Winks Rampant : the development of modern tiddlywinks

Taking Up the Gauntlet

The academic session 1957-58 was a great year for tiddlywinks, in which the game was transformed from a one-club past-time to a sport with a rapidly increasing following exhibiting boundless enthusiasm. This little volume traces the story of those twelve months, and continues where a previous volume, "On The Mat", left off.

Events built up to a climax towards the end of the academic year, but their roots can be found at the beginning of the session.

Michaelmas Term activities at Cambridge University began with a meeting of the Tiddlywinks Club (C.U.Tw.C.) on Monday October 14th 1957. Besides discussing prospective future opponents, members heard further details of the Howell-Steen plan for a World Congress. "It was decided", say the Minutes, "that the subscription rates would be reviewed in the light of the cost of this immense project." The following week members were no doubt rather relieved to learn that this "vast undertaking... could be carried out at the cost of about £3". At this second meeting, on October 21st, the evening's play produced a tricky situation concerning squapping (note the spelling used by C.U.Tw.C. at this time), "and after a long discussion of this controversial issue, it was agreed that the whole system of squapping and desquapping should be reconsidered at the next meeting." However, there is no record of this debate taking place, and the archives are full of another matter.

The Spectator published an article by 'Strix' which was intended as a skit on all those fearless, readily marketable articles attacking the Royal Family. 'Strix' called the article "Does Prince Philip Cheat At Billiard Fives?" At the printers this title was found to be too long to fit the space available, and "Billiard Fives" was changed to "Tiddlywinks".

Whenever a reference to tiddlywinks appeared in a newspaper, it was C.U.Tw.C. policy to write a letter, generally to the paper concerned. Thus on October 20th Peter Downes, C.U.Tw.C. Scretary, wrote to the Duke of Edinburgh pointing out the headline's reflection on his integrity, and inviting him to prove his honour at tiddlywinks by raising a team to play Cambridge. The Duke declined the challenge himself, but appointed the Goons as Royal Champions, and the great match was duly played at the Cambridge Guildhall in March 1958. "Thus we are reminded of the curious ways in which history is made", wrote 'Strix', "and of the powerful and beneficient influence which the Spectator exerts upon the affairs of the nation."

It is worth tracing in some detail the sequence of events which led up to this Royal Tournament. After the Spectator article and Peter Downes' letter, the next event was the very encouraging letter from James Orr, the Duke's Private Secretary:

Buckingham Palace

23rd October 1957.

Dear Mr. Downes,

The Duke of Edinburgh has asked me to thank you for your letter of the 20th October, which he has read with great interest.

If you think it would be possible for you to arrange such a match in aid of the National Playing Fields Association, His Royal Highness would in the first instance like you to suggest a worthy "champion" to represent him.

Prince Philip greatly regrets that he cannot find the time to participate himself.

Yours sincerely,

James Orr

The Club held an Extraordinary Committee Meeting on Tuesday 29th October to discuss what action to take. It was agreed that the Goons should be proposed as the Duke's Royal Champions- partly because the C.U.Tw.C. had always wanted to play the Goons, and partly because they had refused a direct challenge from Cambridge previously; thus the Goons were to find themselves in the position of being commanded by Royalty to do something they had refused to do of their own accord! A letter proposing the Goons was despatched to James Orr that day.

Orr quickly replied that "His Royal Highness thinks that your suggestion... is a good one and had proposed that we should find out the Goons' reaction to the idea. I am asking Captain R.C.Harry, the Appeals Secretary of the N.P.F.A., to take this up with their manager, and I expect that you will be hearing from him in due course. If the Goons are enthusiastic about this idea it should prove a most memorable afternoon!"

The Club's next meeting was on November 4th, when the Royal Tournament correspondence was read to members (though Orr's second letter had not yet arrived). Ironically, members heard that the Goons and Lady Docker had declined an invitation to a match in aid of the University Poppy Day.

Over a week elapsed before the Club heard from Roy Harry of the N.P.F.A. In his letter, dated 13th November, Harry explained that he had just contacted Spike Milligan, who would write to C.U.Tw.C. direct. Arrangements for the match were to be made by C.U.Tw.C. and Milligan, who would keep the Duke and the N.P.F.A. informed.

There was great excitement at Cambridge when a real hide left-hand gauntlet arrived by registered post, accompanied by a note written in Milligan's unforgettable prose:

Hear Ye Varlet.
Be it Known
To Your Sword Do Take 'pon
The Day to be Fix-ed.

Sir Spike the Milligan

Formalities were discarded at the Club's next meeting, on 18th November: "in view of the extraordinary situation of having to discuss a match, it was decided to dispense with minutes and come directly to the main business." Responsibility was allocated for various aspects of the arrangements of the match: programmes, advertising, organisation of rooms, and so on. It was decided that the correct mode of reply to Milligan was a scroll. Accordingly a parchment scroll, supplied and inscribed at his own expense by a non-member, John Keily, tied with a light blue ribbon and sealed with a light blue wink, was sent by registered post on Wednesday 20th. The scroll was headed with the Club's coat of arms, "a light blue pot with wink rampant", and read:

Hear Ye, Sir Spike the Milligan,
Be It Known, Mate, that ye Cambridge University
Tiddlywinks Club taketh up ye gauntlet and will
join battle with ye Royal Champion Goons early
in ye New Year.
Earl Arundale

After scarcely a mention of tiddlywinks in even the local press in nearly three years, the national press now burst forth with the story. William Hickey of the Daily Express was one of the first, on November 16th, and his report was followed by stories in the Sunday Dispatch, Daily Mirror, and others. On November 22nd the Daily Express was reporting that Arthur Guinness, Son & Company, had offered the Goons Guinness for training.

The Lloyd Room, Christs College, was the scene of the next Club meeting, on November 27th. It began with a 90 minute session of posing for a photographer from the Keystone Press Agency of Fleet Street; the agency then donated 5 guineas for the N.P.F.A. "Under the metaphorical glare of publicity", the Minutes mused, "some members found that their standard of play was even lower than normal... Two highlights of the session were a learned lecture by Brian Tyler on the technical problems involved in squidging a wink, and then later Robert Howland executed a perfect down-the-tie shot."

It was at this meeting that members had news that at last Oxford possessed a tiddlywinks club. Tim Durbridge, Secretary of the new club, wrote to "inform you of the revival of our long-established Oxford University Tiddlywinks Society, founded by Alfred the Great... the O.U.T.S. hereby challenge you to a grand intervarsity match." The match eventually took place the following summer.

The day after this meeting Milligan disclosed his provisional team of eight Goons, adding that John Snagge had offered his services as umpire; Milligan put forward a Saturday at the end of February as the date for the match. Cambridge replied by suggesting March 1st, to which Spike Milligan agreed. Thus the great day was fix-ed.

The last meeting of term was held on Friday December 6th, in the morning. It included the reading of a letter from Rowntrees, who were unable to make "Guinness-insoluble non-alcoholic light blue Smarties for the Club to train on."

A few days later another sporting personality agreed to help umpire the game against the Goons- Chris Brasher, the Olympic Gold Medallist.

To usher the year out in grand style, tiddlywinks was the subject of the fourth leader in The Times on December 17th. The leader included these observations: "The heathen, lesser breeds without the tiddlywinks law may make the mistake of classing it with, for instance, snakes-and-ladders. No mistake could be more crass and unforgivable." Snakes-and-ladders "is a pure matter of chance... How different from the subtle art of tiddlywinks. Here all depends upon the steady hand, the strong nerve, the experienced eye... Tempers are never lost" (!).

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