7

Pub Review: The Bunch of Cherries, Hertfordshire, AL4 0XG

bunch

Telling stories in the pub.

A distant Friday.

Staff from Nicholas Breakspear RC School (named for the only English pope) around a sticky table, torn crisp packets, glasses up and down like Eiffel Tower elevators.

Fiona, my beautiful, now departed friend tells the story of a study tour to Russia. She was a fine raconteur: comical, self-deprecating, a contagiously animated narrator. At school, Fiona had been assigned as my mentor. I was in good hands. I miss her.

Local sixth form students. Saint Petersburg accommodation in a grey block, the building sinister and cavernous. Unshaven men, whispering in hoarse conspiracies, Stalinist treachery lurking like toxins.

Fiona then recounts this conversation with a pair of students, both eighteen, both built like men, but with boyish hearts.

“Where did you two get to last night?” Fiona asked, in that direct, yet gentle way she had.

“Well, Miss, Billy and I went for a walk, you know, around the motel.” Henry kicked at the frozen ground.

“Then we somehow ended up in the basement.”

Fiona was curious. Not mad, just yet. “What was in the basement?”

“Well, Miss, there was a club. Yeah, I guess you’d call it a club,” Henry offered.

Fiona continued. Still not mad. She rarely got mad. Everyone loved her. “And what happened next?”

“There was a huge man at the door of the club.”

“Like a bouncer?”

“Yeah, Miss.”

“Henry, was it an adult club?” Fiona had a way that quietly extracted the truth. She made the kids feel safe.

“Well, yeah, Miss. It was a strip club.”

“Henry, this is a problem.”

“Yeah, I guess, Miss. But the bouncer let us in for half-price,” he chirped, pride swelling his chest.

“Why?”

“Because we’re still at school!”

*

We lived in St Albans, just north of London, in Hertfordshire, and there were eighty pubs! The older ones, in the city centre, are charismatic, and gorgeous. Simply strolling through a door can be a celestial experience.

The Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, down the hill from the Cathedral, dates back twelve hundred years. It’s the country’s oldest pub. Others like The Six Bells are enticing antique taverns, with exposed beams and squat ceilings and rugby murmurings.

six bells

My Friday afternoon pub, The Bunch of Cherries, up the road from my school, was built in the 1950’s on the outskirts of town. Architecturally, it had less allure than an abattoir. It was of a style that could be called “Red Brick Hideous.”

But, for the thirty months we lived there, I loved it.

I recently found a yellowing receipt from one of those Fridays during June when life was freshly abounding. With the transaction complete and diverse glasses plonked on the table, I fell into my chair: physically, psychically and fiscally powerless to speak or sip. In time, I recovered.

six bells bar

It was tremendous fun.

As you will note, it was an elongated shout, and offers insight into this ample and eclectic crew-

Two pints of lager (Carlsberg)
Two pints of Real Ale (Black Sheep Best Bitter)
A half pint of lager (Stella Artois)
Two glasses of New World Chardonnay (South Eastern Australia)
One glass of Old World white wine (suitably vague)
A rum and coke
A nip of brandy
Two bottles of orange juice (small)
A house champagne
A gin and tonic
Three ginger beers (diet)
A mineral water
A pot of black tea
Six packets of crisps
One chip butty

I can’t recall if there were TVs showing football replays, or piped music (doubtless Robbie Williams, the Bug-Eyed Yelper), or other distractions. This, of course, is high praise for the Cherries, as conversation is the ECG of a merrily functioning boozer.

Beyond several tonnes of pork scratchings, Walkers crisps, and peanuts I didn’t eat a meal there, ever. It wasn’t that sort of pub. There was a wobbly, self-imposed curfew which barred the communal breaking of bread. So, I can offer no analysis of its bangers and mash; nor its scampi, chip and peas; nor its gammon steak and eggs.

Home was by Verulamium Park, three miles away by bike through Fleetville, The Camp and Cottonmill. I’d take the Alban Way, a former rail line and now cycle path, popular among misshapen youth for torching stolen Vauxhalls and scooters. Seared metal skeletons are oddly attractive when covered in snow.

Alban Way 2

But, at 4pm of a Friday with the summer sun still high in the pale Home Counties sky, or with the sleety dark rattling the Christmas windows, it was a bright place to invest a jovial hour with the folks from work. Folks with whom I shared a vivid, momentary corridor.

*

Nearly a decade after leaving we visited one January with our boys, who tore about in the pub as boys will do, to the constant horror of their parents and the indifference of most others.

Only the red brick exterior remained. Inside had been renovated, but in a disingenuous way. Now superficially stylish and too polished, as if it would soon have souring aspirations, it had been renamed The Speckled Hen.

My disenchantment was exaggerated for it was a Tuesday. For me, the Friday stories at the Bunches of Cherries were long finished. But they had been magnificent, a cheery symbol of an enchanted time.

Of course, the worst pub in town just might have been the best.

glasses

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Wunka: The Greatest Joke in the World. Ever.

Verulamium Park

It’s a summery afternoon. A day when just north of London life bursts with promise and elemental excitement, and the good earth itself buzzes with obvious health.

Close your eyes. You’re standing on an ancient, attractive street, watching a parade. There’s innocent sound, and a kaleidoscope of floats and performers.

Then down the St Albans’ high street it comes, still fuzzy in the distance. It nears and you realise. Like a diorama, or comedy sketch, or somehow, you’ve been granted three witty wishes, and here’s the first going past right now. Right in front of you, it’s your favourite ever joke, made material.

Instantly, you’re crying with laughter. Tears of the most spectacular, rare joy and neither you nor your wife can speak.

crying

Yes, it’s a bear on the roof of a car. It’s a moment.

*

I often think back to those first six months in St Albans. When our hire car eased into a most English town we’d never visited. We later learnt it was home to Stephen Hawking. And Benny Hill.

Renting a cosy townhouse at The Brambles just across from Verulamium Park, we had no mobile phones, no Internet, and no TV. In 2003, how did we live in such a spartan way?

Because we had no need for these as everything was new and thrilling: our life in England; our rejuvenating jobs; our fresh marriage. Possibility was everywhere.

Brambles

Each night we’d sit at the round table in our cosy living room. I’d put Jazz FM on the radio and we’d talk of our schools, our European travel plans, and our family and friends across the dark ocean.

It was great.

There were thirty million people within an hour’s drive, and we were in a continent of 727 million.

But, all we needed in that former Roman city was just the two of us. It was an enchanted, alluring time.

*

Up north. A distant age.

The gruff father announces, “Alright, lad. It’s your birthday. What would you like to do? It’s your day!”

The wide-eyed boy chirps, “Really, Da’? Anything! Can we go to fair?”

“The fair it is! It’s your day!”

And so off they went, Da’ and lad, in their little family car, to the village fair. Once there Da’ declares, “Here we are at fair, lad. What would you like to do? It’s your day!”

The boy beams, “Wow. Can I have toffee apple?”

Da’ nods. “Yes, you can. It’s your day!”

Strolling around the fairgrounds with the pale northern sun falling across them, the boy eats his toffee apple. It’s sticky and sweet. Da’ then asks, “What would you like to do now, lad? I want you to ‘ave a good day. It’s your day.”

The boy looks about and points excitedly at sideshow alley. “Da’, Da’, can I go on knock ‘em downs?”

Da’ nods and says, “Of course. It’s your day, lad. I want you to ‘ave a good day.”

The boy runs to the stall, Da’ trailing behind him. The boy has a go on knock ‘em downs, and with his final throw, he wins a giant teddy bear. Da’ says to the boy. “Well done, lad. What will you call ‘im, lad? What a good day!”

The boy screws up his face. He then looks up at his Da’ and says, “I call him Wunka.”

Da’ looks down at the boy, pats him on the head and says, “Alright then. It’s your day, lad. I want you to ’ave good day. Wunka it is.”

After a good day they return to their little car. The shadows are long on this northern earth. Da’ and the boy soon realise that Wunka is too big for the boot and won’t fit inside the jalopy either. A man with practical skills, Da’ gets some rope and ties Wunka to the roof of the car.

They set off for home. Indeed, it’s been a good day.

But the road is potholed and the track to the farm is too rough for the little car. The rope holding Wunka on the car roof starts to loosen.

The car then hits a large bump, and out of the corner of his eye the boy suddenly sees a blur as something bounces behind them. “Da’ Da’!” he cries. “Wunka’s off! Wunka’s off!”

Da’ answers, “Come on lad! You’ve had a good day.”

bear

12

Park life

cocks.png

Tell me about your perfect park.

Rambling, grassy expanses? Babbling brook? Ornamental lake? Roman ruins? Golf course? One of the planet’s oldest pubs? Yep, I hear you. Just over a decade ago this was our local park.

Verulamium Park is on the site of the Roman city in St Albans, north of London. We lived a short walk away, and most weekends we spent time there. We’d take our dog Roxy on a lap of the lake, and on summer Sundays we’d sometimes throw out the picnic rug and an hour or two would drift by.

Every now and then when we had visitors from Australia, I’d pump up my Sherrin and take them for a dob. This would telegraph our nationality, and more than once a passing voice would holler, “You boys from Australia. Melbourne?” We’d shake our heads and retort, “Adelaide.”

Around Christmas the lake would freeze over and tapping the glassy plane by the bank I’d marvel at the thickness of the ice. On Sunday mornings pub teams played soccer, and I’d wonder about how different life might be if I’d grown up in this compact, beautiful city.

And now five paragraphs in I turn to the pubs. On the western perimeter of the park is the village of St Michaels and the neighbouring inns: The Rose and Crown, provider excellence of club sandwiches, and The Six Bells into which we took Roxy one February afternoon as the Six Nations rugby flickered on the television. There, waiting was a bowl of water. She ignored it, and raised her leg instead.

The Ye Olde Fighting Cocks dates from 793AD. Bill Bryson once wrote of his expectant joy at turning the key to a new hotel room, and I always felt a similar frisson strolling into the Cocks. The huge fireplace and the tiny nooks in which to sit with a pint. Not only is it a pub, but it’s a museum, and a theme park. It’s my favourite real-estate.

*

And now back in Australia with two boys and two dogs? A half wedge from home? Newly renovated? Fully enclosed?

The Old Gum Tree Reserve is now, again, our local. During the three years we were in Singapore the former Catholic Church and long-empty school were purchased by the council, and half the land was added to the existing park while the rest now hosts six houses. I reckon this is terrific.

Among the inclusions is a flying fox, and Alex and Max love it. Of course, simply going up and back holds marginal appeal and they’ve devised methods of use which maximise personal danger. Did I mention that within a two year span they collectively broke their arm on four occasions? All in playgrounds- Bali, school, our condo and under the Singapore Flier. I could affix a google map, but won’t. Alex is especially proud of a manoeuvre he calls the “Fettuccine of Doom.”  No, he couldn’t explain it to me.

Probably inspired by a desire to escape our seemingly endless winter we had a BBQ in the park one recent Thursday. A simple affair, snags on the gleaming hotplate while the boys surged about, and the dogs Buddy and Angel raced around also learning how to interact with others. I supervised with tongs and beer in hands, like Arnie but without an Austrian accent.

Soon this evolved into a weekly event. Is it possible to have too much ritual? I doubt it. The first over on Boxing Day, Derby Day’s opening race, and the entire secular religion accompanying AFL grand final day. Our petite cycle can sit alongside these.

My wife Kerry celebrated a major birthday at the Old Gum Tree, and earlier this year Max turned six with a Sunday party. The seasons roll on and we move from cricket to footy to bikes. Alex and Max wait for the fruit to ripen on the mulberry tree, and steal a few berries before the birds vandalise the rest. More than any other space, private or public, I reckon parks instruct us to ignore the past and the future, and the heaving complex planet, and live only in the moment.

With summer stretching out before us, I’m sure we’ll be down there twice a week.

*

Saturday in the park,

I think it was the Fourth of July

Saturday in the park,

I think it was the Fourth of July

People dancing, people laughing

A man selling ice cream

Singing Italian songs

Everybody is another

Can you dig it (yes, I can)

And I’ve been waiting such a long time

For Saturday

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Mnw9uiYggU

 

 

vp

 

 

0

My best pubs

 

Love a list. Love a pub. Don’t you?

This week the Footy Almanac sought opinion on our favourite pubs. I instantly penned a digital love letter to some cracking watering holes. How could I refuse?

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks- St Albans, Hertfordshire

England’s oldest and most charismatic boozer. Ceiling so low it made me feel like a centre half-forward when I walked in, and most certainly as I left. We lived about a Par 4 away, and invested some time there on weekends. When we returned in 2014 it was the only pub in town we visited twice with Alex and Max.

cocks

The Magpie and Stump- Mintaro, Clare Valley

Gum trees and vineyards; idyllic beer garden. No aural pollution from within or without, just birdsong. Happily by its bar on a rainy Sunday morning before the SANFL grand final I first heard a publican say, “Another cup of tea, Vicar?” which amuses me more than it should.

Prince of Wales- Kapunda, South Australia

Hometown favourite. Colossal former mine host. When I lived five hours away in Kimba, and would visit, he’d greet me with, “Hello, West Coast smack-head.” I knew then that he missed me. Also home of spoofy.

The Kings Inn- Mousehole, Cornwall

Redolent of pirates and rum, romance and treasure. Of course, it’s pronounced Moz-all.

kings

The Exeter- Rundle Street, Adelaide

Eclectic perfection. Once, this happened: Dawn’s closer than dusk. Only Nick and I remain, our Doc Martins moored to the floorboards. He’s from a farm in Shea-Oak Log. We met in school. Years ago, we saw the Rolling Stones at Footy Park.

ex

*

Honourable mentions

The Goat- St Albans, Hertfordshire

The Taminga- Clare

All Nations- Richmond (frequently home to Mick Molloy and Bill Hunter, drinking in concert)

Greenock Tavern- Barossa Valley (mine host Norton, and then Mick)

Lemon Tree- Carlton (sadly now gone; snuck in there when in Melbourne during my mulleted 1980’s)

Seacliff Hotel- Adelaide

*

What’s your top battle-cruiser?

*

The original Footy Almanac post is worth a look and you can find it, and other great stuff here-

Best pubs of all time?

 

 

 

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Fifty

 

chook

 

It’s important to begin by acknowledging my loved ones.

So, thanks to the following publicans: the late Peter “Puffa” Jansen of Kapunda’s Prince of Wales; the assorted landlords of England’s oldest boozer, located in St Albans’ scenic Verulamium Park the Ye Olde Fighting Cocks; and Carlton premiership ruckman, Percy Jones, enigmatic leviathan and mine host of Melbourne’s North Fitzroy Arms.

Good afternoon and welcome. Thanks for coming; especially those who’ve driven some distance, and those who’ve come by penny-farthing.

In 2002 I shared a podium at Ayers House with Dad for my sister Jill’s wedding to my brother-in-law Barry. It was a wonderful occasion. Undertaking my MC duties by including what my wife calls, “charming anecdotes,” I’d saved my best for last.

Yes, you’ve guessed, I was to talk about Jill’s childhood obsession with our backyard chooks. So, my finale read, “Every day when Jill was seven she’d come home from school, and without even coming inside to say hello to Mum, she’d head straight out the back, and drop her bag just by the hen house. Once inside she’d tie a length of string around the neck of the day’s favourite chook, and walk her around the backyard like a clucking, egg-laying hound.”

But prior to me delivering this conclusion Dad was to speak. It gave me great joy to introduce him, saying, “Here’s the father of the bride, my Dad.”

Dad took the stage, and with these words he began, “Every day when Jill was seven she’d come home from school, and without even coming inside to say hello to her Mum, she’d head straight out the back…”

In the words of a former Magarey Medallist, “I want to thank my parents, and especially Mum and Dad.” Thanks to my Mum and Dad for their support, encouragement and opportunities.

I acknowledge the Bureau of Meteorology for giving me the most frightening fifteen minutes of my life in 1988. Back then, you might recall, weather reports featured Kyancutta on the Eyre Peninsula. Beginning my career just up the road from Kyancutta at Wudinna Area School, I naturally assumed that Kyan, as it’s affectionately known, must be the bigger town, and as I passed through it for the first time in my VK Commodore, the boot containing my earthly possessions, I was able to count Kyancutta’s buildings. All of them. 1, 2, er, 3. Done. And one of these was an abandoned shop.

With Billy Joel warbling from the car speakers, I covered those ten kilometres in existential horror, terrified to think what my new hometown must be like. And then I saw the signpost: Wudinna, Population- 574. Whew.

One of my favourite stories was told to me at cricket there. Old mate Craig worked for ETSA, and early one Tuesday morning he was part of a crew working on a powerline in Elliston. Well-known identity Dick wobbled past, and Craig yelled, “Where you going Dick?”

Dick replied, “I’m going to the pub.” Dick liked a drink. A bit too much.

Craig offered, “Gee, it’s a bit early Dick. Nobody’ll be there.” To my endless joy Dick then explained, “No, the bloke what usually serves me, he’ll be there.”

I thank our astonishing boys Alex and Max. Already Alex skills I don’t have, and this is good. It’s the point, isn’t it? Alex has earned his first belt in karate and plays the guitar really well. He already knows Iron Man by Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath. During cricket season he showed a capacity for bowling leg spin which with his blonde hair might best be discouraged. He’s a great kid.

And Max. Max has an amazing capacity for language and wit. He recently said, “Mum, stop being ridiculous.” Mum replied, “You can’t even spell ridiculous, can you?” Max’s eyes sparkled. “Yes I can. M-U-M.” For his world he has an unquenchable curiosity, and I love this. These are two terrific, inspiring, fun boys.

And now I thank my beautiful wife, Kerry-ann, Kezza, Joey. We met early 1995 in Kimba. Like Singo on the punt at Randwick I was onto a winner. I was well positioned. I was twenty-eight and drove a Nissan Exa. With a turbo and a sunroof. In my home I had a CD tower!

But above this, I owned that most seductive accessory of the late twentieth century, the bread machine. With this exotic appliance one morning I made Kerry-ann breakfast. As she ate I asked, with probable over-confidence, “How’s your toast?” I then learned that she is one given, in the manner of many Queenslanders, to what is often called plain speak. She replied, “You’ve not spread the butter evenly, there’s too much vegemite, and the bread is stale.”

I thank her for our boys, and for sharing her life with me. I’m grateful for our adventures in England and Europe, but not Luton, our time in Singapore and Asia, and now, our lives just up the road, by the Old Gum Tree Park, with Alex and Max, and Buddy the dog. I love you.

Finally, I thank: Mick, Keef, Charlie and Bill; the Coopers family- Dr Tim, Max, Glenn, and the grand ancestor Thos; the Adelaide Crows premiership sides of ’97 and ’98; the cast and crew of The Big Lebowski, Apocalypse Now and The Notebook (What? I’ve been hacked! Scrap that last one.); DK Lillee; those at Pizza on Broadway for the large American; Bill Hunter; Frosty Lahood of Frosty Lahood Motors and his no root, no toot offer; everyone I played Mini-League with at the Kapunda Bombers; Bluto, Otter, Boon, Pinto, Flounder, D-Day and those of Delta Tau Chi House; PJ Harvey; the 1998 Group Three Canterbury Cup winner over 2000m Waikikamukau; for his Indianapolis Speech the Great Shark Hunter Quint (You know the thing about a shark, he’s got… lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye); Courtney Barnett; the Kimba Cricket Club; and of course you as you’ve a place in my heart.

A special acknowledgement to those who’ve spoken; it’s humbling and heartening. Thanks to my immediate and extended family for your love and guidance. Disappointingly, there are some dear friends who couldn’t be here today. They’re in some stunning holiday locations: Italy, Bali, Hawaii, and Womma. Enjoy your afternoon.

horse

Here’s the wonderful video my dear friends Claire and Trish made for me-

 

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Hertfordshire: Harry Potter and the Cheeky Half Pint

Ling

In St Albans I thought about two of its celebrated citizens, Benny Hill and Stephen Hawking.

Yeah, you got me. Just Benny Hill.

Colonised by the Romans, who called it Verulamium, it’s just north of London. It’s pretty and historic. When we lived there it had eighty pubs.

*

On the way to Watford is the Warner Brothers studio tour. Once the decade of filming Harry Potter wrapped, someone gasped at the tracts of wizardy robes, giant spiders and the Great Hall, and murmured, “What will we do with all this lot?” In the first week of January, we found out.

Alex and Max loved the blue screen experience. Their Flying Ford Anglia zipped high above the Scottish countryside, and their racing broomstick swooped low over the Thames. As a mate noted,

Nothing is better named than the Nimbus 2000.

An enormous challenge was the Quidditch scenes. These were filmed with skydiving, industrial fans and Russian swings launching body doubles like bungy jump mishaps. I’m staggered by the collective imagination.

An inanimate star of the franchise is the huge model of Hogwarts Castle. When the time spent designing and building is totalled, it took seventy-four years to construct. That’s even longer than watching all of St Kilda’s footy trip highlights!

Lastly, of course, you are cast adrift in an oceanic gift shop, reminding you that while this is fun, it’s primarily commerce. As the mortgage is finalised on two wands and a Gryffindor scarf, I spot a man in the kit of the previously secret, fifth Hogwarts house, Fremantle.

The purple haze of the Dockers? Here, in this magical kingdom of spells and free-flowing football? As Hagrid would attest, the Geelong hoops are distinctly Hogwarts. After all, who didn’t love Cameron Ling’s performance as pureblood wizard Ron Weasley?

*

cocks

One of my favourite patches on the planet fits on an Adelaide oval or two. Our tour begins at St Albans Cathedral, which is 551 feet along its immense and picturesque nave.

Alban earned his sainthood by sheltering and then substituting himself for a local priest. It was a Roman version of the Fine Cotton affair. Unlike the horse, which lived to the impressive age of thirty-two, Alban was beheaded.

Expertly detached, his noggin started a-rolling, and moving appreciably from leg to off, bounced to the bottom of the hill. At this spot, legend suggests, a well instantly began gushing, and is named Holywell.

Surrounding both the former monastery and Roman city is one hundred acres of gorgeous expanse, Verulamium Park. When the first shafts of pale spring sunshine coax the temperature into double digits, cider-guzzling locals strip down to their waists, and hoof soccer balls about with splendid inaccuracy.

The concluding locale in our painterly excursion is the Ye Olde Fighting Cocks. Built in 793AD, it’s England’s oldest pub. It’s superb.

As an Australian Rules footballer I was a rover. Sorry, kids, that’s a primeval term for midfielder. So low is the pub ceiling that about a thousand years ago, if I was picked for the Verulamium Caesars, in the derby against the Londinium Scurvy Knaves, I obviously would’ve rucked.

I used to love walking in there, proudly but pointlessly ducking my head, and pretending I was Shaun Rehn, minus the knee braces. And this, before I’ve even had a beer, is every pub’s function: to help us feel unrealistically good.

With exposed beams, snug nooks and an enticing lunch menu, it’s like we never left. The boys sit by the dancing fire. There’s the Belgian strawberry beer, Fruili, to which Kerry utters, “Yum.”

Trickling by the pub and the ornamental lake is the diminutive River Ver. An energetic hour in the tavern means even from a stationary start, and into a breeze, most males would carry it comfortably.

But cathedral, park and pub make an exquisite spot and now, exploring with our boys, it still is.

*

Inside the abbey we lit votive candles at the tomb of St Alban. Max immediately told Alex what he’d asked for. And vice versa. As kids do. Their innocence contrasted with the entrance’s Thatcherite ultimatum,

Your four-pound donation (each) ensures the upkeep of the cathedral.

Since the ninth century a cobblestoned square has hosted twice-weekly markets, offering fish, meat, olives and much else. Beyond the kaleidoscopic colour and movement, and sausage and beef wafts from Charlie O’Brien’s butchery, its soundtrack is bustling fun.

“Pound a bowl,” bellow the greengrocers. We’d often buy a bowl, and later home in the kitchen, wonder at its catholic contents: parsnip, carrot, ear of corn (no eye of newt or toe of frog).

The spruikers are still there, with voices rumbling about the fourteenth century clock tower, sounding like jauntier versions of Ray Winstone,

Get me the money for those potatoes by Wednesday, or you’ve got yourself a little problem. Me.

*

Who could resist visiting the house they lived in a decade before? Taking a left off Holywell Hill, the Peugeot halts, and I turn down XFM. Why, it’s tiny! Wasn’t it bigger? How has our world again shrunk?

I stole down the path, and looked over the gate like a burglar in a telemovie. The scruffy hedges have been replaced with charmless, pine fences. Also gone is the shed, in front of which, during warm mornings, our precious, now departed terrier Roxy would sun her honeyed fur.

Why are we always disappointed when cherished spaces change, even for the better? We walk under the barren tree. I put Alex and Max in the car, and drive away.

*

After twenty days in Europe, we make our glutinous, anticlockwise way around the M25, towards Heathrow. Farewelling the icy winds and trains and ancient cityscapes, our A-380 soars to Dubai.

Then, we skim down to the equator, and Singapore, in its muggy summer.

ron

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Singapore Darts Masters: “There’s only one word for that – magic darts!”

andy-fordham-throws-in-the-showdown-in-2004-lawrence-lustigpdc_0,,10180-5625416,00

I’m horrified.

The Professional Darts Corporation’s Order of Merit lists a solitary player called Keith. Only one Keith? Like The Rolling Stones?

An AFL equivalent is one culled of every Jaryd, Jarrad, Jared, Jarryd, Jarrod, and Jarred.

With earnings of £1500, number 134 is Dick van Dijk of the Netherlands. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang! One hundred and eighty! When he weighed 31 stone (197 kilograms, 434 lbs.) £1500 was former champion Andy “The Viking” Fordham’s pre-match bar tab.

I’m at The Singapore Darts Masters with a Scot, an Irishman, and another Australian. No, it’s not a joke. It doesn’t finish with, “That’s what she said!” or “I thought you were George Michael!” or “They’re all in the truck and one of them’s honking the horn.”

Ignoring visits to the Docklands, I’ve never laughed so heartily at a sporting event’s price structure:

$501 – First Tier Table Tickets including front row seats, player access, limited edition shirt, bottle of spirit plus mixers, goodie bag, 180 cards, fast food & freeflow beer

$301 – Second Tier Table Tickets including goodie bag, 180 cards, event shirt, fast food & freeflow beer

$180 – Third Tier Tickets including fast food & freeflow beer

$40 – Auditorium Seating, with 25% off for early bird booking (that’s us!)

I rarely play darts. At the pub eight ball and darts are distractions. The pub is the place to go after sport, or to watch sport. But not to play sport.

So, I’m at the arrows for the anthropological insights.

But darts is also a celebration of English pubs. Unlike Antipodean hotels, British boozers are thematic extensions of the living room. Board games, nooks for reading, delightfully dreadful wallpaper. Australian pubs position themselves as being the opposite of home; a place of aggressive escape.

Our local in England was The Goat. Built at the end of the 15th century, it has Chesterfields. There’s water bowls for your dog, and a beer garden with giant Jenga blocks. The landlord wants you in there, enjoying yourself. Collecting your coin is almost an afterthought.

In the Singapore Indoor Stadium’s opening stoush James Wade defeats Peter “Snakebite” Wright. Snakebite sports a technicolour Mohawk and painted skull, while Wade is the one from Finance. “The accountant wins,” I predict. Scottish Andy replies, “They always do. They always do.”

The darts is set in 1982. Like merchant sailors or long-haul truck drivers, some of the players are festooned with ancient tattoos, top of the forearm- no Chinese symbols or wanky Latin maxims here.

The combatants’ shirts are relaxed, except for the girth, where each seems to be smuggling an upturned Sunbeam® Mixmaster® bowl across the Russian border on a dark night.

A cracking soundtrack blasts the arena. The Communards, Style Council, The Church, Stealers Wheel, The Jam. It’s rollicking. The Unicorn darts board is miked up, and each projectile thuds in with a sonically satisfying basso tone like a depth charge in a speeded up submarine movie.

Russ “The Voice” Bray is the score announcer. We’re tickled by his raspy, theatrical style that makes Ray Winstone sound like Barry Gibb. In the UK he lends his larynx to Ladbrokes and Cash Converters. His “One hundred and eighty!” is Tom Waits-tearing-his-hamstring-while-off-the-long-run vocal mania. He and the two official scorers stand with black-shirted backs to us, slump shouldered like Norf London henchmen staring down into Barry’s fresh grave.

Up next is Stoke-on-Trent powerhouse, and former ceramic toilet roll handle maker, Phil Taylor. He and Dave Chisnell exchange 180’s through the middle legs (possibly illegal here).

And Chissy crushes The Power!

“I’m delighted, over the moon,” said Chisnall, fulfilling every British sports-star’s lunar cliché obligation. “I started quite well; my scoring was good at the beginning and I was hitting my finishes well.”

Only twenty-four, Michael van Gerwen is preternaturally talented. On the balcony a cluster of orange-attired girls holler as the Dutch prodigy strides out to The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.”

MVG’s already developing the darts physique, and with his shaven bonce, he’s a hybrid of Gary Ablett Junior and Little Britain’s Matt Lucas. A nine-dart finish is analogous to a hat trick or ten-pin bowling’s 300 game. He first did this on television when he was seventeen.

The boys and I provide our own analysis.

“Loose darts…”

“Tidy darts.”

“Quick darts!”

As our evening evolves we offer more colour.

“Angry darts!!!”

“Pensive darts?”

“Socially enlightened darts.”

“Post-modern darts¿”

Simon Whitlock’s walk on is “Down Under” by Men At Work. See, 1982! And he does look like Brett Lee. A Brett Lee with a sheet-metal worker goatee, clashing ink, and Willie Nelson ponytail. He strains perilously into the board, but flings like a surgeon. Richie Benaud might’ve observed that, “The slow-motion replay does not really show how fast the dart was travelling.”

Quarter-finals (read in your best BBC voice): Peter Wright 4, James Wade 10; Simon Whitlock 10, Raymond van Barneveld 6; Phil Taylor 6, Dave Chisnall 10; Michael van Gerwen 10, Andy Hamilton 4.

To compensate for the evening’s unspeakable lack of Keiths I listen to Exile On Main St as the MRT hurries under the harbour towards Orchard. And I think of Sid Waddell who once exclaimed, “You couldn’t get more excitement here if Elvis Presley walked in eating a chip sandwich!”

Simon Whitlock