Trunk and disroderly
by Paul Oswell
Huan Hin, Thailand. September, 2003.
“Good morning sir! This is the 6.30am alarm call you requested!”
I don’t know how you feel about sleep. Me? On reflection, I’m for it. My eyes still glued together and my head swilling with what felt like stale treacle, I got as near “thank-you” as I could under the circumstances and, not quite refreshed after two hour’s sleep, collapsed back into bed.
Three seconds later, I was bolt upright, looking indignant for an audience of none. I hadn’t requested any kind of alarm call, let alone one four hours before I conceivably had to be anywhere. Strangely, the same thing had happened two mornings running now. I had passed the first off as a mistake, but this was…coincidence? Or something more sinister? I had my suspicions, but there was little I could do just lying there. There was nothing else for it. I would have to get up and go and watch some more elephant polo.
The random event to blame for my rude awakening had happened just over 20 years earlier. Cut back to 1982, and in a bar overlooking the Cresta Run in St Moritz, Switzerland, jungle-bothering adventurer Jim Edwards is chatting with terminally posh landowner-cum-Olympic-bobsleigh-competitor James Manclark in the snow-lashed glamour capital. Wealthy jetsetters, hopped up on pink champagne and bored with throwing themselves down glaciers and discovering remote rainforests, the pair concocted a scheme to do for the elephantine sporting profile what Hannibal had done for their military kudos.
What do you get if you cross upper class affectation with that peculiar brand of British derring-do and a mind to invent something splendidly pointless? In the blink of an eye, elephant polo had rules and a governing body. Elephant polo is what you might call something of a ‘double take’ sport. Fast forward two decades, and as I mentioned to people that I was going to Thailand to watch a tournament, they invariably said it straight back to me in an incredulous voice, just to make sure they’d heard right. ELEPHANT polo?!? As if I’d said I was going to be a spectator at cat basketball or penguin darts.
Specifically, I was going to watch the fortunes of the first fully British team to compete at an international Elephant Polo championship. Even more specifically, I was going to watch a regimental side from the King’s Royal Hussars take to the field in Hua Hin, Thailand for the King’s Cup Thai Elephant Polo Association championships. A selection of spankingly smart officers from the regiment had stepped up to the plate to represent our great nation.
We don't, as a nation, have much history with elephants. Granted, there may have been the odd colonial jumbo joyrider back in the day, but the only elephants you’re likely to see outside a zoo in this country are doing cutesy turns at Billy Smart’s Circus or being used as novelty mascots to sell car insurance. It came as no surprise to find out that, although our boys were extremely adept at horse polo, they’d never sat on anything with a trunk.
People from our green, pleasant and elephant-free land had represented the country on the Elephant Polo circuit, but mostly as interlopers on one of the international teams. This army side, though, was pure British beef. Slice them open and you’d find a Union Jack running down their insides. And if there’s one thing we Brits are great at, it’s looking like flailing idiots at obscure international sporting events.
Two months before the tournament, I was invited to enjoy a modest, seven-hour lunch with the young officers I’d been assigned to shadow. It took place in a restaurant where I would usually just order the green salad and tap water before doing a runner, but the wine flowed, and before long we were all the best of friends. They were so well-mannered that the word ‘gentlemanly’ could use them as an image consultant. Tim, for example, was so polite that you could hardly imagine him complaining about being sold a faulty television, let alone ambushing enemy troops with the steely eyes of a trained killer. To borrow an observation, men had followed him into battle, but only out of curiosity.
As Diana, the organiser, outlined how the tournament would progress, the prospect of playing the German Mercedes Benz team provoked much jingoistic joshing, and as more drinks were ordered, spirits were high, the differences between horse and elephant polo were pooh-poohed and talk of victory was in the air. I waited until it was clear I would have no active part to play in paying the bar tab, and told them I would see them on the field of battle. Or at least, I would look at them from the refreshment tent just next to the field of battle.
And so to Thailand. Land of Smiles. And for one week only, land of over-privileged foreigners hooning around with big sticks on their national animal. Like all the best sporting events, the various Elephant Polo championships (they also happen annually in Nepal and Sri Lanka) provide an opportunity for massive corporate sponsorship and a swig-faced drunken jolly, all thoroughly justified by a charitable bung to elephant welfare on the side.
Besides the Mercedes team, the pan-global names of Nokia and Chivas Regal lined up, as well as exclusive Australian vineyards and Thai gem companies, their team members replete with imposing Alpha types, all armed with the kind of corporate success that could be measured in the strength of their crushing handshakes. Not that our boys were some kind of weedy rabble of limp-wristed Herberts. These boys had earned their stripes on the coal face of modern warfare, not pranced their way up the company ladder like some mollycoddled, pinstripe-suited Desk Johnny.
As I talked to the boys before their debut, I could sense raw, unchecked aggression and the unquenchable will to win. I overheard Alex say something like, “Let’s blimey give them a bloody good crikey thrashing!” Now THAT’S fighting talk. Gentleman, to your elephants!
Sadly, it was something of a baptism of fire as far as sporting debuts go, the Hussars having to conduct their own personal charge of the Light Brigade into the qualifying round’s ‘group of death’, and endure their first ele-polo lesson courtesy of the all-singing, all-dancing, all-scoring Chivas Regal team.
Number one seeds for good reason, Chivas included in their number a man talked about in hushed tones of reverence – the one they called Angad Kalaan (that being his name). Angad is known as “The Dark Horse of Delhi”, one of the few players there with a nickname that didn’t refer to their drinking habits. Angad was as close to A-list as anyone on an elephant is going to get, combining unreasonable good looks with a polo-playing history that verged on pre-natal.
The Brits gingerly lined up to shake Angad’s hand before the match, flashing their best “it’s all just a bit of fun, really” smiles. Any hopes that he might go easy on the new boys were quickly dashed, though, and Angad rather unsportingly spent the entire match hefting in improbable goals from the halfway line. The final 14-3 scoreline would have been less hard to take had the British goals not been entirely garnered from the 3 points head start they were given by the handicap system.
Oh, well. Everyone needs a warm-up and a chance to get used to the delicate nuances of the sport. I hadn’t actually brushed up on these myself, having been distracted by the endless rounds of Bloody Marys that were being dished out in the team tent. My knowledge stretched only as far as ascertaining that the job of being the person running onto the pitch with a basket to clean up the shockingly enormous elephant droppings during breaks in play was not on my list of enviable carees.
The rules of elephant polo are much the same as those of horse polo, in as much as no-one really gives a tinker’s toss about them unless you’re actually playing, the spectators preferring to concentrate on looking well off and necking cocktails all afternoon.
In a nutshell: bad teams are given a head start depending on how deplorable they are, the elephants are swapped at half time, and it’s the Thai elephant drivers, or ‘mahouts’ – who work the business end of the beasts and have lived with the elephants most of their lives – that are secretly doing all the work. The players bark out instructions, which the mahouts swiftly ignore, making for a much more entertaining and skilful match.
Outside of that, balls are hit with sticks towards the goals. However, hooking your opponent’s stick with your own to prevent them from hitting the ball is as frowned upon as wearing brown shoes to a black tie dinner party. Hookers are strictly not tolerated, though judging by some of the ‘local supporters’ that some of the Mercedes team had invited the previous day, this sentiment didn’t apply in every sense of the word.
A team as universally admired as they were secretly feared were the Screwless Tuskers, a team of Thai Ladyboys. Patpong’s finest cabaret stars, strung out on hormone replacement pills, were not only able to turn heads wherever they went, but had also managed to throw the laws of Elephant Polo into disarray with one swish of a sequin-strewn tracksuit.
In the spirit of equality, the rules state that females may handle their mallet with two hands, whilst male competitors are restricted to just one. And so it became a matter of some importance as to just how much lady each of the boys actually entailed, and discreet enquiries into their operational statuses were made so that they could be classified satisfactorily.
None of the teams were keen to lose to the Tuskers, but some were more belligerent about the matter than others. Charity or no charity, being beaten at elephant polo by a bunch of cabaret performers was clearly beyond the pale for some of the more laughably macho players.
The elephants, on the other hand, behaved like complete professionals. They had been specially trained to pick up the ball with their trunks and hand it back to the referee in the case of a dead ball situation, something they did with surprising grace. During one of the Tuskers’ matches, though, the referee was slightly bewildered to be handed – or trunked, rather – a strange, squishy spherical object. It turned out to be plastic boob padding, which had popped out of one of the ladyboy’s sequinned tops in the heat of competition.
Speaking of on-field boobs, I’d long since lost interest in the Hussars and their losing streak. I’d been hoping to report on stunning performances from some of the country’s most physically able soldiers, but their defence was leaking like a decommissioned submarine and I’d taken to lying in bed of a morning rather than dragging myself up to watch them lose yet another game to a ragtag bunch of local barmaids.
Sadly, this hadn’t gone unnoticed among the ranks of the army wives who had traveled out to support their brave boys. They were uniformly blond, had four kids by the age of 23 and had voices that could pierce a Kevlar bodysuit at thirty paces.
“Where were you this morning?” one of them snapped at me as I arrived, two hours late for one of their less glamorous fixtures.
“Er, I wasn’t feeling too well,” I croaked, hoping that she hadn’t just seen me pour myself my second Bloody Mary.
“I’m not surprised,” she replied pointedly, as if she had seen me in the bar at 3am the night before. I tried to remember if she had seen me in the bar at 3am the night before. “I thought you were meant to be shadowing the team.”
“Oh, I have been!” I said, knowing full well that I’d mostly been shadowing them to the basement bar of the local Hilton Hotel. The previous night, they had ordered a four foot plastic tower of beer that, in a ceremony that made you misty-eyed about the British Armed Forces, they took turns in to lay under and drink straight from the tap until cheap Thai booze exploded all over their faces.
In the interests of getting close to my subjects, I had joined in, but only four or five times and strictly as a show of solidarity. I thought of mentioning this, but I figured she wasn’t going to salute no matter what I ran up the flagpole, and I meekly said that I would be there for the next day’s match come hell or high lager.
“I know you will be…” she said cryptically, turning on her heel in that way that well-off women are really good at. I suspect it’s a move they teach at expensive Swiss finishing schools.
In hindsight, of course, it’s easy to point the finger at her for sneakily arranging alarm calls to my room to make sure that I was awake for her husband’s matches. After all, SHE had to heave herself out of her five star suite and endure the sumptuous breakfast buffet before being chauffeur driven to the drinks tent, so why shouldn’t everyone else? It’s the upper class sense of fair play, after all, so I shouldn’t think badly of her for it. Especially with her connections to heavily-armed men.
And so it was, with qualification for the Hussars the stuff of a madman’s dreams, that I hauled myself down to watch their final game with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. “This is people playing polo…on elephants!” I kept telling myself. “How many people get to have this much fun for five straight days?”
As I arrived, I made sure that Mrs. Wife saw me with my notebook poised and fixed her a smile. She in turn flashed me a smouldering look that I thought said “my plan worked and you are nothing more than my docile plebeian plaything”, though she may just have been eyeing up The Dark Horse of Delhi.
Almost unavoidably, and as with so many international sporting competitions, for the Brits, salvaging some semblance of pride came down to beating the Germans. I remembered from our lunch all those months ago that administering some Teutonic humiliation was high on the list of desirable achievements – a list that had, to be fair, been hastily reconsidered as the competition had progressed. By day three, for example, it had been amended from maybe competing in the final to just not losing too heavily to any drag queens.
Perhaps, just perhaps, beating the Germans would provide a grand finale for the Hussars. Perhaps they would finally get to grips with the sport and give them a plucky fight worthy of the sport. Perhaps my buttocks would recover from the half hour I spent interviewing the tournament referee in his elephant box. Anything could happen.
Well, it was close, but no cigar. Actually, the final score was 16-3, which in cigar closeness terms is like getting a lifetime ban from Cuba. For the Brits, the competition was over. Game, set, trumpety trump, and say goodbye to the circus.
In a display of sportsmanship that made you proud to be British, though, that evening, they commandeered several cases of champagne from somewhere and treated the entire tournament to an impromptu party on the beach. They served us all, dressed in full regimental uniform that matched their perfect manners. They truly were officers and gentlemen. I even toasted them with my wifey nemesis. I noticed that she had chosen to accessorise that night with a bag that had some minutes earlier been in use as a holder for the in-room hairdryer, so for once it was easy not to feel too inferior.
It was the night before the final, and in a dastardly move, the Mercedes team sneakily co-opted the charity auction at the gala dinner, ostensibly a fundraiser for the conservation efforts of the local elephant camp. The Germans stormed the stage and started to flog off some crapola joke book to raise money for the mahouts. You’d have to be a cynic to suggest that this was a mercenary tactic designed to get the Thai elephant drivers onside for the next day, but just for the record, the final disproportionate bid was from the German captain.
The next day, the tournament came to its climax, and the teams from Chivas and Mercedes fought it out in a torrential rainstorm that made it heavy going, even for the likes of the Dark Horse of Delhi. It was such a stinker of a day that I assume the players would much rather have just arm wrestled for the title in the hospitality tent, but they were being watched by an important spectator, no less than the one and only King of Thailand…’s Official Stand-in.
A short, wrinkled walnut of a man in a uniform with more ribbons than a gay pride parade float, he looked to be enjoying himself. At least, he stopped bickering with his subordinates a couple of times, just long enough to squint into the sheet rain and ask yet again what he was here. Somewhere out in the quagmire, a match was won and lost. As for me? I was just looking forward to sleeping in the next day.