Saturday, October 23, 2010

Memories Of Dodgy Evenings in Camden Town

There is something about pool halls. It’s the brightly lit expanses of green, speckled with garish, clashing colours, sharply defined but randomly distributed, contrasting with the penumbra in which the figures move, the walls barely discernible and the corners invisible but full of strange things, not all of them imaginary. They are filled with noise, with the smell of cheap tobacco, of stale beer and day-old sweat. Voices grate against harsh music, music that was never popular, and is out of date but not enough to be golden or hallowed. There is a sense that many things are being talked about that probably shouldn’t be, and that some of that talk is about you, and whether you are the right kind to be there.
A Modern Narcissus Looks into his Own Soul

A pool hall is not a snooker club. A snooker club is a place you go to have a drink with friends and take serious pleasure in knocking balls around. As a teenager I went to one regularly, and that’s what we did. It wasn’t seedy or run down. It could have done with a bit of paint and some new carpets, but you could laugh there and the owner didn’t have a cosh behind the bar.

A pool hall is not for playing snooker in. The snooker is not even an excuse, it’s no more than atrezzo. No one takes the potting of balls seriously for the sake of it, but because there’s money, or reputation, or a girl at stake. No one laughs. No one has shaved for at least two days. No one has new clothes, or clothes that look as though they were ever new, or fashionable, or clean. There are very few women, and you wouldn’t take them home to meet your mother. Money changes hands for any number of reasons, not much money, and very quietly, but every penny of it matters. Nothing is what it seems. A game is not a game, but a challenge; a greeting is not a courtesy but an invitation, to something unspoken, and both greeter and greeted must understand perfectly the context, the tone and the relationship between them in order to interpret the words properly; a drink is not refreshment, but a debt or a bargaining chip; a cue is not a tool, but a weapon; and a girl is not a creature of God, she is a visiting card, gold plated, and God help anyone who suggests the gold is not pure.

I used to play in such a place, in a back alley in Camden Town, because snooker as a competition between chaps had become boring. It was much more fun there, and much more interesting. We were the only ones who enjoyed it, the only ones to ‘goodshot’ each other, the only ones who left before closing time. We weren’t right for the place and we knew it. We weren’t like them, we belonged to the light, and it showed. We couldn’t be trusted. But it was fun while it lasted.

Opposite, on the other side of Camden High Street, was a pub called the Brighton. Long gone, and unlikely to be missed. It was green, with lamps outside, a bit like the pavilion, I suppose. Not a lot, naturally, but I imagine that was the idea. A 60’s kitsch kind of thing, rather horrible. It didn’t bother about closing time, and sometimes seemed the right place to go. It was sparsely patronised, entirely by drunks. And not happy drunks, people who got sloshed in each other’s company and talked rubbish, or got happy, sad, angry, omniscient, etc, not even working men who relaxed at the end of the day or the week by getting smashed. These were men whose whole identity required them to be so severely intoxicated they could hardly move at all, much less speak. They were mostly Irish, mostly old, and they mostly ignored each other. They sat in silence, in comfortable seats, sofas I seem to remember, and experienced the sensation of being pickled, which was what they were and what they did. Even drunks usually like to enjoy, or otherwise be aware of, the sensation of being drunk. These were not interested in knowing they were even alive, and if they had died they wouldn’t have noticed, much less cared. Neither would anyone else. They were clearly alone, all of them, and had been for years.

The barmaid was the only woman in there, middle-aged, taciturn, and as raddled with drink as they were. She didn’t speak, either, or smile, or even care who we were or what we wanted. No curiosity or social interaction, not even an attempt to do what she was, presumably, paid for, beyond pouring the beer and taking the money. I wonder if she lasted longer than the pub did.

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