Sunday 27 April 2014

The sport of gentlemen

Today, with the World Championship of one of my (few) favourite sports in full flow, I intend to bore regale you all with a brief rambling history of "the gentlemen's game" - snooker.

The origins of the game can be traced back over 400 years to the creation of what would become English Billiards.  Billiards is a much simpler 3-ball game with very different - and even more complex - rules than snooker, where players score points (up to a pre-arranged limit) through striking the balls in certain ways as well as potting them (and even, in some cases, potting the cue ball).  It is still a very skillful gentlemen's game - and ladies', as this newsreel proves! - and one I'd very much like to learn myself but its intricacies and nuances can make it quite a long game, not particularly suitable as a full-blown spectator sport.

Billiards continued to be the dominant cue sport well into the 19th century, though, and its legacy as the "sport of gentlemen" can still be felt in snooker today, not least in the sartorial aspect of waistcoats and bow ties.  Chaps would invite their guests for a game or two in the billiards room after dinner, so it would be off with the dinner jackets for a few post-prandial frames of 300 points or so!

It was the British Army, however, whom we have to really thank for snooker as we know it today.  Units based in India at the end of the 19th century were keen to play a more involving game, sometimes with more than two players and very often for money (hence the term "pool", as in "pool your bets" - the modern game bearing that name also evolving from this new variation).  Thus the different aspects of snooker that we recognise now came into being - pyramid pool introduced the triangle of red balls, life pool used some coloured balls and black pool the black (obviously!).  All were eventually combined in 1875, in the Indian city of Jabalpur, by Colonel Sir Neville Chamberlain (of no relation to the later Prime Minister), creating what would become the sport of snooker.  Chamberlain later introduced an official set of rules and coined the name for the game.  A "snooker" was army slang for an inexperienced cadet.   Following a bad shot by his opponent during one frame Chamberlain called him "a real snooker" - and the term stuck.

John Roberts - the British Billiard champion at the time - then visited India in 1885, met Chamberlain and decided to publicise the new cue sport on his return to England.  Even so it took some years for the game to really catch on and the first official competition, the English Amateur Championship, was not established until 1916 (gentleman apparently not letting the war get in the way of a good game of snooker).  It was then another 11 years before the first professional tournament - the inaugural World Championship - took place in 1927.  By that time a player who would dominate the sport for the next twenty years had arrived on the scene - Joe Davis (no relation to Steve Davis either, by the way!).  Already the World Billiards Champion, Davis took to snooker equally well and won the first 1927 championship - total prize money £6 10s. To this very day Joe Davis holds the record for the most amount of World Championship wins - 20 - and his younger brother Fred continued the family tradition in a professional career that astonishingly spanned nearly 65 years from 1929 to 1988.

In 1969 the B.B.C. was keen to show the potential of the new-fangled colour television and decided snooker was a perfect way to show off this new medium.  As you can see for yourselves, snooker does not lend itself to being watched in black and white!  The Pot Black series - a quick one-frame knockout tournament-style programme - gave viewers the chance to watch this colourful sport properly from the comfort of their own homes (although not everyone had colour TVs in those early days, leading to one of the best gaffes in sports commentary history from well-known snooker commentator Ted Lowe - "and for those of you who are watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green"!) and helped pave the way for the game to become the international multi-million pound, multimedia sport it is today.

Even though snooker has become in many ways just like any other professional sport in the 21st century, with copious amounts of advertising sponsorship, thousands of pounds in prize money, dozens of tournaments played throughout the world and a tough ranking system, there are many aspects still remaining that hark back to a more refined era and it is one of the few sports still described as "gentlemanly".  Players call fouls on themselves, acknowledge flukes and generally behave sportingly albeit still with a friendly rivalry.  And of course, they still wear waistcoats and bow ties!

Having said that, modern snooker players have largely gone to pot (ahem) in the sartorial department.  Things started to go wrong in the 1970s, with even snooker not being immune from the ruffled shirt craze that swept through formal attire at the time, along with bow ties that wouldn't have looked out of place fluttering about in a South American rain forest.  Canadian player Kirk Stevens was well-known for his white waistcoat in the Eighties, not realising that one doesn't play the game in white tie.  The rot really set in during the late 1990s, though, when players waistcoats began to be emblazoned on the chest with the name of some obscure Far Eastern turf accountant following the demise of tobacco sponsorship.  At the same time waistcoats began to get longer and more squarer in cut, in order to (unsuccessfully) keep viewers from seeing the players' shirts and belts during hard-to-reach shots.  Players have also since developed a propensity for waistcoats with startlingly-coloured backs, with some pinks and purples distracting from the colours on the table!  Pre-tied bow ties began appearing with increasingly frightening frequency until sadly they are now almost de rigeur - often with the top button undone no less (except for Scottish player Stephen Maguire who, somewhat bizarrely, has a doctor's note excusing him from wearing one due to an undisclosed "neck problem")! 

Having watched the World Championship thus far with one eye on the clothes, I have to admit this has to be one of the worst years yet for the players' wardrobes.  So to end this post (and put it out of its misery?) here's a quick run-down of my top three sartorial snooker heroes and villains for 2014:

Another Scotsman, Alan McManus, has enjoyed a surprise return to form at the 2014 World Championship in what would otherwise be regarded as his twilight years.  He has not been seen much on the [televised] snooker circuit since he beat fellow Scot Stephen Hendry in the 1994 Masters and, judging by his choice of leg wear, perhaps it's been for the best.  One can admire his patriotism and perhaps put his trouser selection down to eccentricity or the excitement of being back in a major tournament for the first time in 20 years but really, Mr McManus, this isn't golf you know.  He also compounded his error by failing to bring with him to Sheffield any form of trouser support (and the demise of braces among snooker players is also keenly felt by your author), resulting in his first match against friend and compatriot John Higgins being punctuated by frequent hitching up of the trousers.  Mr McManus also demonstrates the sadly popular habit exhibited among many players of wearing a black shirt with a black waistcoat (and black tie), as if they can't contemplate two or more colours (unlikely for a snooker player!) or are delivering Cadburys Milk Tray after the match.

"If you can tie your own shoelaces, you can tie a bow tie", they say, and youngster Judd Trump adds weight to that theory with these rejects from a mediæval torture chamber.  Hard to believe, but these things cost young Trump £15,000.  ([Dis]honourable mentions should also go to Chinese player Xiao Guodong, whose silver-covered slip-ons wouldn't look out of place in a 1970s sci-fi series, and Welshman Dominic Dale who obviously prefers zebra to calf-skin.  Veteran potter Ken Doherty did his best to counter with some natty blue wingtips, but alas he lost out to McManus yesterday.)  This is what happens when young players get their hands on more than £6 10s when they win a match or two.  Unsurprisingly, Trump eschews even the pre-tied bow for a "pre-tied crossover" bow (whatever that may be!) that owes more to Colonel Sanders than to Colonel Chamberlain.  The lad needs a proper haircut and a shave to boot.

The sartorial beacon of rightness in this year's World Championship has without a doubt been Shaun Murphy.  A fellow Essex-born chap he is very much a traditional snooker player and all the better for it.  Nowhere is that illustrated more than in his attire.  OK, so it may not be the proper formal black tie and waistcoat of earlier years but it is still a welcome break from what is now sadly becoming the norm.  The brown waistcoat/trouser combo he's been sporting this year has a splendidly old-fashioned look about it - as though he were going for a relaxed pot-about at a country estate, perhaps - topped and tailed wonderfully by brown half brogues and (could it be?!) what looks very much like a self-tied bow tie.  For that alone he deserves to win the tournament in my opinion, and I hope he continues to do well (currently 4-4 in his best-of-25 match against Marco Fu) so that we can see more of the same!

Well, that's enough of that - I think I've gone on longer than some matches!  How about joining me in the billiard room for a couple of frames?

Thursday 24 April 2014

Exploits of WW1 'Boy's Own' flying aces emerge

As an unashamed fan of the "Biggles" stories by W. E. Johns (some of them splendid snapshots of the Great War from a serving pilot's [1930s] perspective - and not just for young boys!) and with a burgeoning library of First World War-themed books leaning disproportionally towards the aerial aspect of the conflict, the thrilling tales that have come to light in these two articles perhaps come as little surprise to me but are still nonetheless as amusing and amazing as any I have read before.

Exploits of WW1 'Boy's Own' flying ace emerge 

Some of the things that went on over the skies of France and Belgium throughout the war were deeply astonishing if the accounts in the various books in my collection are anything to go by.  Johns himself was at pains to point out that aerial warfare during the Great War really was "stranger than fiction" and some of the stories he touches upon in the preface of his very first Biggles book The Camels Are Coming - not to mention some of the true-to-life adventures our hero gets caught up in - really do defy belief.  Therefore to read about the real-life experiences of Major Robert Loraine is to be reminded that they are no exaggeration and that war-flying one hundred years ago was genuinely hair-raising stuff!   

Major Robert Loraine, RFC
The fact that Robert Loraine can be credited with a number of aeronautical "firsts" also drives home the fact that these men were truly at the beginning of a new technology, learning as they went and doing things that no human being had ever done before.  Loraine himself was flying across the Irish Sea barely seven years after the Wright brothers had travelled a few hundred feet on that first ever powered flight at Kitty Hawk.  The technological advancement of the aeroplane - still only a decade old at the start of the war - during the four years of fighting is astounding to the modern observer, for whom aircraft design has changed substantially little in the last 50 years (and it's such a shame that war is a catalyst for progress!).

Loraine was ahead of the charge by all accounts, though, and it is heartening to see that his pioneering achievements all came before the war and were peaceful in nature.  We also now know who to thank for the term "joystick", although it still isn't clear how the word came to be derived (and there are still other claims for the origin of this word).  His war service, as already mentioned, was hugely heroic too and I'm glad to see he came out of it all right - and on to the London stage (& screen) of all places!

How daredevil British pilot 'buzzed' the Kaiser

The second series of recollections, committed to paper some forty years after they occurred (just weeks before the outbreak of hostilities) but unseen until now, read even more like the most humorous "Biggles" stories.  A very cheeky chappie, the wonderfully-named Eric Gordon England sounded!

Eric Gordon England in 1913
One can only wonder what the Kaiser must have thought on that day in early June 1914, upon seeing a British aeroplane diving down towards his yacht before pulling up and over a passing zeppelin!  Nothing complimentary, I should think!

The relaxed feelings of peacefulness and prosperity that so characterised the "golden summer" of 1914 in England can be readily felt through this story, I think.  Not only by the actions of Gordon England in so comprehensively teasing the Germans both in the air and on the ground but also the sheer fact that Britain was still keen to provide aircraft to what would in barely a month's time be its most hated enemy.  (I don't know if those of you in the UK managed to catch the excellent three-part drama 37 Days on B.B.C. Two earlier this year but to my mind that did a fantastic job of showing how quickly and ridiculously the whole run-up to war unfolded.)

The unearthing of these kinds of fantastic tales is one of the best aspects of the increased interest in the First World War as a result of the centenary.  They serve to remind us of the human acts of courage and good old-fashioned derring-do that took place amid the carnage and decimation of 1914-18 and it is as excellent as ever to see them rediscovered for a new generation.  Now I'm off to re-read some of my Biggles books, and maybe some more new accounts by the real airmen who inspired his creation!

Friday 18 April 2014

Easter Weekend Wishes

I've been something of a busy bee these past couple of weeks, working on mundane jobs and the odd exciting project - the latter of which I hope to have more news of soon.  In the meantime, it only remains for me to wish you all a:

Happy Easter!

Saturday 12 April 2014

Silent Betty Balfour film 'masterpiece' found in Holland

Silent Betty Balfour film 'masterpiece' found in Holland

As something of a silent film aficionado it is always a great delight for me to see the recognition that these products of the early years of cinema deserve and the general renaissance they have undergone in recent years (precipitated, it could be argued, by 2011's Oscar-winning The Artist).  This is only tempered by the sad knowledge that time is not kind to old 35mm film stock, which was invariably nitrate and not only flammable but also subject to decay over time, leading to many a silent film being missing presumed lost.

So it is an even greater joy when a previously "lost" silent film is discovered, usually after languishing for years in a private collection (and/or a mislabelled tin).  Such has been the case with Love, Life and Laughter, a British comedy-drama film from 1923 that starred silent actress Betty Balfour.  (I must admit despite being a fan of the silents that I was ignorant of Betty Balfour, who was a huge star of British cinema in the Twenties - "the British Mary Pickford", as she was known at the time.  I had vaguely heard of her most famous film series, Squibs - from 1921, its sequel the following year and the 1935 remake, from which the accompanying song is taken.  Sadly the advent of talkies marked a downturn in her career; she made sporadic appearances throughout the 1930s and her last performance was in 1945.  She passed away in Weybridge, Surrey, in 1977 aged 74.)

For decades no extant copy was known of Love, Life and Laughter, with only half-a-dozen stills and a couple of publicity documents surviving to attest to its existence.  That is until two weeks ago, when a complete copy was identified in The Netherlands by the Dutch film museum EYE.  Apparently it had lain undisturbed in a small, old cinema in the Dutch town of Hattem until 2012.  When the building underwent redevelopment its contents were sent to EYE for cataloguing, with the identity of this film having only just been established earlier this month.

Despite lacking its original English inter-titles it sounds as though this copy is in good condition, with its new custodians the British Film Institute - whose list of "75 Most Wanted Films" included Love, Life and Laughter - promising a public screening later this year.  Something to look forward to!

Something also to give us hope that more "missing" films from the silent era of cinema may still be in existence, just waiting to be found.  Although the march of time makes such discoveries increasingly unlikely, this most recent and classic example reminds us that it is still eminently possible.  Unlabelled cannisters, private copies on hardier 16mm or 75mm film - they may well still be out there waiting to be found.  It's interesting to note that this discovery was made in the Netherlands, for it seems that that country is an inordinate source of lost film footage.  As a Laurel & Hardy fan I know that I great deal of previously-lost film related to their work has come via Holland and its seems that Betty Balfour's popularity there has also played no small part in this film's survival - dank u, Nederland!

Sunday 6 April 2014

Ohio museum volunteers constructing vintage B-17

Ohio museum volunteers constructing vintage B-17

As volunteers and enthusiasts at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre here in Britain continue to work towards getting a third Avro Lancaster bomber restored to airworthy condition, so their counterparts at the Champaign Aviation Museum in Urbana, Ohio U.S.A., are undertaking an even more mammoth task - to rebuild an example of the United States' primary Second World War heavy bomber, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.

Of the forty-six surviving B-17 airframes known to exist around the world, thirteen are currently in airworthy condition - including Sally B, the only flying example in Britain, based at the Imperial War Museum Duxford.  The majority are of course located in museums across America and in a few years' time, if all goes well, they will be joined by this fourteenth - Champaign Lady.

The volunteers at the Champaign Aviation Museum - many of them U.S. Air Force veterans themselves - must be commended for taking on this project, for it is so much more than a simple restoration.  With no more complete or intact airframes forthcoming, these enthusiasts have taken to scavenging parts piecemeal and - where they no longer exist - making them themselves from Boeing's own original blueprints.  In effect, then, this is more a completely new-build aircraft than a restoration, with the promise of a machine better than a Boeing production model from the 1940s at the end of it.

With the famous Memphis Belle currently undergoing restoration at the nearby National Museum of the U.S.A.F. and destined never to fly again following designation as a national treasure, it is more important than ever that airworthy examples of this aircraft continue flying in the future.  The prospect of one built to modern tolerances with largely new parts is an exciting one, as it will no doubt ensure that at least one B-17 Flying Fortress will be flying and thrilling new generations for decades to come.  Good luck to them, say I, and I can't wait to see it!

Wednesday 2 April 2014

Dustman saves 5,000 rare First World War photos from rubbish dumps


Dustman saves 5,000 rare First World War photos from rubbish dumps

As if to prove the point in my previous post regarding the treatment historical documents are sometimes subjected to, the way they are often rediscovered and saved from the brink of destruction, this post features the story of over 5,000 photographs of the First World War that were rescued over the course of 30 years by a Sussex dustman.

Bob Smethurst's wonderful attitude towards these incredible records of a past conflict is only tempered somewhat by the thought of how little they must have been valued by others and how many more fascinating documents were not saved from the incinerator in all those years.  It's desperately sad to think of a family cold-bloodily disposing of an individual's life history, not stopping to think that it in fact contributes to the history of our whole society.

Thankfully these days more and more people are thinking like Mr Smethurst, as his comment about the increased value of the photos suggests!  Whether that is merely due to the centenary of the First World War, or other factors as well, I wouldn't like to guess (although I certainly hope it's more than that).  I do get the feeling that people are becoming more suitably reverential about our past - but of course it has always been so for us nostalgists!

Former dustman's salvaged WW1 archive

Even so there is still far too much evidence of a disregard for historical items and records such as photographs or letters, not just in Britain but elsewhere.  How many times have we seen and commented on stories such as this, of treasure troves being found in skips and the like?  I would hope that things will be better for Second World War veterans and not, as Mr Smethurst thinks, the same again but the evidence is sadly still there.  In my own [fairly recent] experience it was seeing the little bungalow - unchanged for 60 years and complete with 1950s MG saloon still parked outside - the home of an elderly local lady, who had either died or moved into care, stripped of its contents (piled up in the front garden) and eventually demolished to make way for 4 houses.  I've said before that I'm all for progress, but not at the expense of our history.

In this happy case however a huge number of important photographs and records of the First World War have been saved for future generations.  I would like to think that any museum would give their eye teeth to have them in their collection, especially in this centenary year, but either way their future safety seems assured.  I hope that whatever Mr Smethurst decides to do with them they will continue to be highly valued and once again it begs the question "what else is still out there?"


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