I have mentioned, my family, on my mother’s side were linked to the Workmens’ Institute in Chapel Allerton. This was basically a snooker and whist club, and I imagine it was to provide an alcohol-free environment for workers to gather, socialise and enjoy a variety of activities. I know that my mum and aunt were born and raised there in their early years, as their parents were the caretakers. It was my grandfather’s side of the family, the Wrays, that had a long link to the Institute. The one thing that I do know was that the family loved to play snooker and my grandad was on the honours board at the club, before its demolition, so he and his relatives were good players.
Being linked to the club didn’t prevent my grandad enjoying a drink, though. His regular watering hole was The Nags Head, but there was also The Regent, where he sometimes went, and in later years, as a young man, I did. Both pubs are still there and I hope still thriving.
I never gave snooker a thought until I was made a prefect whilst in the Sixth Form at Roundhay School. In the prefects’ common room, a tiny room just above the tuck shop, I recall there was a half size slate-bed snooker table. There was barely room to wield a cue, but we managed. By this point, we did not have to go to the library during free periods, and as I was only doing two A Levels, plus A level General Studies, I had a lot of free time on my timetable, and even more, after we had taken the exams, but I had to remain at school. I had no idea how to play, but soon learnt. We mainly played billiards as that required fewer balls, three, and was much quicker to set up between games. I am not sure if we gambled on our games, but it is likely, as we certainly did playing cards. It was never very much, maybe several shillings.
I had started going to pubs from at least the age of fourteen. I was fortunate at that time as I had a face that looked older than I was. I must say that that was a short lived advantage.
Leeds Poly had a room near the common room where the discos were held and in the room were a number of full-size snooker tables. I was amazed how good they were, as drinks could be taken into the room and several pints, or lager and lime or blackcurrant, were drunk by our group. There is something quite wonderful about the whole process of playing snooker. There are all the coloured balls on the green baize tables, the polished cues, which required the blue chalk to be rubbed onto the tips and then the scoring boards that had brass sliders. There was something quite aristocratic and Victorian about the game, but not the motley crew that played there. Setting up the table was a ritual in itself and it could be done with panache, or as in our case, a bit slapdash. The first time the pack of red balls was broken apart could be dramatic but often the white would end up in one of the pockets. The one thing about a group of friends playing snooker is that it is a great social venue. Conversations carry on around the table and bad shots are met with great hilarity, or at least they were by us. In theory snooker is a game of logic. Get the angle right, get the power right, provide the correct back-spin and the ball will go in the pocket and the cue ball be set up for your next shot. Simple in theory, but not in practice.
Some of our group got to be quite good players, but some less so. My good friend, Dave G, had lost the end of his finger when working during the holidays as a gardener at the women’s Hospital at the back of Roundhay School. The lawnmower he was using jammed on a stick and he made the bad choice of pulling out the stick without turning the machine off. You can guess what happened, and the released blade turned, and instead of cutting grass, it cut off the end of his first finger, just below the nail. This adaptation was not particularly helpful for Dave’s snooker playing, but I can still see him, cigarette between his lips, fairly inebriated, swaying, reaching for the spider rest. Dave was tall and he wore these very distinct octagonal glasses, but somehow he managed, on most occasions, to play a decent shot. After we had played a game or two, we would wander into the disco (that’s what it was called at the time), paying the entry fee and mainly then sitting in the almost dark common room, listening to ear-blasting music, which put an end to most of the conversations. This was the same common room that the band used to practice in, on a Sunday afternoon, for a few months, a few years later. I must add that in daylight the room was fairly horrible: beer stained carpet, cigarette burns to the carpet and furniture and very grey and drab, but when the discos were on with the flashing lights, the otherwise dark room was far more appealing.
Apart from at the Poly, the other venue where we played snooker was at Meanwood Park Hospital’s nurses’ hall of residence. Pete lived there when he first started in psychiatric nursing and the residence was quite a place to hang out. On week nights, it was fairly quiet and relaxed and they had a full-size snooker table. This was in a large old separate room and we used to play, chat, laugh and generally have a good time. Of course, at the weekends the hall of residence was a completely different place. There always seemed to be a party going on and the one thing that you could say about psychiatric nurses was that they knew how to let their hair down and have a good time.
I do remember once going into a snooker hall near the Eastgate roundabout on the Headrow where the Victoria Gate centre now is. It was a big hall with a low ceiling and lights hanging over the large number of tables, but it was only a one off and was not really a place that I wanted to go back to. I seem to remember that it was near a betting office and the customers seem to spend their time moving from one place to the other.
This was before pool became popular in the UK, and at the time, pool was seen as a poor substitute. There was another pub game that was quite popular and I am not sure if it is still currently played, and that was bar-billiards. This was played on a small table and there were pockets and small wooden mushroom-shaped pegs that stood in front of some of the holes. Avoiding hitting the pegs was the aim, whilst putting balls in the pockets. I believe the tables worked with a coin slot, like pool tables, and various pubs in the Leeds area had them. I seem to remember that the Fox and Hounds at Bramhope had one, and we went to a pub near Halifax called the Hobbit, Hob Lane Sowerby Bridge. We went to this hotel as it was near to Pete’s parents’ home and the occasion has stuck with me for several reasons. The first was the unusual name, the second that it had bar billiards and we played all night and thirdly, that Year of the Cat by Al Stewart was played repeatedly on the jukebox. It must therefore have been 1976. I saw Al Stewart twice, live in London, at Imperial College. I was with Dave G, who was a student there and on both occasions, Al was brilliant.
In 1977 I was living in Sheffield and the Crucible Theatre became the centre for the new phenomena of Embassy World Snooker. This was the first time for The Crucible to host the event. Pot Black had become a major television sport, much to the surprise of many people, but it was easy to televise, you got so close to the action. This was particularly true when colour television became the norm. There was one famous quote from the commentator Ted Lowe, “and for those of you who are watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green.” The skill, quirks and style of the various professionals, such as Hurricane Higgins, Cliff Thorburn and Fred Davis, created vast audiences and many others became household names and stars, as well as earning very large incomes. I went to one of the semi-finals at the Crucible and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The Crucible is ‘in-the-round’ and therefore particularly suited the event. Wherever you were sitting, you were so close to the action and it was fascinating. The semi I saw part of was between Cliff Thorburn and Dennis Taylor and was the best of 35 frames. It was a great experience, and eventually, Cliff Thorburn won 18 -16, but he lost in the final to John Spencer. The level of skill was incredible and the highest break in the tournament was 135 by John Spencer; he won the competition and the prize money of 6000 pounds.
The other game that was a traditional pub game was darts. Like snooker, darts became another television hit and World Darts Championships got great audiences. People were entranced by players with wild names, hairstyles and large beer bellies, downing beer and demonstrating incredible skills. The TV heyday was from 1972 to the mid 1980s. Eric Bristow, Jocky Wilson and numerous others became household names and made good livings as professionals, but Not the Nine O’Clock News with Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones’ sketch about darts started its demise.
Just about every pub would have a dartboard and we used to love playing and it was surprising how your skill level quickly improved. Scoring was a challenge as you counted down from 501 and with all the doubles and trebles, mental arithmetic would improve to the point where people just knew the score and could immediately chalk it up on the score boards.
There were other games such as dominoes and rummy that were often played in pubs, but Quiz Nights were a trend that came in and certainly was very popular for a long time. The golden time for pubs has probably passed, not helped by the introduction and enforcing of drink-driving laws, and many pubs have closed, but some are doing well, offering high quality meals and good environments, but it will be interesting to see what the future holds for snooker, darts and pubs.