It was not long after I arrived in Beckingham near Gainsborough that I joined the Beckingham Institute. Originally set up as a reading room by local shipyard owner Mr Watson to try to keep his employees out of the dens of iniquity in the nearby town, the Institute evolved into a social club boasting two snooker tables, a dart board and various other games. Card playing, any form of gambling, and the consumption of anything alcoholic were not allowed.
As I was young and enthusiastic, and as is the way in rural communities, I was soon asked to join the Institute committee. I often went along in an evening to play a few frames of snooker and a game or two of billiards. I spent many happy evenings playing against friends from the local Methodist church. One elderly gentleman was a local preacher who had been playing billiards (“that’s the gentleman’s game,” he would say) since he was nine. One day I decided to go along in an afternoon and meet a few of the members who used the facility in the day time.
I used my member’s key to let myself in. Both snooker tables were in use and there were a couple of elderly gentlemen playing on each. I sat down to watch, my cue in my hand. After a while, one of the gentlemen on the smaller of the two tables said to his friend “That young chap over there, I seem to recognise him but I can’t place him.” “Is it parson?” “Aye, I reckon it might be parson.” They didn’t realise I could hear them! “Does he belong?” Yes, I thought, after all I had just let myself in with a key!
A few minutes later one of them asked me “Would you like to come over here and play with us?” “That’s very kind,” I replied. “Well, you didn’t come to sit and watch, did you?” “We’re not very good, mind,” said the other. “I’m only a beginner,” I answered. And so we began. After a few minutes I hit a red, and it canoned off another red and fluked into the pocket. “Now then,” said one of my opponents, “you call ‘im what you’d call me if I took a shot like that! I bet you won’t call ‘im that!”
Every year the Institute held its knockout competitions, and a system of handicaps meant that the less experienced players had a fighting chance against the better players.
I came across my trophies recently. Most of them have in common the words “runner-up”! To my credit I was runner-up in the billiards a couple of times, but never the winner! I did manage to win the mixed doubles at snooker on a couple of occasions too, playing together with one of my Methodist friends.
In Bible times going to the local athletics meetings was a popular pastime and Saint Paul wrote about sports in his letters. To the Christians in Corinth he wrote “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one wins the prize. Run in such a way as to get the prize.” I’ve never been a runner, and playing snooker and billiards has been the only sporting activity I’ve ever attempted. And try as I might to “get the prize”, I seem only ever to manage to come in as “runner-up”!
Some of us are destined only ever to be the runner-up, it seems.