Peter Ross: On a roll with the girls
'THIS time two years ago," says Daisy Disease, "I owned zero pairs of lime green hotpants and now I own, like, 12. And I don't mind walking down the street in them."
Daisy, a 25-year-old sociology postgrad whose real name is Maddie Breeze, is a member of the Auld Reekie Roller Girls, a roller derby team based in Edinburgh. It's a sport which can have a big impact on your life and wardrobe. Daisy is a slender woman with a short bob of the sort favoured by 1920s debutantes. She has "It's Nice To Be Nice" written in bright green across the back of her black shorts. Her many tattoos include one of a dagger through her neck and two cupcakes on her chest, one of which is topped with a skull rather than a cherry. You don't get that with Mr Kipling.
We are sitting in the foyer of Edinburgh's Jack Kane Sports Centre, an unprepossessing building of grey breezeblocks. Not far away is Duddingston Loch, scene of Sir Henry Raeburn's iconic "skating minister" painting. Lord knows what Raeburn and his reverend would have thought of the women skating here tonight.
This is one of three practice sessions held each week by the Auld Reekie Roller Girls – or ARRG as they are known, as in the slogans "ARRG as Nails" or "Kiss my ARRG". They are in training for Loch Mess, a forthcoming match, or "bout" to use the jargon, which will be held here on 22 November.
From 7pm, women start arriving. Lindsey Watson, 29, a trombonist in The Amphetameanies, passes the time with her knitting. "I'm making a hat," she says, clicking her needles through the grey and orange stripes. "My friend's a sound engineer and she got me in to see a band at the weekend so this is a thank you. My skater name is Haberbashery, so it all fits in. Our names tend to fit in with our personalities."
"I really don't like my name, actually," says Daisy Disease. "There's a girl in Middlesborough called Germaine Leer. I wish I had a feminist or literary pun like that."
Angela Dalrymple, a 38-year-old truck driver with a knuckleduster earring, is captain of the Auld Reekie Roller Girls and skates as Armalite Angie. She explains the simple reason behind her name: "I'm into guns."
Once you have chosen your skate name you register it on twoevils.org, an international website which compiles the names of almost 18,000 roller girls. No two skaters are allowed to have the same name; it's increasingly difficult to choose something good as the sport is growing fast. It has its origins in Depression-era America but the current revival dates back to 2001. There are leagues in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Perth and Dundee. The Auld Reekie Roller Girls, founded just over a year ago, have around 70 members ranging in age from late teens to 40s.
Roller derby, like sex and free jazz, sounds pretty flat when described on the page. You might as well try to surmise the grandeur of Buachaille Etive Mor from the contour lines alone. But here goes. Four players from each of two teams make up a pack that skates round an oval track at high speed. Two "jammers" – one from each team – score points by attempting skate through or round the pack and lap the other players. Skaters within the pack will attempt to help their jammer get through while simultaneously blocking the jammer from the other team. This blocking takes the form of smashing into other players with the hips and shoulders.
Unsurprisingly, given the speed and aggression of play, it's quite common to get hurt. Bruises are worn with pride as trophies; some American teams even post photos of their injuries online. Tonight is the first time in three months that Armalite Angie has been on skates – "I'd a serious injury to my meniscus and my anterior cruciate ligaments." Or, to put it in English: "My leg would go one way and my knee would go the other."
Susan Davidson, 31, known as Skate Tastrophy on account of her clumsiness, tells me that she snapped her left ankle at a practice in June. Did that not put her off? "No. It's too much fun. I look forward to my derby classes. I've got two kids, a six-year-old and a three-year-old, and this is my time to be me and get away from being mummy. It's a good vent. When I first started I thought I would just skate and not take part in the bouts. But you soon get totally hooked. You soon want to go bashing at somebody. You soon want to take that girl out. It grips you, it really does."
The Roller Girls, when asked directly, tend to play down the violence. They say it's overstated. A media hype. Fair enough. I will just mention, though, that their theme song is Somebody's Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight by The Rezillos.
Actually, they're a warm and welcoming lot. And funny, going by the bits of conversation I catch before training starts. One exchange begins: "I was reading an interesting article in Good Housekeeping…" Another ends: "…and I'll tell him to his face he's being a f***ing dick." Someone else says: "I've got some awesome leopard-skin material that I'm going to make into pants."
The first hour of training is general exercise, then Cherry Fury, 29-year-old Dee Miller, who is taking the session, tells the women: "Boot up!" This instruction is greeted by much cheering and whooping and everyone rushes to get their skates on. There are 30 or so skaters here tonight; they divide into two separate packs and start making circuits of the sports hall, moving in formation at some speed, leaning in and touching each other on the small of the back on the turns. Cherry Fury asks the skaters questions about players who are behind them – "What colour are VeloSidy's tights?" It's a sport that relies heavily on good peripheral vision and an almost sixth sense for the positions of team-mates and opponents.
Swooping round like flocking birds, the Roller Girls are a dazzling sight – all those knee-high striped socks, tattoos and glinting piercings. "Come on, ladies, you can go faster than that!" urges Cherry Fury. The slogans and names written on the helmets recall American troops in Vietnam. There goes Fight Cub. There's Alma Geddon. Look at the Tartan Tearaway whizzing past. The guys playing five-a-side in the other side of the hall seem drab in comparison.
Though there appears to be a punky look and attitude that goes along with roller derby, the Auld Reekie Roller Girls insist that this is peripheral to the game itself. They stress that your age and waistline don't matter. Roller derby is about inclusiveness. It's a hug disguised as a rib-splintering thump. That's why the sport is closely associated with feminism. "Many women find derby empowering," says Daisy Disease. "It increases your self-belief and provides a space where you are valued for your hard work, commitment, skill and attitude rather than whether or not you look pretty. One of the things that I like the best about derby is that you get to do and be all those things that, growing up as a girl, you are discouraged from doing. Derby lets you be assertive, aggressive and competitive. It lets you get stinking and sweaty, graze your knees and break bones. And that stuff is fun."
In the centre of the hall, as Roller Girls circle, I get talking to Beth Holmes, a 22– year-old buyer for a clothing store, who skates as Ciderella. "It's my favourite beverage," she explains, "though I don't really drink any more." The Roller Girls have a rule that you aren't allowed alcohol for a week before a bout. Ciderella is looking forward to Jailhouse Block, a bout against a team from Leeds which is going to take place on Valentine's Day. It is hoped that an Elvis impersonator can be found for the occasion. There is a tradition within roller derby of Elvis officiating at the "wedding" of skaters who perform well together within the pack. It's not a gay thing, it's about friendship and the bond of sport. Some skaters get their derby wife's name tattooed on their bodies.
"I'm married to Daisy Disease," says Lucy Tyler, 22, known as Juicy Lucy, who is training to be a maths teacher. "We said our vows in this pub in Meadowbank. A derby wife is basically someone who has your back on track, and then, if at the after party you have a bit too much to drink, they're going to hold your hair back while you puke your guts up."
The attraction of roller derby is, I think, summed up in that anecdote. While mainstream sport often demands very rigid behaviour, roller derby is, often, as much to do with aesthetics as athletics and it is, essentially, a subculture, a lifestyle, and a right good laugh. Ironically, that's why the skaters take it so seriously. "Roller derby is everything to me," says Daisy Disease. "Everything. It doesn't matter how much of a crappy day you've had or whatever problems are going on in your head.
"It all disappears as soon as you put your skates on. And you know that there's basically 30 to 40 bad-ass women who will have your back if anything ever goes wrong in your life."
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Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 23 May 2013
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