This Sporting Life

A game for all that’s right up my alley

I wrote recently of how some sports, including ten-pin bowling, once basked in the sunshine of public acclaim before slipping into decline. Afterwards, I received a gentle rebuke from a reader who reminded me that alongside the professional fixtures, bowling remains an activity in which friends and family can enjoy both a convivial get-together and a competitive game, at whatever level they play. Fair enough, I thought, before recollecting that I too can write in defence, and indeed praise, of the sport.

Most writers are almost always self-employed, and some are almost always unemployed. There was a time when I was working unpaid on the fourth draft of a film script – a historical drama – which I was convinced would soon take me to Hollywood and on to fame and fortune. I’m currently working on draft 25.

I needed a job to tide me over until the producers began fighting over my script, and soon found work as a petrol pump attendant. Remember those? Vital members of the employment sector before the world went self-service. It was a decent earner, particularly on cold, rainy nights. A vehicle would pull into the forecourt, I’d emerge from my kiosk, the driver’s steamed-up window would lower an inch and the keys would be passed to me with the instruction, “Four gallons of three star,” or maybe, “Fill her up.” I’d dispense the fuel as instructed and return to the relowered window, sodden but stoical. As I handed back the keys in exchange for a pound note or two, there frequently came the words, “Keep the change”. Drivers just wanted to get home on rainy nights like that. Not only could I then keep the tip but also the Green Shield stamps the driver had forfeited. I always gave those to my mum, and her house soon looked like a Green Shield stamps showroom – a roughly triangular wooden-framed mirror, a painting of an Asian woman with an enigmatic smile, a red leather pouffe shaped like a camel’s saddle – she had the lot.

Then I learned that one of my songs had been accepted for the final of the Charleville International Song Competition. Charleville, famous for its cheese, is in the Irish county of Cork. At that time it hosted a week-long Cheese Festival, one of the highlights of which was the song contest. My song was a ballad, a rather schmaltzy duet about the end of a relationship – not my usual style, but when inspiration strikes you go with it. My singing partner was an American vocalist named Charlene, who’d had a worldwide hit single, I’ve Never Been To Me, which spent a week at number one in the UK charts in 1982.

I returned to the UK to find that I’d been replaced on the pumps. Nothing if not versatile, I became a bowling alley mechanic

We flew to Cork and rehearsed for the contest, with a tour of the cheese-making factory included. Come the big night we were drawn to perform first, not the dream position, but the band was good, and Charlene and I gave it our all. We left the stage to generous applause and even a few cheers. As we walked through the audience to reach the competitor’s area at the back of the hall, an Irishman leaned over and whispered, “Terrific song; the winner for sure.” Encouraging, but the same Irishman then whispered to every other finalist departing the stage. We didn’t win but no matter, the real music was made after the competition as the Guinness flowed and the legendary Irish craic lived up to its reputation.

I returned to the UK to find that I’d been replaced on the pumps. Nothing if not versatile, I became a bowling alley mechanic. My duties were simple. If a pin bounced too far into the lane to be mechanically gathered and dragged back for resetting, it was my job to trip lightly down the divide between the aisles, collect the pin and toss it into the darkness to find its position. Sometimes all the pins were gathered up by the machine but for some mysterious reason did not reset. This was when I looked even more impressive to bowlers impatient to get on with their game, as they watched me hurry around to the back of the lanes to work my mechanical magic. In fact, all I had to do was find the offending pin, pull it from wherever it had lodged and drop it back into the cage. Sorted. And as a bonus, I got my own bowling shoes rather than a pair worn by hundreds before me. It was a great job, with plenty of downtime. Consequently, I became reasonably good at the sport. My crowning achievement was once – and only once – beating the Ladies south-east Essex champion.

Revisiting the experience has confirmed that my correspondent’s rebuke was fully justified. Bowling is one of those rare sports where almost everyone present is participating rather than simply looking on. Never mind the balls which slide straight into the gutter or travel so slowly they pause then return to the embarrassed beginner, they’re as important as those expertly delivered with spin and curve to achieve the perfect strike.

Ten-pin bowling is a sport for all and has inspired me to start draft 26 of my film script. I’m dumping the historical element and turning it into a thriller. It’s about a bowling alley mechanic who falls to his doom in a pin reset cage. Or was he pushed? It’s a sure-fire blockbuster, to be called Alley of Death or possibly The Ten-pin Terror. At last, Hollywood beckons.

Robert Rigby is a journalist, author, scriptwriter and musician

Life

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