They say you don’t need to actually watch a roller derby match – which is what we’re calling them now in protest at WFTDA changing the official term from bout to game – to know how tough and hard hitting it was. You can find that out just from the state of the players’ shoulders at the final whistle. Ideally, of course, you’ll need a copy of the chart created by Roman physician Ignius Solarus in around 110 AD. It was used to quickly assess sunburn levels – in order to most effectively distribute available ointment – of soldiers/legions marching long distances in the Roman Empire’s Middle Eastern extremities. Whilst said ancient chart would need to be adjusted for derby and altered for individual players’ ethnicity, skin tone and lifestyle (from tanned beach bunnies to daylight-averse Goth punks), it would likely go a long way towards telling you who was throwing or receiving the hardest hits, as well as giving you an overall ‘shade’ of toughness for the match.
The shoulders of some here (Smash’Er Fierce and Rocky Bashova from the Bourne Bombshells, Claudia Faceoff and Betty Knox from the Concrete Cows, amongst others) lie towards what must have been the severest end of Ignius’ chart, being a Pompeii lava hued red in colour, and no-one’s looking much below a two ladles of ointment level, so it’s been a tough battle. Don’t go looking for a copy of this Roman sunburn chart in WH Smith, by the way, as you’ll be out of luck. Partly because, although referenced in later writings, the chart itself is lost in the mists of time. Partly because, if you happen to be in Bletchley, Buckinghamshire (as we are) on a Sunday (as we are) you’ll find that WH Smith is closed. As is Boots, and indeed the entire Brunel Shopping Centre. Call us self-entitled townies if you like, but we can’t remember the last time we encountered a WH Smith that closed all day Sunday. Even the ones on tiny uninhabited islands open for a few hours in the morning, don’t they? Either way, the good people of Bletchley take this state of affairs in their stride. Asking a passing local where we might go to buy a newspaper, he looks at us like we’re mad. “A paper? It’s Sunday, mate.”
Suddenly it makes sense that there are so many roller derby leagues in this part of the world. Enough, indeed, to have set up the UK’s first meaningful year-long tournament. The Heartland Series is now in its third year, including a first under a different name. These towns that the Series grew out of seem almost saturated in derby. Let’s do the maths. The whole of Greater London contains at the last count four senior derby leagues (including a male one that’s largely based outside London anyway), whereas this ‘Heart of England area’ – with less than half of London’s population – contains around twenty women’s leagues, plus a bunch of merby sides too. Towns like Northampton, Bedford, Hertford and here in Milton Keynes are each home to two senior women’s leagues, and some places have three. Heck, it goes to figure. After all, if there’s nowhere to buy a paper on a Sunday, what the hell else are you gonna do but skate?
Even the local Mayor has been driven by the lack of comment pieces to read (or crosswords to complete) to attend today’s double header. Disappointingly, he’s not on skates, but he does do the honours of blowing first whistle for the day’s opening match. Divisional favourites Big Bucks High Rollers in green are up against the navy blue clad Norfolk Brawds. Although the latter actually top the table on points going into this contest – these being the two winning sides from the first South East region matchday – the Wycombe side are keen to reassert their ‘top seed’ status, and they score 27 without reply over the first three jams. The strong El E Copped Her, pacey Agent Sparling and fleet-footed Miss Pain Maple prove a particular handful for the Brawds blockers when starred up for Big Bucks. Defensively, it’s a slow paced positional battle, with the East Anglian jammers struggling to break through the Wycombe walls.
Colletteral Damage looks the Brawds’ biggest jamming threat, and the Norfolk league are putting a few points on the board now, but the green machine is very much in control. The harder skating style of the Wycombe league is having an impact on the turn two track tape too. Located in front of the Big Bucks bench, the punishment it takes during line-up swaps is the source of much fraying, wire showing and several reparatory official timeouts. As the first period comes to an end, its 91-25 scoreline eminently bridgeable – if Norfolk can just get their jammers out quicker in the second half – one wonders what kind of tactical track tape the Brawds bench have to hand. Something to repair the frays Big Bucks have caused to their gameplan?
With no alcohol on offer in the leisure centre, and the nearest pub – possibly the only pub, if they’re anything like Sunday newspapers round here – six minutes walk away, we resort to wandering the centre’s corridors. During the course of this, we discover what looks like a brilliant new sport. There’s a table tennis table in the middle of a squash court. Table squash? Brilliant! What sort of ball is used? What different tactics are in play for when it bounces from table to wall and back again? We ask a passing member of staff, who looks at us like we’re mad. “We just store the table there. It’s Sunday, mate.” Back on track, it’s business as usual for the team in green. Sparling, Liddy Savage, Lolly Chunders, Rucking Hostile, Toxic Tinkerbell and others are keeping the Norfolk jammers pegged back, the two-walls of this strong and physically commanding Wycombe side often proving as effective as a three or four-wall. A-Cute Injury bustles through in the star to add to the green machine’s points total, as Big Bucks seek to put behind them the surprisingly small margin by which they edged past Hell’s Belles in the last round (223-211) and start racking up differentials more worthy of the Division’s highest ranked team.
Largely sailing into the wind throughout, Norfolk’s jammers are nonetheless pulling hard and tacking points here and there. There are some valiant starclad showings from players like Philthy Delphia, Penny Slain and Yours Truly. The last-named has been carving out a sideline as a derby announcer (we caught her debut in that role in a greenhouse 40 miles North of here last summer) and is now widely known for sporting the most flamboyant hairpieces in UK derby; sadly this skill is not displayable where a helmet is required. Philthy, meanwhile, is also proving an important part of many Brawds packs, saddling up alongside Cruel Runnings, NoTorious, Teki Bomb, Slammin Siren and others to try and hold back the green wave. It’s a battling performance from the East Anglians. Ultimately, though, the High Rollers (playing in their own county, albeit at the opposite end of it) are good value for the 100-odd places above Norfolk they stand in the European rankings, and they extend their lead to a final score of 213-46.
Whilst this is a setback for the battling Brawds, it’s also a shot across the bows for the Bedfordshire side the Norwich fleet defeated 234-111 in their previous South East Division outing. What potential differential might that side face when they line up against Big Bucks in July, and how can they best prepare? The Bedford crew may not be taking part today, but they’re surely watching; some in person, some on Twitter, some when updated at their next training session by those in the former categories. This is the Heartland Series, after all, and almost everyone involved in it is watching out for upcoming opponents and other team’s results, even though most will pretend they aren’t. This year sees the most ambitious Heartland Series to date. Indeed, the most ambitious multi-location tournament in UK derby history. There are 24 teams separated over four divisions, and 22 of those have already played a match in this year’s Series. Several have already played twice.
Today’s hometowners Milton Keynes Concrete Cows and opponents Bourne Bombshells are the final leagues making their 2014 Series debut. That’s where the similarities end, though, as MK were heavily involved in setting this tournament up, won it in its first year (when it was called the End of the World Series) and remain at the heart of the Heartland organisation. For the Bombshells, this is their very first appearance in the tournament. Whilst most of the other leagues taking part know each other well – and not just from Heartland – this is a world of new for the Sussex squad. A quick glance at the map goes a long way towards explaining why. Although this is the South East Division, that compass point is largely in terms of the Midlands. The Bombshells are the only team from South of the Thames taking part in this group, and whilst Norfolk are equally removed geographically, the other four sides are near neighbours. In many ways, this whole Heartland experience could be a (very useful) baptism of fire for the Eastbourne league, and that’s certainly the case with today’s match-up.
The opening jam – Terrorizinya lining up against Bullet Bomber in the star – is taken 15-0 by MK, with the Bombshells at one point having a full sin bin and a sense of relief that this is the first Heartland matchday played under the 30 second penalties rule. This is a sign of things to come, as a series of insanely well marshalled MK packs (their solidity worthy of the Concrete in the team name) keep the Sussex jammers pegged back. The Cows starheads have time for a pass or two before their opposite number breaks through and forces the call. A pattern is being set, and in what feels like no time MK are 48-2 up with the Sussex points both being last gasp singles on the whistle. A few jams later the Bombshells bench coach, Sassy McAwesome, calls a team timeout. Opposite number OzymAndyAs, possibly the calmest and certainly the most sensibly dressed bench manager in the whole of UK derby, can afford a wry smile. Milton Keynes are very much in control here.
Generally speaking, this game is being played at a somewhat faster pace than the previous one. Whether that’s through Eastbourne looking to disrupt the MK packs to give their speedy jammers more of a chance to break through, or the Cows being happy to adapt to any pace if it means the Bombshells tiring earlier, who knows? Certainly, the home side are often happy to let lone blockers such as The Valkyrie (super quick of both foot and mind) keep the Sussex starhead pegged back as the rest of the pack bridge or aid their jammer. It takes the aforementioned being sent to the box, with Bombshells jammer Drag ‘N’ Fly drawing the penalty, for the Sussex league to get some better points on the board. The juking runs of DNF look Eastbourne’s best hope of scoring in general, as even their most physical jammers Toxic Block Syndrome and Smash’Er Fierce are getting little change from the local defence force.
The team in purple and leopard skin are also proving no strangers to the penalty box, and a series of power jams – on top of picking up lead jammer status 80% of the time – sees the Cows stretch their lead still further. The wheels are coming off for Eastbourne; quite literally, as one of Dreaded Shortcake’s decides to head off on its own, and she sits out the rest of the jam on the inner track to re-attach it to her skate/foot. The pounding that the pace and physicality of this match is taking on players’ equipment claims an even bigger scalp a few jams later as one of Chunder Woman’s skates explodes. OK, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but the boot and plate are having a trial separation and it looks serious. It will take half an hour of kind help from Swift Customs (the skate store run by local men’s teamer Swiftyfool) and a bag of bits to get them back on speaking terms.
As Chunder’s skate undergoes major surgery, we take a half time stroll around the hall. As is usually the way in derby crowds, roughly 5% of those present are on crutches, with another 10% bandaged in some way (Bombshell Beast Unleashed forming part of the latter, still cheerily waving from the crowd when her name was announced as part of the skate out). As is also often the way in derby crowds, roughly 0.4% of those present are Team England men’s skater and off-duty High Rollers ref Sutton Impact, bedecked in more sponsored clothing than the average F1 racing driver. We’ve long since stopped keeping track of the scoreline in our notebook, by the way, but the screen in the corner tells us MK are winning 156-37. I guess if you’re gonna make your debut in the Heartland Series (the closest thing to a national league in the UK) you might as well make it as hard as possible by (a) being away, (b) being away to the guys who invented the Series and won it the first year, and (c) having several of your key players’ skates shed parts mid-jam!
The Bombshells have battled damn hard, and will continue to do so in the second period. The Philosofear, Smash’Er, Toxic and others working overtime in the Sussex pack – giving as good as they get when the hard hits come flying – with the starclad likes of Hell Block H, Chunder, Bullet and DNF battling for every track inch they can eek out of the steely mean Concrete Cow defence. Still, despite the Eastbourners’ best efforts, MK will come out head and (Pompeii lava red) shoulders above in almost all respects on the day. Their blockers, particularly the fearsome Betty Knox, hard hitting Bolshevik and fast moving Valkyrie are an immovable force. Their jamming roster, including uncontainable Magic Beanz, flighty fighty Huni Basher and just back from long term injury Nucky Studs, are an irresistible force. The Cows are awesome, but of course MK got to where they are by being on the opposite end of results/days like this. Indeed, their most recent outing – a 304-72 reverse at home to Croydon – is a case in point, and the one they’re responding to here. Often you learn more from losing (and how you come back from that in your next match and beyond) than you do from winning. Or, as more eloquently put by some philosophy dude: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
The second half goes much the way of the first, although the points hauls are lower on both sides. The MK jammers prove resistant to most of the hits thrown at them, although a few solid blows from Smash’Er in particular take ’em down. A very long official review (called for by The Valkyrie) confirms a jam’s end star pass from Philosofear to DNF was in fact legal, and gives the crowd a four minute ‘singing and swinging along to the music’ break. Whilst Bullet is finding it tough to break through the MK packs, especially where Knox is involved, she’s so fast when through that she forces a number of early calls from her opposite numbers. Philosofear picks up a good PJ-assisted 15-pointer as Bullet holds up and Smash’Er fells penalty box releasee Valkyrie. Ultimately though, Terrorizinya, Huni, Beanz and Nucky rack up the points to lengthen MK’s lead and take the differential over 200 on the final jam. The match ends 265-59 to the home team.
We dropped by the after party venue earlier in the day, where we were excited to see signs everywhere advertising two Jägerbombs for a fiver, then slightly less excited to be told: “We don’t have any Jägermeister, we haven’t had any for weeks”. Less an offer, then, more of a taunt. This slightly odd venue, with huge windows proudly overlooking a roundabout, fills up after the event – although, as it’s a school night and two of today’s teams hail from over 100 miles away, few but the hometown side and a smattering of Big Bucks will stay for long. The home side give The Philosofear the Best Blocker award, with Bullet Bomber picking up Best Jammer and Smash’Er Fierce as MVP. Chunder Woman’s skate plate traumas merit a special Triumph Through Adversity certificate, and Toxic is given a Leader of the Pack title that she presumes is code for ‘Loudest Shouter’. The Eastbourne league vote Magic Beanz the best opposing jammer, Betty Knox best blocker and The Valkyrie MVP, with their special certificates going to Bolshevik (for Sportsmanship) and Big Bucks’ Miss Pain as Fairy Skate Mother. The High Rollers’ own Blocker, Jammer and MVP winners are Lolly Chunders, Agent Sparling and Toxic Tinkerbell, with NoTorious, Philthy Delphia and Teki Bomb picking up the respective awards for Norfolk.
Over on platform four of Bletchley station, our wait for one of the rare trains that stop here late of an evening feels somewhat longer due to all the fast ones racing through. This is of course the West Coast Main Line (the UK’s most important intercity route) and every couple of minutes a train rattles through in too much of a hurry to think about stopping here. To keep ourselves entertained we replace a few of the words in the tannoy announcement that precedes each of these platform-rattling passthroughs, drunkenly imagining it to be some kind of commentary on today’s matches: “Stand well back from the
platform edge inside line at platform turn two, the approaching train jammer does not stop here.”
Two of today’s teams are back in action on Saturday 7th June when the mighty Bourne Bombshells host the next Heartland Series South East Division double header at the Dolphin in Haywards Heath. Milton Keynes will be taking on Bedfordshire Rollergirls, and the Bombshells face Hertfordshire’s Hell’s Belles. Doors are at 2pm and tickets are on sale now at £8 each for adults (free for under 12s) or six for £40. The Bombshells have a lot to work on in response to their opening match of the campaign, and with two months to do it in they’ll be coming out tougher and stronger than ever… be scared Hell’s Belles, be very scared. MK Cows, meanwhile, will be hunting the win over Beds that would see them take over top spot in the table from Big Bucks. With three of these four leagues still looking for their first win in the 2014 Heartland Series, and a load more matches to come between now and November’s play-off finals, there’s everything to play for and a thrilling afternoon of roller derby for Sussex to look forward to. Go buy all the tickets now, yeah.
[MK Cows v Bombshells photos by John Hesse. Big Bucks v Brawds photos by Pete Florey of MDP Images]
JUNE 7TH TICKETS: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/heartlands-south-east-division-bout-day-3-tickets-11368648935
JUNE 7TH FB EVENT: https://www.facebook.com/events/536554199787495/
HEARTLAND SERIES: http://www.heartlandseries.co.uk/
BOURNE BOMBSHELLS: http://www.bournebombshells.co.uk/
MK ROLLER DERBY: http://www.miltonkeynesrollerderby.com/
BIG BUCKS HIGH ROLLERS: http://www.bigbuckshighrollers.co.uk/
NORFOLK BRAWDS: http://www.norfolkbrawds.com/
HELL’S BELLES ROLLER GIRLS: http://www.hertsrd.co.uk/
BEDFORDSHIRE ROLLERGIRLS: http://www.bedfordshirerollergirls.com/