Monday, 18 January 2010

Snooker, Sneering and Shadrack in South London

Last week someone sent me a video that inadvertently reminded me of one of the oddest nights that London, in all its infinte silliness, has ever provided me with. With the benefit of 2 years of hindsight I now realise the tale says quite a lot about London and why I love it and why i still haven't gotten sick of living here about 5 yrs after I thought I would. Telling it might also involve talking a bit about race, class and sexuality, every self-respecting Englishman's most feared topics, so I shall try my utmost not to offend, but I'm not making any guarantees.

The snooker club that N and I used to go to in Brixton closed - a casualty of the smoking ban and a couple of illegal poker games getting out of hand. After a few weeks of our cue arms rusting up we decided something had to be done and I consulted the internet for a replacement. As the pint glass flies, the nearest, google-indexed club was in West Norwood so we hopped on the bus one evening. We walked down an alleyway and up some stairs and were confronted by a very locked door and an iron bar-covered window with no-one behind it. After some knocking, buzzing and quite a bit of "well this isn't happening then" a straggly-haired and monumentally grumpy middle-aged woman appeared, cradling an evil-looking jack russell and demanded we explain ourselves. on being told we wanted to play snooker she said

"well we're open, but you can't play snooker cos it's roller-disco night"

N and I said nothing as were clearly in the presence of an weapons-grade lunatic. Roller-disco night? in a snooker club? W...T.......F?

"you can play pool tho."

as this seemed to be the best offer we were likely to get, we said that sounded fine. Without making any sudden movements.

We were let in to an open plan, low-polystyrene-ceilinged, dingy and totally empty bar where some extremely desultry pies sat behind filthiest glass counter you have ever seen. I got a cue, paid a deposit (mostly to show that yes I did have a wallet and I was willing to use it) and negotiated the fee. We were then directed to the pool tables, separated from the main part of the club by some more semi-opaque is-it-*really*-glass? glass with a stern warning to replace the table cover when we were done, rattling in our ears. Our ears were already rattling, because somewhere in the place, the most stupidly tinny music - tinny to the point of un-identifiability - was being played. very loudly. It could have been Coldplay or a Brahms Concerto. If Brahms wrote concertos. I imagine he did.

Anyway, as we got to the pool area, we got our first look into the main snooker hall. It was immediately apparent that all the tables had indeed been moved to one end of the moderately large, lino-floored space. This was further evidence of a serious madness somewhere at work in the place. You don't move snooker tables. For starters they're huge and monstrously heavy, but mostly you don't do it cos it completely fucks them up. They take hours of rebalancing by people with thick glasses and spirit levels. No one who cared much about snooker would have performed such an act vandalism. Though admittedly that does leave about 95% of the UK population, I wouldn't have expected it to include the owners of a snooker club.

Looking in, we also located the source of the music, which was a DJ playing on some worryingly antiquated equipment through a soundsystem that had long since had every bass frequency pummelled out of it by inconsiderately played ragga. Close up, it was possible to discern that the music was in fact some pretty standard off-the-shelf, medium-insipid r&b. But only cos the predominant identifiable sound was the evil that is the vocoder.

We pulled the cover off the pool table which, other than a damp patch in one corner, didn't look too bad. If you've ever played pool in a pub, you've probably played on worse. After a bit of baize-brushing we got down to play. Almost immediately a buzzer sounded somewhere and the main door was opened by a humungous black guy. Think Marcellus Wallis in Pulp Fiction. Only carrying roller boots. Not blades, boots. Proper, 80's rollerboots. Not saying a word to the proprietress he moved to the middle of the bar and began stripping off his Evisu shell suit and limbering up. Over the next hour or so he was joined by about another 25 or so properly hard-looking Jamaicans, similarly equipped and attired, all of whom, when they noticed N and I, regarded us with undiguised contempt.

We weren't much concerned about this. For many years N and I were customers at a Brixton speakeasy that was gradually taken over by West Indian crack dealers. Eventually we were the only white people who went, but we were tolerated, partly cos the guy who ran it, a wonderful wise Jamaican guy, had become our good friend and vouched for us, partly because we were there first but mostly because we weren't intimidated by them and also as a couple of skinny white guys we weren't any sort of threat to them either. The only problem they ever really had with us, apart from not being able to beat us at pool, was the lingering suspicion that we must be gay. And to your average red-blooded yardie, gay is a about as bad a thing as you can be. Even the most enlightened and liberal of them, some of whom I would happily call friends, would no more tolerate a "batty man" than they would a paedophile. This prejudice is cultural, rather than religious, for though it has its roots in evangelical christianity, these were not men who's christian faith in anyway guided their actions. It is something they grew up with, are surrounded by and when pressed are completely unable to justify. N and I teased them mercilessly about it as in many other respects these were nice, reasonable, clever guys but they were completely unable to equate their homophobia with the racism they regularly suffered.

I mention all of this because once the assembled company at the snooker club had got themselves changed, they very closely resembled a monstrous hybrid of the casts of Fame and Starlight Express and looked, frankly, as camp as a caravan site the size of Florida.

This effect was heightened by a display of stretching and posing that wouldn't have looked out of place at a regional ice dance championship. Now don't suspect that we had stumbled across some underground persecuted gay sub-minority of black culture, forced to practise their art away from an un-understanding world. A couple of spectacularly bored-looking girlfriends had been bought along to witness, but certainly not to participate in, the show. There was an undercurrent of aggressive alpha male competition firmly suffusing the entire atmosphere. And as someone who would categorise themselves firmly as a beta male, I can taste one part of that shit in a million.

At this point we did begin to get a bit concerned because the main event seemed to be about to start and it was now clear what this was going to involve. And the sheer incongruity of that was going to make us laugh. A lot. An outbreak of totally un-ironic disco pointing a few minutes earlier had already provoked some serious giggles we had risked major internal injuries to suppress. Laughing at any of these guys was going to get us properly beaten up, at the very least.

Then, I had to take a shot that required me to put my hand in the wet patch on the table. After I'd safely missed it and took my hand away I was overjoyed to discover that the wet patch was urine. Dog urine specifically. That was it. It was really time to go. Leaving the cover off the table, to allow it to dry out, we went to pay our bill and make our escape.

The lady at the counter had sunk to new depths of grumpiness,

"you've left the cover off"
"yes. you see...the thing is...I think your dog might have had a little accident on the we left it off to..."
"it wasn't him. he's housetrained."
"ok...but there's definitely wee on the table"
"it can't have been him. he's 18 months old."

There is no arguing with logic like that. We paid up and left meekly. As we walked out another party of rollers was entering. One of them took the trouble to give me a stiff thud to the shoulder with his own as we passed each other on the stairs. At the time it annoyed me, but looking back, he was right. We weren't welcome. Not because we were white, or middle-class or anything like that - though it probably didn't help. We weren't rollerbooters. And people have the right do the thing makes them happy in private, without being sneered at or mocked. As long as it's not at anyone else's expense of course. And that is a lesson that London tries to teach me all the time and occasionally on nights like that I remember to listen. An infinite variety of peccadilloes and pastimes are available and participated in all the time in the capital, a sizeable chunk of which we have no knowledge of or interest in, but London gives us the chance to experience them anyway and consequently broaden our horizons. Even long after we're safely tucked up in our own predilictions and prejudices.

All that having been said, once you're up on youtube, you are pretty much fair game so watch the video that inspired this post. *ALL* the way through. The end is hilarious.