By Derek Workman
A warm summer's afternoon with a neatly trimmed green sward stretching away towards the shimmering haze of a genteel English landscape. The subdued 'clop' of wooden mallet against ball as it sends the missile through arched hoops, as middle-class observers sup tea from china cups, little fingers keeked at a dilettante angle, and nibble ever so delicately on cucumber sandwiches (crusts trimmed of course). The epitome of an English afternoon on the croquet lawn, as idealistically portrayed by that American master of English country house restraint, James Ivory, who uses the image of such croquetfests in A Room with a View, Howard's End and The Remains of the Day. Obviously never been to Connecticut has Mr Ivory.
Connecticut, home to forested hills, white-steepled colonial churches, historic village greens – and the Connecticut eXtreme Croquet Society.
Extreme croquet is to the polite meander around a well-trimmed green what a bar-room brawl using reversed cues is to a quiet game of snooker in a gentlemen's club. Dipping a metal-capped toe into the turbulent waters of the extreme croquet rulebook ripples up a miasma of weird and wonderful regulations. For example:
Roqueting a live ball(s).
Fairly straightforward I'd say.
The nearest the Brits got to a bit of extreme in the croquet sense was when the Queen of Hearts walloped around a few curled up hedgehogs with an up-ended flamingo in Lewis Carrol's Alice tales. But it's a bit iffy as to why Albion should be considered the home of this elegant, upper-crust pastime. The game we know as croquet was introduced into England in the 1850's from Ireland, where a game called crooky was played in Portarlington, County Clare. Villagers used mallets made by inserting broom handles into pieces of hardwood, but a certain Mr. Jacques came cross a set of croquet equipment and began manufacturing the games paraphernalia. He's considered to be the person who brought croquet to widespread notice, and the Jacques family is still the leading manufacturer today.
Croquet's popularity grew in England in the 1860's and in the following decade it was introduced into the United States. At first it was played only by high society in New York, but it eventually became the most popular lawn sport in America. In the 1890's, however the game lost much of its popularity, partly due to its association with gambling, drinking, and generally unsavoury behaviour. It was banned in Boston. The game fought back though, and at the turn of the century, while on the wane in Britain, the popularity of croquet in America increased. Some of its most noted proponents include Groucho Marx, Dorothy Parker, and Darryl Zanuck, and in Russia, Tolstoy apparently had a croquet lawn in his Moscow garden. But it was in Scandinavia that extreme croquet was born.
On Wednesday April 9, 1975, Bernt 'Mulle' Fredriksson, Anders 'P-son' Wilen and eight other like-minded lunatics, all students of the Linköping University of Technology in Sweden, decided to create a more sophisticated and cruel form of croquet (with the added incentive that it seemed a good reason to get together for a beer or two). The Krocketklubben R.Å.S.O.P. was born and practised a form of croquet they called "terrängkrocket"(cross-country croquet). "There are no runner-ups, third places or similar in our game." says Anders Wilen, the last of the original ten still playing in the annual championship, "The winner takes all!" A match, which typically takes about five to seven hours to play, becomes a mallet and ball obstacle race. "One year we put a hoop one metre up a tree trunk, thinking it would be a difficult shot. It was actually quite easy because there was a stone at the bottom of the tree and we found we could ricochet the ball off it up through the hoop." Although ruthless during a game, the players of R.Å.S.O.P. (the meaning of the initials of the club is a closely guarded secret imparted, only once, to each new member) are very cultivated people and devote themselves to a mid-twentieth century nostalgia, which is shown in their clothing. "When we first played, one of the club members knew of a shop which had an attic full of original 40's and 50's clothing still in their boxes. We bought the lot, and have continued to dress that way ever since." But only for the competition Anders hastens to add. A cassette or CD player filled with evergreens from the period always accompanies a game, but as far as the ladies are concerned, R.Å.S.O.P. is a final foothold of male chauvinism in socially conscious Scandinavia. "The can watch and cook, but they can't play."
For extremists though, the first true example of the sport appeared in the 1920's, when Herbert Swope, publisher of the New York World, built a new course on his Sands Point, Long Island estate. The course was so large that players had to shout to one another. It had sand traps, bunkers, rough, and Long Island Sound waiting in the distance.
Connecticut eXtreme Croquet Society (motto: Dedicated to enjoying eXtreme croquet, nature and the near-death experience.) was founded in 1984 in West Hartford, Connecticut, and over the years the CeCS rules have become the 'de facto' standard for those who prefer an intensely aggressive game, where the phrase 'safe shot' has no meaning. (Although their supposed supremacy might be disputed by their archrivals Lakeside Croquet Club - motto: 'Mallets plus morons equals mayhem'). "Those guys in Sweden are real cool," says Bob Warseck, founding father of Connecticut eXtreme, "But as far as we're concerned, when you're playing you can do anything you like that doesn't include physical violence." (This from a mature fifty-two year-old head-hunter in the health care world. Lord knows what he head-hunts with!) But the club does have rules. Rules that are a complex ever-changing feast, usually legislated by Bob who, strangely enough, usually wins.
Not for Connecticutters the manicured lawn; their extreme croquet is croquet on steroids, best played where the natural lay of the land provides an extremely difficult terrain. To be a real aficionado, you have to take to the woods, where the gullies, rocks and chiggers provide the crucible for champions. They prefer very difficult playing courses such as woodland areas, lowland marshes, and sites with varied ground cover, their favourite being drainage basins, stream beds and uncharted jungle. For a bit of variation they'll climb nearby Mount Lamentation to whack a few balls around, or play at the 'The Pit', a twelve-foot high cliff, where, according to Bob, "You try and knock the other guys off as much as possible." Their balls - not them personally.
If the Swedes are quaintly costumed for their game, the Connecticutters would suggest an ensemble of hard hat and Kevlar. "If you're dumb enough to get in the way of your ball that's your problem." Bob comments in a less than sympathetic manner. Tell that to Dan Thoene, a sportscaster who made a programme for local TV station, WTNH. Determined to get a good shot, he place his $80,000 camera in line with the ball. The shot was perfect – right up to the point the ball connected with the lens! "We told him…." shrugs Bob. Fortunately the $50 lens cover took the brunt of the damage.
The CeCS point out that the popularity of their sport has lead to an increase in club membership by 600% from the day it came into being. As they had only five members in the first place, an average increase of two a year doesn't exactly proclaim a sport of Olympian status. (Although the namby-pamby unextreme version did feature in the 1900 Olympics, before being eclipsed by the Johnny-come-lately game of tennis.)
You don't just pick up your ordinary household croquet set to play extreme; extreme croquet demands heavy-duty equipment. The mallets used in ordinary lawn croquet are too flimsy, and are easily broken or shattered. It's not even uncommon to shatter a ball in extreme croquet. The Connecticut eXtremists have even developed their own mallet, the Wedge-Face, which has the appearance of some sort of medieval implement of execution. It has a wedge-face built into one end of the mallet head for lifting the ball off the ground, and into the air and allows the player to shoot the ball over most obstructions.
And obstruction is the name of the game in extreme. If there isn't something in the way of the hoop or wicket they'll put it there. And you're not likely to get a hole (or hoop) in one either, unless the ball's trajectory includes rebounding off a tree and executing a boomerang turn before skimming across a pond like a stone. None has ever been reported, and even it was there'd probably be a rule against it in 'Dr Bob's Most Belligerent Directory of Mallet and Ball Pastimes' – third edition. No, the book doesn't exist, but in the idiosyncratic world of extreme croquet there's probably something like it lurking on some croquet anorak's bookshelf, and he won't be slow in letting you know about the sporting infringement.
The more delicate form of croquet has made a comeback over the last two decades, particularly among the young, and is now played competitively in over twenty countries. But it's unlikely that you'll hear comments about first poison, post assassination, suicide or lap death, the everyday terminology of extreme croquet, whispered across the neatly-trimmed turf of the World Croquet Federation Championships. You probably won't see the Wedge Face in action either, and there'll be a conspicuous lack of tree stumps and drainage ditches. A shame really, it doesn't sound half as much fun.