It is quite a remarkable statement on my lack of imagination as a person that I always take a look at those lists of the most-watched Irish television programmes of the year, and think - yeah, sure 960,000 people watching the All-Ireland hurling final seems like a lot of peop. . . but what the hell was everyone else doing?
If it’s not the All-Ireland hurling final at the top of that yearly list, it’s the All-Ireland football final; and if it’s not either of those, it’s probably a rugby or soccer international. These are all events I cannot conceive of missing, and it appears I cannot conceive of anyone else missing them either.
There were a couple of years where Love/Hate had muscled its way to the top of those listings, and even though I’ve never watched a minute of it, I still didn’t feel like I was missing out in the same way I foolishly insist those not watching live sporting events must feel.
This is an entire festival of entertainment that I'm willingly, but not wilfully, avoiding. The question remains - why?
But every Christmas there comes a televisual spectacle that troubles me. The darts. And it’s not the World Darts Championship. . . it’s ‘the darts’, which seems to capture the entire crazed, febrile atmosphere of the Alexandra Palace in London, not just the tungsten-tossing exploits of the gladiators in question but the entire lifestyle evinced by those men (and women) and their adoring public.
If I hated it, or if I disdained it, it would be so much easier. I do not look on it as Brexit Britain at play, as it is obvious from even the most cursory of glances at Twitter that its appeal stretches far more widely than that. It appears to be a genuinely cross-generational, heart-warming celebration of ordinary people doing extraordinary things under the most bizarre of spotlights.
Jonathan Liew of the Guardian, just one of the dozens of members of the British sporting press pack utterly in thrall to ‘the darts’, wrote of Monday night’s World Championship final between Englishman Michael Smith and Scotland’s Peter Wright: “You were reminded again just what a befuddling challenge it must be to throw pinpoint darts in this environment, amid the pounding music and the hollering of the referee and the ambient smell of lager and takeaway. Many wither on the big stage.
“For those who succeed, it must be akin to performing open heart surgery on a nightclub dancefloor.”
This is the most succinct, the most perfect description of the appeal of “the darts” imaginable, and having read it on Tuesday morning I certainly was not going to try and better it here.
Harmonious marital atmosphere
But having watched Manchester United against Wolves earlier on Monday evening (moved to a 5.30pm kick-off! To accommodate Sky’s live coverage of ‘the darts’! Manchester bloody United!), I watched the third and fourth sets of the final and then turned on Don’t Look Up on Netflix, to maintain a happy and harmonious marital atmosphere in my house. But, as in all things and in all circumstances, I shouldn’t blame my wife - I did it utterly without complaint.
At least 75 per cent of the people I follow on Twitter would broadly fall into the category of ‘sports stars and the journalists who follow them around for a living’. To see that entire cohort of people talking about a sporting event that I just couldn’t be bothered to watch felt. . . pretty transgressive.
It wasn’t just Monday night though. For the last two weeks, every time I logged onto social media I would see people say stuff like ‘unbelievable darts’, or even more tellingly, exclamations of orgiastic pleasure with no further elaboration such as ‘Bloody hell!!’, ‘what a tournament’, or ‘the greatest game I’ve ever seen’, but which were nevertheless obviously darts-related.
This is an entire festival of entertainment that I’m willingly, but not wilfully, avoiding. The question remains - why? Am I at least using my time away from the oche in some meaningful exploration of the fine arts? I watched Manchester United against Wolves earlier on Monday, for God’s sake, so I obviously don’t know what I’m doing.
At root, I believe the problem is one of sheer cowardice. What would happen if I added yet another sport to the roster, to go with the GAA, the never-ending carousel of Premier League games, the rugby inter-provincials, European games and internationals, even (God help us) the sordid late-night dalliances with the Ashes, the volume turned down low to hide my shame, the laptop shut closed with a bang to avoid discovery - would an inflection point be reached? If not in my brain, then at least in my marriage?
It is, in its way, a kind of self care. I know the Ally Pally is just a gateway drug. Soon I’d be tuning into the darts from Milton Keynes, from Barnsley, from Minehead. When you’re dealing with a man like me - weak, foolish, prone to headlong romances with any sport that will look at me sideways - you need to remember.
The darts is not just for Christmas, it’s for life.