Growing up in Liverpool in the 1920's and 30's between the two world wars was not easy and I am forever grateful that I discovered the game of billiards at an early age.
Our club, the St Syilvester's Boys Club, kept us off the streets during those dark nights. Goodness knows what mischief we might otherwise have got up to and those who say that proficiency at billiards is a sign of a mis-spent youth could not be farther from the truth.
Along with a few of my friends, I used to look forward to the start of the Catholic Young Men's Society billiards season when a limited number of young lads were allowed into the men's club on match nights. There used to be 10 players in each team and two out of the three tables were used. Strong wooden boards were placed on the top of third table so that we lads could sit on the miniature grandstand and have a good view of what was happening.
The atmosphere was nothing short of magical to us. Only the click of the billiard balls permeated the funereal-like silence. Even a cough was frowned on and in those days, coughs and lung diseases were rampant among the people of Vauxhall, the Scotland Road and other slum areas. We learnt to stifle our coughs and sneezes.
Games started at 7.30pm and by nine o'clock the physical atmosphere usually became very uncomfortable. Most men smoked in those days and with very poor ventilation the air became thick. The room was in darkness apart from the lights above the tables and under those lights the pale blue fog of cigarette smoke formed a heavy shroud. In the gloom and barely visible were the pale faces of the watching spectators, zombie-like. Looking back I suppose it is no wonder that so many of us caught coughs and lung diseases.
Only the slow, rhythmic tick-tock of the clock could be heard and Chris Hynes, a great billiard player told me of the night when one of St Silvester's star players, Freddie Murray, was at the table. His match was at a critical stage and to him, the wall clock must have seemed malicious. He asked for it to be silenced - and it was.
When the matches finished, night prayers were always said. This was the Catholic Young Men's Society at its best. We played, prayed and stayed together. In 1953 there were 75 priests signed on in the league as billiard players, the best-known probably being Fr Jack Clayton, a century-break man and always a very tough opponent.
As games were 100-up it was not entirely uncommon for a player in the league to be beaten 100-nil. Such was the standard.
At any given time, should all the divisions in the CYMS league have matches, there would be over 700 men playing on a Tuesday night. That's how popular the game was.
Such are my memories of St Sylvester's billiards and the CYMS. They started over 60 years ago and are still very fresh in my mind.
by John Lyons
John Lyons, the author, is an EASB coach who started playing billiards in Liverpool at the age of eight. He is now 79. He has his own tournament-standard snooker table, created by knocking his garage and kitchen into one "to make a proper home" where he gives coaching to selected pupils, having trained himself with Jack Karnham and Terry Griffiths.