Skittles: Nevermind the bollocks

As published by Inside Sport, June 2010

“The Hampstead Club is at the end…almost extinct…the last London Skittle Club…the last Dodo, the sound of one hand clapping”.

With origins dating back to ancient Egypt, and derivative forms around the world clinging to life, skittling stalwart Guy Tunnicliffe’s candor betrays a passion to keep his sport alive.

As a game legislated playable for small stakes in the 1930’s, London Skittles once flourished in hundreds of working class clubs and pubs all over London.  Then in America, significantly it morphed into modern Ten-pin bowling.  But sadly, the WW2 London blitzkriegs destroyed most alleys and skittles (or Nine-pin) became little more than a self descriptive analogy.

Now the last publicly accessible locale is ironically bunkered away in the cellar of The Freemason’s Arms pub inLondon.  For a small dedicated bunch, life is still all beer and skittles.  Whilst a couple thousand social players chance their arm each year (including the boys from Coldplay one time), there’s just 50 regulars left.

“My friends and work mates think it’s great and listen to my amazing tales of battles and losses and victories long into the night or until the beer runs out, or they fall asleep.  In my new home inItaly, nobody has ever heard of it so I can use my imagination and stretch theirs to the fullest extent”, muses Tunnicliffe.

Plenty of wear & tear on the battered old pins at the Hampstead Club in London

Nine-pin’s uniqueness lies in the 4.5kg antique hardwood object resembling a large Edam cheese, hurled in the air at the pins set in a diamond formation 21 feet away.  It’s a far cry from your sexy Ten-pin style promo.  According to Tunnicliffe, the incredibly noisy bash and crash is ‘often dirty, always sweaty in the summer, and takes about a year of learning to be really, really average’.  One might also find the ungainly throwing action necessitates an appointment with the local chiropractor.

Players actually have four chances to clear the floor, a par score being 3.  Unlike frequently gratifying Ten-pin strikes, a skittles ‘floorer’ is a feat to be savoured.  Indeed, a hat-trick of one-pointers hasn’t been recorded since 1960.

Apart from the degree of difficulty, popularity suffers for the loathsome chore of manually resetting the pins.  Being a ‘sticker’ isn’t for the feeble bodied, shifting a ton of weight in total each night.  A paid job from the turn of the 20th century, The Freemason’s first sticker stuck to his task for nearly 50 years, his successor another 20.   Nowadays two volunteers do the business.

In Australia, skittles’ dalliance with recognition was brief; notably the Melbourne Cricket Club built an alley underneath its reversible grandstand in 1874, sparking interclub competition.  Unfortunately in 1884 the alley itself ignited and razed the whole grandstand.  The Great War effectively skittled skittles, 1919 being the last recorded use of the MCG alley.

Vintage cheese (image supplied Jed Smith, MCC)

Nine-pin’s pinnacle, the Dewar Challenge Shield, was instituted in 1901 for the winner of the London Championship, a year after the rules were formalised by the Amateur Skittles Association.  Although Tunnicliffe’s son worshipped his status in the sport ‘until he grew up’, the esteem afforded his three ‘World Championships’ by the rest of his family is more akin to a trainspotter!

“Slim hips help.  The throwing style, which has to be totally relaxed and absolutely unstressed, is more about Zen than about strength…a flow…a way of Tao” philosphises Tunnicliffe, unkindly described as ‘weedy’ in one dispatch.  ‘Wiry’ would be more accurate, given a cheese chucking career spanning twenty years.

Typically English, skittles embraces colourful terminology.  Forget cricket’s silly mid-offs and deep fine legs; woe are dreaded splits known as the ‘Gates of Hell’ or ‘The Big Bog’.  Worse, a complete miss is a ‘bolter’, more commonly a ‘bollocks’ shot after a few ales.  Believed to have been coined in 1875, skittles actually claims ownership of the popular refrain.

“Sometimes throwing a bollocks shot can inspire a better throw, as throwing a floorer can completely destroy ones concentration… Each throw is the first throw, the only throw, and always the best throw.  Nothing before matters, nothing after matters”, says Tunnicliffe, either still channeling Zen, or something else.

Perhaps the pertinent question for Tunnicliffe is what beer goes best with skittles?

“I personally prefer London Pride brewed by Fullers Brewery in Chiswick.  I also like Young’s beers, another London Brewery, or Timothy Taylor’s Landlord”.

Hmmm…maybe the beer is the issue.

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