Housing Benefit Hill: off the Grails
Story first appeared in the Guardian Weekend April 27 1996
"I all-hailed my cup of tea, drinking it down quickly. I bought another one, and all-hailed that too, clasping the mug in my hands with a holy feeling of relief and joy"
IT'S my quest to find the Holy Grail. I was in Amesbury in Wiltshire for the Spring Equinox, on my way to Stonehenge to meet King Arthur. I had an hour to go to the appointment, so I stopped off at a pub. The pub was called the King's Head. There was a gaggle of men at the bar, drinking lager. They looked ordinary enough to me. I usually drink bitter. So I looked over the line of pumps ranged along the bar and there was one local ale on offer. It was called Sign Of Spring. It had a picture of two lambs gambolling beneath a bright red heart radiating like the Sun. Well, why not? It was the Spring Equinox after all. I ordered a pint of the local brew.
There was a video juke box in the corner, blazing out a crazed AC/DC track. I don't particularly like AC/DC, but I was watching it anyway, leaning with my back against the bar. It had been a long drive. I heard the barmaid plonk my glass down, and I turned, reaching into my pocket to pay her. And there it was, like a horrible apparition. A luminous green pint, glowing like the fluorescent numbers on a clock face. I literally stood back. It looked like something which had seeped from Sellafield during some horrible nuclear accident.
"What's that?" I asked, startled.
"It's your pint."
Everyone in the bar was looking at me. Remember: I'm in Wiltshire, the strangest county. People have sex with aliens and develop crop-circles amongst their dahlias. Nothing is what it appears to be. Even the beer is radioactive. Eventually it was explained to me. Apparently they use fresh green hops instead of the usual dried ones. I took a sip nervously. It tasted green, like a pint of privet-hedge. No wonder everyone else was drinking lager.
I drove over to Stonehenge. As I passed the Heel Stone I could see the faint glow of a cigarette in the darkness. King Arthur, I thought. I parked up along a track and walked back. But it wasn't King Arthur, it was the Security Guards. There were two of them there, leaning against the stone out of the wind, talking in hushed voices, the light from their cigarettes illuminating their faces briefly. They barked at me when I spoke to them.
I could see the silhouette of the monument brooding against the night sky, and in the compound, moving about mysteriously, other shadowy figures. Occasionally one of them would flash on a beam which would pierce the darkness and play about the surface of the monument like the reflections of the moon on rippling water. There seemed to be a lot of people in there performing whatever ghastly rituals their Security Guard cult compelled them to. Smoking fags mainly, and rattling keys; drinking tea out of flasks.
I waited for King Arthur. I waited and waited. He didn't turn up. I went back to the car and fell asleep on the back seat, wrapped up in a sleeping bag. All through the night I was awoken by the sounds of cars pulling up and then drawing away again. When I looked out of the window I could see figures moving around in the darkness. It all seemed very mysterious to me. I was dreaming of King Arthur.
I'm intrigued by King Arthur. I mean, the man must be mad. You'd have to be mad to make such a claim. But, then again, we live in a democracy. Everyone's mad, but some people are madder than others. I'm mad enough to consider myself a writer. And John Major's mad enough to imagine that he is the Prime Minister. It's all relative. King Arthur may be King Arthur. Or he may not be. The only objective truths here are: 1) that that's what he claims himself to be; 2) that he's appeared on the Clive Anderson programme to state it; and that 3) he's taken the government to the European Court of Human Rights on sections of the Criminal Justice Act relating to freedom of assembly. And that he won. The question has to be, in the end, does he uphold the values that we imagine King Arthur to represent? If he does, then he might as well be King Arthur. Anyway, he has a spectacular beard.
I woke up in the bitter grey light of dawn. It was very, very cold. There were a number of cars lined up on the track by now, but no people. They must already be at the Stones. I went over to take a look. The people were there, lined up forlornly against the fence, gazing into the compound like lost children locked out of the playground. There were a number of Druids, with all their paraphernalia. There were a few hippies, and a few country gentleman types too, with Barbour jackets and green wellies, all shivering in the cold. But still no King Arthur. There was lots of to-ing and fro-ing and stamping of feet, and a heated discussion or two. But no rituals. I asked what they were up to. The Arch Druid hadn't made it in time, I was told. He was on his way. Everyone filtered back to their vehicles.
The Arch Druid arrived about half an hour later. I watched from my car as he struggled on with his robes. They were flapping about in the wind. They looked to be made out of bedsheets. He had trouble pulling them over his comfortable looking belly. I kept imagining that they would rip. He's in his forties, I would guess, with long greying hair and a beard, and was wearing a black cape over his bedsheet robes. He had a bucket full of daffodils with him.
LATER we all had a ritual in the field opposite Stonehenge. We trooped there in a line, like lambs to the slaughter. I asked how long it would last, and the Arch-Druid told me: about twenty minutes. I was already cold. A concrete post sufficed for the altar. We stood in a circle and held hands. We chanted "I-A-O". We said, "all hail to the Sun", and "all hail to the Earth". We I-A-O'd the Sun and we I-A-O'd the Earth. Someone handed daffodils about. We I-A-O'd the daffodils. There were prayers about peace and love and living in harmony with the Earth. It was freezing, freezing cold. I was stamping my feet with the bitterness of it. We raised our arms and dropped them again. We held hands and then let go again. We all-hailed this and we all-hailed that, while my fingers became numb. It went on and on. I'd stopped caring. I couldn't all-hail another thing.
I left. I literally ran from the scene, leapt into my car, and drove furiously to Amesbury. I was praying that there would be a cafe. There was. I all-hailed my cup of tea, drinking it down quickly. I bought another one, and all-hailed that too, clasping the mug in my hands with a holy feeling of relief and joy. It was a religious experience, in an overpriced, plastic cafe in Amesbury. Maybe I'd not found King Arthur, but I'd discovered the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail is a cup of tea.
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