Televised darts is less vulgar than Strictly Come Dancing – and more serious than Newsnight

Those tiny points of tungsten are metaphors for man’s ability to create something out of nothing

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The Independent Online

Of arrows and the man I sing. It is expected of me. Just as no year can be considered over for Australians until the fireworks have illuminated Sydney Harbour, and no year can be said to have begun for Austrians until the Vienna Philharmonic has played the “Radetzky March”, so must my new year column be a paean to darts and those who throw them.

Though I always vow to go along to Alexandra Palace to watch the World Darts Championships as it were in person and, who knows, sit at the same table as Prince Harry or Stephen Fry, I am invariably too clapped out to leave my chair. It’s partly this seasonal exhaustion that makes sitting in night after night to watch the arrows fly on Sky so pleasurable. My worldly task is done. I have survived the heat o’ the sun, I am wrapped against the furious winter’s rages, and I have, in the dying days of the old year, eaten more than twice my body weight in mince pies and drunk wine enough for Adrian Lewis and Raymond van Barneveld to have bathed together in – twice. Home I’m gone, and with my eyes too tired to read, my brain too charged to function, and nothing else that feels like just reward for all my labours to watch on television, darts are my wages.

There was a time when dozing in front of the box and waking only when the hoarse-voiced referee barked “One hundred and eighty!” marked one out either as a true philistine or a pretend one like those desperate-not-to-be-stuffy professors of literature who say they’d rather read Harry Potter than Proust. Today no apology is necessary. Televised darts is less vulgar than Strictly Come Dancing and more serious than Newsnight.

True, there remains the synthetic working men’s club atmosphere to negotiate. Although there are more clerkly, not to say studious, looking players emerging, the majority still resemble plumbers. I mean no disrespect by that. Given the frequency with which I call out a plumber, I’d be a fool to show the profession anything but the deepest respect. But there’s a pedantry incident to plumbing – how many times is it now I’ve had the mechanics of the “O” ring explained to me, which is much like the numerological punctiliousness that inflicts darts players if you’re insane enough to ask them where they thought they won or lost a game. And it’s because something of the mundanely manual still adheres to darts that the players’ heroic walk of honour from the green room to the oche is so incongruous. The fanfare begins, the strobes go wild, the crowds roar, hostesses wearing the sort of tinsel dresses that drove me crazy when I was 18 escort the gladiator into the arena, only he’s not a gladiator, he’s a plumber.

But change is on the way. In previous years, dancers who might have been on day-release from Raymond’s Revuebar twerked on stage between matches, now they perform wholesome beach aerobics in order to suggest that this is a sporting event whose ultimate aim is the nation’s fitness.

If you think the bodies of the players themselves give the lie to this, you haven’t watched for a while. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that today’s best throwers are the most svelte throwers, but a beer belly is not the sine qua non it was. As is not the beer itself. However much is consumed by spectators, there isn’t even a sissy’s half-pint glass with a handle to be seen on the little tables where the players fuss with their flights and pour filtered water. It was axiomatic in my pub-darts days that one threw better pissed; but we were playing for fun not glory, and just how often, anyway, pissed or otherwise, did we hit 180?

The mistake which haters of televised darts make is not to see what lovers of it see. And vice versa.

Ambivalence is as essential to the appreciation of darts as it is to the appreciation of Wagner. “Was I really put on earth to do this?” is a question it behoves humanity to ask, whatever it’s doing. An expense of spirit in a waste of shame was how Shakespeare described lust in action, but we don’t always wake up the next morning feeling that. We are most rational – as lovers, aesthetes, or just couch potatoes – when we clatter between extremes, punishing ourselves for squandering the gift of life one minute, glorying in the waste the next.

And that, reader, explains why some of us become engrossed in darts. Yes it’s trivial, no it isn’t. Or rather: yes it’s trivial, and therein lies its sublimity. Those tiny points of tungsten, like the light-as-air celluloid ball ping-pong players chase, like Jane Austen’s “little bit of ivory”, are metaphors for man’s ability to create something out of nothing, to see eternity in a grain of sand, to make a little dartboard an everywhere.

Whoever would be universal must first be particular. Even God had to create the world a bit at a time. The secret of infinity resides in the insignificant. And what could be more insignificant than narrowing one’s concentration down to a pin-head and aiming it at a strip of cork no bigger than an ant’s eyelash?

Though all darts players must be philosophers at heart, the one who most fully grasps the game’s fundamental equivocation is the 15-times world champion Phil Taylor. For all the titles he has won and all the studied bluffness of his manner, his eyes remain weighted with the terrible apprehension of defeat. It’s not falling from his pedestal he fears, but the chasm of nihilism waiting beneath him.

I follow his progress every year with mounting apprehension. I invest teleologically in his progress. If he loses, I lose; life is emptied of its transitory meaning and I am returned to uncreated matter spinning unavailingly in the void. It’s for us, you see – for the illusion of sense and order –  that he throws. Pray he wins.