The University of London’s Dragonology Department lies in one of the dustiest corners of Senate House. Two small rooms – one packed with drawings and photographs of fossils, the other with yellowing hardback books. All around is an overwhelming smell that can best be described as “the rotting carcasses of a long dead civilisation”. This turns out to be from a beef and tomato Pot Noodle the Department’s sole member of staff, Professor Frankentube Ocelot, is chomping on. What can the professor tell us about dragons, we wonder.
“Ghmmpt mutthy dumphtfg gruwttgd,” he says. We wait for him to finish eating before we ask again, but it turns out he was speaking Welsh. “The language of dragons,” he tells us, “or at least it was until they died out in the early 14th Century.” Wait a minute, is he saying that dragons are real? He certainly is. “What did you want to ask?” he asks.
“Well,” we begin nervously, “let’s say for example you knew some people, and those people were going to go up against some dragons, and those dragons they were up against were going to be on skates, what are good tactics to use against them?”
“Hmmm…” The professor thinks for a minute, strokes his chin – filling his beard with pungent noodles in the process – and flicks through a couple of hefty books before replying. He’s acting as if this is isn’t the strangest question he’s been asked today. “If you were battling dragons on rollerblades-”
“Quad skates,” we correct.
“-whatever. The thing about dragons is they are, generally speaking, solitary creatures. Although you might sometimes encounter three or four in formation… due to their large wing spans and so forth, they always leave a lot of space between each other. If you can somehow use that space to your advantage, pick them off one by one, that’s the way to do it. Dragons may be terrifying, but they don’t have that pack mentality. Dragons never swarm.”
He’s wrong, you know, is old noodle chin. As wrong as it’s possible to be. They do swarm. God, do they swarm. Every time one of the would-be dragon slayers in black and cyan looks like posing even the smallest of threats, a whole cluster of Dragons surrounds, corals, marshals, traps, snares, bumps and cajoles them. It’s some of the most instinctive, most reactive pack work we’ve witnessed, and is a major reason why Team Dragon sit on the fat side of an ever increasing points differential. It had started off so brightly for the Brighton Rockers. 23-7 up after the first few jams. One big jam from TD and suddenly it’s 24-23 to the visitors.
The Rockers battle back to lead 36-33. Good play from Gin Atomic up next in the star. She’s facing a full Dragon pack, with just one blocker to call upon for good chunks of the jam, but still takes it 19 points to nil. The fifth birthday girls are now on ‘all the fives’ 55 points. Chariot Sophia back in Brighton colours after a few months off and doing well. Power jam start to Kapow, but the Dragon swarm hits. She’s surrounded. No way forward. No way to get the star out from the scrum to her pivot. TD’s star pass recipient from the previous jam, Lola Vulkano, is out of the penalty box to take lead. Team Dragon regaining the initiative. 68-66 to the visitors, and that’s when they start to turn the screw. The points gap is only heading in one direction now…
“I don’t know what I was expecting,” one of the Rockers tells us at a very low-key after party, “but I wasn’t expecting that.” Nor were we. The Dragon’s core being skaters from LRG Rec League, we thought Brighton would be clear favourites here, but closer examination of the rosters during the skate outs clouds the issue somewhat. The Rockers are without probably their three best known triple threats – Shambolic is off worrying sheep in Australia, and Rose Bleed and The Mighty Mighty Bash are also absent today. Whilst 2014 transfers Swann (now captain) and Gin Atomic (vice captain making her home debut) have plugged some of the gaps, Brighton are skating short today. Only twelve Rockers on the roster, whilst the Dragons are bolstered here by a number of guest skaters. Two of them, Lisa Wright and Juicy Lucy, are from the 2014 Team England training squad; indeed, Lucy played for England in the 2011 World Cup. Then there’s Spanish WC star Lola Vulkano, along with eight foot tall Belgian international Aline Decat. The latter has travelled over from the land of waffles just for this game, so obviously isn’t about to give any less than 100%.
Announcer Polka Dotty called it right a few days ago when she told us: “You don’t put players of that quality and experience in your line-up if you aren’t going to make full use of them.” Sure enough, Lucy is an integral part of the TD jammer rotation, chasing down the Brighton starheads whenever any has the gall to take lead against her. Lola, meanwhile, is a regular feature in the pivot panty; part of the bustling, physical, fast moving defence that will have Rockers discovering new bruises throughout the week ahead. For now, Brighton need a miracle. Maybe they need a magician?
London University’s Department of Magic is proving hard to locate. Several times we encounter a door in Birkbeck College bearing that title, but as we go to turn the handle the door disappears. We end up asking for help from a passing Professor of Wicca, who utilises a cauldron, some herbs, half a bat and two teaspoons of our nose hair to make the Magic Department’s door stay put. Inside we find Abdul Cadabra, Visiting Lecturer in Paranormalcy, munching on a chow mein Super Noodles To Go. We explain the situation; endure a confusing few minutes when we’re not sure if he’s speaking Welsh, Arabic, in tongues, or with his mouth full; then listen intently as he responds to our enquiry.
“You’re looking for a way to use magic to defeat skateboarding dragons?”
“Roller skating,” we clarify, “quads not inlines, obvs.”
“Hmmm… you do know that dragons aren’t real?”
“Well, nor is magic.”
We realise we’re now standing in an empty room. We hear a hissing sound and look up. Abdul is spread-eagled across a pentangle on the ceiling. His hair seems to be made of snakes. “If dragons actually were real, what makes you think magicians could help?” he asks, climbing back down. What we thought was a pentangle was actually a skylight. What we thought were snakes were Super Noodles.
“Merlin,” we reply confidently. “He fought dragons, didn’t he? Also Gandalf.”
“Merlin is mere legend, a work of fiction,” Abdul solemnly intones, “and it was Bard the Bowman not Gandalf who defeated Smaug. Still, the idea of going into battle against rollerblading dragons intrigues me. Let me talk to my colleagues. We may be able to help.”
Hairy Fairy v Juicy Lucy – more rhyming jammer pairings in derby please – with the latter taking lead but picking up a penalty. HF battling hard to get through the Dragons pack. Lisa Wright, Dee I Why, Vulkano, Decat and Rusty Stiletto amongst the standout blockers for Team Dragon today, but there are no weak links anywhere in this draconine defence. Hairy starting the next jam in the box. Nacho Problem on a PJ start, being held up brilliantly by Hyde ‘N’ Shriek and Sophia, but she breaks through. Swann takes lead against I Eat, has to call it on the floor. Chaka Carnage, Dr Whooligan, Cake Or Death, Derby McGee and others battling hard in the Rockers packs, but these relentless TD jammers – pacy petite I Eat, bustling Van Hustling, bruisey Juicy Lucy, can’t find a rhyme for Nacho Problem – are proving as slippery as a bouncy castle made of mozzarella balls. Half time score (or a few seconds before half time, as we’ve rushed off to beat the queues at the bar) is 103-78 to the Dragons.
The Rockers have come back from far bigger midway deficits than this one, but it often involved reshuffling the line-ups and throwing in the ‘power players’ more. Many of those players – particularly the super tough Bash – aren’t playing today, so any chances of a resurgence look a whole lot trickier. We’re finding it tough going ourselves as the bar ran out of bottles of London Pride during the first game. We’ve just nabbed their last two cans of John Smith’s. From here on in it’s Bacardi Breezers all the way, God help us. Guess the Dolphin weren’t expecting today’s crowd to be quite this big – roughly double what recent Rockers games have attracted are in the packed hall today – or quite this thirsty.
Central jammer rotation for Brighton here of Swann, Kapow, Sophia, Gin and Dr Whooligan. Gin getting some of the best of the Rockers’ second half chances, but she’s often up against the hard-hitting Lucy, with the two starheads quick to chase each other down. Halfway through the second period and things are getting pretty penalty heavy for Brighton out there; indeed, it looks like Hairy Fairy may have just fouled out after seven visits to the box. Rockers are down to a squad of eleven now. By our calculations, there must be a fair few other BRRD players (Dr W and Sophia, for example) who aren’t far off joining Hairy in the bleachers.
The audience has thinned out quite a bit now. Chatting to fans in the pub by Haywards Heath station during the break between games, it seems many didn’t anticipate quite how long today’s event would last – this is, after all, the first home double header in almost two years – and have evening plans to pursue. Chaka putting in some hard hits on the ever impressive I Eat now. Score in the region of 125-219. Guess Brighton’s aim now, with mere minutes left on the clock, is to try and keep the differential down to double figures. Perhaps they need some kind of a distraction? Something to take the Dragons’ minds off the game. Something funny, perhaps? A clown, maybe?
Whilst scouring the corridors of Queen Mary College for London Uni’s Faculty of Clowning, you’ll know when you’ve found the right place. Not from the sign on the door, but from the custard pie that emerges from an unseen flap to hit you in the face a few seconds after you knock. We enter, spluttering, pulling chunks of shaving cream (not custard, apparently) from our ears and hair. Professor Hardboard Jackanory helps clean it off with a few strong squirts of water from the giant plastic flower attached to his brightly coloured jacket. “Hello,” he says, the white, black and red of his facepaint cracking slightly as he smiles. We go to shake his hand, but he’s holding a chip shop curry flavoured Golden Wonder Nation’s Noodle in it. He looks down at the plastic pot, before instinctively throwing it into our just de-custarded face.
“Ow, ow, it’s hot,” we wail as strips of sauce-sodden wheat flour drip from our nose and eyebrows.
“It is quite spicy, yes,” says Hardboard, “but you should try the inferno chilli flavour. Wowsers! Anyway, what can I do for you?”
Patiently we explain the predicament we are facing and the help we require from the professor’s faculty. “So you need some clownish tricks,” he says, “to distract these dragons on mini scooters-”
“-whatever. And you want me and my colleagues to provide them. Standing at the side of the track nearest to the dragons. Custard pies, trousers falling down, balloon animals, exploding cars, that sort of thing. To put them off. I think we can arrange that…”
“Brilliant,” we bluster. “That would be so useful. We’ve spoken to the Department of Magic and they’re going to help too.”
“Magicians? You’ve asked magicians! Oh no no no, we clowns hate magicians, with their stupid outfits and their ridiculous behaviour. We couldn’t possibly work alongside them. No way. We’ll need to hold some kind of contest before the dragons arrive. Us against the magicians. The winners help you against the dragons, the losers get lost.”
“A contest you say?” we reply. “Hmm, we’ve got an idea actually. How about an oval track with you and the magicians battling each other-”
“-on space hoppers!”
“…we were thinking, maybe, roller skates?”
Clowns v Magicians. Magicians v Clowns. A mixed opener, with a handful of slightly more experienced skaters amidst plenty who are making their public debut today. In many ways those rostered onto the clownish side of this contest have struck it lucky; they get a perfect excuse to bedeck themselves in a variety of facepainted clown visages, although none are quite as terrifying as bench coach Polka Dotty’s. To be fair, her tie is even more frightening than her face. For the magicians, the odd sparkly thing or top hat aside, fancy dress options are more limited. Still, on the other hand, it’s perhaps better to be able to tell people you were a ‘magician’ in your first game than a ‘clown’ – they might think you’re referring to the quality of your play rather than team name.
There are Rockers rookies amidst both the white clown and black magician ranks today, alongside numerous skaters from several other South East leagues. Many of these have other members of their league in attendance, cheering on their teamies. Plenty of Bourne Bombshells here on the back straight, members of Brighton’s new league the B-Town Brawlers acting as a buffer between them and a similarly purple cluster of noisy Croydon fans. At the back is a throng of typically rowdy London Rockin’ Rollers types. On track, Kent Roller Girls’ Tenacious is making an early impression in the clowns star – very speedy and points hungry, she’s arguably the most effective jammer out there today. Brighton’s Chloe Colossus and Streets Of Rage from LRG Rec League are among the other stand outs in the white star.
The Magicians’ packs are battling to contain the clownish starheads in the early stages. Valkyrie Pain is probably team black’s most powerful blocker here, and her experience with Portsmouth’s strong B-team could prove invaluable. Croydon’s Dirty Dancer, LRR’s Ginger Snaps, Brighton’s Skate Bush and Southampton’s White Lightning amongst the other tough blocking options for the Magicians. Their own jammers, such as Groundskeeper Willie (Croydon), Kickasso (LRR) and Sutherland (Brighton) are putting points on the board, but the Clowns are keeping their – red plastic – noses in front. Berry Naughty (Pompey) battling hard. Basha (Soton) and FloRideHer (LRR) teaming up for some big hits on Willie, who hops through on the inside line before being taken down. The most experienced Rocker on show, Irish Mist, helping marshal the white packs, tussling now with Bombshells Magician Von Stackit. A great spinning pass through the pack by Valkyrie sends the crowd wild. People queuing up at the penalty box now though. Games such as this are typically penalty heavy, and players from both sides, including the commanding Valkyrie, will foul out before this game is done.
Magicians’ bench coach Mistress giving the team talk as the second half begins. They’re trailing 135-90 at present, battling hard to keep the differential from expanding. “Call it, call it, call it!” a regular cry from both benches. People going down left, right and centre. Having been on wheels here once ourselves (once was enough) we know how hellishly slippy the surface is. Everyone falling small well. Magicians have pulled it back to 197-172 as they call a team timeout. The walls here (the ones made of bricks, not the ones made of blockers) are covered in baby photos of the Rockers A-team – this is, as the second game’s party hat and streamer infested skate out will remind us, the Brighton league’s fifth birthday. Geek fact: Your fifth birthday is the day you can first legally drink alcohol in the UK. That’s only at home when supervised by a parent/guardian, by the way, so don’t go rushing off down the pub quite yet, pre-schoolers. Willie gets penalised for attempting a star pass on the floor. Final jam. Sutherland calls. Clowns take the win 250-180.
Fast forward two hours. As the second game draws towards a close, we gaze over at the clowns and magicians in the crowd. All too shattered from their own contest earlier this afternoon to come to the Rockers’ rescue with exploding trousers or magic wands. Photographers in the centre track clicking their shutters as the seconds count down. One was hedging his bets here by wearing both Rockers and Team Dragon T-shirts, but it’s the latter on display now as the visiting winged beasts break the 100 point gap. 132-238. Only enough time left for one more jam. Brighton need to take seven more points than the visitors to get that differential back below a century. Gin Atomic lining up in the hometown star. Nacho jamming for the Dragons. Lead to Gin. Brighton pack working double hard to keep TD’s number 88 pegged back. First scoring pass to Gin, five points including one for passing the opposing jammer, 137-138. So close, but still over the century. Doesn’t call it as Nacho breaks out of the Sussex pack. Another pass for Gin. Nacho picking up points now too, but the Rockers defence is slowing her down.
Whistles ring out, including the long swirly one that signals the end of the match. Waiting now for the scoreboard to update. Final score coming in. 242 to Team Dragon, 145 to the Brighton Rockers. It’s possible we were the only people here that had decided we’d treat a less than triple figures gap as a victory of sorts. Indeed, several Rockers will talk at the after party about being beaten by more than a hundred. “It was only ninety-seven,” we’ll scream with increasing ferocity as the night progresses. Gin picks up best jammer for Brighton, with Hairy Fairy as best blocker and the tireless Swann as MVP. For the Dragons, I Eat picks up the starclad prize, Lisa Wright is best blocker and Lola Vulkano grabs Most Valuable Player. Awards for the opener go to Clowns’ Basha (blocker), Tenacious (jammer) and Berry Naughty (MVP), along with Magicians’ Dirty Dancer (blocker), Kickasso (jammer) and Valkyrie Pain (MVP).
The mighty Brighton Rockers’ fifth birthday then. “I don’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting that.” A tough game like that is probably exactly what the transitional Sussex squad needed. If they were expecting a friendly exhibition style game from TD, they were disavowed of that expectation fairly soon on. That the Rockers have a packed 2015 ahead is clear from the fact that they will be back at training the Monday after the game. Usually the first session after a game is replaced by a debrief in a pub, but Brighton are mere days away from kicking off their British Championships campaign. That all gets underway this coming Saturday (Feb 21st) at Newham Leisure Centre in East London, against Southend’s Seaside Sirens. They’ll likely still have some of the bruises from the Dragons game then, but will be itching to kick off Champs with a win. We’re hoping to see as many Rockers fans as possible there to cheer them on.
In preparation, we make the journey to London University’s Egham outpost, where we follow the smell of brine and the trails of seaweed to a rotten wooden door. Professor Scurvy Parsnips opens it, his eyepatch glinting as the parrot on his shoulder squawks annoyingly. The Professor waves a cutlass in one hand and a chicken Itsu Noodle Cup in the other. “Arrgh! Royal Holloway College Department of Pirate Studies, what can we be doing for ye?” he asks.
Well,” we begin, “there are these sirens, right…”
[Photos by John Hesse]