. Her story is our story, and she is burning.” Reporters covering the conflagration were startled to find Parisians on their knees reciting the rosary. Such public outpourings of faith are unusual in an increasingly secular society, but people were clearly praying for something that was both intensely personal (her story is our story) yet bigger than themselves. The Associated Press had a headline which reflected the media’s confusion: “Tourist mecca Notre Dame also revered as a place of worship.”
You can practically hear Tim Stanley laughing as he typed that. Honestly, what kind of idiot thinks Notre Dame is a gift shop with an 850-year-old church attached? One who is spiritually impoverished, pretty clueless about the past and has never read Philip Larkin’s “Church Going” in which the poet described “a serious house on serious earth [...] In whose blent air all our compulsions meet.” In other words, an average citizen of a puddle-deep Western culture which lurches from crisis to crisis, “terrified that our best days are behind us” but with no idea how to fix it.
Inspired by the sense of loss and dislocation which saw its expression in Brexit and Trump, Stanley, a Catholic convert, begins his book with the Notre Dame conflagration and its fallout. It is a deeply satisfying metaphor. “Modern culture encourages us to examine our ancestors with scepticism, even contempt,” he writes. Every day, more figures from history find themselves chucked into Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”. Yet, Notre Dame stood as proof that the past could do things better than we could, a beautiful, silent rebuke to an angry, statue-smashing cancel culture. With quiet satisfaction, Stanley notes that all the dafter proposals for restoring the cathedral – with a crystal spire, a swimming pool, a giant gold flame nailed to the roof “that looked like the contents of King Midas’s handkerchief”, even, dear God, a zoo – were rejected and the French Senate voted to to rebuild Notre Dame to look exactly as it had before. Nostalgia has got a bad name, the author admits, because it is associated with prejudice and Right-wing fantasy, but it can also nourish “our very human need for roots and belonging”, which are too often disdained by a modern world in thrall to change and aggressive individualism.
When a columnist for The Daily Telegraph (Stanley joined the paper as a leader writer in 2014 after getting a PhD in modern history at Cambridge and lecturing at the University of Sussex and Royal Holloway) writes a book called Whatever Happened to Tradition? you generally wouldn’t go far wrong if you pictured a rheumy-eyed, saloon-bar rant that the country has gone to the bloody dogs. This is not that book.
Stanley, who was a Marxist in his 20s and stood for Parliament in 2005 as a Labour candidate for Sevenoaks (sorely testing his God’s capacity for miracles!), defies easy categorisation. He is as likely to upbraid the Right for the way selfish capitalism scorches through the ties of tradition as he is to excoriate liberalism which, despite being a philosophy of freedom, can be “surprisingly oppressive”, with anyone who deviates from its norms facing social sanction. “Liberalism says, ‘you can think whatever you want to think, within the boundaries of what is reasonable’, which sounds generous, but it is constantly moving and shrinking those boundaries to exclude any serious alternative to a status quo that elites love because it’s what makes them elites.” Spot on, Dr Stanley. I don’t think I’ve read a better description of the suffocating, bien-pensant consensus which cloaks its narrow sushi-class self-interest beneath the banner of “tolerance”.
The book travels widely – from Japan to the Middle East to Aboriginal Australia – to investigate traditions in countries and ethnic groups that often seem happier than our own. There is a haunting, incredibly moving section about the Yazidis whom Stanley met on a trip to northern Iraq in 2019. Persecuted by the barbarians of Islamic State, their women enslaved, the Yazidi people are sustained by an oral tradition, handed down from parent to child, a mystery religion (they don’t eat lettuce and won’t wear blue) and, above all, by music through which they sing about their traditions; when to sow seeds, when to harvest, how to be a Yazidi. Despite their suffering and lack of security, Stanley admits he envies them, perhaps glimpsing a cultural coherence missing from our world devoid of mystery.
Not all traditions are as benign as folk music. Female genital mutilation and slavery were once traditions and Stanley runs the risk of romanticising the concept of customs when so many have rightly fallen out of use or been banned because they are now abhorrent to us. He is aware of that danger, arguing “there is a Darwinian quality to tradition with only the fittest and most attractive surviving”. His belief that tradition is a slender handrail to hold on to in uncertain times is persuasive, although it would make more sense in a country which hadn’t jettisoned the religious faith so central to his own life. Whatever Happened to Tradition? is stuffed with marvellous vignettes. I loved Robert Hawker, vicar of Morwenstow in Cornwall during the 1830s, who invented the Harvest Festival, the annual blessing of agricultural produce, “as a way of persuading the locals, whom he regarded as pagans, to go to church”. The vicar, Stanley reports, pursued a side vocation as a mermaid. “Night after night, Hawker would sit on a rock in the harbour wearing nothing but a seaweed wig and an oilskin wraped around his legs, singing a lament.” Archbishop Welby might like to give it a go.
In truth, there are at least three books packed into this one volume. It’s as if Stanley were told he had one chance to download the entire contents of his teeming brain on to the page. A gentle word, explaining that he had a long career of publication ahead of him, would have made this a less dense read. Nevertheless, the reader is left feeling grateful for the abundance of knowledge and the ebullient conviction with which it is shared.
By the end, I thought I’d finally figured the author out. Tim Stanley is a philosophical pushmi-pullyu, a Christian Conservative Socialist. The writer he most resembles is Roger Scruton, who wrote of his father that he “wanted to safeguard an England which belonged to the people, who in turn belonged to it… Deep down his passion was a religious one, a protest against a world which placed material prosperity before spiritual need, and which ignored the fact that the soul of a man is a local product, rooted in the soil.”
He could have been describing the author of this volume, who admits he would like to make some money from this book “but not too much”. Bless! Since Scruton died last year, there is a vacancy for a political philosopher who will defend the traditions of this nation with all his heart and all his considerable brain. I suspect we may have found his successor.
Somewhere within these covers, there is a great line from Gustav Mahler: “Tradition is not the worship of ashes but the preservation of fire.” In this thoughtful book, Tim Stanley keeps that flame alive.
Whatever Happened to Tradition? is published by Bloomsbury at £20. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop