Well, there we all are.
From left to right, Twentyrothmans, Frank, Nisakiman, Bucko, in the White Hart in Ashton Keynes. We were perhaps one of the most unlikely band of brothers to ever be thrown together.
I’d hoped it would be a sunny day, but it wasn’t. It rained all morning, and in the afternoon when we arrived, it was still intermittently spitting. And it was quite cold too.
We alternated between sitting outside smoking (Nisakiman too!), and coming back inside to warm up. Nisakiman had said that he thought he’d be able to cope with a couple of hours, but ended up spending some 3½ hours with us.
And he was delighted to see us. And almost completely overcome when we pressed bottles of rum and champagne upon him as well.
What did we all have in common? Nothing really. We were all completely different people. But we were all smokers. And we were all exiles because of it. And we were only sitting outside on a cold wet day because that was where we had been exiled to. In a more civil era we would have spent the whole afternoon indoors, and the little pub would have been filled with smoke, and the din of conversation, and the clink of glasses.
In the crossroads outside the pub, there stood a stone column which we eventually discovered was an old preaching cross. It had a companion a few yards up the road. I suppose that preacher men would stand preaching on the pedestal to an assembled throng of villagers, teaching them the virtuous life, and contrasting virtue with the vices of the rowdy, bibulous inmates of the nearby pub. And there was a time in English history when the crosses were knocked off the tops of many of these stone crosses, perhaps by people who were sick of all the preaching done beneath them, and these two looked like they been casualties of that wave of iconoclasm.
For the liitle pub may well have been as old as the stone cross outside it. The White Hart was the personal badge of Richard II, who reigned from 1377 to 1399. And there are lots of pubs in England called the White Hart. There are also quite a few named after the Blue Boar, the personal badge of Richard III, who was recently back in the news again, for the first time in 500 years, when his grave in Leicester was discovered.
And are things very much different today than they were 600 years ago? We still have our preacher men, and they’re still telling us what is virtue and what is vice. It’s just that these days they don’t stand ranting at crossroads, but use the pulpit of radio and TV. For the war on smoking is really just another moral crusade, dressed up as science or medicine. The medium might be different, but the message is exactly the same: we are virtuous, and you are not.
With my walking stick, anyone would think it was me who was the cancer patient. I’m a bit unsteady on my feet these days, and a walking stick helps. But I took heart from the fact that many of the ramblers who arrived at the pub also had walking sticks, although longer and extendable modern metal ones.
Did we help Nisakiman? Perhaps we did a little bit. We were a quite different set of people than the family that now surrounds him, or the doctors he consults. We were just companionable strangers, bringing beer and tobacco and conversation. We were kindred spirits. And we’d all met up before in the Smoky Drinky Bar on appear.in, a venue to which Nisakiman was the first to draw our attention.
Bucko has sent me two photos that he took (or got taken for him by the barlady) at Ashton Keynes:
And this is the preaching cross, from twentyrothmans’ facebook page. Max is on the top ledge. I’m sure there’s a close-up.