Disappearing green baize

“Pool and snooker table maintenance,” announced the strapline on the side of the white van. Times being what they are, it is hard to imagine that the driver is finding much work.

Snooker tables used to be commonplace. “Billiard tables,” they were called when I was young. Snooker halls, working men’s clubs, games rooms in big houses and student facilities, pubs, even youth clubs, the green baize was something approached with seriousness, and treated with care.

Snooker halls were places filled with a concentrated silence, the kiss of the white ball against a red or a colour, a puff on a cigarette, a sip from a pint of beer, an occasional word of congratulation to an opponent. Muzak and constant background television noise were still things of the future.

While played with just three balls, billiards seemed a more difficult and a more complicated game. Playing it only once, with a friend at his university’s snooker room, it seemed a game without hiding places, a game where the failings of a bad player like myself were quickly exposed.

Attending theological college in the 1980s, the snooker table was an opportunity to escape from the lessons on Greek and philosophy and Biblical literature. An evening never seemed complete without at least a frame. Later, more serious academic minds, deemed the snooker table and the adjacent table tennis table to be superfluous to the requirements of those preparing for ordination and they were removed to make way for an additional seminar room.

Pool always seemed a less formal game, although the skill demanded to be a good player seemed to be just as great. Pool tables could be fitted into a smaller space, the games could be played more quickly, the capacity for income generation was greater.

Now, all three games seem to be in decline. In the 1980s, the snooker champions were household names, now the viewing figures for the championships are a fraction of what they were. With the decline in public popularity, perhaps there has been a corresponding disappearance of many snooker tables. It is a long time since I heard of anyone playing billiards, perhaps there are still gentlemen’s clubs where the gentle art is still practised. Even pool tables seem not to have the popularity they once enjoyed, are there still places where people put piles of coins on the side of the table to reserve the next game?

With lockdown and the decline of licensed premises, the van driver may need to find other uses for his vehicle.

 

 

 

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Sunday teatime

Heinz Baked Beans on toasted Hovis bread spread with butter, topped with grated Cheddar cheese. It was a Sunday tea of contentment, a Sunday tea that might have been eaten at any time in the past fifty years.

Baked beans were once frowned upon (perhaps they still are), but it seems that they can now be counted as one of the five portions of vegetables that we are expected to eat during the course of the day. Had I known they were so healthy, Heinz might have received much more business over the intervening years.

Sunday teatime was always an odd time, it could be a feast or a famine.

A friend once told me of going to tea on a Sunday with a friend who was daughter of the local clergyman. It was the 1950s and the fare at the rectory was very frugal. The girls sat down at the table with the rector and his wife and two other daughters. There was bread and butter to eat and tea to drink. The only exception was the clergyman himself, who was served a boiled egg as he had to go out to take the evening service.

A scant amount of food on the table seemed a common experience among clergy families. Another friend told me of her mother keeping a careful account of the household expenditure in a book in the kitchen. Frequently, the letters “SPG” appeared in the columns. Years later, the friend asked her mother why they had been so generous to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel when there was so little to eat. Her mother was baffled and when reminded of the letters said that often she couldn’t remember where the shillings had gone so wrote SPG for, “something, probably grub.”

In our house, Sunday teatime tended to be a time for more rather than less. The “grazing” that now seems commonplace would never have been allowed, tea would have been eaten at the table. There would often be sandwiches made with the cold meat from the Sunday dinner. More often than not, it was chicken, but repetition never detracted from the flavour. Sunday was also the day when there might be cake at teatime. There were slabs of fruit cake, dense filled with dried fruits and cherries, sometimes with almonds on top. Such luxury could not have been afforded every day, but Sunday teatime was different.

 

 

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Sportsmen of the past

“Uncle Dick and Uncle Andrew were very keen on sports.”

It must be some thirty years since my grand uncles died, but from what I remember they never seemed very like sportsmen. Our family are not athletic.  We are short and stocky, broad shouldered, solid, not the sort of people who tend to excel at sports.

“Keen on sports?”

“Yes. Once a fortnight Uncle Andrew would go up to Bristol and he and Uncle Dick would go to watch one of the Bristol teams.”

I remembered stories of them going to Eastville. “Rovers, Mum.”

“Yes, one of the Bristol teams.”

“Definitely Rovers, I don’t think they liked the other lot.”

“As well as football they both played darts and skittles.”

These seemed more the sort of sports that might be played by our family members. At five feet seven inches, I am among the taller members, but lack of height is no hindrance in engaging in the sporting activities at a local pub.

“And they went greyhound racing.”

“That would figure, there was a greyhound track as well as a football ground at Eastville.”

Sports in the days of Uncle Dick and Uncle Andrew had connotations different from that of those that require the clothing and equipment bought in high street stores. The sports that used to fill their leisure hours seem to belong a past very different from the events viewed on satellite television screens.

Greyhound racing ceased at Eastville in 1997. A plan to build a new greyhound stadium in Bristol never came to fruition. Uncle Dick and Uncle Andrew would have to travel to Swindon to go to the dogs now.

Darts is still played, but with the changes in many pubs, and the death of many more, it is disappearing. Younger people are more likely to stand and watch Premier League football than they are to stand at the oche. High scores recorded on the blackboards either side of boards seem decades old.

Skittle teams still play, but struggle to find members. The alleys have often been put to other uses, the space taken by the wooden lanes now devoted to providing extra area for restaurant seating. Two of the pubs with which Uncle Dick and Uncle Andrew would have been familiar have decided that diners are more profitable than skittles players.

Even the sort of football my uncles enjoyed is declining. Football has become a commercialised, franchised packaged product in which the profits are taken by a handful of large companies. Clubs like Bristol Rovers, which once enjoyed a large following, can never aspire to success against such competition.

Sports are not what they were.

 

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Going off the road

In the early light of a June morning, my uncle was disturbed from his sleep

“Four o’clock in the morning, the cows in the field down the road started bellowing. Now I’m an age now when I like a bit of a lie-in; well, not get up at four o’clock anyway.

“I decided I had better go and find out what was wrong so put my overalls on over the top of my pyjamas and drove down the road. I got to the field where the cows were and there was a dolly bird in a cocktail dress standing in the middle of the field.

“She had driven straight through the hedge and had half a tree stuck to the underside of her car. She said she had misjudged the bend and had found herself in my field.

“Anyway, I opened the gate for her and she drove off without another word – still with half a tree stuck underneath it, with the right wing caved in and the right-hand lights gone altogether. I reckon she was afraid of being caught for drunk-driving for her to drive off so fast.”

(My uncle’s account of his encounter with the woman in the field included a number of adjectives that would be used by farmers but are probably not appropriate for polite company).

What was surprising was that the hedge still remained to have holes made in it; stories of cars going through it were common in childhood days.

On one occasion, my grandfather had fitted a new gate, together with new gateposts, a costly business when you are a small farmer. The following week, a man in an MG sports car had contrived to come round the bend at such a speed that he had demolished the lot. The miracle was that he had walked away uninjured.

On another occasion, there had been a knock on the farmhouse door in the early hours of the morning. A man stood on the doorstep and  said his car had gone through the hedge and was there a hotel nearby where he could stay. My grandfather told him that he would have a long walk and that he had better come in and sleep on the settee. A breakdown truck was ordered in the morning and the car towed away. (My grandfather used to offer similar hospitality to passing gentlemen of the road. “Alec,” my grandmother would say, “one day we will be murdered in our beds”).

Passing holes in hedges can prompt lengthy speculation on what vehicle might have made an unexpected exit from the road.

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School of hard rocks

The school Duke of Edinburgh expedition takes place next week. The teachers supervising it are very different from Mr Light.

Mr Light taught science and P.E. and was the school organizer for the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, all of which carried with them a degree of physical threat.

Science should have been the safest of the three activities he oversaw, had it not been for his propensity to occasionally throw whatever came to hand at inattentive pupils. His explanation of the components of granite will remain forever in the memory.

Holding in his hand a sizeable chunk of rock, in order that it be visible to the whole class, he was pointing out to us the signs of quartz or feldspar when without warning the rock left his hand and flew across the room. It ricocheted off the desk behind me before crashing into the notice board on the back wall and falling to the floor. A sizeable chunk of the surface of the formica topped desk seemed to have gone with the rock. Tony, the boy behind who had been talking, was momentarily struck dumb.

P.E. was benign most of the time, the exercise regime outside each morning, the Wednesday morning routine in the gym, but once a fortnight, on a Saturday morning, the sort of delicacy demonstrated in his hurling of rocks, was manifest in his organizing of the cross country runs. These weren’t the sort of soft stuff one sees now on athletics coverage on television, these were gruelling routes.

One route started at around a thousand feet above sea level, dropped sharply three hundred feet into a thickly wooded valley before rearing up to fifteen hundred feet where there was a footpath along the top of a very windswept ridge. Mr Light would sit in his blue Datsun in his sheepskin coat and scan the ridge with binoculars to count the runners, never seeing any hypocrisy in sitting in comfort while encouraging others to exercise.

It was the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme which could throw up unexpected surprises – most boys only did it because of the opportunities to go hiking. The bronze award expedition itself was only a fifteen mile hike with an overnight in open country, but Mr Light felt this meant two or three one day practices.

The first resulted in a route that was six miles more than planned when Mr Light broke from using compass directions and instructed a turn to the left when a bridlepath met a road. He should have said a turn to the west, descending in a southerly direction onto the road, a turn to the left was a turn east – three miles later the mistake was realized.

The second brought a near escape from being savaged by dogs set on us by an elderly bachelor farmer. Skirting the farm on a public footpath and beginning to climb away from the run down farmhouse, a figure appeared at the back door and began waving a stick. A pair of black and white dogs streaked up the hill. Realising the farmer meant business prompted a burst of speed uphill as the yapping dogs grew closer, suddenly a large pig appeared and ran at the dogs, the dogs turned and ran back down the hill tails between their legs. There was much breathless laughter and a noting that when one is being pursued by angry dogs, it is helpful to have a pig on hand.

Mr Light would have thought teachers now had gone soft.

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