Posted 21st May 18.
Last weekend I went to view the spectacle of one of sports biggest rivalries; the annual drinking competition between the British Army and the Royal Navy at Twickenham, cunningly disguised as a rugby match. At least that’s how Michael described it.
Nearly 80,000 military personnel, past and present, plus a few extras, filled the home of English rugby and surrounding hostelries and car parks.
Packed tighter than a submariner’s suitcase, we were swept along by waves of bodies from the railway station to The Albion, which appeared to be the preferred watering hole for many of my Navy and Royal Marine friends.
The sun beat down fiercely and I was glad I’d gone for shorts. Others less sensibly dressed, sought relief in a narrow stretch of shade to the side of the pub.
From my vantage point I examined the throng of heavily paunched, middle-aged men and thought of my favourite PG Wodehouse quote;
‘“His first emotion was one of surprise that so much human tonnage could have been assembled at one spot. A cannibal king, beholding them, would have whooped with joy and reached for his knife and fork with the feeling that for once, the catering department had not failed him.”
There was much bonhomie and back-slapping, hugging and even kissing as old faces came into view. A significant number had thrown caution to the weather forecast and had gone for fancy dress.
Pith helmets and kilts, reminiscent of a scene from Rorke’s drift, graced the car park.
It reminded me of my favourite film, Zulu. With lines from Colour Sergeant Bourne such as ‘a prayer’s as good as a bayonet on a day like this,’ and the quote from psalm 46, ‘He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.’
There appeared to be plenty of heathens among whom God could be exalted here.
As we squeezed inside towards the bar, I looked up to see four men dressed as Nelson, complete with bicorn hats, blond ponytailed wigs, eyepatch and striped Breton vest.
“Eighteen pints of Guinness please”said the tallest Nelson to the young man behind the bar, who immediately Parroted back the order to check his hearing.
Seeing my disappointment at being second in the queue to a Guinness world record attempt at the largest round of drinks ever ordered, he winked at me and said, “it’s so hot in this wig.”
As if sensing this had not softened my disappointment he pointed to to his portly shipmates and said, “We’re three Nelsons and he’s Napoleon,” indicating the shortest of the four.
I cracked a smile and laughed at which Napoleon protested, “I’m not Napoleon, I’m a half-Nelson!”
And so it began.
I have to confess, I approached the weekend with some trepidation, well aware that I would be considered something of a bantamweight in the heavyweight drinking division.
I decided to pace myself and went for a shandy once Nelson and his mates had been served.
Back in the sunshine, hip flasks came out and Nelson’s blood was offered around my circle of friends, always passed to the left as Naval tradition has it.
Our conversation turned to the spectacle ahead. Michael quipped it was actually a contest between the Navy and the Fijian B team, given the high number of south sea islanders recruited into the British Army. (Actually both sides have their fair share).
The British established the colony of Fiji in 1874 and it remained a crown colony until 1970.
Just like our own land, Fiji’s history is full of influences from the different cultures that have settled there. At one time Fijians developed a currency system based on the polished teeth of the sperm whale, called tambua.
The early colonists and missionaries brought Christianity to the islands in order to curb cannibalistic practices. Unfortunately some then ruined their claim to the moral high ground by claiming that Fiji was a ‘paradise wasted on savage cannibals’ and a slave trade took hold. In reality the only cannibalism witnessed by chief medical officer, William MacGregor, was on rare occasions where tasting of the flesh of the enemy was done “to indicate supreme hatred and not out of relish for a gastronomic treat”.
That’s okay then.
For a long time the Fiji islands were known as the Bligh Islands after the castaway lieutenant of HMS Bounty who sailed between the main islands, naming it Bligh Water.
Bligh water or Nelson’s blood, I was going to have to pace myself today.
Europeans had flocked to Fiji to get a slice of the lucrative cotton trade, especially when the Union blockaded southern ports in the American Civil War. Finding the locals unwilling to provide labour for their plantations, some resorted to trickery and kidnap to secure their services, a practice known as Blackbirding.
In one notorious incident of the Blackbirding trade recorded in 1871, Dr J.P Murray had his men reverse their collars and carry black books in order to deceive residents to believe they were church missionaries. Having enticed the unwitting parishioners into a faux religious service Murray and his men produced guns and forced the unwitting congregation onto boats to work as slaves on Fijian cotton plantations.
Unbelievably ‘Blackbirding’ is something that still goes on to this day. We’ve not come that far yet.
I recently listened to a talk by psychologist and author Jordan Peterson which he concluded with the words, ‘until the whole world is redeemed then we all fall short,’
I think he’s right.
He also says something in his latest book which I think is pertinent here too; ‘The forces of tyranny expand inexorably to fill the space made available for their existence.’
If that is the case then we must all take responsibility for ourselves and one another and to fill the space with something altogether better; to challenge this tyranny in all its ugly forms.
In those days it was William Wilberforce whose life’s work was in opposition of the tyrannical forces of slavery. I found an interesting quote where he talks of his induction to St. John’s College, Cambridge; ‘and there Introduced me to as licentious a set of men as can be conceived…they were in the habit of drinking hard and their conversation was in perfect accordance with their principles.
He sounds a bit priggish but I know where he’s coming from.
Anyway, I digress; back to the rugby.
I looked over and saw Nelson leaning against a wall on his mobile phone-
A comical figure with his paunch protruding through his striped navy striped vest.
Again I was glad of my shorts as were, doubtless, all those in kilts, except for the ones in wigs and milk-bottle glasses. The Hawaiian hula girls had clearly struck the right balance.
Best fancy dress of the day went to a man dressed as one of my childhood toys – a green plastic soldier with bazooka. Even exposed skin was painted green to complete the authentic plasticity.
He sensibly stood under a parasol.
My older brother and I used to float toy soldiers in match boxes with sails through the overflow pipe that led from our pond, off to some foreign land, never to return.
As we made our way to the ground the hum of excitement increased in volume in proportion to the mass of humanity.
I noticed two men who stood at the crossroads of all this humanity preaching the gospel, their words drowned out by the din.
Every few paces shouts of joy to my right and left went up as old acquaintances were renewed.
Military and civilian police stood cheek by jowl, but they weren’t needed. Everyone was in a good mood. There would be no tasting of enemy flesh today whatever the result.
The meeting place was at the side of a coach in the dusty car park. Optics attached to a trolley served as a makeshift bar.
A man tenderly brushed the hair from the forehead of a woman being sick between her legs on a plastic chair.
Richard and I left the sailors there and moved towards the stadium. Bizarrely, Amy winehouse and ziggy stardust lookalikes staggered between the parked coaches, already worse for wear.
We eventually climbed the concrete stairs to our perch, high in the west stand.
A shadow fell across us and a third of the pristine, green-grassed playing surface.
A Union Jack flag topped the stadium, flanked by red and white or st.George’s ensign.
The white ensign is used by the Royal Navy and Nelson was Vice admiral of the white at the time of his death.
Joined again by our Navy contingent we were promised the national anthem would be the highlight of the day. Of course today it would be sung by both sets of supporters, not one.
Much pride was at steak, both in the singing of the anthem which united both teams and the contest that would divide them. The tension was palpable.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘two tribes’ echoed through the stands as bands took their positions in 3 sided box formation and the players practiced final pre match drills. The army in red and the Navy (including Royal Marines) in navy blue.
A hum, such as I have heard only in my lavender at the height of August went through the stadium as the bands took up their positions in opposing ranks.
My friend Richard, a turf-man by trade, appreciated the quality of the green baize beneath us on which the two tribes would go into combat.
A momentary silence preceded the anthem, then all 80,000 souls sung out, ‘God save the Queen’ and all seemed right with the world.
Hairs on necks stood to attention and saluted. Hearts pumped with vigour and swelled with pride.
A mighty roar went up at the climax and all of us were, in a moment, somehow united
There were none of the prawn sandwich brigade in the stands today. They stayed in the executive boxes. To a man and woman, we all sang the same song.
Then it was the crowd’s turn; a rousing chorus of ‘swing low sweet chariot, the old slave song adopted by the England rugby team, when black player Chris Oti heroically and almost single-handedly overturned a long run of losing performances by the team in 1988.
Kick off arrived and the underdog Navy side took a promising 6-0 lead, scuppered when the Navy’s
Fijian, Sam Matavesi was sent off in the 25th minute. Not for attempting to consume his opponent but for a rather lame and innocuous head-butt.
It spoiled the game as proper contest. Three tries cemented a halftime lead for the Army.
After the break the Navy put us a spirited defence and even scored the first try. A Mexican wave went up around the theatre to a hum of excitement, oblivious to the effort down below.
Superior numbers won the day however, with the Army running out convincing winners in the end.
It felt less a defeat for the Navy and more a victory for endeavour in the conditions.
As we poured out of the stadium I saw a disconsolate mermaid, bewildered and heavy in drink. In reality it had been a victory for both sides. No one died and they all shook hands at the end, including an apologetic Fijian.
As for the rest of the day – well, I lived to tell the tale. I’ll tell you over a shandy someday.