This week I realised, as I nattered with my TAs after class, that I had just uttered the phrase 'back in my day' without the slightest sense of irony. I was (and still am) distraught - surely this is the first step down the slippery slope that ends with me in carpet slippers on a rocking chair telling stories about the good ol' days? I made myself feel better by listening to Radio 1 all the way home and not throwing up once.
What has this got to do with history or re-enacting? Absolutely nothing, except it gives you a slight glimpse into the mind (often scattered, bleak or horrifying) of the re-enactor. Not every re-enactor is an aging history professor, a speccy nerd with their head in a book or someone living in a fantasy land ("I am the Lady Fanella Von Diveé and you will address me as such). I've met all of those people whilst re-enacting but I've also met them in 'real life' as well. For every oddity there's a normality. Variety is the term that I would use.
Why do we re-enact? It's often cold, busy, requires you to trek the length of the country, and in some cases expensive (especially if you catch a case of 'wandering era' and start eyeing up that fancy Napoleonic Era stuff). Why do we do it to ourselves? Why do we enjoy it? I have my own answer to that, but first we're going to take a trip down memory lane and look, once again, at the Bluecoat Broadsheet.
A Pikeman's view of Newbury II
by Master Mike Gadd
My principal (I might almost say over-riding) impression of Newbury II was horseshoe-shaped.
It was gained when, during an attempt by the Bluecoats to form a square to withstand an assault by von Pappenheims Dragoons, a malevolent horse chose to implant his offside rear on my nearside front. There is something distressingly immovable about horses at such times. Nor could I recall the correct form of address in such circumstances, but remarked as politely but pointedly as possible 'Excuse me, you are standing on my -!8?+/" foot!'.
The horse merely grinned and ambled off to seek out other injudiciously exposed feet.
Now I know why, in the 17th century, cavalry was always 'Cavalry' but infantry was invariably 'Foote'!
The battle had started well enough: 'Ruperta' had boomed forth a warning that this day the Bluecoats were not to be trifled with; our musketteares (sic) had advanced intrepidly to cover themselves with mud and glory; and the first charges we received were shrugged off contemptuously. But, as shouts and curses betrayed, the real business was at the 'Ditch', to which we were eventually dispatched from the reserve.
On'es feelings upon taking up position were mixed: the enemy horde was considerable, but on the other hand we had the advantage of terrain - or had we? For the Parliamentary commander, with typical perfidy, loaded quantities of Redcoats into a multiple rocket launcher and fired them at low trajectory and point blank range across the seemingly impregnable Ditch - with devastating results.
Thus commenced a slow and fiercely-fought strategic retreats, (or is that what they called it), during which one likes to feel that we Bluecoats distinguished ourselves by unparalleled feats of bravery and imperturbability under attack. The Regiment's mettle was never better displayed that when the Commanding Officer called or 'every third man to fall at the next charge'. Seizing the opportunity with unqualified relief, I dutifully sank to the ground, only to find when the melee had passed that I was one of only two 'casualties' - and the other one was genuine!
Still the battle having swept by one was able to savour the gentler attentions of the Ladies, who dispensed both water and 'blood' with equal largesse. It was darkly rumoured that the King's men quenched their thirst with water whilst the Revolting Hosts eagerly swallowed the blood!
So to the final parade, and a blood-curdling charge upon the audience, who regarded it with their customary monolithic impassivity (am I the only one who feels that some sort of salute would be more dignified and better appreciated?) A worthy encounter and long may the Bluecoats acquit themselves with such honour and valour. I'll start by saying that I think that is maybe the most eloquent pikeman I've ever encountered. What does this tell us about re-enactors?
Maybe that they're completely loopy? Gadd had his foot stood on by a horse and was still writing about it with whim and whimsy a couple of months later. He certainly seems to enjoy the 'playing soldiers' aspect of making heroic stands and pushes on the field of battle. I can't say he's the only one - that's certainly a draw for me if nothing else!
I think it's really interesting that Gadd isn't too impressed by the audience. There's a real debate, somewhere, about whether re-enactors re-enact for the public or for themselves. Would we turn up and put on a show even if there was no-one there to watch? Almost certainly yes. Having an audience somewhat legitimises the innate silliness of what we do but I'm sure that we'd get over that nonetheless.
That said, I really do enjoy the public interaction. I love teaching history, especially when you've got the gear and kit to show them, really show them, what you're talking about. Our regimental presence at Upnor Castle last weekend was one of the best events I've been to for ages. Why? I think it was because the public were actually interested and wanted to know more about what we were talking about.
So why do re-enactors re-enact? For some, it's the thrill of the battlefield and the fight, the skill and the challenge. For others, it's the public, the history and the teaching. For the rest of us, it's a little bit of both.
Whatever your reasons, there's nothing like it.