Journalism - Arena
Kieren McCarthy steps up and slings his arrows with outrageous fortune
Don't let it be said darts doesn't teach you anything. If it was part of the maths curriculum, results would go through the roof. But then we'd also have a generation of alcoholics because, as any world champion's belly will testify, beer and darts are as inseparable as fish and chips.
There was a time when the running commentary of a match in progress ('Derek, you require...'), and the peerless cry 'A-one hundred and ayyyteeee!' was as integral to pub culture as clouds of smoke, psychopathic local Begbies and fetid toilets. But with the breakdown of community and the rise of theme pubs, arcade games and jukeboxes, darts has lost its grasp on British consciousness. What was once a defining experience is now little more than a novelty. That isn't to say there aren't pockets of resistance.
Which is why I am at The Shakespeare's Head tonight - to try my hand against Mervyn 'King of the 18os' King, and, in doing so, to discover whether darts is a primordial bonding event, or just a bunch of fat blokes throwing sharp bits of metal into a board.
At first, things didn't look too promising. 'Play against Mervyn King - ranked Number Three in the world' said the poster, and so, expecting word to have got round and all the arraz players of London to have descended upon the place, I was a little dismayed to find it teetering just above empty (more were to arrive after the England vs Switzerland footie was over). Mervyn was there of course: smart black trousers, top and hair, mobile phone dipped on (and stomach hanging over) his belt, and a mass of gold weighing down his left hand - every bit the international darts player, except he's drinking bottled Pepsi tonight.
My flatmate Tony and I put our names on the list, buy a beer and sit down to enjoy the banter between John (MC, landlord), Paul (scorer, postman) and Eileen (heckler, regular). Paul doesn't have a booming PA system, and as such is at a disadvantage, but he does his best all the same. Mervyn, ever the pro, ignores the comments and casually dismisses each opponent put in front of him.
The cycle is established: contender approaches, derogatory remarks from John, darts throwing, Mervyn victory, a quick Polaroid of the two shaking hands, a sip of Pepsi and start again. All this leaves time to contemplate the marvellous lunacy that is darts, an overhang from its equally absurd origins: close quarter fighting between medieval archers.
And as the beer flows and quality of play diminishes, so the stream of abuse/support intensifies. There is no middle ground: condemn or applaud. And due to the nature of the game, you're given the opportunity to do either approximately every 30 seconds. Eileen's favourite catcall is: 'No prisoners.'
Inevitably though, it's my turn to face the mighty Merv. Standing on the oche, I feel an overwhelming desire to impress. And, briefly, that's what happens: after a particularly good set of three, heads nod, positive noises are issued and 'the King of the 180s' remarks, 'Good darts.' My heart rises. But Mervyn completes his 701 while I remain stranded on 242 to complete. The cycle continues.
To compare the game with its modern substitute, televised football, is like comparing gigs with albums: the latter may be more accomplished, and ultimately more satisfying, but it lacks the human element - darts seizes upon a moment of transience. The ability to place a dart within a millimetre of its desired target becomes less the action of an obsessive and more an admirable feat.
Then, all of a sudden, the status quo is challenged when Tony - who was dragged along solely as a drinking partner - finds himself in the position Of 135 to finish (Mervyn's on 60-odd). And they fly: double-top, in; triple-19, yes. All eyes turn to double-19 for the match. A hesitant pause. The arm goes back, thrusts forward, the fingers open and the dart is dispatched... straight into double 19. The crowd can't believe it and whoop and holler while the world's Number Three is clearly taken aback.
Tony picks up a trophy and entry to November's regional finals (first prize £300). And I realise the enduring appeal of darts: with a touch of skill and a little luck, anyone can be a hero for a day.