Ah, those were the days
I was mildly surprised to find myself watching a man and woman jousting in a paddock outside Caboolture, Queensland. I’d assumed the sport had died out, like bear baiting in Europe or, more recently, rugby league in England. But as my sevenyear-old son Ben and I wandered through the Abbey Medieval Festival searching for my partner and our four-year-old daughter, I passed living demonstrations of many other historically marginalised pastimes, including the manufacture of medieval women’s underwear.
We were in Queensland on holiday, and we’d taken the kids to the festival because Ben had started to show an interest in knights and castles, which reminded me of myself when I was a boy, and made me feel both happily proud and nostalgically sad. And I couldn’t reunite my family because Vodafone had leapt into the spirit of the weekend by providing medieval-style mobile-phone coverage – that is, none.
It would normally have been easy to spot my daughter in a crowd, as she was wearing a billowing pink dress and a silver tiara. But in Caboolture there were many children – and more adults – dressed like that. Ben, who was clothed head-to-foot in imitation chainmail, was even less conspicuous. If anything, it was me who stood out in my No Fear shirt, an iPhone pressed uselessly to my ear.
Ben and I saw a battle re-enactment in which men with nonironic beards and flailing swords battered other men with period whiskers and raised shields. When an overpowered knight was stabbed in the torso or bullied to the ground, he rolled around and died like an extra in an epic movie. I suddenly remembered having fun like this when I was a boy, a lost innocence I’ll never find again.
Elsewhere in the paddock was a band dressed as Crusaders, whose leader, Terry Fitzsimons, said some of his members prefer to be Saracens. I had another flash of recollection: I was sitting in an armchair in my grandparents’ house, gazing at pictures of fierce warriors in a Ladybird Book. I can see them now, when I close my ears, the wild-eyed Moors with their flashing scimitars. “Yeah,” said Terry, and laughed. “They don’t look like that. Scimitars are a much later period.” Thanks for destroying my dream, knight-nerd. We caught a joust between “Sir Justin” and “Lady Sasha”. Sir Justin – Justin Holland from Maitland, NSW – told me he had a passion for “history and horses” and he felt the best way to pursue that passion was “to get on horses and hit someone really hard with a big stick”.
In a small enclosure, a crowd of heavily padded boys were making a melee in the knights’ school. Ben was bursting to join in, jumping from side to side, shaking his little wooden shield, but he was too young. Strangely, Vodafone regarded the knights’ school as part of the 21st century, and generously offered telephone coverage. I called my partner, and my young knight was reunited with his sworn nemesis, his sister.
Ben fenced with shadows. Medieval times were still real for him. Justin the Jouster said, “When I was seven, somebody asked me, ‘What’re you going to be when you grow up?’ And I just looked at them like they were stupid and said, ‘A knight. Of course.’ And when they explained to me that there were no more knights, there was no more point to life.”
Today, Justin is an armoured horseman who rides into combat to defend the honour of his coat of arms. So, he says, “I can turn around and say, ‘Well, no, actually. You’re wrong’”.