The Westminster Abbey Game

The Guardian, August 28 1989

The Westminster Abbey Game is a contest for two teams. On one side are the Wrist Slappers, who may be male or female, are invariably elderly and grey-haired and usually wear conservative clothes from the 1940s. Then there are the Foreigners, lots of them, and preferably draped in plenty of photographic hardware.

According to tradition, the game starts just inside the west entrance of the Abbey, where a large sign placed in unmissable prominence in the centre of the nave calls out the Slappers’ challenge. “No photography please”. The same sign is clearly repeated at intervals around the Abbey. The object of the game is for the Foreigners to ignore the signs and bang off as many pictures as they can before the Wrist Slappers swoop down on them. The area of play covers the whole Abbey, including the strategically useful little chapels along the touch lines.

Play begins each morning at 9.00 am sharp, immediately after Holy Communion, and closes at 4.30 in the afternoon. It is rough, tough stuff – particularly when the Weapon That Is Worst Of All is deployed – and it is all reinforced with off-the-pitch clashes of one sort or another.

The Foreigners, for example, go in for a lot of psychological warfare with their clothes: vast American men with their buttocks sagging in skin-tight shorts and their bellies peering out of their shirts; pubescent girls all braless in sawn-off blue jeans; tee shirts that say “In Dad we trust” or “Kiss me” or “My mum went to London and all I got was this lousy shirt” – anything at all to undermine the Slappers’ belief that their home ground is sacred.

The Slappers’ propaganda is more in tune with the times. They ceaselessly sell themselves and the image of the Abbey – on jigsaw puzzles, tea spoons, rubbers, heat-resistant table mats, Wedgwood ashtrays, tins of honey thin biscuits (traditional recipe), thimbles, badges, medals, models, handbells, handbags, key rings, pin boxes, playing cards, pencils, diaries, notebooks, guide books, address books, pop-up books, coffee-table books, tea towels, headscarves, horse brasses, clock faces, wine glasses, tins of English breakfast tea, dinner plates, photograph albums, and videos. It is a game of changing fortune and several secrets.

The first Foreigners to arrive are easy prey. They wander in – mom, pop and the two kids with acne – casually ignore all the signs in the required fashion, square up in front of the Grave of the Unknown Warrior, reach for the camera case and have barely put their finger on the Nikon before a grey-haired figure in conservative clothes swoops down from the shadows.

Easily outnumbered at this time of day, the Foreigners are almost defenceless. It is still too early for them to use The Weapon That Is Worst Of All. They can only fall back on familiar tactical ploys and play for time.

Like these two middle-aged Japanese men in blue suits: as soon as they come through the door, their eyes are caught by the signpost and drawn inexorably up to its forbidding message, where they pause for the merest flicker of an eyelid before moving on upwards to stare in fascination at the vaulted ceiling as if that was all they had ever been looking at. Are the Slappers fooled? The two Foreigners seem confident. Swiftly, they move on down the north aisle, where one of them suddenly turns, whips out an eight millimeter video camera, hoists it up at the dear dead shape of Spencer Perceval, whose career as Prime Minister was cut short by an assassin in 1812, only to receive an almighty whack round the wrist from the opposition before he can snatch a single frame. You can’t fool the Slappers.

Two Turks try another old ploy – the one about language. They walk in, look at the sign, register nothing, walk nonchalantly down the south aisle, circle into the nave and brazenly start unbuttoning their camera cases. Did they really not understand the sign? A female Slapper with grey hair and a grey suit is already closing in. She is still ten feet away, perhaps uncertain of her ground, when one of the Turks makes a terrible error. He peeps nervously over his shoulder. That’s it. No question about it. That was Guilt. All over his face.

“Excuse ME,” says the Slapper, all ruffled and indignant. She raps out the rules. Robbed of their defences, the Turks cave in and chatter politely in perfectly good English, feigning confusion, explaining that they are teachers on holiday.

“Teachers!” gasps the ruffled Slapper as she returns to her post. “Heaven knows what they teach. Well, they say they’re teachers.”

By now, the Foreigners are sending in reinforcements. Outside the west entrance, the cobbles which have been trodden by 39 different English monarchs on their way to the coronation chair, are now awash with butt ends and Coke cans. The old stone benches which Henry III ordered for the sake of weary pilgrims have been taken over by a red-faced farmer from Kansas, who is excavating his nostrils, and a party of dishevelled Dutch schoolgirls fitting in one last ice cream cone before joining the game.

Inside, the flow of Foreigners is becoming too fast for the Slappers, who dart from one outrage to another, tormented by camera flashes and by waves of psychological warfare which now includes high-pitched giggling from half a dozen schoolboys in front of the choir screen. “Quiet PLEASE,” begs the Slapper, who turns to leave, stops, turns back and then makes a massive tactical blunder.

“Are you French?”

“No,” says one of the schoolboys. “Greek.”

“Aaah,” says the Slapper. “Not French. Hmpph. It’s the French who are worst of all.”

Now fate is tempted beyond resistance.

For five or ten minutes, they have been massing outside the west door, but now they flood through the ancient Norman archway, divide and pour down both aisles – a bubbling, seething, screaming, shrieking, entirely unstoppable tide of French schoolchildren. The very worst of all.

Observers of the Westminster Abbey Game cannot explain it, even though some have consulted the French embassy in the past in search of help, but there is no doubt about it: none of the other tactical moves that any of the other Foreigners produce can come anywhere close to the sheer animal passion of a pack of French schoolchildren in full cry.

Already, they are everywhere. Blowing gum bubbles. Kicking each other in the derrieres. Jigging to music in stereo headphones. Shouting “Non, Pascal!”. Stuffing Abbey guide books down the top of each other’s shirts. Slapping each other with flourescent green knapsacks. Lounging in the pew chairs with their feet on the row in front. Yawning hugely. Chubby boys with their arms round each other snorting hysterically. Passing sweets. Passing prayer mats. Pinching. Pushing. And taking happy snaps of each other all over the Abbey.

“May I have your attention please?” It is a voice from the pulpit, attempting to pray.

Tour guides hush their flocks. “It’s only for a minute,” they say. But Pascal and his friends are not to be stopped. While the voice from the pulpit asks the Lord “to visit our house and drive from there all the snares of the Evil One”, Pascal marches up and down between Lloyd George and Clement Atlee, swinging his arms military-style and clicking his tongue in time. He is enjoying himself. And so are his friends.

In the distance, a female Slapper spots a knot of them shooting pictures of the organ. She strides after them. They duck off towards Musicians Corner. She follows. Fast. She catches them. “No!” she says, wagging her finger in no uncertain terms. The children gaze at her silently and then, as she strides away, they collapse in helpless giggling.

It is a great game, full of subtle twists and secrets. The most subtle of all, perhaps, is that the Abbey Slappers fight their good fight with all the traditional might in order to defend something which they have already lost – the awesome dignity of an ancient house of God.

They lost that when they let the tourists in – unlike St Peter’s in Rome which tries to hold them outside in the square. Their curb on cameras in the Abbey is no more likely to succeed than banning beer in a public bar. But the greatest secret of all is that it does not matter.

Like most violent sports, the Westminster Abbey Game is played to a background of song. The Abbey’s version of a terrace chant is a lyrical chorus that echoes incessantly down the aisles as the two sides scrap it out. A steady rhythmic ringing. It starts soon after the first Foreigners arrive and continues undaunted by the ebb and flow of battle. It is a victory song.

The sound is so ubiquitous that its source is hard to spot, but Pascal and his friends find it in a moment. As the Slapper leaves them giggling over their cameras, they turn and walk deeper into the Abbey down the North Aisle, towards the most famous sights in the building – the tombs of ancient monarchs, Poets’ Corner, the remains of the Princes in the Tower – and there they find the most effective Slapper of all, crouched by the side of the aisle, his right hand moving incessantly as he retrieves two pounds sterling from every feckless Foreigner that passes by and watches each and every profitable one of them press through the little turnstile that sings the Westminster Abbey Victory Song in their wake.

NOTE: The Receiver General of Westminster Abbey wrote to The Guardian to complain of this article’s “offensive disparagement of virtually every class of foreign visitor” to the abbey.