Mike's There was a local snooker hall in Sea Point, known as the Rat Pit!
Moving to Cape Town was a magical place to spend my teenage years.
My father was a music teacher, a Professor of Music. He taught piano and singing, he also put together concerts in the Cape Town, Town Hall. People used to come to our house for auditions; sometimes I would sit in and listen and that was fun.
I went to school at Sea Point Boys High. I was there for just over a year and completed Junior Matriculation before leaving at about the age of 16. School finished early, about 1.30pm and then it was off to the beach at Clifton. Happy days!
I went to Johannesburg soon after leaving school (recounted elsewhere) and after my return I applied for a job as a trainee diamond appraiser. I'm not certain that's the correct term but the training covered the cutting and polishing, buying and selling of diamonds. It would have been a great job, I'm sure!
Unfortunately, they told me I would not be trained as I had failed the tests! Baloney! I never failed a test in my life; and these tests were a walk in the park! Still, I had failed so that was that. My own thoughts, certainly at the time, put it down to prejudice as I was not a native South African but born in England.
I took a job in a department store selling men's clothing. It was okay since there were lots of girls there and we were able to chat at lunchtimes. But the real reason I'm mentioning this at all is because I had acquired another skill. Two, in fact. Snooker and Poker.
I'd been playing cards all my life, usually at home with my family and their friends. We went to whist drives and bridge clubs so learning Poker was easy. Snooker was a game that just came naturally. I loved it and played as much as I could. Unfortunately, most of the time you had to pay to play. I never met anyone who had a snooker table of their own. In fact, snooker halls were few and far between.
There was a local snooker hall in Sea Point, known as the Rat Pit! It was run by a guy in his sixties, Smitty, a hard nut who had been doing this all his adult life although in the more dubious areas downtown rather than in the suburbs. When he took over the hall many of his former clients began to frequent the club.
I don't remember how it came about but I was the only junior allowed to play poker in the back room. It was probably because of Smitty. I went to his home a couple of times and had a beer or two. He would reminisce about old times and some of the stories he had to tell were pretty wild and dangerous! A world of gangsters and battlers.
The players at Sea Point were not all hard men, but some were, some of them real tough guys from other parts of Cape Town, even from out of town. Not being locals they came because of Smitty and because they knew he could provide a game when they wanted one.
I would play there in the evenings, sometimes through the night. They made no allowances for my age but no one ever threatened me although there was some violence, or more often, threats of violence. Having said that, as no one ever took their wrath out on me I guess they did make allowances; I just never realized it before!
We played mostly 5 card draw, 7 card stud or dealer's choice – this would include wild cards and was a very dangerous game to play! I won fairly often, enough to stop working and play for a living.
Snooker was a game I loved and only started to play when I was 15. I was a good player, not like the guys you now see on TV of course – I could make breaks of 25 or so but seldom more than that - pitiful by today's standard of players but very good at the time. Today's players are very good, some are great players but they also start very young and get a lot of practice. Snooker in the early 1950s was frowned upon and I was considered a bad person by a lot of my friend's parents because of the time I spent in the snooker hall.
Playing snooker for money and other gambling games on a snooker table, like skittles, takes more than skill with a cue. It needs a lot of mental stability. With these guys, you couldn't win a few games and walk away, you had to stay and give them a chance to win their money back. You'd be in serious trouble if you tried to leave quickly!
Many of the most skillful players, if they were on form, would win the first few games and then start to miss easy shots. Once that happened they were losers; they were better players but had no chance against steady players whose game hardly changed during a complete session. Over the long game, steady players usually beat their fast potting flashier opponents. I was a bit of both! Consistency matters when you play for money. Some of these guys were very volatile and that could be worrying if they were on a losing streak - and you were their opponent!
What I understood more than most, was angles. When the hall was quiet I played on my own and it was cheap to play so I played billiards quite a lot and that helped my snooker; it's a great teacher for control of the white ball. My best subject at school was geometry, so maybe there's a connection!
Between playing snooker and poker, mostly at night, I was able to spend my days at the beach. It was, as I said, a magical period.
My parents returned to England when I was 16 so I was there on my own. I moved around a lot, mostly cheap hotels or rooms. I had a lot of good friends and a great life. For the last 6 months before leaving for England I stayed with my friend, Benny Phillips and his family. His parents were really good to me and I stayed with them for the last 6 months of my life in Cape Town.
I thought I was pretty smart but really I was still a kid and going out drinking with bigger and older guys on a Saturday night wasn't the best way to lead my life.
When you're young though, even a great life is not enough. I felt Cape Town was too small and I wanted to go to a large city. Birmingham, of all places, and in the 1950s, not a great city to go back to, as I soon discovered!
I returned to the UK in 1954, 6 months before my 18th birthday.
Just in time for National Service! Another smart move!!!
Coming back to England was a rude awakening. In the 6 months prior to being called up, I worked first as a labourer and then as a cook in the Kings Norton Lunatic Asylum.
This was a different life, a different world altogether to the one I grew up in.
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