Friday, 19 December 2008


It is important in wiff-waff to distinguish the head from the hand.
(Arrow marks head, circle marks hand. Do I have to draw diagrams for you?*)

My waning wiff-waff powers are somewhat restored after a strenuous run out this morning. I am not half the man I thought I was but two-thirds. Having lost to the Wagnerian Geoff Dyer I thought my playing days were over but since then I have overcome an ace journalist-cum-daredevil-translator and now a poet-photographer-soldier-accountant of terrifying proportions. The trophy that had been sitting on the mantelpiece of the non-working fireplace in our bedroom may be due for another polish.

The trophy was won in the following manner in 2000. The town of W is the hidden dynamo of wiff-waff in the country. The butcher, P, is at the bottom of it. Hearing that I liked an occasional game he invited me to watch a league match in the comfort of a ripped plastic seventies sofa on a raised dais, otherwise known as the directors' box, in what used to be the slaughterhouse at the end of his garden. C and I went, the only recorded crowd ever at the venue. The windows were long broken and several cats had used the venue as a pissoir of last resort. It was a thrilling evening. P's team, known as The Saints, narrowly defeated a team consisting of a very fat boy with a demon serve, his fat father with a bad limp, and a man in a wheelchair who dominated the table without once moving the chair forward, backwards, or sideways.

Shortly after, P made a copy of the key to the slaughterhouse and told me I could use it any time providing I dropped the odd quid in the meter, that is to say whenever the lights went out. Later still, he invited me to become a member of the Saints C team. Only in a symbolic way of course, the way footballers hold on to small children's hands as they emerge from the tunnel. The children don't actually play. And so, understanding my position to be rather as a mascot, I went off to Ireland to be a Fellow at TCD, happy in the knowledge that I would not be called upon.

But one day, on a brief home visit, the phone rang and it was P asking whether I could play because the milkman couldn't make it. So I did get to play. To my pleasant surprise I lost two matches but succeeded in winning one. I was thanked and congratulated and returned to Ireland to write An English Apocalypse among other things.

The Fellowship was for a term. On returning home I received another phone call from P. The season was over and now I should come along and receive the divisional trophy which the team had won. It would be handed over at a disco in the nearby town of H. I reminded him I had only played once and had lost more games than I had won, but he insisted, pointing out that since a team is registered with four members, though only three played in any one fixture, I was not only entitled to a trophy but would be letting the side down if I didn't collect it.

So C and I went to the disco, boogied the night away, and I collected my trophy. 'You should keep that on permanent display in your front window,' they said. I have to confess I didn't always do that, nor have I ever turned out for the Saints (A, B or C) since.

It is not exactly Howard Jacobson. In any case I don't have the full competitive urge. I play better without it, I think. All I want is the equivalent of Villa manager Martin O'Neill bellowing at Ashley Young, 'You're a genius! You're a f.... genius.' That will do me.


*The website (Minor Tweaks) from which I have taken the photograph is helpful, noting:

In the illustration above, notice how the player is gripping the paddle with his hand. Notice, too, how his arm is fully extended and ready to meet the ball. This is not by accident. No. It is intentional.

Also be aware of how his headband is secured tightly around his head. This has been pointed out in previous lessons, but cannot be overemphasized: If you cannot see the ball, you cannot hit it (unless you get super lucky). For the long-haired player, a headband is not a fashion statement; it is a necessity.

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