Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Phoole's Pilgrimage, Part 5: The Festival of Fools Begins!

Photos by Tom Charney - An unstable girl in a stable yard

(This chapter continues the tale from where I left off here. Click here to get all of the chapters in the story so far.)

Bright sunshine and deep blue skies awoke us Sunday morning. We crept down to Creeping Kate's Kitchens for breakfast. Like all good castles, Muncaster has converted their stables to an eatery, with some of the stall partitions still standing to divide the dining room into cozy little nooks. At breakfast, we both ate cereal with milk, which we cannot do at home -- there's something about American milk that makes both Tom and I quite ill! But UK milk has no adverse effect on us whatever. It's the little things.

On our way back up to our room in the Coachman's Quarters, I had a little reunion with the thoroughly-upstanding Joel Dickinson and the excellent Iain McNicol (who doesn't have a webpage, as far as I can tell, but why not nip over to the FaceBook and ask to be his friend?), who would also be performing throughout the entire Festival. Joel was there to do his gently-brilliant interactive walkaround juggling, tricks and magic gig, having added some delightful sleight-of-hand since we last played together in 2007, and running Circus Workshops for the patrons at intervals throughout the day in the big marquee tent on the stable-yard lawn. And Iain coordinated the other walkarounds and contributed his own very funny performance as his rustic local farmer character, complete with bunny puppet. I felt a bit of an idiot not recognizing Iain right away when we encountered him that morning -- the last time I'd seen him, we'd both been in biggins-caps, the wearing of which impairs my memory greatly. But it was great to see them again. It was yet another little confirmation that I hadn't just dreamed my first trip; it had actually happened, and there are extant witnesses.

I took a moment to freak out over the fantastic poster of me hanging in the stable yard on the front of the gift shop. Thanks to Muncaster's PR Guru, I am even more super-unbelievably-internationally-famous than ever. And the PR Guru's name? Quite coincidentally, it is Steve Bishop. Phooligans and Phoole Friends who have been with me through my entire career will remember a different Stephen Bishop, who used to be the Bristol Renaissance Faire's head costumer, and who used to portray the Russian Ambassador to Elizabeth's Court. He had hilarious eating habits, it will be remembered. Muncaster's Steve Bishop has a diametrically-opposed temperament to the Russian Ambassador of yore; he's rather reserved and quiet, and it's very funny to Tom and I that such different people have the same name.


And then we were out with the guests! I'm completely spoiled for UK audiences: at the very least, patrons at Muncaster humor Jane the Phoole, responding to assumptions with assumptions of their own, and it makes me work to keep up with their clever inventiveness. Very rarely do UK patrons refuse interaction -- small children may be shy at a first encounter with my very-overdressed character, but every grownup we met was ready to incorporate me into their world, with handy comebacks at every turn. I enthused wildly about the temperament of Muncaster guests here on my last voyage, and the 2010 Festival of Fools guests didn't disappoint!

We enjoyed a hilarious act by Jason the Juggling Jester, who had been one of the competitors in 2007 (when I made my own feeble attempt). His show has really grown. It's extremely funny, has lots of hilarious audience-interaction moments, and I wish I had a website for him to tag with little videos all over it, just to share it with you -- we genuinely dug his show, and I hope he's there the next time we're there. His act is tight timewise, and his running gags are endearing, slightly dangerous, and very fun!

Meanwhile, this was Tom's first visit to Muncaster, and the sights filled his eyes and heart with wonder, as they always do mine. Here are some vistas, courtesy the camera of MBTC:

Our window, and the blue sky that greeted us Sunday morning.

The Nose Bag, a little snack shop in the Stable Yard.

Ancient Stable Yard wall.

Coachmen's Quarters.

Skylights and chimney-stacks over Creeping Kate's Kitchens.

Another view out another window in our room.


The road separating the Owlery (left) from the Coachmen's Quarters (right). Our rooms were up on top; our windows were the four furthest on top.

A pond, home to ducks and a few geese.




Can you even stand it? I can't. Makes the heart skip a beat every time.


It just looks like that. Really. But more so.

In the left foreground, you can see just an edge of the glorious ancient rhododendron plant that's over 150 years old. It's huge and beautiful.



The clock on the castle works properly and marks the hours with a clear chime. Back home, Tom and I rely on our mobile phones (and his nifty TokyoFlash watches) to tell us the time, but we could barely get any mobile signal at the castle, and Tom was Fasso Latido most of the trip, so we came to rely on the castle bells for the hours, especially as the position of the sun was completely unreliable as a time-telling tool, since the sun stays up in the sky much longer there than it does in the Midwest US. The "magic hour" photographers crave at dusk lasts much longer than an hour in Cumbria. The chiming of the clock was just another one of those covetous, authentic little history-glimpses for which we live.

We met a variety of hilarious guests that day, including a rowdy table of holidaymakers who pointed to one of their number and said, "Oi! He's a knight, you know. Knighted yesterday. No, honestly he was!" I turned to the fellow they'd indicated, and he confirmed, "Yep, I'm Sir Mike now."

I had to laugh, because back home, I get that a lot! US audiences are fascinated with obvious class-based social systems. US society spends so much effort pretending to be egalitarian; when US audiences get a chance to goof off, they like to openly acknowledge the class systems they secretly covet. So when patrons back home announce themselves as royalty or nobility, I take it in stride, and I often beat them to it by making up outrageous titles and new names. I think I learned this particular habit from T. Stacy Hicks, when I found him naming audience women "Lady Iphigenia Throgbottom" and so on. "Rumbleseat" is another favorite surname of his. I've stolen that gag, haven't I? Well, I will give him some of my gags in return when we next convene, and maybe we can call it even.

But it was odd to encounter UK patrons naming themselves with glamorous titles. "Sir Mike?" I giggled. "Please can't I call you 'Sir Michael,' just so it sounds more proper? It's a bit like calling you 'Sir Jeff' or 'Sir Steve.' It just doesn't flow somehow." Fasso and Jane had fun goofing with that whole group -- they were lively and silly and kept us entertained too.

As the crowd began to thin toward three o'clock, we wandered back to the castle proper, where we accepted the little audio-tour hand-transmitter thingies and made our way through the hallowed halls of the beautiful old place. I took my own Tom Fool to see the famous panel painting of Thomas Skelton, fool to the Penningtons in the late 16th century and early 17th century, the Fool who inspired the Festival.

On the stairs up to Tom Fool's painting, we were alarmed to find three genuine Canova relief panels which I'd somehow missed during my last visit -- I've now been in the presence of actual Canova sculptures in five different countries, including the Vatican. We discovered a portrait of Dame Askew upstairs, dated "1574" right on the painting, which made us hyperventilate a bit, because, as we like to say at the Bristol Renaissance Faire, we've been doing "1574 since 1989." (Learn all about the Pennington family history here.) And in the Tapestry Room, we had little heart attacks upon scrutinizing the fireplace, discovering the date "1588" inscribed in the back panels, with maritime-themed andirons and decorations. Despite the fact that one of Tom's characters, Sir Ralph Sadleir, died in 1588, that year makes the heart leap for us Elizabethan enthusiasts, being the year of the defeat of the Armada.

While we were having our minds blown by the fireplace, a patron scooted past the doorway to the room, stopped, came back and did a big double-take. We turned around to grin at him with the little audio-tour gadgets in our hands, and he laughed in surprise. "I thought you were waxworks!" he said. "You look perfect in this room, you know?" And we did.

We took in as much of the castle as we could, and when we realized we were the only non-Penningtons left in the building, we grudgingly trudged toward the door. But we spent a few delightful minutes chatting with Phyllida Pennington and Patrick Gordon-Duff-Pennington (I like including their surnames because I love all of the hyphens. I have a hyphen in my first name, and I just giggle over any hyphenated names, especially surnames with more than one hyphen). Phyllida, alarmingly, had been working the door at the castle. She is young at heart, to be certain, but of advanced years, and it was sobering to realize that, as much privilege as the family enjoyed in prior centuries and generations, now the castle's maintenance is a great deal of hard work, and the entire family is devoted to the estate's intense upkeep and elaborate events. Patrick loves the gardens wholeheartedly, and those gardens are a lot to love, especially as the entire vasty estate exceeds eighty acres and includes hundreds of diverse species. And Phyllida dons her kirtle, wimple and veil and acts the part charmingly as she welcomes guests to tour the halls. Tom and I admire them intensely, and it was humbling and invigorating to be able to chat with them, however briefly. We didn't want to make their day any longer than it needed to be, though, so we excused ourselves after a bit and went to enjoy the waning sun on the cannon bank.

Here I'm taking in the sight of the gigantic rhododendron I've mentioned above. The thing is epic in scale! And when one's wearing 20 yards of upholstery fabric, one wants to sit on as many low stone walls as possible. It's just what's done.

We toddled back toward the stable-yard lawn to see what stragglers were left after the day's entertainments, and we were delighted to find that most of the patrons we'd seen all day were still there, lazing about on the lawn, practicing circus tricks they'd learned from Joel's workshops during the day, and drinking a last pint while listening to the big sound of the Holborn Hill Royal Brass Band, which we greatly enjoyed. Sadie commanded us to have pints, so, knowing her to be quite fierce, we obeyed quickly, and basked in marches and overtures by the marquee while chatting with Sadie and Stuart, a production manager at the castle who loves gorillas. We talked monkey and gorilla behavior extensively, and it was one of those perfect times you remember for the rest of your life: brass band, Tom Fool Ale from the Jennings Brewery, marquee, lawn, happy people, and talk of all kinds of monkeys and apes.

During the happiness, though, we realized we'd forgotten to eat supper, and we'd also failed to ask the kitchens to send plates up to our room for us. So once we dragged ourselves back to the Coachman's Quarters to change (and wash the glue out of my hair, as mentioned in my 2007 tale here), we decided to try to walk into Ravenglass to get a bite at the Ratty Arms.

While the walk was scenic and beautiful and perfect, it was also long -- it took us an hour to climb the hills and descend the valleys along the narrow road, dodging fast cars on unaccustomed sides of the road (it was only our second day abroad), and by the time we made the Arms, the kitchen there had closed as well. So we resigned ourselves to -- more pints! And a packet of crisps. We took our meager supper out on the deck by the La'al Ratty narrow-gauge railway.

After a short while, a woman came out of the Arms, chatting on her phone, and presently we recognized her as having been part of the "Sir Mike" party earlier that day! We wondered if she would recognize us "out of drag." I caught her eye at one point and smiled, and asked her, "Did you enjoy the Castle today?" She looked puzzled for a fraction of a second; then realization popped her eyes wide, and she hung up on her call, saying, "I've gotta go - there are entertainers from the Castle here!" and she promptly sat down with us, grinning madly.

She looked Tom in the eyes and commanded, "All right. Talk to me. In your voice." Tom carried on with his Fasso-standard Chico Marx impression, and she shook her head broadly. "No no, I want to hear how you sound. What do you really talk like?" Tom smiled and said, in his best John Lennon voice, "Should I pretend to be from Liverpool?" She looked grave and admonished, "Oh no. Don't do that. No. You shouldn't. Come on!" And we gave in and talked like Americans from Milwaukee, introducing ourselves in real life. Her name's Mo, and she's married to Sir Mike!

I had to know why everyone in their party was insisting he was called "Sir Mike," and she told us a Most Surprising Tale of Heroism and Gallantry!

Mo and Mike live on Piel Island, which has a fascinating history, and, curiously, has its own King. Not surprisingly, the ancient and scenic island welcomes many tourists, and it happened that on that Monday, a vicar from somewhere else in the UK had been visiting Piel Island. The vicar had had some kind of accident and had fallen into the water, and he would have drowned if Mike hadn't leapt into the foam and SAVED HIS LIFE. For real. And the King of Piel Island had knighted Mike, making him Sir Mike, a Knight of Piel Island.

I immediately felt like a Giant Jerk for having made fun of Sir Mike before, and I said so. "No, he enjoyed you immensely!" Mo reassured me. But I asked Mo to convey to Sir Mike my admiration and assure him that, had I not assumed him to be like the faux-knights of home, I would have deferred to him much more mightily! We chatted on with Mo for a good bit more, and she told us all about the Furness Peninsula and Barrow and the charming and relaxing sights to see and things to do there. On our next trip, we really must include a day or two visiting the area. Mo said, "Just mention Mo and Mike when you're there; everyone knows us." I felt certain that was true.

And then she returned to her party, grinning, and we realized we'd had several pints and not a lot to eat -- and that the walk home was going to be long and silly! And it was. As we tottered back toward the road, a black cat appeared out of nowhere (black cats are good luck in British superstition, I'm told) and ran up to Tom directly, as if saying, "Oh, Tom's here! There you are, Tom!" He has that power over most animals; it's as if he's known throughout the Jungian unconscious of all critters, and they're really excited when they get to meet him in real life. We saw another cat further down the road, as we struggled up the farmland hills near Muncaster, but that cat was firmly feral, regarding us for the briefest of moments, just registering Tom's presence for a second, then lunging back into the tall grass, hunting a vole or some other little running furry thing.

We got back to our comfortable room and collapsed, and that was our first day at the Festival of Fools! In the next chapter, we'll meet a Dog Called Smiley, get mistaken for the King and Queen of Muncaster, and have even more silly adventures. Click back often!

No comments: