Saturday, February 03, 2007

Fourth Quest: Lammas


It was becoming a saga, a tale of true epic proportions. CJ was still looking for King Arthur. This was going to be his last effort. He was heading for Avebury once more on the morning of the 3 August, 1996. That's close to Lammas, for all you students of the pagan calendar, the pagan Harvest festival. He picked up a couple of hitchhikers on the way, on an obscure road in Kent. They'd slept in a field, having arrived from Germany the night before. They were on their way to the West Country. One was a hippie musician called Clive. The other was his German girlfriend. Her name was Birghit. They were very much in love. They kept stroking each other and looking into each other's eyes. But Birghit could make head nor tail of CJ's accent. He said, 'D'ya fancy a cuppa?' and she looked at him as if he'd just made an immoral suggestion.

They arrived in Avebury at 1.00pm, about half an hour after the ceremony was due to start, but Clive wanted a pint and so did CJ. They had a pint of Fruggles each. They chose it for the name. It was Clive's first English pint in over a year and you can't get a much more English sounding pint than 'Fruggles'. Clive drank his down in with liquid ease, making appreciative gurgling noises as he did so. CJ said, 'Well, we've not got much else going for us. The worst licensing laws in the Universe. And the most corrupt and dishonest government. But we still make the best beer.' Clive didn't answer. He was too busy making gurgling noises.

They went over to the stones. There was a hand-fasting ceremony taking place. A hand-fasting is a pagan marriage. It lasts for a year and a day. So much more civilised – not to say, realistic – than a lifetime. You re-confirm it every year. Or not, as the case may be.

CJ saw his friend Steve Andrews.

CJ said, 'Is Arthur here then?'

Steve pointed him out, and CJ went over to make his greeting.

'We meet at last,' he said.

'You look different without your beard,' Arthur said. Those were the first words that passed between them. It was a moment of great significance in the history of Western culture. Pretend writer meets pretend king. New Age Livingstone and drink-addled Stanley in the wilds of ancient Wiltshire.

CJ was very much struck by his appearance. He definitely looked like King Arthur, he thought. It wasn't only the robes and the cloak and the beard. It wasn't the shield either, nor the stave wrapped about with copper wire with a crystal on the top. Arthur has a huge brow, like some prehistoric tribesman, on which was perched his kingly circlet, made of iron with a dragon at the forehead. And he had long, dark pointy ears and a strange darkness about him. There was an indefinable blackness under the pale skin, as if the flesh itself was soaked in engine oil, thought CJ. But he couldn't see the sword. 'Where's the sword,' he asked, and Arthur brought it out.

'It's beautiful,' CJ said. And he meant it. It was beautiful.

After that they had the ceremony. They stood in a circle while a Druid in a wolf-skin cloak took to centre stage. It was exactly like that: as if he was performing for everyone on stage. Four Druids stood at the four quarters and made ritualistic gestures and intoned ceremonial phrases. There were obeisances to the guardians of the salamanders of fire – stuff like that. CJ wasn't at all sure. Arthur raised his shield and his sword and intoned to the Guardians of the South. CJ was struck by his accent. Pure Hampshire. A Celtic King from Hampshire: it's a contradiction in terms.

After that, a circle of children were blessed by the Priestess. Steve said that he'd been blessed as a child on one occasion. Someone wanted to know if they'd allow blessings of ferrets. So they did, and Frodo the Ferret was blessed too, along with all the kids. Meanwhile people were singing:

The river is flowing
The river is growing
The river is flowing
Back to the sea.
Mother Earth carry me
A child I will always be
Mother Earth carry me
Back to the sea.

It was a nice song. It went on for about 10 minutes, over and over.

Steve said: 'I arrived here last night. I had to walk from Chippenham. I slept by that stone over there and woke up soaked in dew. But I spotted 14 types of butterfly this morning.' And he brought out a list. 'That one there, Clouded Yellow, it's very rare. People would come from all over the country to see it.'

CJ spotted another name on the list. 'Hmmm, Painted Lady,' he said, 'that sounds nice. I could do with a Painted Lady.'

'Yes, very attractive,' said Steve, thinking that CJ was referring to butterflies.

There was a squabble amongst the Druids. The Druid with the fur stole had apparently forgotten a part of the ceremony. A Druid with a Panama hat (Rollo, again, but CJ didn't know it yet) interrupted him. 'You haven't consecrated the flowers,' he said.

'Oh, all right then,' said the other Druid, tetchily, 'go ahead if you have to.'

So, the Druid with the Panama hat stood over a bunch of flowers and consecrated them.

After that, they were invited to become initiated as Bards of Caer Abiri if they wanted to. Tim Sebastion – who CJ had met before, both at Avebury and Stonehenge – urged him to go. 'Go on CJ,' he said, 'it won't hurt you.'

'Oh all right then,' CJ said, and he did.

They made a much smaller circle inside the larger circle, but facing outwards. They made a vow to honour and justice and peace and love, and to care for the Earth. It was a moving moment. You see, CJ already believed in honour and justice and peace and love, and he wanted to care for the Earth. He'd just never made vows about it before. And then they were sponsored by an existing initiate. CJ was sponsored by Tim Sebastion. Tim Sebastion being an Archdruid, that was an honour. He placed his hand on CJ's shoulder and everyone chanted 'Awen.' It was said as a drone, the way that Buddhists chant OM: 'A-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-w-w-w-w-w-e-e-e-e-e-e-n-n-n!' The chant drifted and spiralled, rose and fell, and sparkled like diamonds in the shimmering air, while above sprays of birds arched across the sky.

CJ thanked Tim for that. It had felt genuinely sweet in that circle.

Steve Andrews went into the circle and sang 'Stand By Me.' Only no one did at first. Eventually Arthur joined him and one or two others. Then he changed the lyrics. He sang, 'Dance By Me,' and a few more people did. King Arthur was dancing marionette-like in his robes. It was a moment of startling illumination. King Arthur, the Rock'n'Roll King.

Then the five main Druids went into the circle: that is, the Druids of the four quarters and the one with the fur cloak. They had to vow not to squabble any longer. You see: the Druid movement is split between those who will consecrate trees, but never get up a tree to defend it, and those who will both consecrate and defend the trees. There's also a class division: between the one's who organise Spirit Camps and charge for it, where people gather to increase their spiritual awareness and learn about the ancient Druidic ways, who never drink or smoke or chase women; and those – led by Arthur – who do all of these things and never go to Spirit Camps and whose motivations are fundamentally political and radical.

One of the Druids read from a book. He said, 'There has never been a tradition of holding hand-fastings at those particular stones.'

And Arthur shouted back, 'Then we'll start a tradition.'

CJ turned to Birghit and Clive. 'See, aren't you lucky today? I picked you up in the far East of England, and brought you all the way to the West, where you wanted to go. And on top of that I brought you here to witness a Druid ceremony. There can't be all that many people who get lifts to Druid ceremonies.'

Steve came over to join the group and CJ introduced them. 'This is my mate, Steve. And these are my hitch-hiker friends, Clive and … er … I can't remember your name.'

'Birghit,' she said in her heavy German accent.

'That's right, Beergut,' CJ said.

'No Birghit,' said Clive.

'Beergut.'

'Birghit.'

And that was the last time CJ tried to say her name.

Well, there's only a certain amount of standing in circles and chanting and ritual observances a man can take before he starts to get thirsty. The Red Lion was calling. Steve and CJ slipped off to get a couple of drinks. Arthur followed a little later. 'Buy us a drink,' he said. CJ agreed. But people were lined up three deep at the bar. CJ said, 'Wait ten minutes, OK? Or, barring that, here's a tenner, get one yourself.' Arthur looked at the money as if it was poison. 'I'm a renunciate,' he said. 'I don't handle money. Not unless it's for petrol, that is. Then it's not money it's petrol.'

'Well this is for beer. So it's not money either, it's beer.'

But he didn't want to touch it. He drank CJ's beer instead, and smoked several of his cigarettes. He called it tax. They sat in the pool room and made conspiratorial plans.

Arthur said: 'I want to get arrested, only nobody dares do it. The last time, at Stonehenge, all the coppers were standing round wondering what to do. They couldn't arrest me. They had to call a Superintendent to do it. And then I arrested him, in the name of the Law. I told him, "I am the LAW." They won't put me in gaol either. They keep fining me. I tell them, "I'm a Renunciate, I don't have any money." Then I go to the back of the Court, and they um and ah and we make our deals, and they let me go. It's the same every time.'

'I have three personalities,' he added, 'to go with my three names. As a King I have to be concerned with the welfare of my Knights, and as the Pendragon of all Britain I have to be concerned with the state of the country: but as Arthur I can get pissed and smoke and chase women and do what I like. But, obviously, Arthur comes second to the other two.'

'So which are you now.'

'I'm Arthur, of course,' he said, taking another swig on his cider and pinching another cigarette.

CJ asked Arthur to knight him. He went down on his knees in the pub yard and Arthur placed his sword on CJ's head and shoulders in a dramatic fashion, swearing him to truth, honour and justice. Then CJ stood up and Arthur embraced him.

After that things started to get really strange.

Tim Sebastion came out very agitated. 'I've had it with your fucking Warband,' he said to Arthur. 'Orc has just gone off with my tobacco.' He was so angry that he took his staff (which had a crescent moon on the top), laid it on a step and stamped on it. It broke with a healthy-sounding crack. The joke here is that Tim regularly breaks his staff and then bandages it up with a pink scarf in between. So, he wasn't really breaking his staff. He was making a dramatic gesture.

Arthur went and got the Orc, a tall man in a long white robe, with a stud through his lower lip. Arthur made him apologise to Tim and give back his tobacco.

Then they drove to Bath. There was Steve, CJ, Arthur, Tim and the young couple in the car, along with all the Druidic paraphernalia – the shields and swords and robes and staves. It was a Morris Minor. It was very crowded. CJ was drunk and shouldn't have been driving. The car was swerving all over the road. Steve and the young couple were saying, very politely, 'Careful you don't kill us, we don't want to die yet, we're much too young to die,' while Arthur and Tim were shouting, 'Yes, go on, go on, kill us. Kill us now. We want to die!'

CJ didn't care one way or the other.

Arthur said, 'One of the reasons people hate me is that they all think I want to bonk their girlfriends.'

CJ said, 'Well, you can't bonk my girlfriend.'

'Listen to that,' Arthur said. 'Did you hear that everyone? He's questing me. He's offering me a challenge. You know I can't turn down a challenge. I'm really gonna bonk her now.'

CJ omitted to add that the reason that Arthur couldn't bonk his girlfriend was that he hadn't got one.

They all ended up in a pub drinking scrumpy cider. The young couple were very sweet. CJ kept telling the girl how sexy she was and then telling the man that he was very, very lucky. 'I know,' he said. Later, he found out that the girl was only 16.

CJ doesn't remember much more. They got back to Tim's house somehow, which seemed like a vast stately home. There was a huge hallway and antique furniture on the landing. CJ lay down in someone's bed until Tim came and got him. Then he lay down in the living room and went to sleep overhearing the young couple saying, 'And you know what CJ was saying to us in the pub? …' He was far too gone to listen to any more.

The following day he woke up and his hair was all standing on end. He looked very strange. He was still drunk. He drove Steve down to the bus station and they had some breakfast. After that CJ was going to go back and pick up Arthur so he could drive him to Newbury. Only they got lost in Bath. They were going round and round on the one-way system and CJ's petrol tank was nearly empty. He decided to give up trying to find Arthur again and they went back to wait for Steve's bus.

'What's Arthur's real name?' asked CJ.

'John,' said Steve and laughed. 'My friends are always changing their names. So Arthur was called John, and then he was Mad Dog and Bacardi, and now he's King Arthur. And my friend Pixi is really called Neil, but then he called himself Mordred and then Less Dread. He won't let anyone call him Pixi any more. It's very confusing. And Orc is Steve, and Llewch is Neil. It's such an ordinary name: Neil. Not as interesting as Llewch Lleawg.'

CJ said, 'Arthur is very vain isn't he? I suppose you'd have to be vain to want to call yourself King Arthur.'

'It's his true Aryan nature,' said Steve.

'Pardon?' said CJ, suddenly worried. 'But he's got black hair. I thought Aryans were supposed to be blonde.' He didn't like how this conversation seemed to be going. He'd never thought of Steve as a fascist.

'No: I mean Arian. He's an Aries.'

'Thank God for that,' CJ said, 'I thought you were going to start feeding me Nazi propaganda for a minute there.'

Steve lent CJ some money so he could get home. He'd spent most of his money in the pub the previous night. That's the trouble with wanting to write a book about people: they all expect you to buy them drinks. Then Steve caught his bus. CJ drove back along the M4. It was a very boring drive and he was hungover, irritable and with a tongue that tasted like he'd been licking the inside of a dog's bottom all night. He had no money left once he'd bought the petrol, so he couldn't stop anywhere. And then, about 20 miles of his home, he ran out of petrol again. He just managed to make it into a service station. He was going up to people and saying, in his most polite voice: 'Excuse me, I don't normally do this sort of thing, but you see, I'm nearly home. You couldn't let me have a couple of quid to buy petrol to get me the rest of the way, could you?' And it happened every time. They'd look him up and down, their eyes resting on his legs for a moment. He was wearing shorts. It was a glorious summer's day. But it was as if they were measuring his worthiness by the quality of his legs. And then a slight smile would play about their lips. 'Sorry,' they'd say, 'got no money.' It was humiliating.

Eventually he lost his patience. A camper van drew in. CJ marched up to the man and said, 'Give us a quid will you?'

'What for?'

'For petrol.'

'That's a new one,' the man said, laughing, and he reached in his pocket and brought out a pound, which was just about enough to get CJ home.

Well he couldn't help reflecting on this. He couldn't help remembering all those times he'd leant people money without ever expecting it back. In CJ's world, people help each other. Some people blag. Some people beg. Some people would talk the hind legs off an orang-utan for a pint or two. But people always help each other. But now he was beginning to see that in the real world, this world of motorway service stations and soulless Little Chef cafés, the opposite was true. No one blags, no one begs, no one talks and no one helps each other either.

Later, when he got home, he was watching The Blob on the TV. He was lying on the settee, exhausted, watching this little, flickering, black-and-white thing in the corner. The film is about a strange amorphous mass which is growing and swallowing everything in sight. A young man (played by Steve McQueen) is trying to warn people about a nameless horror which is about to consume their town. Nobody believes him: until they get eaten by the Blob, that is, by which time it is too late. The young man's name is Steve Andrews. Another little coincidence. CJ thought about his own friend Steve Andrews then. He thought about the Druids, and Arthur, at that point closely involved in the Newbury bypass road protest: how they were all warning us of a strange amorphous mass growing in our midst, threatening to consume our world. But it wasn't only a physical mass. It wasn't just a physical blob. It was a mental thing, a state of mind. An attitude. Something, even now, threatening to destroy our world.

What was it?

Money.



(Following is a proposal Tim and I made to the BBC for a possible Radio series. It is mostly Tim's work. All of the research is his. It's a pity the BBC never took us up on this as it would have been a fascinating series. I include it here as it is essentially autobiographical. It tells you as much about Tim, about his life and loves, as it does about the subject....)

1 comment:

Bard of Ely said...

That story made me laugh again, Chris! And I can remember it all so well!