In 2018 I published a book I am more proud of than anything I've ever written; Heart of Dart-Ness. As with any book, some writing gets cut and never sees the light of day. These words were excised from a chapter written about Jim Bowen. He was the legendary host of Bullseye and died shortly after I had finished writing. His wartime childhood and prime-time success in the 1980s marked a distinct and profound change which the game of darts reflected in its own unique way.
After many years, the war finally quelled itself. A worn out continent accepted the peace with weary resignation, as the future host of Bullseye was turning eight. For those returning, and for those who welcomed them home, British life was slowly convulsing. Peace necessitated change; a renewal on many levels, social, cultural, political. Learning how to live through the latter half of the twentieth century would mean for many an instinctive plunge back into the perceived heart of British identity, its church clocks, village greens and roast dinner trimmings. But for others, and over successive generations, it would mean the opposite; a tearing up the old, and bringing about a newness that was defined and redefined at will. The tug of these two diametrically opposing instincts shaped the country post-war and continues to do so still, more than seventy years after the guns fell silent. So what did the successive generations do with modernity? How did they come to accept into their hearts and minds the advent of otherness? The challenge of the new, and how it might best be assimilated, has been an ever more urgent question running through British culture ever since history started to move so quickly that people spoke about generations, rather than centuries.
During Bowen’s years at the helm, darts had, it seemed, existed in a state of tension between these differing poles of class and values, competing visions of the future and the past. It had orientated itself somewhere in the middle of this unconscious shifting of tectonic plates; a slow release of pent up energy that started post-war and continues even now.
This whole journey, it seemed to me, was made up from a series of divides, navigating with reference to both river banks, as they drew closer and receded. Now I was travelling not North to South, but from the Past to the Present, holding in my thoughts the two. For some, darts represented a harmless, nostalgic nod to homely, rural, British qualities; those very values celebrated by the distinctly upper crust Rupert Croft-Cooke in quoting William Blake’s ‘Bring me my Arrows of desire!’ as the foreword to his book Darts. The reassuring thud of dart on board sounded, to such ears, equivalent to the crack of leather on willow; one of those irony-free eccentricities that are the hallmark of our culture.
But for others, who would start to pack out the seats at venues such as Jollee’s night club in Stoke, flashing their extra cash from doing double time on the shop floor, a night at the darts was a brash, noisy two-fingers at the status quo. They were the crowd who would go on to revel in the glorious carefree figure of Eric Bristow, and subsequently in men like Chris Mason who once told me, ‘I’m anti-establishment. I fucking hate it.’
Darts has always looked both back and forwards, representing a bit of both tendencies. Jollee’s itself was a brick and mortar expression of this dichotomy, doubling up as a brash and spangly darts venue, while at the same time still serving as one of the very last of the old variety halls. It was a building at a cultural crossover, undergoing the same uncomfortable metamorphosis as would befall the cinemas that became Bingo halls in the nineties, the warehouses of the Thames made into the aspirational penthouses, and the banks turned into pubs over successive generations.
Buy Heart of Dart-Ness not on Jeff Bezos here: https://www.waterstones.com/book/heart-of-dart-ness/ned-boulting/9781788702119