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The Circle and the Spirit of Hashing

Some time ago, I visited a hash in Southern California. I knew most of the hashers there, so I was with friends. The weather was perfect. The hares and the pack were stoked. The trail was scenic and challenging, and the hares did an outstanding job of keeping the pack together – the quick and the lame finished within ten minutes of each other. The on-in venue was hasher-friendly, far from complaining citizens and overzealous cops. There was an ample supply of beer, snacks, and food. There was a DJ and a dance floor, and the place was ours until two in the morning. Sounds like all the ingredients for a great time, doesn’t it? Except for one thing.

The circle. In a word, it Sucked, capital “S” intentional. Not because the GM and RAs didn’t have their act together. Not because the pack wasn’t interested and paying attention. It sucked because five or six self-appointed sergeants-at-arms kept shouting “SHUT THE F_CK UP” every time more than two hashers started whispering to each other on the outskirts of the circle.

Everything was great until the shouting started. The circle was going fine. Not perfect, but as good as anyone has a right to expect. Sure, there was some background noise and quiet talking, nothing gross. But I guess these guys wanted perfection.

At first it was one shout every five minutes, but it wasn’t long before the pack began to resent being shouted at. Who are these thugs? They’re not the boss of me! So they made more noise, and within a few minutes the goon squad was in full cry. I felt for the poor GM. He’d say, “Bring up” – “SHUT THE F_CK UP!” – “Manhandler for a” – “SHUT THE F_CK UP!” – “down-down” – “SHUT THE F_CK UP!” – “for getting” – “SHUT THE F_CK UP!” – “lost on trail.” You think I’m exaggerating. I’m not – that’s literally how bad it was.

The circle disintegrated. No one was paying attention. You couldn’t hear yourself drink. I wondered what the hell I was doing there. I sure wasn’t having any fun. And if I wasn’t having fun, why was I there? What were any of us doing there, and what did all this shouting have to do with hashing?

I haven’t noticed this phenomenon overseas, but it seems to be happening more and more in the States. The home of rugged individualism, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness, or so we like to think. When did American hashing, my favorite recreational and social pastime, start needing jack-booted gangs of enforcers? When did the circle get so important we decided we needed SWAT teams to control the unruly pack? When did it get so important to control the pack in the first place?

Why do you hash? You’ll probably cite the exercise, the chance to experience the outdoors, the need to get away from your flourescent-lit five-by-five workaday cubicle once a week or so, the opportunity to see new things and learn more about your local geography, the beer, maybe even the occasional harriette flashing her tits. But I bet the main reason you keep coming back to the hash is the camaraderie, the chance to see and visit the good friends you’ve made at the Hash. And seeing and visiting good friends is not something you can do in perfect silence, it it?

Look, circle organizers, there is going to be a certain amount of background noise during any down-down ceremony, as hashers catch up on news with their friends. Most GMs and RAs understand and accept this. As a matter of fact, when the background noise reaches a certain level, GMs and RAs who are worth a shit take the hint and wind up the formalities. The pack lets you know when it’s had enough.

Let’s lighten up with the strong-arm tactics, okay? The circle just isn’t that important. In fact, there was a time when there wasn’t any circle – and still isn’t in many hashes. Most of us seem to have forgotten that, or never knew it in the first place.

I’ve asked this question before, in a rhetorical way: did “G” and his friends, the original Kuala Lumpur Hash House Harriers, have down-downs and a circle? I posed this question to living legend and hash graybeard Ian Cumming. Ian hashed with the Mother Hash in the mid-50s, when Kuala Lumpur was the only hash in the world. He went on to found the Singapore HHH in the early 60s – the second hash in the world. He’s one of our few remaining direct links to the founders of hashing. I think you’ll find his comments interesting. By the way, the “Bill” Ian refers to is Bill Panton, another ancient, still running with KLHHH (I met Bill recently, and he confirms everything Ian says).

. . . when Bill and I were first in KL the OnOn (not called that, nor “apres,” nor anything else) went like this: Runs always started and ended at the Hare’s car. Runs were invariably cold Hare and A-to-A. The Hare was often back at the start. In the trunk of the Hare’s car were a galvanized tub, a clanking bundle of cheap aluminum drinking mugs, a large block of ice (yes, ice had been invented), twenty-four large Anchor beers, twenty-four small bottles of ginger beer and a fresh can of fifty Players cigarettes. When the first hound came in, everything was dumped into the tub (except the cigarettes of course) and everyone helped themselves.There was an obvious incentive to get back early – there was no plan for holding back extra beer for the DFLs. When the beer ran out, the Hare handed the tub, with mugs and empties, to the next week’s Hare and we all went home. Well, some of us did; others repaired to some watering hole nearby, drank more beer, ate fried rice or mee, sang a few songs and generally made a nuisance of ourselves.

You will note, at that time there were no DownDowns, Circles or any ceremony of any kind. An exception might be if someone was leaving the colony for good and some kind of presentation was called for, and if there was no other farewell celebration in the offing, an engraved mug might be filled with beer and the recipient would be required to chug it.

To my certain knowledge the Singapore Men’s Hash, started in 1962, followed the identical procedure up until 1967 when I left. In 1998, the next time I went on a regular run with them, many things had changed. Now a caterer brings a truck to the Hash, serves cold beer and sets up a food stall with substantial real food. DownDowns are done to the Hare and overseas visitors, and possibly virgins, but there is no Circle or RA as such. Singing, much disorganized, breaks out.

While Circles were much in evidence at the Mother Hash 60th Interhash (InterHash 1998 in KL – ed.), I suspect the Mamma herself still doesn’t have Circles, nor much ceremony after runs, and this is true of any Hash directly descended from KL, Singapore or Kuching. For example, the DC Hash, Rumson, New York and New York City don’t have RAs, Circles or Hash Names, a tradition of which they are inordinately proud, for better or worse. By a process of tracing the origins of Hashes, Bill believes he can find the starting point of these ceremonies. My guess is that Djakarta (which wasn’t founded until 1971 – ed.) was the culprit, but only he can prove it.

How important are the relatively new traditions of the circle and down-downs? You decide. I like a good circle as much as anyone, but I sure as hell don’t come to the hash to be yelled at. I come for all the reasons I’ve listed above, including singing (which I forgot to mention earlier), but also to see my friends and to have a good time. I think that’s what attracted the original Hash House Harriers. I think that’s the memory they held to through that horrific war and the dislocations that followed, and that inspired them to reestablish the hash after the war. I think that’s what’s behind the spirit of hashing, which caught peoples’ imaginations and caused the hash to grow to what it is today.

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