BILLIARDS

THE GAME THAT KEPT US OFF THE STREETS AT NIGHT

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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.

The most famous CYMS player in those days was probably Sammy Lamkin. He played mainly for St Patrick's and he really was a tough opponent. I remember when Kingsley Kennerley was interviewed just after he had won the World Billiards Championship. He was asked about the men he had beaten on the way to the final and he said, "the man who gave me the hardest game was a man from Liverpool, Sammy Lamkin". After two full days play Kennerley only won by a mere 600 points. For over 30 years Sammy suffered from emphysema. At the age of 74 he scored a 168 break against me and he had to rest between shots to get his breath. During his life he won every title Liverpool, Lancashire and the Northwest had to offer. In one year he won 12 trophies and a Joe Davis cue for a break of 188. Even during the war, serving in the Royal Engineers he entertained the troops in exhibition matches, raising money for the Red Cross. He was born in the parish of St Sylvester's, in Bangor Street, very close to my home.

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.