South London Sports Day
I had just sat down for an important talk by the Dulwich Society about why there are no pubs on the west side of Lordship Lane, when my phone buzzed. It was Cousin Max. Since he now lives in Manhattan, I decided I should take the call and slipped outside to answer it.
‘Raider! I’m in town for the holidays! Let us rejoin in sporting combat!’ he cried. If Cousin Max should ever decide to change his name to a symbol, like poor Prince, it would surely be an exclamation mark.
‘I’m studying at the moment,’ I said. ‘Where are you?’
‘Outside your house!’ he said.
‘Meet me in the Dulwich Plough in an hour,’ I said, figuring we could at least spend the afternoon making use of the pubs on the east side of the Lane.
As it happened, in pursuit of physical fitness, mental well-being and booze, I had already arranged a summer sports crawl with Half-life and Dirty South for the coming week, but I was wary of asking Max along, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there was Half-life’s renowned volatility with strangers. Only the week before he’d threatened to give an acquaintance of mine a ‘Scottish disembowelling’ (no, me neither). And that was at a funeral.
And then there was the fact that Cousin Max would beat us all. At everything. My simple game plan had been to get Half-life and Dirty South drunk or stoned, or both, and then crush their sporting dreams without them even realising. To introduce into the mix a man whose fridge is used primarily for the chilling of tennis balls was asking for trouble.
But in The Plough, Cousin Max’s relentless enthusiasm melted me and over a pint (me) and an ‘elderflower spritz’ (him), I let him in on the plan. And anyway, I figured, I could always pair with him.
‘Oh, amazing! Which sports?’ he asked, and got out his PDA to jot down some notes, like it was the ’90s.
‘Boules,’ I said.
‘Pétanque, yes,’ he said scribbling with his stylus.
‘Erm, table tennis…’
‘Wiff waff, good.’
‘Crown green or flat?’ he said, looking up.
‘Flat, I suppose.’
‘I see,’ he said, slightly disappointed. ‘Yes?’
‘And crazy golf.’
‘Ah, putt-putt! Splendiferous!’ he said, rubbing his hands together, his time in New York having done nothing to soften his plummy tone. ‘Quite the quirky quadrathlon!’
I smiled at him.
‘So, you’re here for the holidays, you say?’ I said.
‘Yes! On hols now ’til September.’
‘May to September? Good effort,’ I said.
‘Abso-bloody-lutely. Fires the soul! Frees the spirit! Forges the imagination!’
I got myself another pint. This could be a long summer. Or ‘Summer!’
The Rye pub, at the north end of Peckham Rye gets very busy at the weekends but its airy interiors, Rye views and vast back garden (featuring a boules court) makes it an ideal weekday playground, as discovered by mummies, people working ‘from home’ and day-time vagrants like us just looking for a good time and a game to go with it.
I let out an involuntary yelp of excitement when I saw that Southwark Brewery’s Mosaic was on. This single-hopped IPA uses Mosaic, the US super-hop, at each stage of the beer brewing process: Bittering, flavouring and aroma. It is apparently already sold out for the next two years – or at least only available in limited quantities – so when you see it used in a pint, have it. And then have another.
Dirty South, Half-life and I were thusly gorging ourselves when Cousin Max appeared through the door in a striped sports blazer and a Panama hat.
‘Chaps!’ he ejaculated. ‘I say, nice hat!’ he said to Half-life, who, as fate would have it, was also sporting a Panama. He glanced at our pints. ‘Ah, I see, ante bellum refreshment. The last sup, as it were. Jolly good, jolly good. Not for me, no, no. I’ll stick to soda. Must stay focused. Alors, ou est le boulodrome!?’ And with that he strode purposefully toward the back garden.
‘Who’s the cunt?’ said Half-life
‘That’s Cousin Max,’ I said.
‘Jesus,’ said Half-life.
Picking up the house boules from behind the bar, we found Cousin Max pacing the court in the spring blossom.
‘Isn’t this quite the best time of year?’ he said. Cousin Max pronounces ‘year’ as ‘yurr’.
‘Best time of what?’ said Half-life.
‘I mean, all these people who say they prefer winter, or the aromas of autumn, or whatnot, who are they kidding? Spring is the best season, it’s obvious. Spring is the best season, blue is the best colour, beef is the best meat, Bordeaux is the best wine, strawberry is the best Starburst. Am I right? Max,’ he said, extending a hand to Half-life. ‘Probably best that we partner, given our taste in hats. Do you wish to cast the cochonnet?’
Balls. This was a disaster. Half-life, despite years of abuse, mostly self-administered, is a quality gamer himself. We didn’t stand a chance. I glanced at Dirty South just as he contrived to drop a boule on his foot.
‘Ow,’ he said. ‘Note to self, no good for keepy uppy.’
The rhythm of boules suits the thirsty, with a mouthful of delicious ale available every two ends, as you return to base. This proved insufficient for Half-life, however, who insisted upon keeping a pint at both ends. It seemed to do the trick, too, as he and Cousin Max raced into a predictable 2-0 lead in our best of five session.
‘Petit a petit, l’oiseau fait son nid,’ said Cousin Max as he landed yet another boule next to the jack and advanced to inspect his handiwork.
‘Too right, pal,’ said Half-life.
‘What did he say?’ said Dirty South.
‘I’ve no idea,’ said Half-life, ‘But I’m winning.’
3-0 soon followed and the acrid stench of elderflower filled the air.
‘So, what do you get up to in New York, Max?’ asked Dirty South as we wandered down East Dulwich Grove towards our next stop, Brockwell Park.
‘Oh, this and that. That and this. Busy, busy, busy. You know how it is,’ said Cousin Max.
‘Not really,’ said Dirty South.
And I was unable to fill in the blanks for him. I knew there was a company, of which Cousin Max was the Chairman and CEO; a company that offered an eclectic melange of legal, real estate and creative services. ‘We’re fixers,’ he’d once told me. But in truth, I know next to nothing about him. He’s not even my cousin.
Having marched up to the top of the hill in Brockwell Park, we were disappointed to find the bowls hut firmly locked and shuttered. And despite putting out a call on Twitter and trying to get the hashtag ‘emergencybowls’ trending, closed it was to remain. (It later transpired that we were simply too early – the bowls club hut does open on Thursdays, but later in the day, what with people having to work and everything. It’s also open on Sundays).
‘That’s a proper shame,’ I said. ‘I was looking forward to that.’
‘Dulce bellum inexpertis,’ wittered Cousin Max.
‘Pardon?’ said Dirty South.
‘War is sweet, to those that have yet to experience it.’ said Cousin Max, the cheeky bugger.
‘Oh, I thought it was something about pudding,’ said Dirty South.
Walking into Herne Hill on our way to our next destination – the wiff waff table in Ruskin Park – our attention was taken by The Commercial public house, where we elected to stop in order assuage our disappointment with some essential fluids.
Is drinking a sport? The short, sad answer is ‘Probably, no’. Though it does make us all feel like winners. Even Cousin Max was persuaded into having a half of Thwaites’ Wainwright as we sat outside and surveyed the piazza, though he barely took a sip of it.
‘I bet you 10p I can make your beer disappear without touching it,’ said Half-life to him at length, seizing the opportunity for further gaming.
‘Oh, jolly good. This I must see!’ said Cousin Max, whereupon Half-life picked up Max’s beer and drank the lot in one go.
‘I owe you 10p,’ he said, wiping his mouth as Cousin Max’s confusion gave way to genuine joy.
‘Oh, my!’ he said, between guffaws, ‘Wait till I show them that at the club!’
At Ruskin Park I passed round the job lot of cheap bats I had purchased that very morning from Peckham’s Sports Direct, in a last ditch attempt to keep Newcastle up.
‘That won’t be necessary,’ said Cousin Max, producing a small briefcase from his bag, releasing the clasps and removing some sort of holy paddle.
‘What the fuck is that?’ I said, my heart sinking.
‘Nunquam non paratus. Behold… the Stilo 7,’ he breathed. ‘Carbon shaft, five wood layers, impeccable spongework.’
‘Oh, Christ,’ I said, and Half-life chuckled happily to himself.
‘This calls for a celebration,’ he said and proceeded to skin up on the table as the rest of us took in the blue skies, the aroma of fresh-cut grass and the magnificent trees, now approaching full leaf.
‘Isn’t nature wonderful,’ said Half-life, sparking up the beast and coughing out a cloud of smoke.
‘What is it?’ asked Cousin Max when Half-life passed it on to him.
‘It’s like a cigar,’ said Half-life. ‘A magic cigar.’
Cousin Max took a tentative toke.
‘Oh, that’s rather pleasant,’ he said, and took a couple more.
‘Not for me,’ I said, when he passed it over. ‘Must stay focused.’
‘Oh, my giddy aunt,’ said Cousin Max, as the cannabinoids began to raddle his perfect mind.
If ever there was a lesson in the dangers of doping in sport, this was it. First Cousin Max failed on a number of occasions to strike the ball on his own serve, then got a fit of giggles experimenting with the penhold and finally got the fear when a dog came over to chase the ball, at which point he climbed onto the table and refused to come down as the world was spinning too fast.
‘Hold on, chaps! Hold on for dear life!’
We were all less than excellent, to be fair, but having talked Cousin Max down to terra firma, Dirty South and I were duly able to take the wiff waff leg and level the series. Job done, we sauntered into Brixton.
The Duke of Edinburgh on Ferndale Road is a beautiful, Grade II listed boozer with a wide selection of fine beer, pool, sport on the telly and another enormous garden. There aren’t many ways to improve such places, but sticking a crazy golf course out back might just be one of them.
This one’s from the guys at Plonk and, housed in a large marquee, is open all day at weekends and from 4pm each weekday.
We collected our putters and took a ball each, all except Cousin Max, who produced one from his pocket. Oh, for crying out loud. Who has their own golf ball?
‘Well, it really is the most amazing thing,’ he said. ‘Incredibly rare. There’s only a handful in existence. After each shot it emits a high pitched pulse which means it can never be lost.’
‘Blimey,’ I said, ‘Where did you get it?’
‘I found it.’ he said, and looked very pleased with himself, before convulsing with more wet-eyed giggles, at which point Half-life joined in and slapped him on the back. ‘I found it!’
Plonk Brixton is a short (nine hole) course and despite some valiant attempts at interesting pipe work, isn’t the greatest I’ve ever played (though to be fair, I’ve played an awful lot of ’em). And at £7.50 it’s not cheap either. But it is in a pub garden, and amongst the Tiki stylings are plenty of places to rest your pint while you pause to address the ball or stand in your opponent’s eye line.
I don’t know if it was Cousin Max’s magic ball, or our inability to putt straight after four pints, but Dirty South and I fell short of that which was required and the putt putt point went to Team Max-life.
Afterwards we took a table in one of the new outside booths and Cousin Max and Half-life suggested that the day belonged to them, two to one, and engaged in some rather vulgar high-fiving. I felt compelled to point out that the four game series was obviously null and void since one of the sports had not even been played. To my surprise, they agreed and a replay was mooted for the following week.
‘I’m in,’ said Half-life. ‘Best fucking day out I’ve had all yurr.’
Update September 2017
Plonk has left the Duke of Edinburgh. It’s still got great beer, but a pub that had – and lost – crazy golf is a pub that will be forever living in its own shadow.
Thanks to Plonk Brixton
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