Howard Jacobson: The self-contempt needed to love darts

Lose at darts and you compound ingloriousness with disgrace. It’s even worse if all you’re doing is watching

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Too cold to go out, too cold to stay in, too stuffed with food to bother cooking, no friends to talk to because they're all in the Gambia – or is it the Zambia – every book on my shelves a distraction from the book I'm writing, nothing on television. Is it any wonder I've been lying in bed and watching darts on Sky Sports since the middle of December.

"One hundred and 80!" I've seen so many of them I think there's nothing to it. Just hand me my arrows. "One hundred and 80!"

I was divorced, once, by a woman who had warned me several times she'd leave if she had to listen to someone screaming "180!" ever again. Couldn't I at least turn the sound down? It was just a game of darts, for Christ's sake. It had no essential aural component. I explained that the sound a) of the dart going into the board and b) of the compère announcing "180!" was intrinsic to the atmosphere of the sport.

"Intrinsic to the atmosphere of the what?"

"The sport."

"Darts? A sport! Darts is no more a sport than life with you is."

In those days I had no answer to such ferocity. I would just feebly suggest that she move into a B&B if she couldn't stand the racket. It would be over in a fortnight. I even offered to go halves with her on the cost.

Things have changed since then. Now, everyone knows it's dartist to say darts isn't a sport just because players move less of their bodies than the average viewer does pointing the remote control. Take the recognition accorded to Phil "The Power" Taylor MBE, 15 times world champion, and a man, according to Sid Waddell – himself a student of Herodotus and the greatest commentator darts has ever known – "who could hit the dandruff on a fly's forelock". Taylor has just been voted runner-up to the jockey Tony McCoy, whoever he is, as BBC Sports Personality of the Year. I'd like to have been able to rub my wife's face in that. "See! Sports Personality of the Year."

But she long ago packed her bags. I think the B&B suggestion was the last straw, though in the end she walked out over a mere "120!". Her divorce lawyers called it mental cruelty.

I put up no defence. I'd have divorced myself had I known how. But we are still somehow together, I and this moronic other half of me who is prepared to sit in front of the television for hour after hour watching charmless men with heart-attack colour in their cheeks and close-together eyes aim at the same narrow band of red cork while 2,000 drunken darts aficionados wave pieces of paper on which is printed "180!" – isn't that a strange thing to want to do? – and sing along to "Chase the Sun" by Planet Funk. "Oy, oy, oy."

Planet Funk – isn't that an Italian band specialising in electronic dance music? What the planet funk does Planet Funk have to do with darts? Nothing. They just wrote the song and darts just ingested it. That's the way of it with popular culture. Anything can turn up anywhere. Prince Harry, for example. What does he have to do with darts, you might fairly ask. But he bowled along for the final at Alexandra Palace. Maybe he just goes to anything called a palace on the assumption that he owns it. Or maybe that's the future – a royal family that carries its own tungsten around in little leather crested pouches and shouts "Oy, oy, oy" after every foreign dignitary who leaves.

The "Oy, oy, oy", in case you've found more rewarding ways of killing off the old year and don't know what I'm talking about, is not a Jewish ejaculation of darts anxiety – "Oy, oy, oy, the shmuck's going to miss the 180" – but what I suppose you'd have to call the "refrain" to "Chase the Sun". The players walk off for a toilet break, the cameras turn their attention briefly to the audience before the ads begin, and you, if you are there and wearing a Robin Hood or Tarzan outfit, wave your hands above your head and shout, "Oy, oy oy."

It makes me almost nostalgic for my failed marriage. If my ex-wife thought "180!" was grounds for separation, she should have heard "Oy, oy, oy".

Anyway it's over now and the house is quiet. Even a touch sad. Phil "The Power" did not win his 16th title. Nor did the other one-time champion, the Dutchman Raymond van Barneveld, known affectionately to his supporters as Barney, a player immortalised for hitting the first nine-dart leg ever in the PDC world championships. That's treble 20, treble 20, treble 20, treble 20, treble 20, treble 20 ... but you get the picture. This year neither Phil nor Barney even reached the finals. The old order changeth. Suddenly there are younger throwers around – not leaner or fitter exactly, just crueller. For youth is no respecter of age.

You can tell when a darts player knows he's on the skids. The puffiness goes out of his cheeks. He looks embarrassed and even a touch sulky, as though the other player's darts have been thrown into the treble 20 which is his heart. If things aren't going well for you on the football or rugby pitch you can run up and down a lot, but darts players have nowhere to hide. They know the cameras are on their faces. That's where they lose – not in their wrists or fingers, not in the swollen bellies that are indispensable to their balance, but in their light-quenched eyes.

There's no app to find the mind's construction in the face, unless the face in question is that of a darts player, and then it's easy. I knew Phil wasn't going to win this year. I could see he'd stopped believing. Barney too. The pair of them seemed bonded in some secret anticipation of shame. The degree of hurt a sportsman feels is in inverse proportion to the nobility of his sport. Lose at tennis or the 100m and you can hold your head high. Lose at darts and you compound ingloriousness with disgrace. But it's even worse if all you're doing is watching. The last dart is thrown, the final "oy" is sung, and what's left to you? Anti-climax, self-contempt, ignominy and loneliness. But then doesn't watching television always leave you feeling like that?

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