Do you ever wish you had a grander title than Mr, Mrs, Master or Miss? Perhaps when you fill in a form and see options like Dr, Prof, Sen and Lord, you dream of being addressed with such grandeur. I don’t feel jealous. I hold an elevated title. Although every lad under twenty-one in my village is a simple squire; on reaching that age every man becomes a Sir. The women benefit too. All the wives of the senior folk are, by association, Ladies. Outsiders may claim that our titles don’t count, that our investiture ceremony isn’t official. But what makes things official? Validity is only gained through the support of the wider population. Everyone in my village recognises the authority of the Knighting Committee. Within our parish boundary our appointments are official. We are all knights. Of the village perhaps, rather than the realm – but noblemen no less.
The ceremony to proclaim each new knight, the ‘dubbing’, takes place inside our village’s only pub. At the northern edge of the pub car park, next to the main road, there is a ten-foot tall black wooden post. At the top, set inside a black wooden frame, is the pub sign. It is made from a solid piece of board three feet tall and two feet wide. It bears an identical image on both sides which is hand painted in thickly layered acrylics. The sign catches the eye of passers by in the day and is lit up at night – a welcoming beacon that draws thirsty customers inside. Most of the space is taken up by a picture; that of a saucy eighteenth century princess, sitting on the edge of her throne, seductively hoisting her skirt and layers of petticoats to reveal a light blue silk stocking topped with a dark blue embroidered band. The name underneath the bawdy depiction claims the pub is called ‘The Royal Garter’. In the village our drinking den is known by its nickname; ‘The Nickname’. It earns its pseudonym from the nature of the dubbing ceremony that takes place within its salmon pink exterior walls. Gaining a prestigious title is only half of what happens to us villagers on reaching manhood. In addition to becoming invested, we also receive a newly bequeathed nickname. Each man is dubbed Sir _________. The new name that follows their title, their Sir name, is decided by the Knighting Committee – the senior members of the Village Order who sit at the circular table under the stuffed bear head that’s screwed to the wall at the far end of the local’s bar.
The Nickname has two drinking rooms: a lounge and a locals’ bar. The locals’ bar is our Masonic lodge, our hallowed ground. Outsiders aren’t made welcome within its sacred walls. I don’t see anything wrong with that. On days when there isn’t a knighting ceremony, tourists are kindly invited by Sir Beer to make their way through to the lounge. If they decline his invitation and insist on entering the private den, eighteen-stone scaffolders and nineteen-stone farmers surround them like oversize hyenas closing-in on a poleaxed gazelle. Those visitors always take the unsubtle hint and shuffle through to the much more pleasantly decorated and well-lit lounge. On evenings when a dubbing is taking place, the lounge is locked and Sir Beer hangs a sack over the exterior pub sign – covering up our royal lady’s immodesty. He hangs a notice beneath the sack that says ‘Pub closed for private party’. Investiture nights are for village folk only.
I remember one dubbing, crammed into the smoky, stale ale smelling, dingy inner sanctum when four thirsty mountain bikers in their early twenties opened the door and peered in. The sight, noise and stench of tough working men packed inside like a bloodthirsty medieval dog fight crowd, caused the out-of-towners to freeze in the doorway like stuffed meerkats. For a moment it seemed they’d been turned to stone – as if we were snakes squirming on Medusa’s head with Sir Copper and Sir Jailor forming the Gorgon’s eyes. Then Sir Huge, the biggest man in the village, who rumour has it is actually related to the Titans of Ancient Greece, bellowed “Fuck Off”. Fuck off is not an original phrase. It is overused and because of this often lacks potency. Sir Huge’s exclamation didn’t. His instruction was delivered with such force that the hair on the heads of three of the cyclists (one of them was bald) was visibly ruffled. His two-word instruction lasted three or four seconds; the double ff at the end sounding like steam escaping from a burst pipe at a nuclear power plant. Before his roar was finished, the Lycra clad invaders had retreated from view, slammed the door shut, jumped on their bikes and could be heard pedalling frantically away from the suspended Garter.
Our investiture ceremony is uncomplicated and unruly. On the date of a male villager’s twenty-first birthday, he is expected to turn up at The Nickname at opening time. He’s never alone. As Sir Beer unlocks the battered front door, the lock clunking open in perfect sync with the seventh bong of the church clock, every local bloke over the age of eighteen is gathered outside. The only reserved seats are those for the Committee, so as he swings the portal open, the remainder charge in like Henry V’s rabble army storming Harfleur. Inside the drinking fortress, a scene erupts that even Sir John Falstaff would find a little too raucous. Once the purpose of the evening has been officially announced, all the knighted men are allowed to shout Sir name suggestions. Not that it’s all chaotic clamouring. An enthusiastic but marshalled debate will ensue in response to every reasonable proposal, with the Committee leading the discussion as dissenters in the crowd mumble their disapprovals. Because of the open nature of the process, choosing the name for a new member of the Order can take all night. Giving someone a new identity they will bear for life is a grave responsibility.
In simple cases, where there is only one person who has a particular job, they often end up being made knight of their profession. Sir Milk is our one and only milkman. Sir Post runs the village post office. Sir Head is the head teacher of the village school. Of course, when someone does not have a unique job, this method is no longer appropriate. Sir Huge is one of over a dozen farm labourers in the village – they can’t all be Sir Tractor. Other farm labourers include Sir Red Cheeks, Sir Wingnut and Sir Snotnose – physical characteristics being a reliable method for deciding a nickname among the better represented trades. As a rule, the later it gets, the more creative people become. A mate of mine stopped growing when he was five feet tall. Women usually like taller men but this guy never had a problem with the ladies. By the age of twenty-one, he’d shagged half the ignoble girls in the village and dozens from further afield. Names suggested throughout his late-running investiture included Sir Valentiny, Sir Gnomeo and Sir Humpa Humpa. In the end, way past midnight, he was dubbed Sir Casagnoma. The best nights are always the long ones. The more difficult a nut is to crack, the longer we stay, the more drunk we become and the sillier the names get. In the early hours, when most avenues have been exhausted, the failsafe way to appeal to a tired gathering is to conjure up a word play title. It’s around this time that anxious twenty-one year olds get really nervous. Sir Loin is the butcher’s assistant. We’ve a guy who loves playing practical jokes called Sir Prise; a bloke who’s backed out of every fight challenge he’s ever received called Sir Render; a know-it-all who never admits he’s wrong call Sir Tayne and the village traffic warden is called Sir Charge. Although some villagers admittedly come off badly from the naming ceremony, receiving a title and pseudonym is a fundamental part of our village life, so it’s all taken within a pinch of salt. What matters is the effect, not the detail.
People from my village don’t go on holiday as individuals or even families. We travel by the coachload. If there is ever any trouble, we are Musketeers: “All for one and one for all”. This unwritten rule also applies at sporting events. If a fight breaks out on the rugby pitch, it’s the “one in, all in” call of Willie John McBride’s 1974 Lions tour to South Africa. If a member of an opposition team wants to pick on one of our smallest – it’s instantly fifteen against fifteen as every man on the park charges, fists clenched, into battle. If things get really nasty the reserves plough into the opposition’s reserves as well. I can even remember an under-nineteen’s game when our coach was looking after his two year-old daughter on the day a fight broke out. He ran across the field of play/combat, cradling his toddler under his left arm as if she was a diamond-encrusted rugby ball, and floored the loud-mouthed opposition supporter who’d incited the violence with an overhead right. We are more than villagers who share the same second line on our addresses: we are an extended feudal family, brothers in arms, Knights of The Garter. Our tradition is the glue that binds us together and it has been going on for as long as anyone can remember. Sir Apprentice-Farrier, the oldest man in the village, says his great grandfather was a knight. But in every long and proud history there is always an ugly smudge, a stain on the records. Ours was Martin. He didn’t want to play ball.
Martin is two years older than me. I’d admired him as I grew up. He was one of those boys you could always sense the man in. At fourteen he behaved like he was eighteen or even twenty-one; forgoing pubescent rough and tumble or the pursuit of girls for higher aspirations. He distanced himself from village politics and never dealt in gossip. He was very bright and studied hard. At seventeen, he was the first person from our village to win a place at the country’s top university – to study law. We were such a proud fraternal bunch that a street party was held to celebrate his acceptance letter. As the sun set on our rustic horizon, he stood on the end of the assembled long table reciting poetry. He was, on that day, our own Richard Burton. Some say Richard Burton was a gay Welshman because he preferred women to rugby. Well Martin was a gay villager because he preferred the brash lure of the big city to the close companionship of the rural idyll that had nurtured him.
We never saw Martin during his studies. He stayed in the city all year round, working weekends and holidays in a five star hotel so that he could buy more books. Occasionally he’d return to the village late of an evening, parking his two-seater sports car outside his Mum’s house while his old mates were supping in The Nickname. We’d notice his flash motor as we stumbled homewards but it would be gone before any of us could catch up with him the next day, let alone invite him out for a beer the following evening. Despite his elusive nature, we never expected him to miss the one event he’d been groomed for; his coming of age, the recognition that he had left the huddles of boys to join the ranks of men – his dubbing. On the day of his twenty-first birthday we all crowded into The Nickname and waited for the village’s black sheep to return to the fold. He didn’t. We still drank of course, the knighted ones debating a name for him in absentia: Sir Shithead, Sir No-Fucking-Roots, Sir Totally Disrespectful and the inappropriately Anglo-Saxon, Sir Cunt. He was never bequeathed any of those monikers. As bitter as we all were at his desertion, the whole point of the process is to have the newly appointed one among you as the ceremony takes place. Half the fun of a dubbing is witnessing the soon-to-be nobleman squirming in response to, or vigorously challenging suggestions they’re not happy about. Martin didn’t deserve a Sir name. He had contravened the protocol, undermined our way of life.
After failing to appear, we stopped even mentioning him. His name didn’t exist in our village any more. Then, when he was twenty-four and a bit, his road building uncle Sir Vey died when the handbrake failed on the steamroller he’d been using as sunshield during a summer day’s siesta. The unnamed one came back for his uncle’s wake, which began in his aunt’s house and ended up in The Nickname. We spent several hours drinking to the memory of his uncle. It gradually got darker outside and the Ladies of the village slowly disappeared into the night. When the church clock struck eleven, there were only men left in the local’s bar. And the lounge bar was deserted. We all looked to Sir Beer to see if there was going to be a lock-in. Like a ringmaster he boomingly proclaimed, “Well boys, if you fancy a few more, we could always devote a couple of hours drinking time to working out this recalcitrant’s nickname.” There was a huge room- shaking, roaring cheer of approval. Pint glasses were thrust aloft sending airborne contents raining down on us like liquid confetti. Our reactionary city slicker shot to his feet like a Methodist preacher surrounded by sinners and looked towards the door. It was kicked shut by Sir Huge.
Realising that forcing his way out was not an option, the legal wordsmith resorted to the clever tongue of his profession. He didn’t want to be rude, he explained. He told us that he respected all the villagers. He thought the dubbing was a quaint tradition and a wonderful part of village life for those who willingly participated in it. He assured us that he would always continue to refer to men in the village using their Sir Names, as they so deigned. But personally subscribing to this outdated practice was not for him. He practised law in the capital, where he complied to and actively upheld a different code of conduct – the laws of our nation. Due to his position in society, and by virtue of his chosen career, it was entirely improper, he insisted, for him to be given a Sir name.
To this day in the village, he is known as Sir No-Nickname.
(This and 44 other short stories in A damaged boy – free until 1 Jan 2018.)