The archers take a bow

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BEFORE last Friday the only Archers we had come across were the fictional inhabitants of the village of Ambridge. But that all changed with a visit to the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham, where the Arrow Abrasives World Indoor Archery Championships were getting under way.

We quickly discovered that, like Radio 4's agricultural soap, the sport of archery has a culture all of its own. Language is the main barrier. "So," we confidently enquired, "the point is to fire the arrow as close as possible to the bull's eye?" No. For a start, you never fire an arrow. You shoot it. And only darts players and game show hosts talk about the Bull's Eye. In archery, you go, in the manner of another game show, for gold.

But that no more than scratches the surface. We could bang on all day about fletchings and nocks, butts, bouncers and perfect ends - and indeed there were many people at the NIA who were doing just that. But two terms must be explained: the two kinds of bow employed at the world championships.

The recurve bow, used in Olympic competition, is vaguely recognisable as the descendant of the old hunting bow, although nowadays manufactured in all sorts of flashy modern materials. The compound bow has a pulley arrangement at the top and bottom of the bow which adds power to the shot. They are extraordinary objects: you can imagine Q handing one to James Bond and saying: "Press this button here, 007, and the whole device converts back into an innocent brolly." These were the bows employed on Friday morning.

We had overlooked one other factor. Imagining in our innocent way that the archers would be shooting at targets larger than saucers, we had omitted to pack a pair of powerful binoculars. We were therefore unable to ascertain whether the archers were in fact hitting the targets, let alone the "gold" in the middle of them. To say that this robbed the event of drama for us would be an understatement.

But most of the fans in the NIA had brought their binoculars and telescopes along, and were silently rapt in the contest, the qualifying stages of the Compound tournament.

The proceedings went like this. The archers sit behind the shooting line and await an electronic bleeper. "Parp, parp." They advance to the line. A red light is on beside the targets. "Parp." It goes green. The archers reach into their quivers, select their arrows, raise and aim their bows and draw back their strings in one movement, then "twung - thack", "twung - thack." They have two minutes to fire three arrows before two more parps sound and the red light comes on again. A small army of scorers, the "Field Crew", all in fetching Lincoln green tracksuits, trot out to note what landed where.

This procedure went on for a few hours, while a man with a particularly treacly American accent explained that there were a few bugs to be ironed out in the computerised scoring system, but he would keep us informed, and now a few words about the kind sponsors of the tournament . . .

We examined the many stalls flogging bows and their attendant bits and bobs. There was a computer that helped you choose the best kind of arrow for your bow, and books called Hit The Mark, Become The Arrow and Zen In The Art Of Archery.

Back in the hall, drama: the archery had finished (it finishes for good today). Not only that, but Barry Allen of Wrexham had broken the British record with 591 points out of a possible 600. We offered congratulations. Had he been nervous? "Yes, a little," Barry admitted, "but I relaxed my muscles with deep breathing." Had he practised long and hard for this, his first world championship appearance? "I've taken two weeks off work," he said, "and practised every day. And even when I'm not shooting I've been using mental imaging, thinking about it. I'm big on that." Barry was visibly and justifiably elated by his achievement, and we were delighted to leave on such a high note, fortified in our belief that archery is essentially a doing thing, rather than a watching thing.

NO DOUBT many readers were, like us, swept up in Wednesday's Tote Jackpot fever and tempted into placing a bet. Perhaps some readers were, as we were, lucky enough to pick five of the six winners required to scoop a share of the pot. Perhaps a few readers, unlike us, were fortunate enough to be able to cheer home the winner of the last and collect many thousands of pounds. If so, would they kindly not let us know about it?

A POSTSCRIPT, of sorts, to the Cantona saga: Laki Singh, from Pokesdown, Dorset, has discovered he can keep his dog, Dillon, under control by showing him a red card and calling him Eric. Singh stumbled on the method by chance. "I just put on a French accent, held up a red card and said `Eric, you must be sent off' and Dillon calmed right down," he claimed. There is a moral here somewhere, but we can't quite tease it out.