Snooker loopy nuts were we

Snooker loopy nuts were we

The entrance was unobtrusive and easy to miss: a steep, well-trodden staircase set back between two high street shops. But the scruffy door at the top opened onto a surprise wonderworld, an enormous, sprawling room filled with cigarette smoke and snooker tables. Steel-framed windows, front and back, stretched across the entire width of the space. Watchful men stood chalking cues. Others were folded uncomfortably over the green baize, carefully lining up and then playing their shot, cursing when they missed or shrugging nonchalantly after making a seemingly impossible pot. Conversation was muted, save for the occasional expletive of frustration or sudden burst of laughter as some unfortunate player watched the white, rather than his nominated colour, disappear into a pocket.

We were compelled by the boss to look smart when knocking on doors or covering petty crime cases at the magistrates’ court

I don’t recall ever seeing a woman inside that particular snooker hall above that particular branch of Burtons. Those were the days when television began to make pin-ups of male players, when snooker was a game for the boys, while girls were expected to simply watch, marvel and swoon.

Montague Burton founded what was to become a household-name clothing empire in 1903, starting with a single shop in Chesterfield. The company swiftly prospered and 2023 marks 120 years of the company acquiring well-placed, high street properties in a smart campaign to corner the menswear market. The buildings were converted into distinctive, Art Deco-style retail outlets – soon as recognisable to shoppers as Burton’s trademark, best-selling, affordable men’s suits. And for most stores business boomed not only on the ground floor but also on the first, where separately-accessed billiard halls proved a roaring success at pulling in the punters. The venues were a magnet for menfolk, especially eighteen-to-30-year-olds, who, after a frame or two at the table, could pop downstairs for a new shirt or jacket. Billiards, a sedate, skilful, but sometimes long-drawn-out game, gradually waned in popularity and snooker became all the rage, especially with the arrival of personality players like Alex “Hurricane” Higgins.

I started playing snooker as a young journalist, or, as my editor insisted on terming it, a junior trainee reporter. The reporting staff on the local weekly newspaper were all young and, until I took one step up the ladder, I was the youngest. We were compelled by the boss to look smart when knocking on doors or covering petty crime cases at the magistrates’ court. Our chief reporter discovered the snooker hall when shopping for a new suit, and once exposed to the exciting, if slightly seedy snooker scene, we lads couldn’t get enough, quickly signing up as club members. I think membership was obligatory.

It must be a fact that nothing very newsworthy ever happened during lunch break in that small town, since none of us was ever summoned back to the office or ordered to hotfoot it to some scene of disaster. Though contacting us wasn’t easy, because there were no smartphones back then. I realise only now how much that must have added to the chilled atmosphere of the club. Just imagine how off-putting the constant ping of ringtones would be when setting up for a frame-winning black. We always left the snooker club phone number at the office, but it couldn’t be guaranteed to find us, since Bert, who ran the place and its tiny cafe, would have been busy signing in a new member or making a bacon sarnie.

A blue haze of cigarette smoke hung over the tables, and sometimes you could barely see across the room, but approaching the green baize with a fag dangling from the mouth was strictly banned.

Some of us, I do not include myself, became reasonably good at the game, skilled enough to place topspin, backspin or swerve on the cue ball, or set a challenging “snooker” for a grudgingly admiring opponent. One colleague even bought his own cue and then exchanged his two-piece suit for a three-piece. When he casually slid off his jacket to reveal that impressive waistcoat, he looked the business: the complete snooker player.

Looking back, I see that around the table we all somehow adopted a playing style and manner of one of the real-life snooker stars. Stevie was Alex “Hurricane” Higgins, a bundle of nervous energy, fag clamped between lips. Dave 1 (he of the waistcoat) was Stephen “The Iceman” Hendry, cold, calm, calculating. Dave 2, a man of few words and even fewer laughs, was Steve “Interesting” Davis. Me? Well, I struggled to take our matches too seriously and was soon to try my luck at a different career, so maybe I was John “The Entertainer” Parrot. Then there was my replacement as junior trainee reporter. We’ll call him Dick. He’s gone on to be a famous and familiar television personality and even then was always busy, in a hurry, frequently brushing back his hair, and wearyingly eager to demonstrate he was going places – fast. So, he can only be Jimmy “The Whirlwind” White.

The Burton stores have gone, as have the snooker halls where many of the greats developed and honed their skills. Maybe the faint click of ball on ball, or the slight whiff of ancient cigarette smoke occasionally drift across silent first floor spaces, a ghostly reminder of a time when we were all a little “snooker loopy”.

Robert Rigby is a journalist, author, scriptwriter and musician

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December 2022, Life, Sport

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