The Spencers and Their Snooker Table
By Simon Barget
When I was about eleven or twelve, our next-door neighbours to our right-hand side --- right as you looked from the road to be precise -- vacated their ample three-storey mock Tudor house to make way for the Spencers. It was not something I paid much attention to at the time; I didn’t think it would have any impact. The old owners were called 'Smith' and had two sons a fair bit older than me who I hardly saw and rarely played with. We didn’t interact much as families. They seemed withdrawn, almost disinterested. It was almost as if they had a secret they had to keep hidden. The Spencers had a son, amongst two daughters, who was a tiny bit older than I was, much closer to my age than the Smith sons were, and I immediately felt this magnetic energy, this attraction to him. I can’t remember exactly how this attraction arose. It might have been just from seeing him once on the street outside the house, getting out the car as they came back from somewhere, possibly school, that moment of same-age recognition, suddenly spotting someone who you can relate to and who can you play with, who you know lives right next door to you, someone who you think sees things in the same way that you do, someone who will be interested in the same things, the same computer games, the same sports, someone who you can lose yourself with in play. Anyway this moment of recognition must have happened, or maybe they were small individual moments, since I ended up being very fond of Richard. That was his name.
There was something about the Spencers that was immediately familiar, at least to me then or looking back now. They appeared to have this dynamism about them, they matched, in part, our traditional Jewishness, the degree to which we were connected with Jewish society in northwest London. They sent their children to Cheder, - the Sunday school where we’d learnt random bits of biblical Hebrew. parrot-fashion, without ever learning the internal logic of the language -- and they attended the United Synagogue as infrequently as we did. The Smiths had also been Jewish but far less open about it. First of all their name was distinctly unjewish, not that Spencer wasn’t itself -- Spencer had been changed from Epstein specifically to hide the Jewishness, just as so many Jewish names became anglicised -- but the Smiths looked unjewish, they seemed to exhibit a disinterest for it, and there was nothing in their demeanour or behaviour that signalled they were secretly proud. At least that’s what it looked like to an eleven year-old boy. The Spencers were warm where the Smiths were frigid. The Spencers smiled and laughed. We compared ourselves to the Spencers, had rivalries. They took the piss, especially the father, who liked to tease, to unsettle, and although his remarks were sometimes too pointed making it difficult for him to segue back into sincerity, at least there was something behind them, behind him, some force, energy, something coming through trying to reach you. I hardly remember the father of the Smiths even moving. I think he may have hurt himself in a fall once, causing him to walk with a stoop. This might account for an appearance of dourness. But I might well be confusing him with another father, I can’t be sure.
I’m not sure how it happened but I started going round to play with Richard. I think I was a little bit older than twelve. Perhaps I was even thirteen and older, but I like to think I was younger. I was a late developer like him. I certainly didn’t do the teenage things, didn’t socialise much and was scared of the phone. I had been round before so I knew what the house was like. It was old and poky with lots of corners and staircases, lots of cupboards under stairs, it had low ceilings and a sense of cosiness and daunting enclosure in equal measure, but there was something very exciting about the house. All new houses were very exciting when you were young. They were things to be explored to marvel at. This house evoked that feeling to the highest degree. It had so many parts to it, so many crannies, so many rooms, some which we hardly went into. It had three floors which seemed like far more. It was probably that it was so different to our house that it made it so appealing. Our house was a modern monstrosity, built and conceived by my father, one enormous blob of Swiss chalet, all open, with a huge high ceiling over a landing on the second floor looking down to the lounge, everything open and seen, wide marble floors, it looked like a huge sauna, whereas you couldn’t see anything from one vantage point in the Spencer house aside from what was there right in front of you. You could see beams or walls, or balustrades, but if you wanted to see something more or new, you had to physically move and go into the new space.
There was one thing about the Spencers house which stood out for me as a twelve year-old. Again, I can’t remember when I saw it for the first time, I can only remember what it was like, how it looked. I can only remember the door right at the top of the house, an old wooden door with an iron key, the door was locked, and from the height of the door which wasn’t high at all, I must have presumed it was some sort of cupboard or storage area. I don’t remember going in for the first time, I just recall the door as I’m writing. I recall the give of the carpet, I recall a smell of sourness, plushness, of the carpet, of faint cobwebs. I recall the chill and the damp of entering the room for the first time, the air separate from the rest of the house, closed off, not used to being disturbed, being walked in.
I don’t remember seeing it for the first time. But I remember the grey plastic cover that went right the bottom, surrounding every bit and corner so you couldn’t see anything of the table itself. I remember of course the sheer vastness. How it went on and on throughout the room. How it seemed to expand like a ship in port. How I strained to see the far side from the near. I remember how tightly the cover fitted, how it looked like it would be difficult to get off. It was. I remember the sight of the green itself, much plusher and greener that the green I’d expected either from television, or perhaps I’d been to a snooker club with my grandfather by that age. The green was luminous and shone in the light above the table. It reflected the light so purely. I have to admit I don’t remember if there was any other light other than the special lamp just above the table, but the way the green glowed in the light from that lamp made the surface seem flawless, clean, the way the green appeared made the baize look so soft and made you just want to put the flat of your hand on it and rest it on it to feel what you thought it felt like. There must also have been a contrast between the parts of the baize that were directly under the light as opposed to some fringe parts which might just not have had the benefit of the extent of the light, because you imagine that the light couldn’t have shone equally brightly on all parts of the table.
I remember seeing the pockets for the first time and thinking that they seemed quite big, that you could definitely slide the balls easily into them. I remember the nets below the pockets which also seemed big, much bigger than they appeared on TV, much more accommodating.
I would not have been outwardly concerned with all these things when I was there, at the age of twelve or thirteen, but they were things that I assimilated, things that you see despite your young age, despite your excitement and your itching to get on with it and play, and although they are secondary to you then, they still infiltrate and become part of your experience.
I don’t know why I was so enthralled by this table, by the fact they had a full-size snooker table in their house, but I couldn’t get over it. At the time I thought it was the best thing in the world, beyond all other things. It was this feeling of being able to have something you wanted the most actually by and near you, so you could have it and be with it, go and play whenever you liked. I wasn’t even aware that I was so taken by snooker but I must have been. Had you asked me at the time what my favourite sport was, I’d have probably said golf as I was a keen golfer and a member at a local club. I played with my father. I might have said table-tennis as we had a table outside on our patio, and I was pretty good. I knew I liked snooker but I would never have realised I liked it so much. I think my fascination was a combination of two things, and probably more, one: that full-size snooker tables were things you only saw outside people’s houses, in snooker halls, that they were just not the type of thing that houses came with, they were too good and big and exceptional, that you had to go to these snooker halls to play, that you would have to get someone to take you and most likely be there with you, that you would have to become a member, that there’d be an unfriendly burly man behind the bar making it all unpleasant for you, talking down to you, they were like arcade machines, you just thought it was impossible almost or illegal to have them in you house, second: the fact they were there, meant you could use them whenever you liked, you could use them and no one would bother you, you didn’t have to pay, you could stay there as long as you liked, all night if you wanted, in any case I do remember this sense of awe that Richard had freedom to use the table whenever he wanted. Eventually I remember wondering why he wasn’t as enthralled about it as I thought he should be.
I was soon to be disappointed. For whatever reason, Richard wasn’t that interested in me and/or playing snooker. In the times where I did manage to winkle my way round, he would sit on the computer in the room next to the snooker room while I did my best at hinting that we should play snooker. I was a very shy boy and Richard was awkward too. I certainly didn’t say or wouldn’t have just come straight out with a: ‘Let’s play snooker, Richard.’ I would have waited for him to say so, hoping that he would second-guess my desire, but of course he never did and we didn’t play snooker as often as I’d have liked. I remember calling the house being a very painful experience. I had the impression already that Richard wasn’t that interested, that I was forcing the issue, and I remember feeling quite upset and self-conscious that he didn’t like me, when I liked him and felt the same feeling from him, so I couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to reciprocate. So it’s not that I only wanted to play snooker, but I did really want to be at that table. Eventually I did just pluck up the courage to ask, or if he didn’t want to, I just went in their myself while he carried on in front of his Atari ST or whatever it was, oblivious, and I tried to stop the qualms from getting to me; that I was playing on the table without him, that it wasn’t my table, that I was taking liberties and should really go home if we weren’t interacting. Every so often I’d poke my face back into the room to renew contact. Sometimes he wasn’t even there any more and had gone downstairs, he must have gone quite a while ago, had abandoned me, but instead of going to find him, I just went back into the room and carried on playing. The room was quiet and no one would bother you.
Our families became close. We went on skiing holidays together to Courchevel. We hired coaches from Lyon airport that took all sixteen of us to the resort, sixteen because there were more families and some other friends as well. But I still loved and remember the snooker. And even when my friendship with Richard was pretty much non-existent when we got older, I started going round and playing without even speaking to him first. I’d just phone and speak to his mother or father. I think his father had said I could come round any time and I had taken him at his word. I loved that snooker table so much.
Well, all this was spurred on by a thought that our families have hardly seen each other for ten years. They still live in the house. My mother still lives in ours. My father died in 2006. My sisters and I moved out. My older sister moved back in. I would not have imagined there’d be so little contact, no chats, no comparing ourselves with them anymore, in fact we hardly talk about the Spencers at all. Whilst things on the outside change, the internal remains the same.