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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  


         The politics of drinking
January 11, 2010



Never mind the health select committee report on alcohol. Let’s… Play… Darts!

I just couldn’t decide what to say about the health select committee’s report on alcohol). For one thing it’s no more than a rehash of countless similar reports I’ve commented on. And for another thing Pete Brown seems to be doing a good job on it. So I’ll leave the hard work to him.

I toyed with alternatives. There was the exposure of the NHS Confederation’s alcohol problem inflation on Radio 4’s excellent More or Less. The dense, intriguing row about whether you can have unbiased alcohol research among members of the Kettil Bruun Society. Or perhaps I should do a bit on Kettil Bruun himself, as the father of (as I’ve just decided to call it) medical temperance?

But in the end I’ve decided to write about darts.

Last night was the final of the BDO Lakeside World Championships. (The BBC’s world championships, not to be confused with the PDC World Championships which was on Sky last week and is the one Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor always wins.)

Veteran Martin ‘The Wolfman’ Adams beat upstart Dave ‘Chizzy’ Chisnall. It was a tense, sweaty thriller. As were the two semi-finals on Saturday. But it’s not just the darts. It’s the whole spectacle.

Darts has its roots in the pub, of course, and it carries a heightened pub atmosphere to the bigger stage. At the Lakeside Club, in the prim-sounding village of Frimley Green, 1,400 men, women and children form a mob of cheering, chanting, whooping humanity that miraculously falls deathly silent, as if a switch has been thrown, when the players are on the oche.

Over the years I've watched it, the event has grown increasingly surreal. The competitors take on ever more elaborate and sharply-drawn persona. Last year's final, for example, saw Ted 'The Count' Hankey take to the stage in a flowing Dracula cape against a rotund, chest-beating Tony 'Silverback' O'Shea. The vampire beat the gorilla.

It's the fans who take it into another world, though. They paint their faces, dress up and shapeshift. A zoomorphic pandemonium that seems, if anything, to brace the nerves of their heroes, up there almost within touching distance, teetering on the edge of the chaos.

And there is drink. Not on the stage any more, but the beer certainly flows in the audience - and it wouldn't be the same without it.

Because this is carnival, a ritualistic, anarchic subversion of order - albeit one that can still produce order when the referee calls for it (but usually he doesn't have to). In this context, as the American sociologist Joseph R Gusfield pointed out, "efforts to rationalise leisure by responsible drinking... are often chasing a contradiction in terms".

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