Learn the lessons of history: mind your head

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THE LAST time I went to Chilham was in 1984. I went there to joust. There's a castle at Chilham, which may have been turned into a "conference centre" by now, complete with nellie little executives in dapper leisurewear, bonding and hooting and drivelling out their grim pointless mission statements. There's one outside St Thomas's hospital. It says: "Serving the community 24 hours a day." (As opposed to what, exactly? Who is that supposed to help? The staff, just in case they had forgotten? "Morning, Derek." "Morning, Steve. Another hard day at the old ... what is it we do, exactly?" "Dunno, Derek. Seems to have slipped my ... oh, hang on. 'Serving the community, 24 hours a day.' That's it, Derek." "Course it is, Steve.")

But even if Chilham Castle has been turned into a place serving the needs - sorry, the ever-changing needs - of such fools, there are still ghosts there, mine among them, who know what to do. Run 'em through with a jousting lance, is what. Stave in their skulls with a spiked-ball-on-a-chain job whose name I have forgotten, due to being struck on the head with one. While jousting. At Chilham.

It was for a radio series called Jeremy Beadle's Nightcap. Went out on Radio 2 in the middle of the night, before Jeremy Beadle became Jeremy Beadle; I was Our Man Bywater, and what a nice time I had. I went to a ladies' bottom show, drove a steam engine, flew a Boeing 737 straight into the ground at Manchester Airport (simulated), played real live Dungeons and Dragons (got my chest caved in by an evil Orc within 30 seconds), and, best of all, jousted.

The jousting was run by an affable sod called Max Diamond, who had been a distinguished stunt-man and, having broken every bone in his body, had retired to a life of jousting in order to break them all again. Mr Diamond was the embodiment of helpfulness. He showed me my horse, gave me a 16ft jousting lance, laced me into my nugatory armour, helped me aboard, and then everything went blurred. I remember galloping down the lists in front of a cheery audience of paying customers (it was a sunny bank holiday) then, while I was trying to commentate into my lapel microphone - bet you didn't know armour had lapels - suddenly another chap on a bigger horse thwacked me in the short ribs with his lance and down I went. This was repeated several times, followed by a break and a beaker of delicious foaming Solpadeine. Then I had to ride at a sort of board, hit it with my lance, and then take evasive action before the board swung round and thwacked me in the back of the head with a spiked-ball-on-a-chain thing. Which it did. Several times. Each time, it went WHOP and I went "What the hell was that?" and now I can't remember its name any more.

But I did remember the thing itself, very clearly, when I found myself at Chilham again the other day, stalled on a filthy train in the station there, a grim halt on a grey cold afternoon, peering through the window at a draggled parade of wind-whipped, blue-nosed, limping grumpy tossers, out for a Sunday post-lunch walk.

Along the muddy path by the banks of the oily pewter river they plodded, heads down, stumbling over roots and rubbish, hating it and hating each other. And who can blame them, for what can be nastier than a Sunday afternoon walk on a vindictive March day, with tea and gloom waiting back at home? It's curiously British, and what I wonder is how we got from jousting to this in so few centuries. It's as though the blood and life have gone out of things, and I was still wondering how, and where it went, on my way home that evening when the Ramblers got on the train.

The Ramblers were the ones who caused all that trouble a few weeks ago, by demanding some sort of primordial, mediaeval Right to Ramble and upsetting the country people, who promptly came to London and caused havoc by wandering about the place, shouting, their honest, red, knobby, bewildered faces swivelling back and forth like corms as they gazed at Gehenna. Mr Blair should have told the Ramblers not to be so silly and to give up Rambling at once, but here they were, on the train, pink and shining in their mail- order rambling shoes and scary blue cagoules. They glowed with virtue, and held hands in comfy coupledom; chapped little hands nestled in chapped big ones, pink cheeks nuzzled against ginger beards, anorak rustled and squeaked against anorak, cheese sandwiches were produced and "munched".

They were clean-living, harmless, innocent people, undoubtedly dressed in rational underwear and perspiration-wicking socks, and I couldn't help wondering what their sex lives were like. The few I have actually met have all been slightly courtly and arch, with a lot of Unhand me sirrahs, and giggling, and Now I shall swive thee fair maid, and those horrid parties where there's mead and someone puts a record on, and then it's off to the insurance office on Monday morning, leaving a faint smell of cheese, cats and Toilet Duck in the warm, modern house.

I couldn't work out why it all upset me so much, and then it struck me. They were the harmless ones, the ones who let it all happen. They so much want everything to be nice and safe that they never notice the dangers, and so the dangers triumphed. They believe in enjoying the countryside, when the truth is that the countryside is horrible, wet and nasty and full of violence and copulation. They believe in being decent and simple and nice, and so provide fodder for Conference Man, who tramples all over them with his inane slogans. And worst of all is their arch, simple-life, pseudo-medievalism. The Middle Ages were never about jolly meanderings on a Sunday afternoon, or a wholesome contrast to the rigours of the last days of the 20th century. In fact, the central defining experience of life, I can testify, was the same then as it is now: being struck sharply on the back of the head by something so malevolent that you can't remember what it's called, and I wish the Ramblers would wise up. Land rights, mission statements, spiked-ball-on-the-end-of-a-chain, it's all the same thing: Life goes WHOP! and you go "What the hell was that?" !