The July evening sun has long crept past the yardarm-like shadows cast by impenetrable cliff faces of Carbonear Island guarding the mouth of this historic town. Sometimes referred to as the “Gibraltar of Newfoundland,” it is said famous French commander Pierre Le Moyne D’Iberville, who had raided most of the English settlements in Conception and Trinity bays, did not have his way with Carbonear. Ahead of the French army’s arrival in 1697, locals had taken refuge on the partially fortified island, and while the abandoned town was burned, Carbonear Island was successfully defended from capture. It was the only place in Newfoundland not to fall to D’Iberville during that brutal Avalon Peninsula campaign.
In Carbonear, it seems they still don’t go down without a fight. Every year since 2008, locals and visitors descend upon a local field to battle each other in the World Cup of Tiddly.
On this summer day, I nervously step up to battle-seasoned warriors on their home turf as they gather in a tight circle, awaiting my opening volley. They close ranks, ready to capture the projectile or return fire as only their strategic minds, hardened by years of battle-training since childhood, can deem best.
Hefting the custom-made weapon code-named “the long stick,” I move into firing position and, with far more luck than skill, send the small torpedo of the aptly named “short stick” flying over heads and outstretched arms in the machinations of the “hook off.” Likewise, the second prescribed manoeuvre, the “bat off,” meets with relative success. Then comes the dreaded third volley of the tiddly itself, involving angular contact of the long stick with the short stick against a brick on the ground, resulting in a midair acrobatic twist of the short stick for a split-second interval, during which the long stick must be pulled back, swung forward and make targeted contact to send that short stick soaring past the defenders in order to score points.
I will not embarrass myself by admitting the number of attempts it took to finally get a legitimate tiddly right, but one good-natured observer commented, “We were going to ask you to be on our team until we saw you try a tiddly.”
He continued, helpfully, “You swing like you’re chopping up wood with Paul Bunyan’s axe, going straight down all out. That is not going to work. The short stick will either go dead [not bounce up] or might flick back at you. Instead, try coming back in at a low angle a lot more gentle and you will get the spin and the lift needed to pop the short stick in the air. It should turn around there long enough to bat it easily. It is a little difficult to get the hang of the tiddly first, but is way more about approach and angle than power and pounding.”
World Cup of Tiddly
It is believed that this ancient game was brought to Newfoundland and Labrador from England or Ireland around the 1850s. In Carbonear, locals have been able to trace stories of tiddly games back 150 years in the Irishtown area.
“It is not to be confused with Tiddlywinks, which is something entirely different,” explains World Cup of Tiddly organizer Judy Cameron. “It was a bit of a joke to call it the World Cup, but we found the game has been played around the world under different names. In Germany it was known as Kippel-Kappel; in South Yemen it was known as Al-Gahbatah; and in the Philippines it had several names, such as Shatong and Shato. Variations included using a hole in the ground instead of raised rocks or bricks. In Newfoundland, it went under the names of Tiddly or Piddly, or even Ducks, depending on where you lived.”
The game had pretty much died out by the late 1960s or early ’70s, she notes. But perhaps because there are so many locals with fond memories of the game, it wasn’t too difficult to find enthusiasm to revive the sport in recent years.
Judy says she always loved playing Tiddly as a child growing up in Carbonear. “Of course in the early days of the game, when we were growing up, there was no such thing as a Tiddly tournament and everyone just played outside at Tiddly until the lights came on and your mother yelled out it was time to come home,” she says.
So when they began organizing the World Cup event, they had to create some new standards for fair play. “We had to formalize the rules, the field boundaries and scoring for the Tiddly tournament itself very early on because every garden where the game was played had their own rules. Also, we love to say the ability to argue is an asset in Tiddly, so even though it is all in good fun and there are no actual prizes other than bragging rights of being the World Champions of Tiddly for the year, we wanted to keep the games from going on too long over discussions about creative interpretations of the score or debates if a point was in or out,” she explains.
“Another thing we noticed was that folks would want to make and bring their own Tiddly sticks, and while the length was correct (one foot for the short stick and three feet for the long stick) the type of wood used and the diameter and the weight of the sticks could vary a fair bit and might give some team a bit of an advantage. In the old days we used mop handles, but they don’t make them near as strong as they used to, so a few of the men from the Irishtown Team took it upon themselves to volunteer and go in the country and cut all local wood [usually spruce or fir], skin the sticks out, and shape them down to pretty much uniform dimensions. They do an excellent job each year so we can provide all the sticks at all the games.”
The 10th annual World Cup of Tiddly was held this past August during Carbonear Days Weekend. Vying for the title were various men’s and ladies’ teams bearing names that reflect local place names and personalities: London Road Bogtrotters, Harbour Rock Hillbillies, Irishtown Champs, Battery Rockers, Across the Doors, The Flings, Granny’s Humps, Crocker’s Cove Crackies and Aunt Julia’s Brew. The signal device used to end games was the old foghorn from Earle Freighting Services, a famous local family company.
I returned a month later to the scene of my first tiddly attempt, to get some photos of the real action. Between photos, I shared wonderful banter and tiddly tales with players Gerard Griffin, Cyril Griffin, Harold Earle, Bill Dominie and Andrew Howell, among others. Tiddly, I found, is that kind of game. It is as much (or maybe even more) about the camaraderie as it is about scoring points. There is a certain amount of athleticism and great hand-eye coordination among the really good players, but they all have an ample supply of good humour and the ability to take in stride whatever comes their way.
The day brought to mind a saying, attributed to a number of sources but this variation was purportedly uttered by George Bernard Shaw: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
In that case, Carbonear and the game of Tiddly may actually have a swing at keeping players forever young.