Hell for leather

Catching a flying shoe in a bucket may not seem like the noblest of sports, but the Swedish game of Bonving is attracting a growing army of players. Rhodri Marsden joined them on court, and found out why the internet is to blame for a boom in such bizarre activities
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I'm standing under a tree in a corner of Regent's Park, watching grown adults take it in turns to throw a shoe energetically into the air, while others attempt to catch it in a turquoise plastic wastepaper basket. Despite the light drizzle, a group of about 40 spectators are sitting on the grass under umbrellas, eating, drinking and greeting each successful catch with cheers, giggling and polite applause. This casual Saturday afternoon introduction to the Swedish sport of Bonving had been advertised a few days previously in a message posted by a member of the thriving internet community at livejournal.com, and it succeeded in bringing together a disparate group of people intrigued by the notion of a collision between airborne footwear and badminton.

I'm standing under a tree in a corner of Regent's Park, watching grown adults take it in turns to throw a shoe energetically into the air, while others attempt to catch it in a turquoise plastic wastepaper basket. Despite the light drizzle, a group of about 40 spectators are sitting on the grass under umbrellas, eating, drinking and greeting each successful catch with cheers, giggling and polite applause. This casual Saturday afternoon introduction to the Swedish sport of Bonving had been advertised a few days previously in a message posted by a member of the thriving internet community at livejournal.com, and it succeeded in bringing together a disparate group of people intrigued by the notion of a collision between airborne footwear and badminton.

Andrew Ward, the self-styled UK Bonving champion and instigator of the event, had, earlier that afternoon, bemoaned the reluctance of the establishment to embrace the new sport, while carefully marking out the court with a reel of masking tape. "I did write to the Royal Parks Agency asking for a permanent court here with proper painted lines, but for some reason they never replied to any of my letters." Ward heard about the game via the website of the Malmö-based Tambourine Studios, on which are posted extensive rules, historical information and pictures of the recent World Championships which were held in Sweden back in June.

"Bonving is named after the type of shoe they use in the Swedish games," explains Ward, "and, strictly speaking, we should probably use a brogue or loafer, but we find that they shatter the bins on impact. So today we're using this Puma trainer." Ward pauses, glancing up at the gathering storm clouds, and back at the trainer. "In better times, I used to wear it on my right foot."

The game is beautifully simple. You and your team-mate, by executing powerful, devious or tricky throws, have to land the shoe in the opposing team's half of the court, without it being caught in either of their wastepaper baskets. As the final preparations are made, I remark on the considerable length of the court, over which I look forward to seeing a shoe travelling in a series of beautiful, arcing parabolas. "The no-man's-land between the two teams is described by the Swedes as 'the 18 metres of ice-cold void'," explains Ward's wife Fi, "but it's slightly shorter today, partly because some people can't throw it that far, but mainly because we've run out of masking tape."

By the time the first players don brightly coloured tabards and decide who is going to throw first, groups of people have already started wandering towards the court, some carrying booze, some carrying children and some just hanging around on the peripheries to catch a glimpse of the action. "Apparently, there's someone over there from Florida, of all places, which is fantastic," enthuses Ward. "I just hope he hasn't come all this way especially." So how many of these people has he met before? "Quite a few, but nearly all of those have been via various internet message boards."

This Bonving tournament is just one small example of the predominantly passive internet community plucking up the courage to step out from behind their keyboards and meet up in the flesh. One rapidly expanding site, meetup.com, is dedicated to giving those with cabin fever the opportunity to arrange and attend get-togethers in towns and cities around the world. Groups as diverse as Björk fans, avid knitters and ex-Jehovah's Witnesses have been brought together via the site, and their head of communications, Myles Weissleder, is amazed at the way it has grown. "We launched last year after our CEO had read a book called Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, which looked into the reasons why we're not getting out into our communities as much as we used to." The book reveals that, 40 years ago, about 40 per cent of Americans were involved in some kind of community activity, but that figure currently stands at more like four per cent. "And although the internet has been fantastic in connecting millions globally, it has failed to connect people in their own neighbourhoods. So meetup.com was created in response to that, and it's benefiting people not just here in the States, but in the UK and across Europe and Asia."

They now have well over half a million participants, many of whom became aware of the site through publicity generated by the Democrat presidential hopeful Howard Dean. "Dean's team understand that if they can get large numbers of people using our service and meeting up locally, it energizes the constituents and becomes interesting to the local press. But in the process, he's helping our site move into the mainstream, as people log on and realise that it's not just political. We just provide the tools for people to meet for whatever reason, and every meeting that's arranged generates its own PR. We've never had to spend a cent on advertising."

Robin Hamman, a sociologist and lecturer with a particular interest in online communities, agrees that many people, particularly those who live on their own, are becoming increasingly fed up with the lack of opportunities for socialising and are looking to the internet for help. "It's incredibly easy to find people online with the same interests as you, whereas in a pub or a club it can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack." And he believes the slight stigma of interacting via message boards and chat rooms is slowly being eroded. "I've noticed in the last year or two that more and more of my friends have admitted to being involved in online dating, for example, and there's definitely a growing acceptance that joining an online community is a great step towards meeting people whom you'll end up caring about and counting on."

The notoriously addictive website friendster.com is another that has been instrumental in connecting people of late, establishing immediate links to friends of friends, and thus neatly avoiding the need to pester pals for an introduction, or the effort of wangling an invite to a punch-sozzled house party. With membership passing the half-a-million mark recently, and increasing at a reported 20 per cent a week, it's unsurprising that the focus of Friendster is increasingly shifting towards single people seeking romance, although finding fellow archaeologists, trainspotters or fetishwear enthusiasts for earnest online discussion is equally straightforward.

However, in the experience of writer Danny Wallace, people don't even need any clearly defined common ground to rally round and form new social groups. His "Join Me" project campaigns nonchalantly for people to join him in the pursuit of nothing more then being pleasant to other people on Fridays, but it originally had no purpose whatsoever, and owed its initial success to the curiosity of casual internet browsers who wondered what on earth the "Join Me" site was all about. Since the publication of Wallace's recent book about the collective, the number of people keen to participate in the furthering of his slightly vague altruistic concept has been growing exponentially. "I've heard that next week alone there are going to be meetings of Joinees in Belgium, Accrington, Oxford and Edinburgh, and so far I've had more than 3,500 people send me their passport photo in order to register as an official Joinee," says Wallace with scarcely contained pride. What is the atmosphere like at these meetings? "I'm always struck by the way everyone feels like they're friends already, even though they've never actually met before. It's a strange thing, as you would imagine that it would feel quite awkward and stilted." Perhaps there's something about the pursuit of the slightly silly or surreal that helps to break down people's inhibitions and encourages them to come out to play? "Definitely. The fact that I might designate a particular pub an "official 'Join Me' pub", or split people into "taskforces" to do good deeds during the evening does immediately put people at their ease. And, of course, getting drunk helps too."

The pursuit of flashmobbing, the art-prank much covered in the media whereby people are encouraged via e-mail to assemble at a certain place and time, and then disperse equally quickly, has also had the side effect of bringing people together. Zee, the founder of the London flashmob group, explained how this has happened despite the bizarre and ephemeral nature of the activity. "There is a certain cameraderie that goes on during the event, as no one really knows each other, but they're all united under the common 'cause' of making it work. You all feel that you're related somehow. And, of course, people are supposed to disperse afterwards, but it's very often to the pub round the corner." The popularity of flashmobbing is evident by Zee's mailing list, which has grown to more than 3,500 people as the word has spread. He has even heard of people coming from way outside London and making a weekend of it. "It has gone a bit wild. We had more than 1,000 people attend the last flashmob, and I'm having to start being very careful about the locations I choose. Being forced to arrange them in football grounds would defeat the whole purpose."

There's no danger of Bonving tournaments needing their own purpose-built arenas for the time being, but the atmosphere in Regent's Park warmed up considerably as the rain clouds blew over and the competition became more fierce. Ward watched keenly for potential foot-faults from the referee's chair, while worrying about his future as the UK Bonving champion. "I've seen some of the best Bonving ever this afternoon, and I'm a bit worried about going the way of Doug Mountjoy: you know, slipping down the world rankings as a result of the sport becoming more popular and more people participating." I was keen to join the action, and excitedly donned the regulation tabard while looking enviously at Andrew's trophy, which I later heard that his mother had bought for him, in an act of considerable hubris, before he'd won the last UK competition. The Puma trainer, by now quite dog-eared, whistled down the tramline, and as my team-mate shouted, "Your shoe!", I made a desperate lunge to catch it and claim the first of the 17 points I'd need to win. Sadly, it shattered the base of the bin, rendering it useless for matchplay purposes. Cursing the fact that he'd left the spare bin at home, Andrew declared the tournament over for the day, and led us to a nearby pub to watch the far less noble pursuit of football.

After getting home, I e-mailed Maurits Carlsson at Tambourine in Malmö to thank him for making the rules of Bonving available to us all. He was delighted that the game had spread to the UK. "We've heard that people have been playing it in Germany, France, Japan and the USA, so we'll definitely arrange another world championship next summer! Bonswing!"

Comments