At Bouchercon this Autumn I had a few drinks with fellow writer David Levien. We'd shared a panel at the Harrogate Crime Festival in the summer, and both of us had just lost out on winning an award, so we were commiserating and convincing each other it was an honoured to be nominated etc.
He perked up when I asked what he thought of the UK on his visit. His main remembrance wasn't adverse weather, or warm beer, or endless cups of tea - it was watching professional darts on television. In the US, he said, darts was a pub game, no more. He couldn't believe thousands of people would pack into an arena like they do in the UK to watch the back of two men throwing tiny spears at a board.
I smiled. Every New Year I go to Alexandra Palace in London to watch the World Darts Championships. I grew up with the game. My father commentates on the 'action' for television and I've been going along since I was a kid. I've seen it grow from a glorified pub game in to a big business. The players are fighting it out for £1 million prize money. Four of five thousand people will cram in to watch them, many of them in fancy dress (my favourite was the guy last year dressed as a chicken, a sign hung around his neck saying 'Eat Beef.') They will drink gallons and gallons of beer but, unlike other games or sports such as football where English sport fans congregate and drink, there will be no hint of trouble. Just lots and lots of singing and drinking. Think of a cross between the Munich Beerfest and the coliseum at Rome, or a giant boy scout jamboree with ale.
The players used to drink and smoke on stage as they played but TV and sponsorship cleaned that up. That doesn't stop them taking a quick swallow before they go on, however. I find it bizarre and amusing that in darts you can be banned for taking a drug such as marijuana or cocaine (yes, they are tested) but you are allowed to play under the influence of countless drinks. Some of the players, who learned the game in pubs, claim they can't play without a couple of stiffeners to steady their throwing hand.
The kitsch atmosphere is given extra lustre by the way the TV company produce their broadcast. Dry ice swirls around the stage, pounding rock music blares out, an announcer bellows out their name boxing-bout style...and from the shadows emerges a tubby chap with a sheepish grin. All the players are given wrestling-style nicknames, usually some excruciating pun to do with their names, such as Kevin 'The Artist' Painter or Denis 'The Heat' Ovens, or their nationality - Jamie 'Bravedart' Harvey is from Scotland, Simon 'The Wizard of Oz' Whitlock from Australia.
Debate rages among sports fans about whether it is actually a sport. Yet no one in darts cares much. They like what they do and so do the paying public if the growing crowds are anything to go by, and they don't lose sleep over whether it is a true sport. There have been calls, with 2012 fast approaching, for darts to be included in the London Olympics. I hate to think what Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics, would think. Though with 14 times world champion Phil 'The Power' Taylor proving virtually unbeatable, the UK would at least be guaranteed one Gold medal.
Still, more fun than watching synchronized swimming. Now there's a sport that probably makes more sense drunk.
Anyway, off to get my glad rags on - it's quarter finals night at Ally Pally and the joint will be jumping.