Sunday, January 14, 2007
... I haven't posted anything in ages. The 140 people who dropped by last week must have been so disappointed.
Here: apropos of nothing, have a report on the sealed knot's re-enactment of the Battle of Naseby which I wrote for The Big Issue in August 1999.
OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are running slightly behind schedule,” comes the announcement over the PA, “because the artillery have gone for a cup of tea. But we should have a display of cannon any minute.”
I’m standing in a wet field in Derbyshire, which, for the purposes of this afternoon, is playing the part of a wet field in Lincolnshire 354 years ago. I’m talking to Ian, a marketing sales manager from Nottingham, who is under the delusion that he is a captain in King Charles I’s Lifeguards, about to lead his troops into battle. Dressed from head to toe in burgundy velvet, his leather boots are topped with a rather natty pair of lace doilies. And he is smoking Marlboro Lights.
“I think we are very complacent about our history in this country,” he muses, as behind him a bearded peasant strikes up a mournful dirge on a set of 17th-century bagpipes. “We put on displays in Italy and France, and particularly in the States they’re like ‘phwoar, mega, this is great’ sort of thing.” He gazes out across the field, where as we speak a group of would-be Roundheads are demonstrating the best defensive posture to adopt if you’re attacked by a posse of Royalist horsemen (a useful skill in any day and age). Forming themselves into a circle punctuated by vicious-looking pikes, they look from this distance like a particularly colourful hedgehog. “That’s the one thing that isn’t authentic on our battlefield,” Ian remarks. “The heads of our weapons. They would have been steel, but that seems a bit dangerous nowadays, so we use wood.”
It’s a relief to discover that the battle re-enactment society Sealed Knot stops short of actually killing people. But you do get the impression that some of the 2,500 people who gave up their weekend to fight the battle of Naseby twice – once on Saturday, and then again the following afternoon – might not mind living and dying by the wooden sword.
“They do take it extremely seriously,” Ian tells me. “Some of the Roman societies actually speak Italian.” Hooking his thumbs in the belt of his doublet, he checks for any passing centurions, and heads off to join the fray, donning his replica sword and hat. “If you need me, I’ll have my mobile on in the caravan all afternoon.”
So what makes grown adults spend their weekends in fancy dress playing Cowboys and Indians on such a grand scale? And why, with the whole of our island’s rich and varied history, do they pick on the 22 years when, in the absence of foreigners to bash, we decided to hack bits out of each other before going back to having a king? “It’s just on the cusp between mediaeval and modern, which piques my interest,” says Russell, a Parliamentarian foot soldier. Then he thinks for a bit. “And I like shooting the gun.” For his girlfriend Stella, the motivation is even more basic. “The dressing up is fun.” When I spoke to them, they weren’t yet in costume. Russell was wearing vast wellingtons and shorts topped with a raincoat, and poring over the selection of toy soldiers available on one of the on-site stalls. “The war-gaming seems to go hand in hand with it,” he tells me. “We’re just big toy soldiers, really.” Russell is 37.
He is, however, one of the less deranged members. In the ‘living history’ encampment I find several people who adamantly refuse to come out of the 17th century. “Prithee, sirrah, hast heard the news of Nostradamus?” demands one copiously-bearded man of another, despite the fact that there are no visitors in earshot. Attempts to interview this lot quickly descend into a frustrating effort to try and make them answer anything sensibly, and not accuse you of witchcraft for owning a tape recorder. I agree with Edgar, a Sealed Knot member of 23 years’ standing: “I think with the language, either you can do it well, of you can’t, and you shouldn’t, because it sounds stupid.”
Edgar has a far more sensible approach to the Sealed Knot. “I started because of my daughter. She was doing history at school, and I came along with her because, well, you wouldn’t want a 16-year-old girl on her own here, would you?” Is she still involved? “That’s her doing the lace making, and my wife is the one on the spinning wheel.” So will you be taking part in the battle today? “I can’t, because I’ve just moved house and I had to hand my shotgun licence in to the police.”
Every member of the Sealed Knot who handles firearms is registered with the relevant authorities. That’s despite their somewhat unusual ammunition. “Originally, the musket balls were made of lead, so if they hit you, they spread. So if that hit the bone, it would near enough tear your arm off. But now we generally use toilet paper.”
Surveying the field post-battle, the corpses of the Royalist dead are indeed dotted with hundreds of smouldering wads of tissue. That’s not to mention the smoking clods of grass that are propelled from the vast and incredibly noisy cannons. It probably explains why the bulk of the fighting is on an A-Team level – over 1,000 shots are fired in the course of the afternoon, but strangely, almost all of them seem to miss. The occasional dramatist who decides to die a spectacular death generally realises he’s peaked too early and pops up again 10 seconds later for another go.
That’s until the closing stages of the battle, when both Parliamentarians and Royalsts start falling like flies. A helpful running commentary throughout, punctuated by on-the-spot interviews, provides a helpful guide to what is going on. Or at least, to what ought to be going on. “The script doesn’t say they’re meant to go that way!” yells a distraught Cavalier at one point. Have they ever had a battle go totally pear-shaped and the wrong side win, I ask one of the organisers? “Oh, stacks of times,” he nods grimly.
It doesn’t distract from the spectacle in the slightest. Until you have seen 2,500 people in fancy dress hitting each other with curtain rails, you can’t quite imagine how impressive it is. Like a giant, 3D Where’s Wally picture, there’s a dizzying range of activity. Preachers wander the boundaries, haranguing the “heathen” crowd, spectacularly bloody surgeons dress the wounds of the injured, and one poor bloke is court-martialled and executed by firing squad for picking the pockets of corpses. And that’s only the bit of the battle that was going on near us. Half a mile away from the spectators there’s just as much going on. You can’t help feeling that the audience are incidental to the whole thing.
But four-year-old Josh from Derby is wildly enthusiastic. “There’s a baddie! They killed a baddie!” he shrieks as another one of the King’s men goes down. But it isn’t authentic enough for him. “That one’s moving!” he squawks, firing the cap gun his dad bought for him in the twitching corpse’s general direction.
He’s not the only little boy here enjoying his gun. The 1999 battle of Naseby has far more artillery than there was in 1645, despite being only a fraction of the size of the real one. So most people join for the desire to learn about our heritage? Yeah, right. Things do sometimes get carried away. Our musketman, Edgar, used to wield a pike for the King. “Then I got my ribs bent in a pike push when 30 people ended up on top of me, and my daughter said that was enough.” It’s hardly surprising that one of the first clauses on the membership form (along with “permission for press interviews must be obtained from the Inner Council through the Muster Master General”) states that the society takes no responsibility for injuries received on the field.
As the Royalists are routed and the King flees from the field, we get the Sealed Knot’s equivalent of Jerry Springer’s Final Thought. “We all know that Civil War is a terrible thing,” says the voice on the tannoy. “There are Civil Wars going on in the world even now, terrible and bloody conflicts. Please now join us in a moment’s silence for the victims of these, and our own Civil War so long ago.” It’s the least convincing part of the day. The silence which falls across Naseby is broken only by the popping of the cap guns that were sold to the crowd earlier. I find myself wondering where the unwritten cut-off point comes. Why is a reconstruction of Regnia versus Cromwell fun, when an am-dram version of Kosovo or Rwanda would be in monstrously bad taste? Why is Jack the Ripper the subject of theme parks and ghost walks, when Fred and Rosemary West are the subject of national horror? Why have these people just spend their weekend belting each other with wooden pikes if they’re going to turn round and try to take the moral high ground once it’s all over?
Or maybe I’m missing the point. Perhaps events like these bring us full circle and force us to learn from our history. After all, as John, a spectator from Leicester, so profoundly remarks, “it’s an escape from 20th-century pressures.” He gazes across the battlefield, where smoke still drifts across the corpses as they stand up and dust themselves down. “Whether you’re a Royalist or a Parliamentarian, it brings you together as one.”