Friday, January 1, 2010

The Heart of Dartness

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.

Happy New Year. And may the darts be with you.

Dan - Friday


  1. Fantastic! We Americans just don't know a sport when we see it. It takes true talent to compete drunk.

    All kidding aside, I think I'll take in a match next time I'm in London. Thanks for the unique New Year's Day post!


  2. If it became an Olympic sport, every country in the world would jump in. Elite athletes competing in pubs, with "stiffeners" paid for by loyal fans, would make the game an international sensation.

    There are a lot of transplanted Irish in my area so there are a few tournaments. Wouldn't those lads love something on the scale of the event on New Year's Day! Darts and Guinness are natural partners; after all the slogan is "Guinness is good for you".

    Training in the ambience of a pub beats that of an ice rink at 5:00 am or a muddy football field in a snowstorm in November.

    By the way, Dan, I asked my tall, dark, 23 year old son, if he would be "first foot" for me last night. I have always asked my kids to stay wherever they are partying on New Year's Eve because of the number of impaired drivers on the road. He told me if he came to bring me good luck, he would be breaking my rule. It's always annoying when they throw the rules back at you.

  3. The Heart of Dartness indeed.
    Happy New Year.

  4. Leighton - You left out "And may the darts be with you."

  5. Michele, make sure you do take in a game. At the very least check the sport channel to see if one is on. It makes for unique viewing.

    Beth, kids huh? On the subject of darts tournaments and the Irish, and went to one in Dublin and it was a very bibulous experience. Craic and arrows - a perfect combination.

    Leighton, sorry, but the game has that effect on a guy. I felt a pang as I left Alexandra Palace the other night. After all, darting is such sweet sorrow...

  6. OhmyGod,
    Lookit that everbody.
    Don Waddell just did it again!

  7. It will be great to watch The Wizard Of Oz, i have bought tickets from looking forward to it.

  8. In keeping with the (inspired) title . . .

    The dart player's favorite college: Dartmouth
    Favorite literary character: D'Artagnan
    Saint: Jeanne D'Art
    Indirect mode of travel: Darting hither and yon

    In short, OUCH, but I wish I'd thought of it.