Tuesday, 2nd December 2003.

Fish out of water

What strikes us most these days is a sense of togetherness. A unit. I worried about personalities dissolving. I needn't have. All that happened was that the best parts of each of us formed into one, and that's "James and Emily". I find myself greatly decreasing my use of the word 'I'.

Only a day late for the weekend deconstruction. Saturday and Sunday were spent in Shropshire with Emily's parents. Bishop's Castle is a small town in the middle of the countryside not too far from Ludlow, with old buildings and plenty of history. The main street snakes down a moderately steep hill with numerous hotels, butchers, charity shops, old, musty bookstores and local emporiums. At the top sits one recently refurbished pub with a splendid view of the surrounding area, and the town square and bandstand. You get a genuine sense of community, and all the people that come and go stop and say hello.

I was there in August, of course, but didn't see as much of the place as I'd have liked because of time constraints, so it was nice to get out this time around. On Saturday morning we all drove up to the Bishop's Castle Methodist Church, where Mr and Mrs Knight were running one of their assorted Trade Fairs. It was immaculately laid out but to be honest with you Tradecraft stuff has never particularly interested me to begin with, and there are only so many times I can walk around the same hall before my eyes start to glaze over.

We eventually slipped out of the church and wandered around Bishop's Castle, and then returned to blow up balloons - about four hundred and fifty, all told, all emblazoned with the words "WHY CHRISTMAS? JESUS". We gave them out in the town centre during the evening festivities. I stood pumping behind the table while the others tied and the parents dispensed them. They were free, but this didn't stop some people complaining: one woman took the balloon for her daughter and then returned a few minutes later, presumably once she'd discovered what it said.

"I have to say, I'm not comfortable with my daughter carrying around something with the word 'Jesus' on it."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," said Mrs Knight.
"Christmas is a pagan festival that you hijacked!"
"Well, that's true, up to a point. But the actual essence of Christmas is biblical, and we're just reminding people of that, and celebrating it."
"It's still brainwashing, though. As it happens, I do go to church at Christmas."
(Oh, well, that's all right then.)
"And I take my daughter along. I think she needs to know about things and make a choice. But handing things out in the street...."

In the end they managed to agree that it was probably all right to promote Jesus, although the woman still left in a huff. I wonder if she works for the Red Cross?

Actually, Bishop's Castle is steeped in witchcraft and has quite a dark history. There's a local store that sells charms and amethyst and other druidic items which has had to relocate to Ludlow on the grounds that the local vibrations are so bad. I suspect it's a series of grizzly murders and witches and children going missing, so am organising an expedition into the local forest with a couple of friends and a camcorder - we're going to talk to the locals and see if we can work out the truth behind the real Bishop's Witch. Would anybody like to come?

After we'd finished giving out the balloons, Em and I wandered up the street to where the Morris Dancers were going to be gathering. A pleasant smell drifted from a nearby doorway, so we wandered in and found a woman selling mulled wine and mince pies in aid of the playing fields project (one of those communal renovation things). A cute spaniel was sitting on the floor, getting up as we approached - he was wearing the expression of a dog that had been fed many times that evening but who was desperately trying to convince us that he hadn't.

I admired the renovation plans and then my eyes drifted across a volunteer's list on the table, and I said "We'd put our names down, but neither of us are local."
"That's OK," she said, before glancing at Emily and adding "although you're one of the Knights, aren't you?"
It was something I'd got used to over the course of the weekend but that didn't stop me asking her as we were leaving, "Is there anyone around here who doesn't know you?"

It seems to be the position of the family in the community. Everyone knows them. Her mother teaches piano to what seemed to be the entire town, as well as assisting with young people's activities at the church, and someone - possibly Emily's grandmother, although I don't remember - was mayor or something at some point. When one of the locals found out that we were getting married she laid a gentle hand on my arm, and with a twinkle in her eye said "Oh, my commiserations", a sentiment that usually seems to happen in reverse with people who already know me. It was a nice sense of small-town familiarity that you don't get in a place the size of Reading, or even Tilehurst for that matter.

We wandered up the road to the town square where the Morris dancers were getting ready to perform. I'd seen Morris Dancers before but nothing like this: eight of the broadest, burliest men I'd ever seen outside a rugby team wearing top hats with large feathers rimming the edges, and tunics made out of a thousand strips of cloth hanging from the neck down, like some kind of animal hair. Their faces and hands were painted black and they carried enormous sticks that they banged together with tremendous ferocity - this wasn't light and dainty, these men were duelling, seemingly determined to make contact. They roared and howled in a glorious expression of primal - what was it? rage? power? - and when each dance was over they ran off the bandstand with loud whoops and wails.

I turned to Emily and said "This is scaring me."
"I know what you mean. This is the way we do it round here. It's none of your poncy men waving white hankies."
The dancers were stick-bashing again.
"It's very phallic, isn't it?" I said.
"What happens if they miss?"
"It hurts...."

Back into the town: we walked down to where the brass band was setting up for the communal singing. They disappointingly played only four carols out of the thirty-three that were on the song sheet, so after Hark The Herald everyone drifted away, but then the band started playing "Mary's Boy Child", and we wanted to sing it. So the six of us stood there, in the middle of the street, belting out the words at the tops of our voices, not caring how silly we must have looked. I squeezed Emily's hand and was never so glad that I was going to marry her. And I'm guessing that everyone passing just gave a smile and shake of the head, saying to each other "Don't worry. It's only the Knights."

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