It's All In The Mallet

Added on 08 January 2009

The following article first appeared in Douglas Lindsay's Letter From Belgrade on 12 September 2003:

There is a raw, unfettered excitement about diplomatic life. It's got that whole edge-of-your-pants, adrenalin-pumping, energy-sapping, testosterone-spawning, life-could-change-at-any-second, you-never-know-what-sniper-or-piece-of-heavy-armour-or-political-wrangle-is-just-around-the-corner thing going on. A rollercoaster of drama, from which it seems impossible to escape. One week you're dodging Mafia bullets in the Balkans, the next you've suddenly been whisked off for some dodgy undercover work in Afghanistan. A couple of weeks at that, then you find yourself being asked to help rebuild the embassy in Baghdad, next you're off to Paris to try and sort out some petty diplomatic wrangle with the French. Give that ten minutes, and you find yourself in Russia sleeping with gorgeous women, driving tanks down Novosibirsk High Street, stashing mini-CD's in your boxer shorts and making a frantic dash for the Kazakhstan border. It really is that exciting. The real life James Bond's don't work for MI6; they do the day to day work of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. These people aren't civil servants, they're superheroes. Every week throws up yet another bloodcurdling, spine-chilling, nerve-jangling action-fest.

Last Saturday we played croquet.

Come on, there were mallets involved. Someone could've been hurt.

Croquet, as a concept, is not unlike the g-spot. You know it exists, but the likelihood is you'll go through your entire life without ever encountering it. So, for those of you who've never experienced the erogenous zone that is the game of croquet, here are the basics. You have a long-handled mallet, not quite the equivalent of those long-handled putters the likes of Sam and Sandy resort to the minute they three putt more than once in a round, but long enough that you could get plenty of leverage should you be swinging the mallet over your head in order to, well, smash someone's skull in or something. Then there's the ball. The ball is solid and rock hard. Hit someone over the napper with one of these and you could do serious damage. Immediately you can get a feel for the game. The equipment is robust, no one wears protective gear. It's a serious business. Sure, there hasn't been a multiple-fatality at a croquet match in Britain in over three years, but don't imagine that that makes it a game for jessies. There's not a competitive sport on the planet where people don't get pissed off, aggressive and overly anxious to win. In football, they kick each other; in ice hockey, they slap each others' helmets like a bunch of girls; in golf they mutter and curse, and cough subtly just as Tiger's about to unleash a three wood; in rugby they grab each other's scrotum in the scrum; in baseball they show each other their wage slips; in cricket they bowl bouncers and point to the pavilion in a knobbish manner when they've taken a wicket; in croquet, they beat each other to a bloody pulp, using the great variety of heavy artillery available to them. It gets ugly out there.

So, you've got your weapons. The croquet pitch - although I think they might call it a lawn, you know - is about the size of a soccer penalty area, grass mown short as a putting green - that would be a putting green at the Royal & Ancient at St Andrews, as opposed to say the putting green at Kames Bay in Millport - with six metal hoops laid out around it. The hoops are always placed in the same positions. You have to wallop the ball through the hoops in a specific order and from a specific direction, then you reverse and go through the hoops in the opposite direction. At the end, there is a stick to hit. Four players or teams go round at once, with different coloured balls, and the aim of the game is as much to get in the way of the other teams, as it is to blatter the ball through the hoops. To croquet is to hit someone else's ball; it is also the verb which applies when you break someone's nose with the mallet. It's pissing people off by hitting their ball out of the way that causes the majority of brawls at the croquet world championships.

Croquet was invented in the mid-19th century by a British missionary who had brought a job lot of shrunken heads back from the East Indies. Finding the heads useless for all other known sports at the time, necessity was as usual the mother of invention. (Even today the balls are still made from the compressed human bones of pygmies slaughtered during the halcyon days of empire building.) The game quickly spread around the English speaking world, and to America. In 1890 the Boston clergy spoke out against croquet as a pastime, because of the 'drinking, gambling and licentious behaviour' associated with it on the Common. Yes, the Boston clergy: irony can be pretty ironic sometimes, as William Shatner says in Airplane II. Despite the fact that most right thinking people have never come across croquet in their puff, there are currently 120 registered clubs in Britain, and weekly competitions around the globe. Next week, for example, sees the Windy City First Flight Classic. Yes, croquet comes to Kirkaldy. Entry fee $85, for players of handicap 6-10. (The handicap system is based on how many glasses of wine are required before you can hit the ball through the first two hoops in a oner.)

Some famous people who have represented their country at the croquet world championships: Tom Brady, Jimmy Boyle, Mike Tyson, Robert Mugabe, Vanessa Paradis.

And so to our introduction to this fabulous game. Last Saturday we went to a friend's house to play. We took the children, because, hey, what is childhood for if not to mess about with heavy implements, and balls that can break glass at even the slowest speed? In all there were three kids and only seven adults, so the odds were heavily stacked in favour of the children. As it happened, the kids charged around fighting over the one child-size mallet, our lad fought the other lad for his trucks, they got in the way, they picked up the balls mid-scrimmage, they ran off round the house, they ate all the crisps and generally did what kids do. No adults were injured in the making of the afternoon.

Our hostess - who reads this newsletter, and therefore can only be described as a truly wonderful and warm human being - likes to call croquet in her garden "Extreme Croquet", as it is not so much played on a Royal & Ancient type putting surface, more the side of a Scottish mountain. All slopes and bumps and dirt, and grass as rough as sandpaper. This was our excuse for being generally pish at it. The closest thing to it that I can think of is putting, and being the master of the five-putt myself, this fundamental inability naturally transferred itself to the croquet. The missus was worse, bless her; junior management number one, wasn't bad for a five year old, junior management number two just ran around pulling the hoops out of the ground and rolling his jumper up to show his beer gut, like the old geezers who hang out on the side of the road in Republic Srpska. The parents of the other kid there, who were Danish, were even more rubbish than us - obviously not in their genes the way it is with the British - so we looked competent in comparison.

Still, as with a majority of sports, the point of croquet does not lie in the game itself. The point lies in sitting around at the side of the lawn, getting drunk. Thus, by the indiscriminate use of a steady flow of Pimm's and gin & tonic, were we able to subdue the children and relax into a warm and pleasant late summer's afternoon in the Balkans. As the sun dipped behind the trees and the crickets chirped their happy songs of dusk, we quaffed the preferred alcoholic beverages of empire and told tales of derring-do in the former Soviet Union.

It's a hard life.