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A Sporting Chance 3

We fear that our occasional posts on asylum-inspired sports and pastimes have yet to attract the interest of the International Olympic Committee. There will be no billiards and no baseball at London 2012. Undeterred, we persevere with our suggestions, and this month highlight an Olympic sport discontinued after the 1900 Games. Croquet was a popular pursuit at Bethlem Hospital in the Victorian and Edwardian eras and beyond (as evidenced by the photograph that accompanies this post). In a novel based on her experience as a patient in the 1920s, Antonia White relates a moment of fearful insight precipitated by a match played in the company of strangers with little regard to the rules:

‘In vain Clara tried to explain the rules of croquet…But it was hopeless. No-one could understand. In the end, she left them running gaily about the lawn, hitting any ball they saw and usually all playing at once…the next moment, it came to her. These women were mad. All the women she saw at mealtimes were mad. No wonder she could make no contact with them. She was imprisoned in a place full of mad people.’1

Taken in isolation, and with too much seriousness, a quotation like this one might seem to support a stigmatising dichotomy between 'them' and 'us', the mad and the sane, as well as an unsupportable shortcut in mental diagnostics whereby disregard of sporting rules was a positive indicator of insanity. Yet what we have in Clara is not an omniscient, inerrant narrator, but a character whose grasp of the rules of croquet may have been impeccable but whose purchase on her own memories and perceptions sometimes proved faulty.