LEWES, England — Thomas Paine lived here for some years, just before he sailed west with letter in hand from Ben Franklin and helped spark the American Revolution. None of which is why I ended up Saturday night, with July 4 approaching, in the Lewes Arms Pub.
The cozy pub opened in the late 1700s, by which time Paine already had written and published “The American Crisis” (“These are the times that try men’s souls . . . Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered . . . ’’) and moved on to stir the political porridge in France. So, best anyone knows, Paine never enjoyed a pint in the Lewes Arms and he most certainly never participated in a game of dwyle flunking.
Truth be told, I didn’t venture to the Lewes Arms to dwyle flunk, either. In fact, there was no dwyle flunking at the Lewes Arms Pub last Saturday night. My bad luck. They had plenty of beer, which is a key ingredient to the sport of dwyle flunking, but the next game won’t be played at the Lewes Arms until the spirit(s) move them. It could be next week. It could be a month or two. In England, the pub calendar is cultural improv at its very best. Pub sports are just a part of life and life doesn’t come with a schedule.
Actually, I zipped down here by train, about an hour south of London, to research the sport of stoolball. More about that here another day, but stoolball was among the few games the colonists carried with them directly to Plymouth (yes, our Plymouth, with the Rock and the Dunkin’ Donuts and CVS). Stoolball, in parts of England to this day, is a centuries-old field game that helped give birth to what we today refer to as major league baseball. Think of a farm girl’s milking stool as home plate and then let your imagination run wild around the bases.
But back to dwyle flunking, a game that may or may not be centuries old, even if it certainly looks older than beer itself. It’s a hard game to describe, especially for one who hasn’t observed it or played it, so you’d be well advised to turn to YouTube for a visual primer. I especially like one of the clips that shows it being played right outside of the Lewes Arms Pub, where late Saturday night I sat with one of the locals, Adam Frost, a 57-year-old technical writer who is both a regular Lewes Arms patron and dwyle flunker.
“This pub,’’ Frost mused proudly, “does lots of silly games . . . dwyle flunking’s just one of them.’’ If only I’d known that night that the Lewes Arms also holds the annual World Pea-Throwing Championship.
With great enthusiasm, Frost described proper dwyle flunker attire, which includes a piece of string wrapped around the pant leg, tying it off much like a farmer would, he explained, in order to prevent ticks or rats from creeping into places they don’t typically habitate.
“Yeah,’’ said Frost, muting his obvious glee over witnessing the bug-eyed stupor of the Boston sports reporter who sat across the table, “we do that here.’’
If you check out the YouTube video, you’ll see many of the players with the rat-retardant ties around their pant legs. Most of them are also wearing hats that look as if they were filched from the head of a scarecrow. The number of participants vary, but a game usually has a dozen players forming a circle and joining hands with one another as they rotate in unison around the flunker.
The flunker is the game’s pitcher, if you will, and he stands in the middle of said human chain, aside a large bucket filled with the pub’s spilled or leftover beer. Hold on, it gets worse, there are things more worrisome in life than warm beer, and high on that list is the prospect of getting smacked in the kisser with a rag soaked in warm beer.
All in the name of sport, mind you.
The flunker, also known as the luckiest guy on the planet, carries a stick (termed “driveller”) used to dip a rag (termed “dwyle”) into the stale ale.
You know what’s coming next, right? The dwyle gets flunked.
As the human circle tracks around him — with local musicians playing the country’s best dwyle flunking tunes — the flunker takes his driveller, stirs his dwyle through the brew, and then ultimately heaves the engorged, sloppy rag at one of the previously merry participants. Why does the movie “Ghostbusters’’ and being “slimed’’ pop into my head?
“There’s a point system for all this,’’ noted the earnest, tradition-embracing Frost. “A shot to the limbs, one point. A shot to the [upper] body, two points. It’s three points for a headshot, and . . . ’’
“And five points for the genitals.’’
My goodness, how quaint. Back home, we get all riled up about David Ortiz getting dwyled up about pitchers drilling his butt with a fast (and dry) ball. One wonders what kind of war Big Papi would routinely wage with the dwyle flunker official scorer, especially here at the home-field pub. Ah, but Lewes (pronounced: Lewis) ain’t Ortiz’s bleepin’ dwyle flunk, is it?
Like the roots of baseball in America, the roots of dwyle flunking in England are ambiguous. Some believe it traces to the late 16th century. Others date it barely to the post-American Football League era of the 1960s. I suppose if you’re wiping stale beer and a sopping cigarette butt out of your eyes (three points!) the game’s genesis isn’t such a big deal.
Now that I have you absolutely gobsmack over a game you found here On Second Thought, just a couple of more terms: The circle the players form is a “girter”; the referee is the “jobanowl”, who calls the players to action at his command of, “Here y’is t’gether!’ The bucket that holds the old beer is the “ullage”. The various shots to the body parts include the “wonton” (head), “morther” (torso), and “ripper” (limbs). The universal term for the 5-pointer, I believe, is “ouch”.
The game is played in many pubs throughout the country. An alternative spelling is “dwile flonking.” Hard to think there would be a better place to see it than here where ol’ Tommy Paine started forming his thoughts of freedom, rebellion, and democracy.
“Now,’’ said Frost, “let me tell you the game some pubs play with a conger eel. Huge thing, grows in ocean shipwrecks, 50 pounds or more. It’s hung on a chain, then everyone gets in a circle, and . . . ’’
Sounds to me as though the conger eel, like tyranny and hell, is not easily conquered.