Articles and Other Documents : At Thurston’s


BEYOND THE VOICES OF LEICESTER SQUARE there is peace. It is in Thurston’s Billiard Hall, which I visited for the first time, the other afternoon, to see the final in the Professional Championship. Let me put it on record that for one hour and a half, that afternoon, I was happy. If Mr. Thurston ever wants a testimonial for his Billiards Hall, he can have on from me. Then moment I entered the place I felt I was about to enjoy myself. It is small, snug, companionable. Four or five rows of plush chairs look down on the great table, above which is a noble shaded light, the shade itself being russet-colored. Autumn to the cloth’s bright Spring. Most of the chairs were filled with comfortable men, smoking pipes. I noticed a couple of women among the spectators, but they looked entirely out of place, just as they would have done among the fat leather chairs of a West End club. I had just time to settle down in my seat, fill and light a pipe myself, before the match began.

It was a match between Davis and Newman, both of whom have held the championship. They suddenly appeared, in their shirt sleeves and holding cues, and we gave them a friendly round of applause, which they acknowledged with something between a bow and a nod. The marker arrived too. He deserves a word to himself. He was an essential part of the afternoon, not merely because he kept the score and called it out, but because he created an atmosphere. He was a young man, whose profile was rather like that of the Mad Hatter; his face was all nose, teeth, and glittering eye; and he had an ecclesiastical dignity and gravity of manner. He handed over the rest of the half-butt like one serving at an altar. To see him place the red on the spot was to realize at once the greatness of the occasion. Best of all was to watch him removing, with his white-gloved hands, specks of dust or films of moisture from a ball. The voice in which he called out the scores was the most impersonal I have ever heard. It was a voice that belonged to solemn ritual, and it did as much as the four walls and the thickly drawn curtained windows to withdraw us from ordinary life and Leicester Square. And withdrawn we certainly were. After a few minutes the world of daylight and buses and three o’clock winners receded, faded, vanished. I felt as if we were all sitting at ease somewhere on the bottom of the Pacific.

Davis had a broad face and wore a brown suit. Newman had a song narrow face and wore a black waistcoat and striped trousers. Davis was the more stolid and cheerful. Newman suggested temperament. Apart from these details, I could discover no difference between them. They were both demi-gods. In the great world outside, I can imagine that one might pass tem by as fellows of no particular importance, just pleasant, clean, neat men with north-country accents. But in this tiny world of bright-green cloth and white and crimson spheres, they were both demi-gods. After the first few minutes I began to regard them with an awe that has no place in my attitude toward any living writer. If one of them had spoken to me (and Newman did speak to the man on my left, who was evidently something of a connoisseur and made all manner of knowing noises), I should have blushed and stammered and nearly choked with pride and pleasure. No modern writer could make me feel like that, simply because no modern writer is great enough. It would have to be Shakespeare; and when you are in this remote little world of billiards, players like Messrs. Davis and Newman are Shakespeare’s: they are a good as that. They have the same trick too: they make it look easy. Watching them you have to use your imagination like blazes to realize you could not do it all yourself.

I do not know whether I have any right to describe myself as a player, but I have played billiards many a time. If I am staying under the same roof with a billiard table, I nearly always play on it, but on the other hand, I never go out looking for billiard tables on which to play. Public billiard rooms are dreary places, even if you find the game itself fascinating, as I do. Moreover, they are too public for my tastes. Once you have a cue in your hand in those places, it appears that everybody who happens to be there has the privilege of advising you. Strangers say, quite angrily: “Oh, you ought to have gone in off the red there!” Than when you try something else: “No, no, no! The white’s the game. That’s it. Only put plenty of side on. Oh no, too hard!” And they make little clucking noises and laugh softly behind your back, until at last you bungle every shot. This does not seem to happen in any other game but billiards. If you play bridge in a public room, strangers do not stand behind you and point authoritatively to your Queen of Spades or King of Diamonds. Nobody makes remonstrative noises at you when you are playing chess. But billiards is anybody’s and everybody’s game. The adventures of those shining spheres, as they chase one another over the green cloth, are public property, and the moment you have grasped a cue, you yourself are a public character whose actions can be criticized with freedom. And as I happen to be a very poor performer, I prefer to play in private, almost behind locked doors.

The shortest way of describing the skill of Messrs. Davis and Newman is to say it appeared miraculous when they ever missed anything. Now when my friends and I have played the game, it has always seemed miraculous if anything happened but a miss. The balls always seemed so small, the pockets so narrow, the table so hopelessly long and wide. These professional champions, however, treated every shot as if it were a little sum in simple arithmetic. While they went on calmly potting the red, bringing it back nearer to the white every time, and then collecting cannons by the dozens, we all leaned back sucked our pipes almost somnolently, secure and happy in the drowsy peace of mechanics and art. It was when they chanced to fail that we were startled into close attention. You could hear a gasp all around you. If the marker had broken into song, we could hardly have been more astonished. The only persons who never showed any signs of surprise were the two players—and, of course, the marker. If Davis, after going halfway round the table with an amazing number of delicious little cannons, all as good as epigrams, finally missed a shot, Newman quite nonchalantly came forward to make the balls do what he thought they ought to do, for half an hour or so. And the things they did were incredible. He could make them curve round, stop dead, or run backward. But if Newman went on doing this for three-quarters of an hour, quietly piling up an immense score, Davis, sitting at ease, nursing his cue, showed no anxiety, no eagerness to return to the table. His turn would come. I tell you, these were demi-gods.

The hall was filled with connoisseurs, men who knew a pretty bit of “side” or “top” when they saw it, smacked their lips over a nice follow-through, and heard sweet music in the soft click-click of the little cannons, and when a stroke of more that usual wizardry was played, they broke into applause. Did this disturb either of the players? It did not. They never looked up, never smiled, never blinked an eyelid. Perhaps they had forgotten we were there, having lost remembrance of us in the following of the epic adventures of the two whites and the red. Of all games, billiards must be the worst to play when you are feeling nervous, for they were beginning a championship match, but they showed no trace of feeling, not a quiver. And when we clapped them at the end of long breads, they merely gave us a slight nod. “Ah, so you’re there, are you?” these nods seemed to say. I felt awed before such greatness. These men could do one thing better than anybody else could do it. They were masters. Their world was a small one, bounded by the shaded electric lights and the stretch of green cloth, but in that world they were supreme conquerors.

To play billiards every afternoon and evening, year in and year out, might seem monotonous, yet I think they must lead satisfying lives. What they can do, they can do, beyond any possible shadow of a doubt. They hit the red and it vanishes into a pocket. They have not to convince themselves that they have hit it and that it has probably gone into the pocket, as we have to do in our affairs. What can I do? What can you do? We think this, we imagine that, and we are never sure. These great cue men are as sure as human beings can be. I envy them, but my envy is not so sharp that it robs me of all pleasure in their skill. When I am actually in their presence, looking down on the table of their triumphs, my envy is lost in admiration and delight. When the world is wrong, hardly to be endured, I shall return to Thurston’s Hall and there smoke a pipe around the connoisseurs of top and side. It is as near to the Isle of Innisfree as we can get within a hundred leagues of Leicester Square.

– J.B. Priestley (1894 – 1984), from “Self Selected Essays”, London, England, 1932