“She’s not in.” He’s wearing a Texas Rangers baseball jacket. Stepping out of a tiny train station called Windsor & Eton Riverside, they gaze up at the imperial imperious stone turrets this town lives crouching like a lucky serf in the shadows of. Nah, she’s not in. He prods a photo in his guidebook and waves it in front of his rubble-haired partner. “It’s this whole other flag they fly when she’s in,” he intones as disappointment crawls down both their faces like the sweat of the undead.
“You should have phoned ahead and let her know what day you were coming,” we tell him as we follow them out. “Maybe she’s just popped out to the corner shop for a bag of sugar?” This suggestion just disappoints (or maybe confuses) the couple more. Whatever. That was 20 seconds ago and they are now most likely milling through and being barged about by burly toffs and upwardly mobile Del Boys in rugby shirts. Still these angry rich streets throng with such Americans and Elsewherians, here to soak up the Royal English summer rain in the backyard of the 87 year old incumbent of an 1,142 year old British institution.
Conversely, there are dotted around these streets – sparsely here in town, but increasing in number through Alexandra Gardens towards the leisure centre – people who have come to Windsor in pursuit of an American institution. One which in its current (modern revival) form dates back just a dozen odd years since its coronation in one of those Austin rock bars Mr Rangersjacket locks his car doors to drive past.
This is Windsor. Welcome to Derby.
People with collared shirts and opinions that shouldn’t be spoken out loud are wandering around draughty rooms full of paintings of men of horses, while the rest of us attend what is arguably the biggest UK roller derby event of the year. What? Shut up. How can you make such a statement? What about that X v X international bout somewhere in Scotland, or X from America dropping in on London Brawling, or X tournament where X beat X in the final and set X alight on a Viking longboat to celebrate? Fair enough, but those events featured what four leagues, six, maybe twelve if there was a mixed opener or invitational side?
Whereas 22 different roller derby leagues have injected players into this hallucinogenically mental Windsor tournament, and that isn’t even the number we should be talking about right now. Nor is fifteen, the number of teams taking part, or 75, the number of individual skaters. No, the real number that matters, the figure that fully sets in concrete the marathon of a day that lies ahead and the sheer twisted genius that underpins the Royal Windsor Rollergirls’ Sur5al concept is this number: 105. That’s how many individual match-ups are taking place here today. They’re not full length bouts, of course [that would take a week] but an unrelenting tide of two minute single jam match-ups, totalling some 210 minutes (3.5 hours) of on track action.
Co-ed, oh co-ed. What a strange beast you are. Having built up their frankly ace Sur5al concept to the extent that it’s an established franchise – sitting somewhere between Pizza Hut, Cartridge World and a Raw Heidi billboard on every derby savvy High Street – Royal Windsor like to experiment and innovate. After several successful women’s tournaments, they hosted a merby [men’s] one last September and will be holding a rookie one this November. Today’s Remix variant, however, is all about the co-ed.
Each team consists of three women and two men, and it’s fair to say that the male competitors will go on to dominate this tournament to a certain extent, featuring prominently across today’s individual top threes (most points, most jammer take outs, most penalties and so forth) largely as a result of the rules that are in place.
Merby is known for being more gung-ho in its attitude, and in a set-up where the lead jammer can’t call it off and every jam starts with a full complement on track (penalties don’t carry over at Sur5al), an awful lot of the superior tactics and finesse of the women’s game flies out of the window. There emerges something more of a battering ram approach, jammers trying to drive their way through the pack for the bonus point that LJ status provides, then a force versus immovable object tussle every time they hit the pack on a scoring pass. When, as often happens, a team is a pass or two behind but has a power jam in their favour, things become an all out reverse tug-of-war.
This latter scenario is one reason why star passes, fairly rare in conventional bouts, feature so often at this event – a jammer chasing a four or eight-point gap with their rival in the penalty box, unable to force out an opening through the pack and starting to tire, now hoping their taller/shorter/faster/tougher/whatever pivot might have better luck. More often than not, this involves a female jammer passing the star to a merbyer.
A lot of the feistiest on-track rivalry comes from the Southern Discomfort boys, and looking at the line-ups for these 15 teams that’s no surprise. With far fewer men’s leagues than women’s, just a handful have provided the male quotient for today’s sides. Several teams feature South Wales Silures or Surrey Rollerboys, but most pointedly more than half of these line-ups have a Southern Discomfortable element. Many of these match-ups thus feature hot SDRD-on-SDRD action, much of it driven by the over-eager desire to send an opponent who is usually a team mate floorwards. Hard.
Brighton Rockers interest today comes from the Rollin’ Rockers team, chicken yellow of uniform, rhino tough beneath. On paper, this is one of the strongest sides taking part, featuring two England internationals – Brighton’s The Mighty Mighty Bash and London Rockin’ Roller Jack Attack – alongside Rockers ref Noise Tank plus LRR/SDRD power couple Betty Swollox and Piston Broke.
Today’s match-ups are nominally broken up into three rounds of five heats, with seven jams in each heat. Six teams take part in each of these fifteen heats, usually (with a few exceptions) appearing in two or three jams per heat. There are no real breaks in play, with a couple of stoppages to treat injuries being the closest this tournament has to any downtime. Once a heat ends there’s a minute or so of multi-coloured activity as thirty skaters vacate the benches and another thirty simultaneously arrive, then… Blam! Straight on with the next heat.
The Rollin’ Rockers have one win to show for their first three jams and still seem to be finding their feet in a tournament whose format takes some adjusting to. Despite a 17-8 reversal, they have put up one of the day’s most resilient performances against Team Double Threat. This pink-clad five-piece, the house team of the St Pancras skate store of the same name, will prove the day’s dominant force, dropping only one of their fourteen matches.
TDT’s stellar performance is in part a product of the breadth of talent and experience their line-up boasts, but also buoyed by a very clear gameplan. Whilst many of the teams take an egalitarian approach, spreading star and stripe duties fairly evenly amongst their five, TDT for the most part stick with Plan A: SDRD’s Nanaki (filling in for injured Flat Track Bully) jamming his way through; shop owners Goregasm and Kitty Decapitate from the all-conquering London Brawling roster using their guile and experience to build a rock-solid, variably paced and constantly recycling pack alongside Tiger Bay’s Kid Block; whilst the poster boy of UK merby Sutton Impact lurks at the back of the pack – as tough as a sackful of squirrels and twice as bitey – dishing out invites to more closely inspect the skating surface to any opponent who strays too close.
There are a number of other strong line-ups on track today, of course. Hometown interest comes from Terminal 5, the Royal Windsor trio Lane, Culverhouse and Trashbag, bolstered by Team England world cup coaches Ballistic Whistle and Rollin’ Stone R. The cities of Sheffield and Birmingham, admirably served for both derby and merby, have each provided a team. Croydon already have one tournament win to their name this summer (the outdoor Eastbourne Extreme), and the likes of Surrey and Mean Valley – leagues that incorporate merby siblings of their own – have likely had more time to practice together as a five than many taking part today.
Sussex has representation beyond the Rollin’ Rockers today, with a sky blue Foxy Morons side built around Bourne Bombshells head coach Toxic Block Syndrome and jamming machine Bullet Bomber. One of the announcers will insist on calling them “the foxy ones” instead. Possibly he’s oblivious to their name’s play on the word oxymoron, but most likely he’s just too polite (or fearful for his safety) to refer to any derby folk as ‘morons’. The foxes are up against far more experienced line-ups than themselves in the main today, and will find it tough to chalk up many points.
The atmosphere in the hall has been fairly restrained for the first hour, but as hangovers subside and more £2.75 bottles of Stella and Sol pass across the bar, a buzz starts to build in the crowd. Terminal 5, as befits the ‘home team’, have plenty of fans here today, but the two Sussex contingents push them close noise wise. The sign waving Foxy Morons support base is clustered in front of the bar – that’s good derby positioning – resplendent in the same cardboard fox ears the team is wearing.
There are clusters of fandom and signs for many of these teams dotted around the hall. One Freakin’ Rad supporter has brought along what looks like a giant inflatable house brick. Meanwhile, behind the suicide seating occupied by the teams not taking part in each heat, a long line of yellow clad Rollin’ Rockers fans, many of them off duty LRR skaters, greet the start of each RR jam with a Mexican wave and chants for individual players that get louder (and supplemented by short-lived human pyramids) as the day wears on.
Trying to report on all of today’s 105 match-ups is quite frankly beyond even real reporters, let alone half-drunk barely derby-literate idiots like us, so instead we’ll just summarise each five heat round. The first of these ends, unsurprisingly, with Double Threat atop the table. They’ve taken maximum points (five points for the win – draws merit two, losses zero – plus one for getting Lead Jammer status) from all five of their bouts so far. They’re not alone in this respect however, leading only by point differential from Freakin’ Rad, an orange-clad side featuring Portsmouth Roller Wench RIP McMurphy, an iconic facepainted triple threat who has been one of the breakout stars of the last year in UK derby, alongside PRW team mate Peggy Peril, coach and LRG skater The Duchess of Crutches, and a de rigueur Discomfort duo.
Sheffield, Croydon and the Rainbow Danger Squad (Bristol, SWS and Tiger Bay) complete the top five, with the Rollin’ Rockers, buoyed by a 24-0 win over their friends Croydon, now up to sixth. Terminal 5 are surprisingly low in the rankings at the moment, one ahead of the Foxy Morons in 12th. The Surrey team Bangers And Smash’s 45-0 loss to the Rad Omens (Tiger Bay, SWS and Ponty Pirates) in heat three will prove the biggest of the tournament; they’re rooted to the bottom of the table, where they are destined to remain for the rest of the day.
The second round kicks off and the difficulties of finding enough recognisably different colours for fifteen teams is becoming apparent. There are several different shades of blue, purple, grey and green on display here. Woo-Ha even wears a different shade of green to the rest of her team, although we’re not sure whether this is because she was drafted in as a late replacement, or that it’s faded from being so much closer to the ceiling lights than anyone else’s top (she is very tall).
In several of the jams, a team has to wear bibs over their shirts to better differentiate the two sides. This has got to be a tricky tournament to referee, not least as a sizable portion of the skaters on track today are refs themselves. These kit colour issues aren’t being helped by the yellowy lighting that all leisure centres install to annoy photographers. This is with fifteen teams, so lord knows what the colour clashes would be like if these tournaments ever expanded to include twenty or thirty sides. Pity the poor pack ref then, so used to the simpler likes of black, red, etc.
“Autumn sunset maroon with a hint of salmon and cerise 37. Cutting. Major.”
Heats six to ten see a few changes in the table. Some teams, for example the Seaside Sirens-based White Lightning or the Free Radicals (a mix of LRG, LRG Rec and SDRD), largely retain position – about two thirds of the way down the table in both these cases. After their good start, Freakin’ Rad have followed five wins with four losses and are slipping down the rankings. The Rollin’ Rockers are starting to gel now, a string of tireless jamming performances from the likes of Jacks and Tank and tough pack work from Bash helping to pull them up the table. They’ve picked up a third loss, though, going down 8-12 against Sheffield. The Yorkshire side had a crazy heat ten, beating Dragonforce 14-13 and losing 8-9 to Bret Hart, but now place second in the table, eight points ahead of RR and six behind leaders Double Threat.
TDT are on maximum points and look pretty much unstoppable now, winning several match-ups by 30 or more points. Often these are helped by a power jam in their favour, but more worryingly for everyone else, often they aren’t, with the granite strong TDT pack simply pegging the opposing jammer to their backs for most or all of the two minutes. The top five is rounded out by Dragonforce (Cardiff, SWAT & SWS) and the Central City and Crash Test Brummies populated Team Bret Hart, but everyone’s playing a doomed game of catch-up with Double Threat now.
The final two of these six hours of chaotic derby action sees a number of injuries, thankfully none too serious, together with a handful of expulsions for reaching seven penalty box visits. The award for the first of the latter goes to Bret Hart’s Barry Fight. We use one of the injury stoppages to compose a letter to drop off on our way back to the station.
“Dear Mrs The Queen, Firstly we can’t believe you weren’t in today. Some guys had come all the way from Texas to see you. Not only that but you missed the Sur5al roller derby tournament, tsk. Not to worry, we were there and have made note for you of a few people to include in your next new year’s honours list. OBEs (Overwhelming Blocking Experts) to Sutton Impact, RIP McMurphy, Sookie Smackhouse and The Mighty Mighty Bash. JBEs (Jamming By Example) to Nanaki, Culverhouse, Jack Attack and Beat Monkey. DDSOs (Derby Distinguished Service Orders) to the Royal Windsor Rollergirls, Smashlyn Monroe, the Foxy Morons’ ears, and all the refs/NSOs who had to keep track of everything. The Order of Merit to Diva La Lunatic (for injury recovery), Barry Fight (for naughtiness), Killer Bite (for the sort of nonsensical bout programme interview we muchly approve of), Bangers and Mash (because sometimes last means first) and anyone who will kick us if we don’t award them something. Order of the Garter to the Rainbow Danger Squad as a garter would really suit their awesomes socks. And what’s the next one up from Duchess? One of them to The Duchess of Crutches. Cheers, BRATS.”
We’re in the home straight now. The teams sat on the benches between jams are borrowing fixture lists from the NSOs to see who they have left to play and when. Local heroes Terminal 5 raise the roof when they do the unthinkable and beat Double Threat 15-8, even though TDT took Lead Jammer. The Rollin’ Rockers, meanwhile, are hitting 20-30 points most jams now. Noise Tank showboating his way around the track on his scoring passes, playing to the crowd. Piston Broke is last in to jam for RR, and he takes the showboating to a whole new level.
A brief wave of worry rebounds around the hall as the announcers tell us that it’s raining really hard outside and loads of trains are cancelled. Everyone rushes to their smartphones, but it all seems to be running OK from Windsor to London, so there’s probably no need to build an ark quite yet. This is why the Met Office doesn’t employ derby announcers to do the weather: “This afternoon solid boulders of frozen water will hurtle at high speed, crashing into the ground across the country.” Er, it’s gonna snow, yeah?
There’s only one heat left and somehow the Rollin’ Rockers are now on top of the table. They’ve completed all their bouts though, whereas Double Threat still have three to play, with 18 points available and only four required to take the title. In a final heat that sees the day’s only draw – a ding-dong 9-9 between Sheffield and the Free Radicals – things go according to plan for TDT who sweep their remaining jams, taking the trophy with 79 points from the maximum 84.
There’s a long wait while the reams of statistics such an event creates are tallied and repeatedly checked. Double Threat take the trophy, alongside team and individual points wins. The Rollin’ Rockers must settle for second ahead of Sheffield, Terminal 5 and Croydon. The Eastbourne based Foxy Morons are happy not to have finished last, and are awarded Best Turned Out Team for a combination of foxy facepaint, cardboard ears and – if announcer Smashlyn’s comments about Toxic Block Syndrome are anything to go by – “the best eyebrows in derby”.
The original plan had been to hold a picnic beside the river, but whilst the weather might now have settled on moderate drizzle rather than the previously announced Biblical deluge, the after party has been switched to the King and Castle, a Wetherspoons right across the road from the Queen’s gaff. She’s still not at home. Maybe she’s in the pub?
When we passed through this pub at the start of the day, it took ten minutes to get served amidst a rowdy lunchtime rush, so we’ve deliberately made it across ahead of the main influx from the leisure centre this evening. Whilst there’s blissfully no queue at the bar, there is another problem. “We can’t serve anyone at the moment,” the barmaid solemnly intones, “there’s a wasp in my till.” Not a word of a lie, these are the first words spoken to us at the after party venue. Royal Windsor Rollergirls may have cancelled the picnic, but their after party is being plagued by little stripy buzzing beggars all the same.
It takes two barmen, two barmaids, three menus and a beermat to finally coax Mr Wasp out from the 20p coins tray. A rollergirl would have just bitten onto its wings, pirouetted to the door and released it unharmed outside, but the civilians have dealt with it their way. Bar service can resume. This is a heck of a pub, incidentally. From the castle side you think you’re walking into a single level ground floor bar, yet out back the whole thing drops away, several more levels (above as well as below) and a long beer garden ranging off towards the river. “I’d like to live here,” announces jam ref Laserhammer as we pass him on the stairs. Yes, Windsor does look nice. “No, I mean I’d like to live in this pub.”
As the various areas begin to fill with Sur5alists – a team on the balcony querying the scoring, a cluster of Southern Discomfort annexing the bay windows on the top floor, Double Threat owners holding court by the door, LRR types getting rowdy in the garden – we head back to the train station. The American couple from earlier are here for the same train, but for some reason move to the other end of the platform when they recognise us.
Their loss. We were just going to tell them that whilst they didn’t get to break bread with Queen Liz, we spent the day in the company of another kind of royalty. They’re the kings and queens of UK roller derby, and even the most vociferous republican wouldn’t deny them their right to rule.
[Photographs by Rebecca Cornford]
UPCOMING BOUTS: We can’t promise you 105 bouts in a day, but there are a couple of things coming up in Sussex that everyone should know about. The eagerly anticipated meeting between the Brighton Rockers and Leeds Roller Dolls takes place at 3pm on Saturday 21st September in Haywards Heath. You can find details and a link to buy tickets here: http://brightonrockers.com You don’t have to wait three weeks for your next hit of local derby action though. This Saturday (31st August) the Bourne Bombshells are hosting their first home bout, taking on Croydon’s B-team in Hastings at 4pm. You’ll find a preview here: http://thebbcd.com You can buy tickets here: http://ohmyquad.eventbrite.co.uk/ Both these bouts can also be found as event pages on Facebook. Yay!