In a few days, on the 14 June to be precise, around two thousand men dressed up as soldiers will gather in Naseby, in the heart of England. There, they will form up as two opposing armies and do battle. It will be a festival of make-believe in which these soldiers re-enact a key battle of the English Civil War. Ultimately, those wearing the uniforms of the Royalists will be routed by Cromwell’s New Model Army, just as they were when the two sides first met in June 1645. This time the participants will completely lose themselves in the event as they march, shout, sweat, grapple, give or receive orders, kill or get killed.
Back home afterwards, replica muskets, pikes and helmets will be cleaned. Authentic uniforms will be washed, ironed and folded away in readiness for the next battle in which the protagonists will once again become immersed in fantasy.
For the participants it all seems reasonable, but for me, and perhaps I am in a minority, the act of physically and emotionally immersing oneself in another world in this way seems rather cranky. I developed this view years ago on discovering that Geoffrey, a friend and pillar of society – he worked as a local government officer – dressed up as a Roundhead at weekends for such re-enactments. I was surprised and slightly shocked but said nothing; surely that’s not what grown men do? I imagine that next week he will be at Naseby again, fighting with, or against, his mates.
There are, of course, a myriad ways of escaping everyday drudgery. Conventionally, escapism is achieved by burying oneself in books, films, plays or the TV; immersion that is both physical and emotional is that bit rarer. And in such escapes, while Geoffrey was never likely to be in any danger, spare a thought for Charles, our calm and careful painter and decorator. He is in his early sixties and was originally a graphic designer and photographer. Soon those jobs bored him and for years now he has earned his living as a professional handyman, and his work – as decorator, tiler, plasterer, bricklayer, plumber or carpenter – is exemplary.
That is the Charles I know in his workaday life. Then there is Charles the family man. Gradually, through our occasional conversations and through stories from neighbours for whom he also works, I have learned that at home he is kind, gentle and caring. For some years until she died recently, he looked after his wife who was bedridden, suffering from diabetes and end-stage kidney failure, requiring dialysis three times a week. Despite the difficulties he faced I never once heard him bemoan his lot.
And then, at weekends, particularly on bank holidays, Charles lives in yet another world. He can be found at fairgrounds or county shows where he rides the Wall of Death on his motorbike. For over thirty years he has sped around the vertical wall of a six meter diameter silo with only centrifugal force stopping him from falling to the ground. As if this were not daredevil enough, his riding positions are far from conventional. As part of the show, and without the protection of a crash helmet, sometimes he sits on the handlebars facing backwards, or on the saddle steering with his feet, or he balances sideways across the bike with his legs on one side and his arms on the other. He rides his own bike, which happens to be a 1925 Indian Scout, the very bike used in some of the earliest wall-of-death side shows in the USA.
Charles not only rides the Wall of Death but immerses himself further in this other world as the show’s Master of Ceremonies. Dressed in bow tie and tails, it is Charles who drums up interest outside the booth, and who later introduces the act itself inside.
On a good night, crowds of over 200 people pay their £4 entry fee to see the show. For 15 minutes they look down from the gallery ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’, watching death-defying riders speed round a track billed as ‘The Widow Maker’. Our quiet, careful Charles immerses himself in a world that is risky and dangerous. As with our council-officer friend Geoffrey, immersion in a separate life in another world provides him with a fulfilling escape from reality. Perhaps, one day, I should give it a try myself.
[Note, to Joe or anyone else who is interested in escape: you can join the Sealed Knot here. And before you get on a motorbike, seek some sensible “Motorcycle Riding Tips, Motorbike & Scooter Information & Advice” from the Get On website.