Coales' Notes: Back to the Dark Ages

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The Independent Culture
TUESDAY This afternoon I found Lottie quite blatantly writing one of her newspaper articles in the office. Why Di should think she would be any help to me whatsoever, I can't imagine. She was cool as you please about it: 'You might be interested in this, in fact. It's about T S Eliot.' I said, surely she wasn't raking over the mad wife again. She replied: 'Partly. But also, apparently, out of sexual frustration, he used to poison cats outside Gloucester Road Tube. What about that?'

I said, well, it might be true and it might not, and if it was, there were no doubt many constructions that could be put on it, some of them possibly quite innocent, and then again, especially in sexual matters, one must be careful to judge a man by the standards of his own time, and anyway, the real question about any personal revelation had always to be: how was it relevant to the poems themselves?

She said: 'Well, I think it might be relevant to the ones about cats.'

Then she asked whether I knew anything about 'a medieval carnival' featuring 'stilt- walkers, fire-eaters, morris-men, vegetarian sucking pig and mead-type beverages'. I said it sounded appalling, and she would far better use her writing skills campaigning to get these manifestations removed from the British cultural scene. She said: 'No, you see, I've just had a person on the phone from Norfolk. Apparently we're meant to be organising one for them this weekend.' I immediately rang Edinburgh, but no one was in.

WEDNESDAY I got through to Rory. I told him this 'carnival' had certainly not been on the list Di left me, and I wouldn't mind knowing what I was supposed to do. He paused, and then said conspiratorially: 'Look, given that this has come up, what I think you should try and do is to say to Di that you just can't handle this at all - OK? - and she really must come down to London and do it herself.' I said, I didn't think it need come to that. He replied: 'I just feel it might be a good thing if she got out of Edinburgh for a bit.' I said, was it starting to get to her already. He said, you could put it like that. I promised to do my best, and he called her to the phone.

I told her, I really had no idea what to do about this medieval business, I had no experience at all in this field, and it would be most helpful if she could just pop down and deal with it. She replied: 'Gordon, for God's sake, can't you do anything? A medieval thing takes about two hours, three hours maximum. Have you got a biro?'

Then she dictated to me, from memory, and all with phone numbers:

Jousters from Lance-a-Lot. Jesters from Coxcomb and Co. Acrobats, Jugglers, Bear- baiters etc from Rough and Tumble. All other general medieval supplies from Castles In The Air.

She added that the jesters were the only people one really needed to worry about. It had become a 'Santa Claus' profession, and any desperate actor thought he could do it.

I asked her how it was all going, up there. She said, very cheerfully: 'Really well, since you ask. Really well.' It does sound bad.

THURSDAY The 'carnival' plans are now more or less underway.

I had an interview with a rather intense and earnest man, sent along by Coxcomb and Co. He didn't really look to me like a jester. I said presumably we could rely on him for a hearty line in pigs' bladders, forearm thrusts and a certain amount of capering etc.

He shook his head in a rather superior manner. He said: 'Oh, no. It's been a long time starting, but there is now finally a serious drive towards authenticity among jesters. We're scholars, really. We have to be. You can't go on putting on the cap and bells and then telling jokes about Gazza or something. No. We put on the cap and bells, and we tell jokes about - well, it could be Hereward the Wake, or Sir Bedevere, or maybe one of the Crusades. Because we've been in the British Library, and we've actually done the research.'

I asked, was there much of an audience for this sort of thing.

He replied: 'I would say there was a growing audience, definitely a growing audience.' But he added that - with respect - there were still a lot a preconceptions about medieval humour. 'We're desperately trying to shake off what I call the 'farting monk' stereotype - you know, the whole rollicking, roaring Chaucerian thing. People are just not aware of how sophisticated the medieval sense of humour was. It's not rollicking at all. It's actually rather dry and deadpan and subtle. Very much a humour for the nineties.'

I said, OK, sounded good, and just as a sample, why didn't he tell me one of his jokes.

He seemed to hesitate. 'Right. Now I should just mention that, the thing about these medieval jokes is, with things like timing and so on, we can never really know exactly how they were delivered. You understand that. We have to guess.'

I said sure, understood, carry on.

He went on: 'And also, which is actually quite interesting, it's sometimes a hotly disputed question as to which section of the joke is what we would now call - well, to use a modern category which perhaps doesn't fully apply here - the punchline, so to speak.'

I said fine, just tell me a joke.

He said: 'Right. Well this is a joke from the Languedoc, which we believe was first told in about 1120, though variations seem to have been popular throughout the century - if you like, it's the 12th-century 'lightbulb' joke.' He smiled. 'Of course, I'll have to do it in a medieval voice - which, so far as we can tell, must have sounded something like this.'

It was quite a long joke. I literally couldn't understand a word of it. So far as I could tell, strictly from the intonation, it had a riddle format, and at one point I was clearly expected to express complete bafflement (not difficult). When it was finished, I told him I was probably being very slow, but it wasn't really getting through to me.

He nodded vigorously. 'No, well, that's right - but then, remember the first time you heard an original medieval instrument, like a shawm. It sounded strange, didn't it? But when you got used to it, you could appreciate its beauty. It's the same thing with an original medieval joke. The first time you hear it, it just sounds strange. But, hopefully, when you've heard the same joke over and over again, you'll begin to find it funny.'

I gave him a booking anyway.

Rory rang again. He asked if I could come up to Edinburgh myself. I said, if at all possible, not. He said, well, he thought we'd now lost Di completely. I told him I'd seen it happen before - five days of euphoria, then total collapse. He said: 'Not quite. She's going to join a dance troupe.' Then he suddenly put the receiver down.