Britain’s rich heritage of excessive drinking isn’t the singular pastime it might initially appear to those with healthy livers, and the common pub has provided its clientele with all manner of alternative time-wasting activities. While my generation has known the pub as a legitimate venue of fruit machine gambling, pool and darts, the local boozer has a long and ignoble heritage of multiplayer gaming.
It’s impossible to say how long people have been playing pub games, though I dare to venture that games have been in play since the first time a bunch of bored blokes gathered together and knocked a few back. Really, it’s inevitable that placing a collective of mildly soused people in one room is going to generate some form of unruly competition, even if it’s nothing more sporting than tortoise racing or eel slapping (that’s not a euphemism, by the way).
It’s equally inevitable that such alcohol-fueled jocularity would be taken with a strict combination of extreme seriousness and juvenile misbehavior, but most every illegitimate sport an Englishman can boast a skillful propensity toward was born in t’ local.
Thrash My Rhubarb
One of the 20th Century’s most infamous pub games deserves first mention due to its inherently British (and therefore portentously ceremonious) themes: Dwyle Flonking.
One of the rarest strains of pub games, Dwyle Flonking braves the inclemency of the British outdoors, usually the pub parking lot (a dangerous contradiction, but a common one) or beer garden. Two teams of 12 partake. One team encircles a chosen champion from the other team, known as the “flonker,” and link hands to dance around him in a majestic, noble and intimidating gambol known as “girting.” Armed with his trusty and commanding dwyle-tipped driveller (a broom handle with a beer-soaked floor cloth on the end), he circles in an opposite direction to the girters.
The contest begins when the landlord appointed umpire (“of a dim witted jobanowl,” so says the ancient rule book) calls hence, “Here y’go t’gither!” and the splendid game is afoot.
The flonker attempts to whip the beer sodden dwyle at the girters – one point for a hit on the leg (a “ripper”), two for a body shot (a “marther”) and three for a well placed “wanton” (being a hit on the head). Should the increasingly dizzy flonker swadger (or “miss”), the umpire will command he drinks deeply of an ale-filled gazunder chamber pot (so named as it “goes under” the bed) while his team mates chant the ancient mantra “Pot! Pot! Pot!”
The umpire will keep the gameplay white hot by randomly changing the direction of the girter’s rotation, while imposing harsh drinking penalties on any players not taking the game interminably seriously. After four snurks (a “snurk” being each turn either team takes at girting) the winner is decided. Points are then deducted for each sober member of the team.
Even though a couple of alcoholic, out of work historians have traced a tenuous lineage of Dwyle Flonking back to the 16th Century, there never was any doubt that the game has been a pastiche of Britannic drinking tradition. But the reason I wanted to examine this particular game so closely is the insight it provides for uneducated foreigners into the dour amusement British inebriates demand alongside their booze.
Until recently, the noble drinker played the most eclectic mix of unfit-friendly sports, not for money but for the recognition of his pissed-up peers. The slot machine has changed much of that in the modern public house, making pub games tragically solitary experiences, but the traditions still reign supreme in the majority of watering holes.
Although I say tradition, the boozehound is a fickle and self-challenging creature, always eager for a new way to test the limits of his drunken endurance. It’s hard to imagine anything other than darts, dominoes and pool as the kingly taproom sports, though these are more recent additions to the pub arena than most drinkers realize. The ancestors of these games have been long in their development, however, and needed no organized leagues or TV coverage to make their competitive value meaningful.
A Trip to Jerusalem
On the wall of the oldest pub in England, The Trip to Jerusalem, in Nottingham, still hangs a well-used set for playing Ring the Bull – one of the oldest such games in existence, and one that’s still reasonably well supported in our taverns and pubs. A bull’s (or other animal, such as a stag or pig) head is hung on the wall, and a nose ring attached to a length of string is swung by the gaming drinker in an attempt to land it on a horn mounted on the plaque – intricate in its simplicity, engrossing in its skill requirements.
In The Trip to Jerusalem’s cave cellars that snake their way into the hillside beneath Nottingham Castle, there’s even a (hopefully) disused cockfighting pit – something we might turn a disgusted gaze upon these days, but another sign of the vital necessity that drunken sports have played in the ancient heritage of British pubs.
Early games like Ring the Bull paved the way for most every variation that followed, and it’s easy to imagine a great many pub games finding their origins in such a pseudo sport. While a professional league will likely never come to be, Ring the Bull is a game perfectly in keeping with its surroundings. The overtly simplistic premise means a player can still enjoy a significant level of achievement as the night wears drunkenly on.
Even though pub games would find all manner of new formats, this basic template of a simple activity mixed with a well-oiled contestant in a public arena is the keystone that holds pub games aloft.
Ever since the 12th Century, when Crusaders first stopped off at The Trip to Jerusalem on their way to, well, Jerusalem, and had a few beers and a few rounds of Ring the Bull, the constant state of flux surrounding pub games has meant we have a treasure trove of semi-sporting entertainment today.
The King, The Port and Aunt Sally’s Quoits
It’s not difficult to see how skittles – a game that’s never been more than a ball’s throw from a pint of beer – evolved into the bowling and, dare I even suggest, pinball games we know so well, but it also had an effect on the development of snooker and pool. These ball and cue games might be the staple diet of a bored bar fly these days, but they were a long time coming.
A mixture of different games from all over the world gradually mutated the table-mounted skittles variant known as The Port and The King – a tabletop ball and cue game featuring a skittle at one end and a hoop at the other. Knock the ball through the hoop (using a mace) so it touches, but doesn’t fell, the skittle. Not unlike croquet, players soon discovered a significantly more personal game was played not by approaching the King skillfully and respectfully but by knocking the other player into the hazards (now known as pockets).
Skittles and billiards (originally games played in the “ball yard” – a likely candidate from where the name stemmed) held many similarities in their genesis, and a great many pub games were conceived as patrons attempted to bring their outdoor athletics inside, as the nights drew in and the inclement weather became … even more inclement. As it tends to do in England.
The practice of pocketing balls rather than moving one around the pseudo grass of a slate table made for more varied betting, with the “pool” of money going to the player sinking the most balls in the hazards.
The throwing game quoits (similar to the cowboy pastime horseshoes) has seen all manner of inside and outside variations, each one adding a little to the mix until the essentially simple task of chucking a ring over a stick became a rich and vibrant heritage. Aunt Sally was another throwing game that encouraged gamers to knock the pipe from the mouth of a withered old hag (known unceremoniously as Aunt Sally) using a well cast club. Possibly the forerunner of darts, this ancient game isn’t played very often these days, though its spirit lives on in coin tossing games and drunken domestic abuse.
Games on Tap
A wildly varied and rich history has the British social drinker, but it’s not all about games played 600 years hence.
The ’70s had a lot to answer for when landlords went jauntily continental with their pub designs; knocking down as many walls as their thrice-nicotined structures could reasonably afford to lose. The open-plan pub stemmed the throwing of darts and thrusting of cues once all manner of patronage was free to roam. The snug and taprooms were gone, and the highly focused cribbage players and agoraphobic domino jockeys found themselves disturbingly exposed. Thank Joshua Tetley that the videogame came along.
It’s surely no coincidence that Pong was first tested in a bar, and met with resounding success. It tallied with the simplistic, semi-dexterous requirements first set down by Ring the Bull over 1,000 years ago and provided the kind of divergent bar-side pastime that drinking sportsmen demanded.
Although the electronic revolution also brought the abhorrent and anti-social slot machine with it (have you ever seen someone smile when they “play” a gambling machine? Not even when they land the jackpot), pubs became silver mines of popular, regularly maintained videogames during the industry’s heyday. Following the Space Invaders rush, when every square yard of floor space carried a Midway special, most every British pub has maintained some kind of electronic gaming stable.
During the late ’80s and early ’90s, a decent JAMMA cabinet served its landlord exceptionally well, while pinball machines provided the familiar ring and clank of electromechanical contest. These days, many of the videogames have been replaced by touch screen quiz machines, though it’s hard to criticize their somewhat vulgar countenance – the seasoned drinker’s head is filled with otherwise wasted general knowledge, just itching to find purpose without chore.
The retro revolution that’s sweeping the globe isn’t going amiss in the pubs and bars of Britain, either. Brewers are developing their own unique adaptations of feng shui to recreate the illusion of a compartmentalized pub using booths, dividers and even the games themselves; once again allotting space to the dartboard, the pool table and the pinball machine.
Pubs and games have always been completely inseparable, and it’s reassuring to know this tradition is as strong today as it’s ever been. The unfortunate invasion of the gambling machine to our taprooms has added a boorish, unskilled greed to the noble tradition of pub games, but there’s still a wonderful plethora of ways for a practicing drinker to earn the admiration and respect of his pissed-up peers, even if they can’t remember his magnificent victories in the morning.
Spanner has written articles for several publications, including Retro Gamer. He is a self-proclaimed horror junkie, with a deep appreciation for all things Romero.