I’d heard rumours of this one for some time, not only from the kids but also their mums and dads. It was time to check it out. On a lazy Sunday afternoon, along with a fellow coach, I arrived with a more or less open mind and my bat in my bag. It didn’t take very long to realise that this was to be an experience close to the very essence of not only West London Ping but of Ping England itself. Three tables in a disused and unloved shop in the Hammersmith shopping mall with nobody in charge and a queue for every table.
I was there the best part of four hours and the tables were never empty. On the contrary, as people left, they were immediately replaced by new faces. Hammersmith Shopping Mall may be suffering terminal neglect from being in the shadow of the Westfields mega shopping complex, but this ping pong parlour was offering something that Westfields could only dream of: authenticity and joy.
The thing that impressed me most was the sheer randomness of the participants. Reflecting the wonderful cosmopolitan nature of London, the players consisted of every nationality, every trade and occupation, every creed and culture and of course, every age from the very young to the very old. And the fact that nobody was in charge was the most intriguing thing of all. Although the skill range was quite pronounced, from the complete beginners through to those that could obviously play, the degree of self-organisation was a joy to behold.
And I will never forget the young couple that kissed rather passionately at the end of their half hour ping pong encounter. I never saw that one coming. Who said that romance is dead?
Many of the more proficient players voluntarily helped the youngsters before moving on to the more competitive stuff. But when left to their own devices, the youngsters seemed, for the most part, to remain focused and content. On a couple of occasions, one or two of the regulars took it upon themselves to gently chastise some mildly disruptive behaviour and the offending youngsters willingly accepted their chastisement and returned to playing ping. Community self-management in action.
What also impressed me was the easy dialectic between participation the desire to win. I don’t meet many table tennis players who like to lose. Table tennis, like all sports, is a competitive affair. But the generous atmosphere around even the most competitive of matches made the whole experience something rather special. Those that lost seemed rather grateful for the chance to play stronger players. Those that won were magnanimous in their victories. It was as if everyone respected this rare opportunity to play some sport free of unnecessary bureaucracy and free from an over-emphasis on winning. And of course, completely free. No one got knocked out. Quite the opposite. Everybody seemed to feel needed and wanted. In our cut-throat and alienating world, that truly has to be an experience to be nurtured and replicated.
Can it last? I learnt that the tables have been in this particular shopping mall for over three years. As the commercial circumstances changed so did the location of the tables, but nobody in authority seemed willing to actually end the experiment. It was as if it would be an act of vandalism to call a halt to play. Looking at the bigger picture, there are thousands of empty shops up and down the country just sitting there, neglected and rotting away. And, with the advent of online shopping, the numbers are growing fast. Here then is the challenge for councils, shopping mall owners and the national government itself. Fill these empty spaces with free community activities.
It doesn’t have to be ping pong tables. They could equally become dance studios, martial arts centres or chess clubs. They could become art clubs and art galleries.The traditional high street is dying but the solution is staring us in the face.
On a logistical note, I might add that tables placed in indoor locations are so much more inviting than those stuck outside in some windswept park. Let’s face it, Britain is a cold and windswept island for at least eight months of the year, so Ping England really ought to re-adjust its strategy and try to find those indoor spaces that are just crying out for ping pong tables. Ping England was launched inside, at St Pancras Station, and inside is where this initiative will best grow. The Hammersmith shopping mall is a perfect location in that it is warm, safe and easily accessible to the unsuspecting passers-by.
The Hammersmith Ping Pong Parlour shows us what is possible. Where Hammersmith leads others must be persuaded to follow. There is a definite and definitive role here for both governing bodies and Sport England though the former are probably too self-absorbed to take up the challenge. What a pity. The positive knock-on effects of a national network of such free community centres could be massive in terms of both health, regeneration and community cohesion. Stop chasing meaningless international medals and return sport to its community roots.
I’ve seen the future and it works.