Ah, those were the days

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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’”.

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