Social animals

Katie Mather enjoys an afternoon of pints and pool at a overlooked British institution: the social club

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The light’s gone out for the third time. I’ve never been good at pool, but after a seven mile walk and three pints of Black Sheep, I’m even worse than usual.

“I’ll sort it,” grumbles a member of the opposition, “but I’m not doing it again. Sort your act out.”

The light above my head blink-blinks back into action, illuminating the table again, gaudy and green like a prized front lawn last walked on by Postman Pat. Still got six to pot. Someone put me out of my misery. Miss.

“Go on, have another go.”

“I’m not a charity case.”

“You bloody are!”

Tap. Potted. Instead of the roaring applause I expected, someone tutts. The rest are at the bar, or smoking out the back. Thank god for that. Giving the tutter a resigned shrug, I roll each remaining ball into the pockets and lean my cue against the wall. It’s time to move on to fourth pint conversation.

I don’t play pool unless I’m at a social club. You could say what I play doesn’t resemble pool at all, but that joke’s been done a million times before. You’ll only get a dry “har-har” and a fart-noise-thumbs-down from me in response. There’s something comfy and informal about a well-worn table and cues that’ve been gripped by luck-stricken winners and sore losers for nigh-on forty years. There’s something endearing about a stubborn block of cue chalk, eroded and coreless, holding on to its last year of service by the skin of its worn, papery casing. The magic ingredient that could be what you need to beat your toughest opponent, your oldest friend, your teenage kid.

There’s a mark on the felt on this table where I hope a player missed so spectacularly that they almost tore up the fabric. It makes me feel better about my dreadful form.

Social club pool, when played correctly, is an interruption. The challenge is to see how much you can get done before you return to your pint. It’s about everyone yelling at you to get on with your shot when you’ve been hypnotised by the results from lower league football games flashing up on the tiny flatscreen in the corner.

The fourth pint leads us to the mismatched stools and tables in the corner of the games room. From here you can see hand-written leaderboards on A4 paper pinned to the nicotine-beige wall stained by years of cigarettes long stubbed out, along with posters about an upcoming cask beer festival and an advert for a campervan. A man and his son gesture to the table.

“Nah, we’re done pal,” a friend says, looking pointedly in my direction. Don’t look at me mate, you were all playing with your eyes closed.

A couple bustle into the room fully coated, buttoned up to twelve, bringing the chilly air in with them, rubbing their hands theatrically. As she unwinds her scarf, the woman cheerfully works through her hellos to the rest of the bar, pulling her fluffy black beret pulled off from over her ears and fluffing up her owl-white hair. She orders a dry white wine — although there’s only one — and a John Smiths, and looks over. One of us waves. Here, you know everyone, and if you don’t, the person next to you does. She raises a hand and turns back to the bar and her wine, immediately enthralled in conversation with the woman immediately to her left.

Outside the sky is darkening, but the timelessness of the games room asks us to stay for another. An unfeasibly cheap pint is set on my table by whoever’s round it was and I leave it to settle on the chipped varnish until the churn of sandy seafoam becomes a clear runny honey. I’m not a stickler for these things, but you don’t drink your pint too early in company like this. You respect the proper order, in the same way that you take the time to count out your change, putting your remaining coppers in the Mountain Rescue tin. You wait a tantalising minute for your beer to finish preparing itself, and then you drink, and nod approvingly, and chat, until all that’s left is lacing. By now the evening really had lowered itself like an am-dram backdrop outside. Afternoon beers are over. It’s time to get back.


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