It’s Thursday and still nobody has called. Is my freelance career taking a turn for the worse? I check the emails again. Nothing. Then at midday the phone rings. An invitation at last. Eileen Barker, the world expert on religious movements and the founder of INFORM, the organisation which has done so much to beat off the dafter claims made by those who wish to label all such movements as dangerous cults, wants to know if I’d be free to address a conference jointly organised by INFORM. “Of course,” I say gratefully. It sounds an easy enough gig. I can give my rather well-worn talk on the decline of the secularisation thesis and tuck in some suggestions about how humanists might confront the newer forms of religiosity.

Martin Rowson's cartoon of Laurie Taylor for New Humanist, May/June 2008But there’s more to the invitation. Eileen explains that about a third of the audience won’t have English as a first language. Delegates are arriving from all over the world. I tell her that’s still fine. I’ll remember to speak slowly and leave out my Melvyn Bragg joke.

”One more thing,” she says. “There will also be some members of new religions in the room. You know, some Scientologists, some Moonies, some Hare Krishna, maybe a few pagans.” My head begins to swim. I try to recover with a small joke. “No Satanists, then?” Not actual Satanists, Eileen admits. “But a few students of Satanism. And then, of course, a few militant anti-cultists who want to denounce everyone else.”

”Is that all?” I ask. “Not quite,” says Eileen. “You’ll be speaking during a medieval banquet. I thought it would be relaxing for the delegates after a long day listening to academic papers.”

Five weeks later I find myself standing in a cellar below a building in St Katherine’s Dock. In the narrow catacombs to my right and left sit the assembled audience, some of them already dressed in the mock medieval clothes which they’ve have been handed by the “wenches” who’re going to be part of the pageant promised in the brochure. I begin with the only trope I’ve been able to muster. I tell them that theirs is a most unusual conference. It is, I say, much as though a conference of criminologists had decided to flesh out their number by inviting along a selection of burglars and murderers. It doesn’t get a laugh. One small group in the gloom on my right look positively displeased. Have I upset the Moonies already?

Somehow I lumber on. “Thank goodness I’ve never been a member of a cult,” I say. And then tell them about the years I spent as a member of the International Socialists. My attempt at irony is misplaced. A man with a hood over his head on my right makes a retching noise. Is it me or the warm cider which has been served up as the first course?

I sit down to muted applause. Perhaps I can now relax. Enjoy some academic conversations about the contents of the conference. Talk to the man from Canberra about Falun Gong, chat to the delegate from Amsterdam about his latest work on Aleister Crowley, even see if I can strike up some sort of rapport with a couple of real life Jehovah’s Witnesses. (How will they react when someone calls on them?)

But no sooner am I seated that the medieval revelries begin. From the back of the room appear a motley collection of slightly bored-looking actors wearing unconvincing period costume who invite members of the audience to don hand-me-down cloaks and join in some perverse approximation of medieval dancing. In between turning away a wench who’s trying to force me into a monk’s habit I manage to start a desultory conversation with a bearded man who is studying new religious movements in Russia. But it’s no use. The decibel level increases as a distinctly under-nourished Henry VIII takes centre stage and urges us all to “quaff” the sickly cider on the table whilst shouting “wassail” and banging the tables as hard as we can. “Wassail. Wassail,” shout the delighted delegates, banging their fists on the long tables.

I stagger outside. How can I escape with dignity? A sudden bout of plague? An accidental fall into the dock? I look round and spot a delegate lighting up. “What’s your area?” I ask. “Witchcraft,” he tells me. “The differences between past and present Wicca practices. You interested?” “Not very,” I admit wearily. “But tell you what. Right at this very moment I’d be more than happy to give you fifty quid for a magic broomstick.” He gives me an old-fashioned pin-sticking look. Time to go. “Wassail,” I shout back over my shoulder as I head back down the stairs. “Wass-fucking-ail.”