I’ve been trying to avoid anecdotes about my own life but a conversation about Berkely Castle today reminded me of a very strange occasion:
It was about four years ago when I and the post-graduate society of the University I work in had organised a trip to ‘Joust,’ a kind of medieval entertainment event held at Berkely Castle. For those unfamiliar with the Castle it is absolutely stunning and completely in one piece. The grounds are huge, much of them very well tended (and thankfully no topiary in sight) with standing pools of water on the stepped slopes leading up to the building itself. The inside of the castle and its history is fascinating, but not relevant to the tale I wish to tell.
The day began by gathering together in the university car park, many of the Post Graduate Society were in Medieval style outfits they had hired or borrowed from friends and the day was blazing hot. One of the Post Graduates (who I shall call ‘Ben’ because he may not wish to be reminded of this incident) had gone, with a few others, to a costumiers in Bath to try to find something to wear. This costumiers was free to people working in film or television and from what I understand those of us who went there implied that they were in that industry. It contained a large number of costumes from television shows of the past several years, the upshot of this harmless swindling was absolutely ridiculous; ‘Ben’ had obtained an outfit from a fondly remembered children’s television show from the 1990s. If you’re reading this from the UK you might remember ‘Maid Marion and her Merry Men’? That’s right, he was wearing the outfit of the Sheriff of Nottingham from that show. For those unfamiliar with the program it’s a fetching sky-blue tunic with embroidered Teddy Bears around the edges. It looks Medieval, but utterly ridiculous, and Ben decided that was what he wanted to wear. Remember Ben, he becomes important a short while later.
Driving to Berkely Castle took a little over an hour in the burning heat, and around ten people squashed into a minibus in thick medieval clothing really didn’t help with the stifling warmth. I tend to get into a miserable mood in that sort of heat and, I’m ashamed to say, that day was no different. By the time we arrived everyone stank of sweat and I was in a bitter, foul mood, for no good reason at all.
Stepping into the grounds of Berkely Castle was not like stepping back in time, nor was it supposed to be. The point of the event was to show medieval life in all its squalid glory and to be entertaining. The place stank, mostly of sweat, and the vast majority of people had not dressed for the occasion. I have to say at this point that neither had I. The day’s entertainment was pretty good; some fairly lacklustre jousting, falconry, archery, the ‘Medieval Baebes’ (a number of attractive young women who sing music appropriate to the medieval period), and a battle reenactment (where the participants in armour had to stop every now and then to swig water from plastic bottles, it broke the illusion a bit but to be honest I couldn’t hold it against them). The day was fuelled by plentiful mead liberally flung about the place, for those of you who have never tried mead allow me to add this brief description: it tastes very sweet and delicious, slides down the throat like still lemonade and leaves one apocalyptically drunk before one notices one is even tipsy.
We were there for hours and were due to stay until a little into the night. The Society had decided to shell out a little extra money to take part in a banquet of authentic medieval food in the evening and as the day wore on and the mead flowed freely the disposition of the Post Graduate society grew closer to a gang of drunks than a collection of intellectuals. As the sun beat down and we retreated into the building itself we noticed something strange; a large plastic chamber shaped like the number four in the middle of one of the lawns. It was the logo of the television station E4 and had a number of people around it tryingto goad attendees inside. At first I wished to pass by, but two ladies I was with decided that we three should enter and see what all the fuss was about. I caved in.
The inside was quite forbidding to be honest, a small bench had just enough space for the ladies to sit down and I knelt behind them, facing a television camera. I had not particularly wished to enter the booth in the first place and when I realised that an interview was about to commence I bitterly regretted not standing my ground, it was far too late now. A number of innocuous questions were flung at us in fairly rapid succession, all three of us more than slightly tipsy and being a little more frank with our answers than we should have been. I spoke once (to answer the question ‘What could you not live without’ with the answer ‘Absinthe… lots of Absinthe’) and left with a sigh of relief. Ben was outside, he had discovered mead in the same way Osama Bin Laden discovered Islam; aggressively and piously, yet still getting it very wrong. Ben swayed, and stumbled his way into the E4 interview booth as we made our way out. If I had been in a better mood or just a little more sober I would probably have stopped him and spared him the coming horror, but I was neither sober nor happy.
The evening dimmed and the banquet commenced; servants setting the tables and handing us chunks of meat, two ‘lords’ joining us for the meal, a story teller telling tales and the Medieval Baebes (again). By the end of the evening I was in a much better mood, I was very drunk, I was thoroughly entertained and I was in beautiful surroundings with good friends and free-flowing booze. I had a head full of the memory of the days events; the majesty of knights in full armour on horseback, the exhileration of watching a falcon return from the skies to the hand of its trainer, the sweet taste of mead. It had been a good day and homeward we went.
It was weeks later that the interviews E4 had recorded aired. They were segments played between programs when the gap was just a little too long for an advert break. There I told the nation that I liked Absinthe, to be honest it could have been far worse. Then Ben came on.
Picture him; his eyes are unfocused, he sways gently on the chair, his eyes drift downwards. He is wearing a sky blue tunic with teddy bears embroidered onto it. The interviewer asks the question ‘What could you not live without?’. His eyes swivel up as he focuses for the first time on the camera lens. A moment of thoughtand the beginning of a sentence; ‘myyyyyyyy…..’ a pause, then his head snaps up, a smile of triumph on his face as his thoughts have marshalled themselves into coherence, looking into the eye of the camera he says ‘cock!’
I’m so sorry Ben, I really should have stopped you.