I won the Snaith and District Ladies’ Darts Championship when I was 17. I was the youngest ever winner. There was a presentation evening where a newsreader from Look North handed out trophies; I got an extra one for getting a 180 during the match. The presentation evening was at Drax Club, and I had to leave my sixth-form college in Scunthorpe early so that I could get there in time. I explained this to my English teacher, whose class I’d miss. “Darts?” he said. “How unusual.” I didn’t get the impression he thought it was unusual in a good way. Still, he let me go. I was an eager student and had recently got a very good mark for my essay on The Bell Jar.
You don’t find much about darts in literature. Martin Amis is a fan. There’s a lot of darts in his novel London Fields. In one of Sylvia Plath’s letters to her mother she writes about her and Ted Hughes having a game in a pub when they are staying with his parents in Yorkshire. I wonder what they were playing and who won? Around the clock? 501? Maybe they both got stuck on double one. That’s called “being in the madhouse” and can go on for ages. Maybe they got bored and decided to settle it by going up for bull. It doesn’t feel like a realistic scene, does it? Darts and literature go together like… not much, really.
My dad remembers his first game of darts. He was in the Prince of Wales pub in Falmouth. He was 18. His parents were dead and he’d run off to sea from his aunt’s house in Cork three years earlier. When he’d get signed off a ship he’d go ashore, find a nice-looking pub and make some friends. Once he got into it, darts was a great way to get to know people. He decided to get his own set. He saw some he liked in Woolworths but they cost £17 and he had only £7. Later that day, he went into the working men’s club for a pint and told one of his new friends how disappointed he was that he couldn’t afford the darts. The friend asked him to describe them, went off, and came back a few minutes later. “Here you go,” he said. “Give me the seven quid.”
The stolen darts lasted for years. Dad met my mother. She was a grammar school girl, so it raised a few eyebrows that she’d hooked up with a tattooed Irish sailor who could hardly read and write. My mum once heard herself being discussed by her teachers: “She comes from a working-class family but they have middle-class values.” What did that mean? My granddad was a bus driver who’d had to leave school at 14, but he loved reading, believed in education and wanted his three children to have the opportunities he hadn’t. He bought them a set of encyclopedias on hire purchase. Everything else in their house was homegrown and homemade. My granddad was a dab hand at carving a tin of Spam into five equal portions. He liked darts, too. There was a dartboard on the wall of the sitting room. They’d untie the washing line my granny had hung over the Rayburn stove and use it to direct the ceiling light at the board.
By the time he met my mum, my dad was earning well. It was an era when you didn’t have to be literate if you could do difficult, dirty and dangerous things, and organise other men to do them, too. One night, Dad wanted to take Mum and her parents out for a meal. He chose the Fox and Hounds pub in Scorrier and dressed up in his white denim suit, which he had professionally cleaned every week.
Dropping the suit off and picking it up reminded him of standing in the pawn shop queue with his mother. That, too, was a weekly process. When his father was paid, his mother would redeem his suit so he could go to the pub in it; after the weekend she’d put it back in so they could eat for the rest of the week. So each time my dad paid for his cleaning, he felt he’d come a long way from the poverty of his childhood.
He was looking forward to spending some of his money when he walked into the lounge bar of the Fox and Hounds, but there was a flurry of concern among the staff. The landlord came up to him: “We don’t serve the likes of you in here,” he said. “You’ll have to go in the public bar.” They didn’t. They went back to the Stag Hunt in their own village and played darts instead.
My parents got married the day after Mum’s last A-level exam and she did an Open University course when my brother, Matty, and I were small. Dad became a tin miner, and we used to go to the working men’s club on Friday nights. One of my earliest memories is being put down to sleep with Matty in a corner, under a pile of coats. Another is running out to meet Dad when he came in off the night shift. I slipped in the snow and bashed my cheek on the step. I still have a little scar.
By the time the stolen darts finally fell apart, we were living in Yorkshire. The tin mines had closed down and we’d moved north for Selby coalfield. Now when Dad came home from work he had coal dust round his eyes that would never quite wash off, so he always looked as though he was wearing mascara. It took him a long time to find a set of darts he liked as much as the old ones. When he did, he bought two sets, so he’d always have a replacement. He got me some, too. We had a dartboard put up in our house and we’d play when I got home from school and before he went off on night shift. He’d give me a one-hundred start, which meant I could sometimes win. When he was on day shift and had his evenings free, he’d go down to the pub in the next village, the Bell and Crown, where he played for the team. On weekends we’d go off to tournaments, big knockouts that smelled of ale and fags.
When I was 16, the Bell and Crown came up for sale. Dad felt he’d had enough of doing difficult, dirty and dangerous work underground. My parents had always saved most of what they earned, and they borrowed from the bank and from breweries so we could buy it. Moving in was highly exciting and I loved working behind the bar, listening to the jokes and the stories. Weekends were manic and it was a matter of getting drink to people as efficiently as possible, but the weeknights were all about games and chat. Men’s darts on Mondays and Thursdays, dominoes on Tuesdays, ladies’ darts on Wednesdays. I signed up for the ladies’ team and so it was that a few months later I won my two trophies, one of which had a little gold figurine on the top, in a skirt, with an outstretched arm poised to throw a dart.
These days, I am sadly out of practice at darts. Rusty. You have to play a lot to keep the hand and eye in. I don’t look like the type of person who plays darts. There’s a lot going on in that sentence, isn’t there? What does the type of person who plays darts look like and why don’t I? I don’t think I did as a teenager, either. There weren’t many 17-year-old bookworms competing. Most of the ladies were at least twice my age, and often more. That’s what I liked about it. The conversation. Hints about the menopause and difficult husbands. “She’s the landlord’s daughter,” they’d say about me, when we visited the neighbouring pubs. A couple of years later, after I’d gone to university and made lots of posh friends, they’d make up little rhymes: “She was only the landlord’s daughter, but she lay on the bar and said ‘pump’.” I’d laugh and smoke another cigarette. I’d switched from Regal King Size to Marlboro Lights in my first week. I was rebranding myself, along with my choice of fags.
I mentioned darts in my first book, The Last Act Of Love, published in 2015. It’s not a book about darts, it’s about Matty and the horrible way he died. But the backdrop is the pub, so there’s lots of darts and dominoes. In my first draft, I’d glossed over all that. Perhaps I thought it didn’t belong in a book. It’s easy to jump from the fact that there’s not much darts in literature to the idea that darts do not belong in literature, and that people who play darts don’t belong in literature, and that people who play darts certainly can’t have a crack at writing literature.
In the same letter that Plath describes playing darts with Hughes, she mentions a trip to Whitby. There is, she explains, something depressingly mucky about English seaside resorts. The sand is muddy and dirty. The working class, too, is dirty, strewing candy papers, gum and cigarette wrappers. We used to go to Whitby for a treat. I don’t remember it as dirty, but then I’ve never seen the New England beaches that Plath longed for. My dad used to organise an annual trip to Whitby for the men’s darts teams. All year long there would be a raffle on darts night, for which we’d provide the prize – a mixed grill – and the proceeds would be saved up to pay for the coach, and give every player a little brown envelope of beer money.
My dad remembers stopping off at the Spotted Cow in Malton on the way back one year. He went to the bar and asked for 28 pints of bitter and a pint of dry cider. “Who’s the dry cider for?” asked the barmaid. At that moment, all 6ft 4in of the cider drinker fell through the front door. “Him,” said my dad. They both looked at him for a moment. “He’s not as drunk as he looks,” said my dad. I can’t imagine Plath would have been impressed if she’d bumped into them, barrelling down the road. I liked being on the bar when they came back, full of jokes and stories, and ready for yet more drink. One year, one of them brought a live lobster as a pet and let it loose on the bus.
I was always encouraged by my parents, but I remember that whenever I said to anyone outside my family that I wanted to be a writer, they told me not to be daft. Teachers said if I worked very hard I might be able to become a teacher. Friends told me to be careful not to show myself up. Customers in our pub said I sounded as if I’d swallowed a dictionary, that I was so sharp I’d cut myself, and that book learning wouldn’t get me a husband. I don’t think I’d have written anything if I hadn’t left the pub and the village. University was my Narnia. I found a door to another world. Getting a job in a bookshop was another big moment. I started looking after authors when they came in to do book signings. I began to see there wasn’t anything all that different about them. They were only people; they weren’t that unlike me.
I still have multitudinous insecurities but I try not to let them stop me doing things. I may not always know what the rules are, I tell myself, but nor did my dad when he was first off the boat, nor do lots of people. I do wonder what I might achieve if I didn’t have to expend so much energy on fear management. Back in Yorkshire, we had a practice dartboard called a Champion’s Choice. The treble and double segments were smaller than they were on a matchboard. The idea was that if you practised in tougher conditions, then when you came to a match it would be much easier: the trebles would look massive, the green of the double one really would look like a big field. It worked then, and made me a better darts player, and it works for me now as a metaphor. Whenever I do anything that seems like a huge stretch, I calm myself down by thinking of this dartboard; reminding myself that if I can do this, if I can cope with whatever is scaring me now, then in the future everything will feel easier.
People conflate class and intelligence. These days people assume I’m middle class precisely because I write books and can string a sentence together. A newspaper recently put my book in a list called “middle-class misery memoirs”. “But didn’t you notice the darts?” I wanted to say. Sometimes I get “accused” of being middle class. “Typical middle-class whining,” some man tweeted at me about an article I wrote about motherhood. I ignored him, which was probably the best thing to do, though if I’d channelled my Yorkshire barmaid self, the girl who used to keep very good order in the Bell and Crown, I’d have told him to fuck off.
I do think I’ve become a bit soft sometimes, a bit too well-behaved. I had to learn table manners along the way, so I knew what to do at lunches and dinners. Maybe I picked up an excess of civility at the same time as I was learning that you wait for everyone else to get their food before you tuck in. And you don’t eat or drink the contents of the fingerbowl – but I knew that from reading The Bell Jar. Books are helpful when it comes to social mobility.
The Snaith and District Ladies’ Darts Championship is still the only thing I’ve won. I’ve been shortlisted for a few bookish things but have never walked away with the trophy. If I ever do win anything, I think I’ll mention the darts. It will be a strange thing for a literary type to say: “This is the first thing I’ve won since the Snaith and District Ladies’ Darts Championship.” Good that I’ll say it, I think. Good that I’m allowing myself to think I might win something book-related one day. People like me can write books. People like anyone can write books. You have to learn to like the sound of your own voice; you have to trust that your perspective is interesting because it is yours. It doesn’t matter what came before: it matters that you are here now and have something to say. And, while writing might be hard and can often feel like a madhouse, you don’t get coal dust lodged in your eyelashes, and you never have the indignity of getting stuck on double one.
• This is an extract from Common People: An Anthology Of Working-Class Writers, edited by Kit de Waal (Unbound, £9.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.
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