Convention vs Tradition

I’m all for tradition. I work in one of the most traditional establishments to be found anywhere in the world: the English Public School. There’s a palpable sense of history about the place, the old classrooms and boarding houses hang heavy with the triumphs and tragedies of former pupils, and the Sunday chapel services give the impression that things have remained unchanged for centuries (especially some of the sermons). I’ve never really enjoyed ‘church’, but I do enjoy ‘chapel’; it’s a focal point of the week, a time for reflection, community and a chance to lash out ‘I vow to thee’: stirring stuff. Our country is rich in tradition of all kinds, and it’s an awareness of that tradition that makes us who we are, that gives us an identity and something to cling to in changing times. Being British is tied in with a bit of jingoism, a little pomp and circumstance, a feeling of pride in one’s country, heritage and history and this country would be a sadder place if we were to disown it completely. I realise that one can’t live in the past, one cannot reject all the benefits that the modern age brings but we need to retain a balance between the trappings of the past and the excitement of the future.

I draw a clear line between ‘tradition’ and ‘convention’. Tradition is something to inspire, but convention is often something that serves only to constrain.

I went to a meeting at School the other day that lasted only about 15 minutes; a quick catch-up in late morning. It was clearly felt that coffee was essential; clearly no-one could go 15 minutes without a caffeine pep. This was doubly bizarre as the only coffee on offer was instant, which gave about as much of a pep as a cup of tepid water, which was exactly what it tasted like. We spent most of the meeting arranging china cups on china saucers, serving coffees, discussing ‘milk in first or second?’ etc, and concentrated little on the actual focus of the conversation. Convention dictates that meetings have coffee served, or at least coffee breaks, but why? Was anyone likely to fall asleep in those 15 minutes without the hit from a nasty cup of Kenco? Why didn’t anyone bring a couple of 2 litre bottles of coke, or some iced water, or a jug of Pimm’s? Does coffee really make a meeting seem all the more serious, like we’re about to pull an all-nighter? Maybe we could take it one step further, and main-line some Red Bull just to show how committed we are to staying awake and focussed? I quite fancied a can of Dr Pepper during that meeting, but I suspect it would have seemed as though I wasn’t taking the conversation seriously enough. Nodding sagely over a china cup of hot liquid: serious Ben. Slurping a can of unidentifiable e-numbers: not serious enough Ben.

I can ratchet up this idea of ‘contstraint by convention’ by what happened that very evening after the coffee meeting debacle. We were hosting an important set of colleagues from other Schools, which required a business meeting before dinner in the evening. Wine was served at the business meeting, which of course made it feel much more grown-up than would have been the case otherwise. Everyone wore suits, and everyone’s partners wore the equivalent. Every chap had side-parted hair (assuming hair was present) and everyone wore polished shoes. We moved into dinner, where we were served with more wine, before enjoying a pre-starter bread roll. We then had 3 courses (2 savoury) and finished with some cheese and port, before more coffee. I’m sure that this all sounds pretty standard, but why should it? Would someone unfamiliar with the convention of dinner parties find this more normal than the following:

We all enjoyed a business meeting wearing what we chose to. Some people wore very smart attire, and some people wore less smart attire. Some people showed a little more of a sense of style than others. We drank some water, which is always sensible at a meeting where people are going to be talking a lot. We then went into dinner, and were not served with a bread roll. (Who on earth eats a bread roll just before dinner any other time than in a restaurant? Is it really necessary to prepare yourself for 3 or 4 courses by getting a few carbs down before you start? It’s almost like a training session: you’re going to be doing some eating for the next 2 hours, so you’d better get some practice in first.). We then ate a meal involving a few components. It was of sufficient imagination that all of the tastebuds were satisfied; we didn’t need to separate out the tastes into different courses. We didn’t eat cheese, because it was late. We didn’t have coffee, because it was late. We still drank plenty, because that loosens up the conversation.

Very little of what happened that night made any more sense than if you’d changed every part to the exact opposite. We do it that way because everyone does it that way.

Perhaps as ever I’m reading a little too much into this. Perhaps I should just go with it, bearing in mind that all of the above was generously put on for my benefit, and I really am very grateful. I do believe however that it’s not good to pigeon-hole ourselves, to feel as though we are merely children of our times, and that if we were around in a different time or geographical location, we’d be acting in a completely different way and finding that totally normal too. Enough rambling, I’m off to enjoy my breakfast of patatas bravas and lucozade. Yum.