The Victoria Billiards & Snooker Association of Australia managed to acquired a manuscript written in the 1970’s by the great Australian billiard-player Tom Cleary (World Amateur Champion in 1954, and five times Australian National Champion between 1947 and 1966). This 41-page document was discovered in an auction of sporting memorabilia and has been published as a series of articles in the VB&SA newsletter “The Cue and You”.
We are grateful to the VB&SA for their permission to use some extracts from this document which gives a fascinating insight into one of the World’s greatest post-war players.
My first introduction to a billiards table was at the age of fifteen when I became a member of the Yarraville CYMS Club, which was situated opposite my home. My parents were pleased that I should join the Club because of the good influence of its senior members and, furthermore, they would know where I was spending my leisure hours! Immediately I was fascinated by the billiards table, but it was some time before I plucked up courage to take a cue from the rack and attempt to play. The Club opened its doors at 7 o’clock each evening, but the caretaker commenced his duties at 6.30pm. Living close by, I would wait on his arrival and then help him remove the cover from the billiards table. At the same time I could manage to get about 30 minutes of practice before other members arrived. The fascination of the tables I found irresistible and thereafter my pocket money was devoted to billiards. In those days a game of 100-up cost sixpence.
At that time, one of the outstanding billiards players at the Club was Eric Longton, who also played with the Victorian Softgoods Club and could regularly make a 100-break. Other good players at the Club were Bill Burke, Mick Ryan and Fred Guest, who took a kindly interest in my progress and was instrumental in getting me started on my billiards career. I always remember him as a kindly man who spent much time teaching me to hold a cue properly, how to hold my bridge hand and correcting my stance.
At the age of sixteen I made my first 50-break. At this time the CYMS formed an inter-Club billiards competition, the matches being played on Tuesday evenings. I soon became the first emergency for the Yarraville team and it was my duty to carry the cues for the players and attend to their wants. During the season I made a 70-break in a practice game and was given a place in the team, but to my sorrow I was defeated in my first match. However, I was encouraged to keep on practicing and soon I was a regular member of the team, winning my last three games for the season.
During the summer months that followed I practiced on the billiards table more than any other member, and at last made my first 100-break. In the ensuing billiards season I was promoted to No. 3 position in the team – we played six a side – and was defeated only four times that year. Meanwhile, I had purchased a cue – for the sum of six shillings! I came to share this cue with two other Club members – Tom Lannon and Frank Palmer – so that it really cost me only two shillings! However, it was not long before I bought them out. It is very important that every aspiring player should have his or her own cue. It becomes part of oneself.
I spent as much time as possible watching good players in action. I shall never forget the great Joe Davis who, in the early 1930’s visited Australia to participate in a series of snooker matches with Horace Lindrum. When they played in Melbourne I went along to see them, taking with me a notebok in which to record my observations. I was astounded at the shortness of Joe’s cue. It scarcely reached the knot of his tie and when he fired, his chin almost touched the cue. I noted his comfortable stance and that he never lifted his head until he had completed a shot.
As soon as possible I cut five inches from my cue and immediately went about correcting other of my faults. From then onwards it seemed that I never looked back. Even today players ask me why my cue is so short. After I have offered my explanation, I have noted that some have followed my example. Later they have told me that it improved their game. Here I offer a word of advice to billiard players: The cue should measure in length from the floor to the knot of the tie, or Adam’s apple, irrespective of a person’s height. It could even be a little shorter.
Not long after I had made these adjustments to my game I was chalking up breaks of 100 and 150, and eventually I made a break of 235. I continued practicing almost to the point of becoming a billiards fanatic. I would go to bed at night and sometimes dream of making a 500-break. All top players seem to develop along much the same lines. Walter Lindrum was an example. He once told me that often he could not sleep because whilst lying in bed he would continue thinking about the intricacies of the game. He would ponder over nursery cannons, or plan various moves which might differ one-hundredth part of an inch. Occasionally he would get out of bed, sometimes at 3 a.m. and go to his billiards table to experiment.
After I became a 500-break player I often watched Walter by the hour playing nursery cannons. He made it look so easy, and I would say to myself, “If only I could catch on to these nursery cannons”! I hoped that I, too, would be able to make a 1000-break, but practice as I did the secret eluded me and I could not conquer nursery cannons. I could take the balls along the top cushion, pass the top pocket and then proceed down to the middle pocket, but to overcome the skillful move of passing this pocket was beyond me.
On several occasions, I asked Walter to help me with this move, but much to my disappointment he did not come to the party. There is no doubt that nursery cannons were the secret to Walter Lindrum’s mammoth breaks. After making 500 or so at the top of the table, Walter would indicate that he would then play a series of nursery cannons. In two strokes he would have the balls in position and proceed to add a further 500 points by means of nursery cannons, after which he would return to top of the table play.
Playing at the top of the table is very demanding on the player as it calls for heavy concentrations. At the same time, the player tends to tire because of having to make quick moves from one side of the table to the other. Walter could overcome this problem by quickly switching to nursery cannons, then back to the top when it suited him. All the world’s leading professional players could, perhaps, play top of the table as good as Walter, but none could switch to nursery cannons like Walter. That made all the difference between him and other players.
Harking back to my days at the CYMS Club at Yarraville, I recall a young man named Jim Long coming to live in the district. I had heard that he was an up-and-coming player and naturally I was anxious to discover how good he was. He joined the Club and we became very good friends. We played a lot of billiards together and at that time I think I had a slight edge on him, but there was not much in my favour.
Jim made many 100-breaks in games with me and we became friendly enemies on the billiards table. That rivalry continued over many years. We both made fairly big breaks, mainly by losing and winning hazards, but at that time were unaware of top of the table play. Later on we came to use this style of play freely.
Our old style of play was comparatively slow and a little boring to the onlooker, as it would take about ten minutes to compile 100 points. Later we were to learn that by playing top of the table we could make 100 in about 4 minutes. One day Jim told me that a young fellow named Horace Lindrum (a nephew of Walter) was making breaks of 700 and 800 in Lindrum’s Billiards Saloon in Flinders Lane, Melbourne, by using the top of the table method. I learned that Horace practiced regularly between 9 and 11 a.m. each day when the saloon was not busy, so I called in one morning to watch him. I thought to myself, “It’s a quick way of scoring, and it looks easy”. I noted that Horace was doing his own scoring, so I quietly asked if I could help him. He agreed, with the result that I was able to get a close view of everything he did. I watched intently and learned a lot.
Some four years later, in 1935, I won the Victorian Amateur Billiards Championship for the first time and was selected to represent the State in the Australian Championship to be held in Sydney. On one occasion in Sydney, Horace was a member of the audience. He was about to leave for England to compete in the World Professional Snooker Championship. When I was introduced to him he looked at me and said “Your face is familiar”, so I reminded him of how we first met in Melbourne. He then told me “That is the way I learned the game, I would watch my uncle Walter”. On that occasion I was defeated by the then Australian Champion, Les Hayes, but Horace urged me to keep on practicing.
Les Hayes was purely a red ball player, and very slow at that. I shall never forget my first and only encounter with him in the Australian Amateur Billiards Championship. In 1935 the title was contested in a match of 1,000 points, played in two sessions each of 500 points. As it was my first experience in an Australian Title Series I was very nervous, and Les won the match by about 800 points. He was a very tough opponent and gave nothing away, not even to a young player like me. With ten minutes to go, the score board read: Hayes:955, Cleary:195. To my dismay at that stage of the game, he potted my ball and left a double balk. He was a real killer. Unfortunately I never had an opportunity to even the score with him. His untimely death in the following year shocked all billiards enthusiasts
In 1936 a leading amateur player named Fred Hancock defeated me for the Victorian Title. Fred must have watched Horace Lindrum practicing top of the table before I did, because he employed a raw type of that method of play, which was good enough to allow him to easily defeat me. I realised then that top of the table players would always be better than good all round players. Fred Hancock would have been a great player had he stuck to it, but unfortunately for business reasons he drifted out of the game.
After watching Horace Lindrum at practice, I could not get to my Club quickly enough to try out this top of the table play. Although it had seemed easy when performed by Horace, I found it rather difficult but very interesting. After about six months I was able to compile breaks of 50 and 60 by means of top of the table play, but there seemed to be all sorts of traps and at times I desponded of ever mastering it. However, I persevered and slowly my ability to handle the top of the table improved. In this type of play there are many difficult moves and it took me many years of practice to become really proficient. In later years Walter Lindrum stated that he considered I was the best amateur exponent of top of the table play in the world.
Eventually Jim Long began to develop top of the table play. Each time he played against me he would almost knock me over to get a closer look at what I was doing and he was not too proud to ask a few questions. I helped him to the best of my ability and he rapidly improved, so that we became even greater “enemies” on the table. We were always trying to out-do each other, but he was a few years behind me and it took him some time to catch up. This he did, and Jim eventually became a great player. His knowledge of top of the table play today makes him one of the best amateur billiards players in the world.
Jim and I were the only players in Victoria to make any real progress with this modern style of playing billiards. At least 500 players in regular competition, striving to improve their game, would give a great deal to be able to play top of the table at a reasonably good standard, but only a handful have made any real progress. George Ganim, a protégé of mine, showed early promise – in fact, he defeated me for the Victorian Championship in 1945 – but to my disappointment he has not progressed as well as I had hoped. George is a likable chap, a great all round player and a lover of billiards, but the mysteries of the top of the table play seem to elude him.
Two good players of the younger generation are Ron Moore and Bruce Stevens. Ron is a player with much potential, but unfortunately cannot give the required amount of time to practice. He could also become a first-class snooker player. Bruce is under the watchful eye of Jim Long and receives a lot of tuition from him. During the last three or four years he has made good progress at billiards, but must knuckle down to more practice. Lance Pannell and Bob McLass, both of the Yarraville Club, are two players with great potential. Lance is a good all round player who should try to master top of the table, but he does not work had enough. Bob is a snooker player who is just learning billiards and is working hard to improve his game. He is one of the best snooker players in Victoria and a good knowledge of billiards will undoubtedly improve his snooker.
Another first-class snooker player is Harry Andrews, who has won the Victorian Amateur Snooker Championship on the last five occasions. However, he is only a moderate billiards player and would undoubtedly improve his snooker if he would concentrate on developing his knowledge of billiards. Geoff Walters, of the Prahran Club, is also a promising snooker player, but unfortunately at present he is unable to devote sufficient time to developing his game. Fred Thomas of the South Yarra Club is also in this category. In Jim Lyons, the Brunswick Club has an outstanding snooker player. He also would improve his game by devoting a little more time to learning the intricacies of billiards. In a competition snooker match at the Yarraville Club in November, 1971, Jim compiled a break of 105; a notable performance.
The past two or three years have also seen the arrival on the billiards scene of a promising young player from Bendigo – Phil Tarrant. I have been taking a keen interest in developing this player, who has a good knowledge of all round play and is fairly adept at the top of the table. He is keen to learn and spends a lot of time practising. I have seen him regularly making breaks of 200 and 300 in good style. If he continues to practice and develops his game on proper lines, much more will be heard of him in the not too distant future.
Robert Marshall’s controversial qualification for the World Amateur Championship of 1936
Walter Lindrum once said to me, “Tom, you must practice until you almost break your back. I am irritated when I hear people say that proficiency at billiards is the sign of a misspent youth. If such were the case, do you think I would have been invited by the late King George V to give a command performance at Buckingham Palace?” The expressions “pool room” and “billiard saloon” do not sound respectable to some people, but I would point out that all the leading amateur and professional players acquired their skills at billiards and snooker within the confines of sporting and social clubs. At the age of fifteen years I commenced to learn billiards at the CYMS Club in Yarraville, which was a non-licensed club. It is a pity that young people are unable to join licensed clubs until they are 21 years of age, although they may drive a motorcar when 18. The appeal of billiards passes by these young people because they are not being presented with an opportunity to learn the game in the most favourable circumstances.
When I was 21, I was playing No. 1 for the Yarraville CYMS team. My good friend and mentor, Fred Guest, then thought that it was time that I had a crack at some of Melbourne’s leading amateurs, so he arranged a match for me with Jim Bracy, one of the leading players at that time. The match took place on a Sunday afternoon at the St Kilda Tradesmen’s Club, of which Jim was a member. Fred and I, accompanied by a few supporters, journeyed to St Kilda by train. No doubt some of the billiards enthusiasts had heard of me, as a good crowd was in attendance.
The match was to be 500 up, and was refereed by the late Charles Allen, who was a 100-break player and was to become one of Melbourne’s leading bookmakers. At first I found the table somewhat strange and, furthermore, I was a little nervous, so that I started off poorly. I overheard Charlie Allen remark to Fred Guest that he was sorry for me. Indeed, I was feeling sorry for myself! However, at last I made position at the top of the table and managed a break of 115. Many of the onlookers were mildly astonished as they had not previously witnessed this type of play. The match finally resulted in a narrow victory to me and, needless to say, I was very pleased and so was Fred Guest. Charlie Allen then remarked “Within two years this lad will be the Victorian Champion”, and from that day he became one of my best supporters.
I was immediately invited to play with the St Kilda Club in the South Suburban Billiards Association competition, and eventually I played No 2 in the team under Jim Bracy. That same year I won the single-handed championship of the Association, defeating Bracy in the final. Jim, of course, was the warm favourite to win that title and his name had already been engraved on a beautiful silver cup. However, one week later I was the proud owner of that trophy – which then bore my name! This trophy was my first and it still takes pride of place in my home.
These events marked my entry into the wider field of competitive billiards, in which I was further assisted by Fred Guest. At my first try at the Victorian Title I reached the quarter-final stage, to be defeated by Bill Carter, an excellent red ball player. In the following year (1935) I reached the final and was opposed to Charles Norman, a member of the South Yarra Club, who was a double strength player and very hard to beat. In this match I was a little “jittery” and did not employ much top of the table play, being content to rely upon the all-round game. However, I managed to win by 150.
In the following year I again reached the final, this time to be opposed by Fred Hancock, who could play top of the table. I was afraid to match my “top” against his and decided to again play all-round billiards. Much to my dismay, Fred easily defeated me. But I learned this lesson: a good top of the table player would always beat a good all-round player. I did not fall into this error again and thereafter concentrated on top of the table, with continuing success.
The winner of this match was selected to represent Victoria in the Australian Championship to be played in South Australia. The winner of the Australian Title was then to travel to South Africa to compete in the British Empire Amateur Billiards Championship (as the World Championship was then known). It was confidently expected that Fred Hancock would win the National Title and get the overseas trip – but that was not to be.
At this time Bob Marshall had won the Western Australian Title and was entered for the National Title event. He had a big reputation, but his amateur status was suspect. The amateur rules were strictly controlled and certain people in the inner circle of billiards administration were suggesting that Bob Marshall would not make the grade as an amateur. It was rumoured that Bob’s father had conducted a billiard saloon in the West and that Bob had worked for him. From a strict amateur viewpoint this was “taboo” and for this reason some people considered that Bob would not be allowed to compete in the Australian Championship series.
Fred Hancock knew of all this and naturally continued to practice furiously, with an eye on the overseas trip. If this eventuated, he was to be accompanied by a manager- Jack Oke – who was the billiards writer for a Melbourne evening newspaper. At that time, in direct contrast given to billiards by way of news coverage today, the game received fairly wide publicity in the daily press. Jack Oke made the trip to Adelaide as a Victorian Delegate and he met with the Delegates from the other States to investigate the amateur status of Bob Marshall.
After a meeting lasting about ten hours, the Delegates voted 3 to 2 against Bob competing in the National Title series, which then commenced. Fred Hancock easily won his first match and looked to be the certain winner of the Title. Then came a sensation! A special meeting of Delegates was called to further investigate the position of Marshall and next morning it was announced that he was to play in the Championship series after all. It appeared that the Delegate from New South Wales had changed his mind. Bob duly won the Australian Title and went on to South Africa to annex the World Title, proving himself to be the best amateur billiards player in the world. Fred Hancock was very disappointed at the turn of events and never competed again in a championship.
The Brunswick Club
In the five successive years I won the Victorian Title and I considered that my success was due to greatly improved top of the table play. In this period of severe economic depression I had been unemployed for about two years. Eventually I was reinstated as an employee of the Victorian Railways and was soon asked to play with the Railways billiards team. My work was that of a machinist. This was hard work and not conducive to playing good billiards, but I was happy to be again employed.
A turning point came in my life when a good friend, Dick Jacques, who was a committee man of the Brunswick Club, approached me with a suggestion that I play billiards for that club. Furthermore, employment was available to me, the club offering further advancement and better wages than I was at that time receiving. I decided to accept this offer and tendered my resignation to the Victorian Railways, at the same time applying for a clearance to play billiards with Brunswick. To my surprise, the clearance was refused. Just imagine such a clearance being refused today! Mr Reg Harding who was then President of the Brunswick club, fought my case at the next meeting of Delegates to the Melbourne Clubs Amateur Billiards Association. A Mr Ben Fallone, a gentleman of high repute in the Victorian Railways, also came to my assistance and eventually the clearance was granted.
I commenced working with the Brunswick Club as a storeman and was later appointed assistant to the Secretary, whose work had become increasingly heavy because of the Club’s expansion. At that time the Manager-Secretary was Ben Warr. Without doubt he was the finest Club Manager I have known. Although he was a hard man, he was also very kind and was liked by all who associated with him. He was extraordinarily capable, and it was his drive and leadership which were responsible for the success of the Club which was to become one of the leading sporting clubs in Melbourne. Mr Reg Harding headed the Committee as President.
I became the No. 1 player in the Club’s top billiards team and from that time on the standard of my play improved enormously, and I felt that I was reaching up towards world competition class. I was able to get plenty of practice and after I had completed my duties I scarcely left the billiards tables. George Ganim and Bob Dickenson, both first-class players from Geelong, journeyed twice a week to Melbourne to play with the club. I was able to help George improve his game and he became one of Victoria’s best billiards players. Bob was also a stylish player, but he never adopted top of the table style of playing. Consequently he did not reach championship standard. Another outstanding player was Gus White, who on one occasion won the Victorian Snooker Title. Frank Egan, Dick Jacques, Harry Watson, ‘Doc’ Liversidge, Frank Warton and Fred Piera were all good players capable of making a 100-break. In those days the Brunswick team was not often defeated and won many premierships. In fact, the Club was regarded as the leading billiards club in Victoria. When billiards matches were in progress the Club was usually packed to capacity, which greatly contributed to the Club’s progress.
At this time the Brunswick Club functioned in leased premises, a building which in earlier years had been known as the Lyric Theatre. Only a small portion of this huge building was leased to the club, but in view of its expanding activities, negotiations were entered into with the owners of the building and eventually it was purchased by the club for £ 12,000 ($24,000). This transaction has proved to be a bargain. Today the property, which includes many improvements effected by the club, must be worth in the vicinity of $160,000. Present members of the club owe a great debt of gratitude to Reg Harding and members of the committee who negotiated that transaction.
Much the same might also be said about the South Yarra club, which has also had some great billiards players among it members. Jim Long, Jim Bracy, Col Norman, Frank Freston and Jack Langley were all champions. The South Yarra Club had progressed from what was once a double-fronted dwelling to a comfortable and modern two-storey building containing excellent appointments for its members. Much of this progress might also be said to be the result of the success of the club’s billiards players.
A fund-raising tour of Australia with Walter Lindrum
During the Second World War the Brunswick and South Yarra Clubs staged a challenge match to augment funds for the fighting forces and by this means raised £3,185 ($6,370). In the light of this success, a further match was arranged and this time netted £4,220 ($6,440). On each occasion Brunswick was the winner. Subsequently a number of the players who took part in these matches were honoured by being appointed life members of their respective clubs.
Then came Australia’s complete involvement in the Second World War. I was not employed in a “protected” industry, so decided to enlist in the RAAF, with an assurance that the position would remain open for me when hostilities ceased. I was posted to an Air Force Welfare Unit and No 1 Stores Depot, in Port Melbourne, and very soon I was able to obtain two billiard tables, one from Mr Leo Hemingway and the other from the Brunswick Club. These tables provided me with opportunities to practice in my spare time. Soon I was being asked to give billiards exhibitions at Air Force Stations throughout Victoria.
A little later I was contacted by Walter Lindrum, who had been devoting much time and effort to raising funds for the fighting forces by giving exhibitions of billiards. He asked me to accompany him on a tour of South Australia to raise money for patriotic funds. I seized this opportunity with enthusiasm as I knew that I could learn a lot from Walter, and the necessary leave was arranged. Walter would never travel by air, for what reason I never enquired, so we commenced our six weeks tour on the “Overland Express”. Incidentally, the only time I can recall air travel being required for Walter was on the occasion of his untimely death, when his body was flown from Queensland to Melbourne. At that time he had been holidaying at Surfer’s Paradise with an old friend and billiards enthusiast, Frank Williams.
The South Australian tour had been arranged by the late Pat Brady, a billiard table manufacturer, who was accompanied by Pat, Junior. Walter, of course, was the star performer and I was the “Jack-of’-all-trades” which meant I was commentator, referee, and occasionally filling in with an exhibition. Pat, junior, was the tradesman who attended to the tables and equipment. All the receipts from our exhibitions were placed in the hands of Pat, senior.
Walter and I shared a compartment on the train journey to Adelaide and his only topic of conversation was billiards! At last I had to feign sleep, but Walter, who suffered from insomnia, would nudge me and ask for a cigarette, and then take up the conversation again. Half way through the night journey he woke me saying “Tom, would you have a look under the seat and see that my gear is intact? It would be a shame if I had forgotten something”. I examined his kit and reported that all was in order, whereupon Walter said, “get out the billiard balls”. I did so and handed them to him. Walter fondled them for a few minutes and then addressed them, “you poor things! You are in for a hiding shortly. I hope you are kind to me”. He then kissed them saying “please forgive me”!
In Adelaide we were met by the Bradys and commenced our tour by car. When giving exhibitions Walter always brought along his own cushions, to be attached to the table on which he was to play. There are two types of cushion – strip rubber and block rubber. Strip rubber cushions are made up of six thin pieces of rubber solutioned together and allow the ball to bite in on impact and take the necessary “side”. Block rubber cushions are of solid rubber which causes the ball to rebound much more quickly and “side” does not react so readily. Strip rubber cushions are considered to be more desirable for billiards.
The tour commenced in the heat of February, with Walter’s cushions strapped on to the bumper bars of the car. Ideally billiards is a winter game because heat and humidity do not make for good playing conditions, but Walter was not unduly deterred. We headed for Port Augusta where we were to play on a table specially set up at the skating rink. We had received good advance publicity and faced a crowd of about 600. Walter was in magnificent form and quickly ran up a break of 1000 unfinished. My job was to explain the shots and at the same time appeal for donations from the crowd.
The larger donations were forthcoming when Walter played his trick shots. After three hours of hard work Walter was exhausted by his efforts, but the exhibition had realised a sum of £2,600 ($5,200). After a night’s rest, we journeyed to Port Pirie, starting at 7.00am but before long the temperature was 106 degrees! Our progress was somewhat slow and eventually we reached our destination at 3.15pm. After a quick shower and change of clothes, we arrived at the Port Pirie Sportsmen’s Club only half an hour late.
Pat had no time in which to change the cushions. Walter took one look at the table and almost cried “They’re block rubber cushions”!. He threw a ball up the table and it travelled seven lengths. He said “I’ll do no good on this table”. And neither he did. He was unable to compile a break of 100. After about an hour, Walter suddenly announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen I am sorry but I am not well. We have travelled a long distance today and I need a rest. I assure you that I’ll have recovered by evening”. He knew that there would be an opportunity to change the cushions. But, to my astonishment, he then introduced me to the crowd, saying “I am sure that Mr Cleary will substitute for me for the remainder of the afternoon and that he will keep you happy”. To add to my confusion, I had left my cue at the hotel. Walter explained this to the crowd, at the same time handing me his own cue, saying “Here Tom, use my cue”. To the onlookers this appeared to be a great gesture – but not to me! I had never used Walter’s cue. But I had to do something. About 700 people present had paid £1.00 each to see an exhibition of billiards, so I immediately challenged the local champion, Jack Gregory to a match of 500 up, giving him 250 start. I broke and Jack immediately followed with a break of 76. I told myself that this was my great moment to do something and surprised myself by compiling a break of 376, mainly from all round billiards as the table was much too fast for top of the table play. At the time, I considered that this was my best performance on a billiard table.
Although I had commenced playing under adverse conditions, the crowd was quick to appreciate my effort. During a short interval in the match a collection among the onlookers added a further £410 to our fund raising effort. Jack Gregory failed to score at his next visit to the table and I ran out with a break of 125 unfinished. At the conclusion of the game, four leading businessmen of the town handed in cheques to the value of £100, and further contributions from those present realised £165. Our organiser, Pat Brady donated a further £20 and another £200 resulted from an exhibition of trick shots given by myself. Never in my widest dreams had I thought that I would raise such a large sum of money by an exhibition of billiards.
I then returned to the hotel to find out how Walter was faring. After a good rest he had recovered, and when I told him what had happened he was so thrilled that he kissed me! He was glad that I had come along to assist him. He then enquired if Pat Brady had changed the cushions, and was pleased when I told him that it was being attended to.
In the evening an even larger crowd arrived. People were hungry to see the great Walter Lindrum. The cushions had been changed and everything was in readiness. There was no opponent for Walter – he always gave solo exhibitions. He announced to the crowd that he would endeavour to make a 1000 break. I was in charge of the demonstration and placed the balls at the top of the table position. Hundred after hundred rolled off Walter’s cue. At 600 he got the balls into a nursery cannon position and without visible effort ran the break to 1000 unfinished. The applause was deafening. He then gave a brilliant exhibition of trick shots, followed by a game of snooker with me. I broke and Walter followed on to clear the table with a break of 138. Walter gave a magnificent performance on the strip rubber cushions. The people of Port Pirie were generous. Never before had I seen to much money change hands so quickly. A sum of £2,000 was contributed during the evening, making a total of £3,200 for the two sessions. We continued to travel through to South Australia and in six weeks raised £40,000 – a really magnificent effort from a billiards table.
I then returned to my Unit at Port Melbourne and was immediately posted to Darwin, which meant a spell from the billiards table. Six months later the war ended and within a short time I was back in my old job at the Brunswick Club, and again playing billiards. I quickly discovered that, with the experience I had gained from watching Walter play, I was playing better than ever. In addition to playing in competitive games for the Brunswick Club, I was inundated with invitations to give exhibitions. For quite some time I was out every night of the week playing billiards, but fortunately I had an understanding wife! Over the next three years I gave countless exhibitions for various charitable causes and was responsible for raising about £8,000. For this service I was awarded a medal by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at the time of her coronation.
I won the Victorian Amateur Billiards Championship from 1947 to 1950, in which year I was selected to take part in the Australian Championship held in Melbourne. The Western Australian representative was Bob Marshall, to whom I had been runer-up in this event on four previous occasions. This time Bob and I again reached the final. On my first visit to the table I made a break of 285, followed by 276, and on my third visit I made 306. At this stage I had a lead of 860, so I reverted to safety play. At the end of the first session I had a lead of 1,100. I said to myself, “he will not beat me now! I’ll play the red ball tonight and slow down the game” And that is what I did. I won by only 444, but it was my first Australian Championship. Bob was bitterly disappointed at his defeat, but I regret to say that in the following year he got his revenge. This was the one that I wanted, as it meant a trip to England for the Word Title. It had been one of my life’s ambitions to play billiards in England, the home of this grand game.
After that championship Bob broke down in the dressing room. He could not believe that I had beaten him. I told him, “Bob, I have taken a hiding from you for many years. Surely you don’t begrudge me this win?”. Bob was no invincible when his opponent went with him. In the West he had no one to beat; consequently he had no hard match practice. However, Bob was such a popular sporting figure in the West that pressure was brought to bear and permission was sought from England to allow him to compete in the World Title. The authorities there knew of his ability and realised that his presence in the Championship series would be a tremendous draw-card. The result was that the Billiards Association and Control Council granted permission for Bob to take part provided he paid his own expenses. The sportsmen of Western Australia came to his aid, with the result that Australia had two representatives in the World Championship on that occasion.
Billiards at Buckingham Palace
I left Melbourne by air in September, 1951, and on arrival in England was met by Horace Lindrum and Bob Marshall. Bob and his Scottish-born wife, Jean, had travelled earlier by ship and it was a good opportunity for Jean to visit her relatives in Scotland. I was domiciled at the famous Albany Club in Saville Row, London. This so-called “posh” club is noted for its history and tradition, but I discovered that it was a somewhat ordinary old-fashioned building. I was given a room that was supposed to have been occupied by Lady Hamilton well over 100 years before and at that time I daresay it was first-class.
The Albany Club was frequented by many leading stage and screen stars, of whom I met quite a number including Tommy Trinder, Arthur Askey, Sonny Tufts, Danny Kaye and Gracie Fields. A Bill Little was the owner and manager of the club. Because I was the Australian Amateur Billiards Champion I suspect he thought I was a wealthy man, because he introduced me to many of the “stars” of the theatre and even invited me to attend a gala dinner with them. At that time, television was in its relative infancy and a portion of the proceedings were televised. Everyone attending the dinner was expected to provide a small item, or skit, to add to the evening’s fun. I was seated between Danny Kaye and Gracie Fields, when Danny asked me if I would like to appear on television. “What could I do?” I said. Nothing further was said at the time and the dinner continued. However, later on Danny said to me, “Go up to your room and see if you can find an umbrella. Take this vase and orange with you and practice potting the orange off the table into the vase. And don’t forget your chalk!”.
To pluck up courage I swallowed a whisky, then left the dinner to find an umbrella. Much to my surprise, I discovered it was quite easy to lift the orange into the vase using the umbrella as a cue. So I rejoined the party at dinner and told Danny that I could do the trick. A little later Danny announced to the gathering, “We have with us tonight Tom Cleary, the wonder boy from down under, who is in London to compete in the world’s Amateur Billiards Championship. He will now give you a little demonstration of billiards”. I quickly gulped down another whisky, placed the orange and the vase on the table, chalked the end of the umbrella and said, “This is how it is done”. I “potted” the orange into the air, but I had hit it too hard. Instead of going into the vase, it landed in a large bowl of water filled with flowers and, amidst laughter, everyone seated nearby was splashed. Apparently they all thought that it was my intention. And that signalled my entry into the Albany Club!
Previously, a good friend, Jack Le Francie, had visited England as a member of an Australian Bowls Team. During this visit he had become friendly with Mr John Blyfield, the King’s Entertainment Manager and, as a result, he and his wife had been shown through Buckingham Palace. Before I left Australia Jack said to me, “I would like you to see the Palace while you are in England”. I said “You must be joking”! However, he immediately wrote to Mr Blyfield asking him to look after me. When I had been in London for a week I telephoned Mr Blyfield, introducing myself. He was very friendly and told me he would arrange a visit to the Palace.
On that day I was scheduled to play a match against Walter Ramage and suggested to Mr Blyfield that he might like to watch the game. He thanked me and said he would be delighted to attend. I was in good form that day and make a break of 316 – all top of the table. Incidentally, it was voted the best-compiled break of the championship series, for which I was later presented with a set of snooker balls together with a beautiful leather case.
My performance must have impressed Mr Blyfield, for he said to me “Tom, when you visit the Palace you must give us an exhibition of billiards”. I readily agreed as it was a great compliment to be asked to play on the table at Buckingham Palace. Mr Blyfield asked me not to inform any of the newspapers that I was to play at the Palace as, unfortunately, King George VI was very ill at the time and it was not desired that the public should know the seriousness of his illness. At that time, Walter Lindrum and I were the only players who had been invited to give a billiards exhibition at Buckingham Palace.
The date for the exhibition was arranged and an official invitation forwarded to me. On Friday, 21st October, 1953, a Royal car arrived at the Albany Club to take me to luncheon at the Palace. At 1.00pm I was conducted to the King’s billiard room and, to my surprise, I observed that the colour of the cloth on the table was almost purple. The cloth had not been replaced since Walter Lindrum had played on the table before the late King George V during the 1930’s. King George V was a keen lover of billiards, but King George VI was not interested in the game – hence the condition of the table.
However, the table played well and to my satisfaction. At my first visit to the table I made a break of 311, followed by 259 – so I was extremely pleased with myself. Two frames of snooker followed, and then I amused the sixty odd people present with some trick shots. The onlookers comprised some of the administrative staff employed at the Palace. Unfortunately, no members of the Royal Family were present. The present Queen, Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip were holidaying at Windsor Castle, and I had missed Princess Margaret by about five minutes, she having had another appointment.
My exhibition finished at 3.00pm and Sir Pearce Leigh, who was in charge of the Royal household thanked me and asked Mr Blyfield to show me around the Palace. For the next three hours Mr Blyfield escorted me through the 165 State Rooms in the Palace. I was astounded by their magnificence and by the beautiful furniture and chandeliers. Each room measured approximately 40 feet square. What caught my eye was the hand-controlled clocks. There were two clocks in each room, each mounted on a marble pedestal – 330 clocks in all! I was informed that two mechanics were employed on the daily round of winding the clocks and keeping them in order, and that they were never one second out!
The gold and silver plate room in the Palace was magnificent. The many pieces displayed there must have been worth many thousands of pounds, likewise the beautiful paintings in the portrait room. I was shown the War Cabinet Room where Winston Churchill presided during the years of the Second World War. I also saw the huge and beautiful ballroom, in which was a large chair about six feet high, lavishly decorated with gold trimmings. It was situated on a platform and I was told that it was here that Royal Investitures took place. Amid laughter, I took the opportunity of performing an “investiture” on Mr Blyfield.
We then passed down a corridor some 300 feet long and, upon passing one particular room, Mr Blyfield informed me that the King was lying very ill in that room – in fact, it was believed that he was dying. I remarked that it seemed strange that no guards were present. I was told, “Don’t worry. Your credentials were well investigated before you were invited”. At 6.00pm we adjourned to the reception hall, where we again met Sir Pearce Leigh and some of the administrative staff. Sir Pearce immediately said to me “Cleary! I think you would partake of a drink?” I answered “By all means”, and a bottle of Highland Queen was immediately produced. I then asked Sir Pearce if it would be possible for him to give me some token by which I could remember my visit to Buckingham Palace. I told him that my Australian friends would not believe me if I informed them that I had visited Buckingham Palace! He pondered for a short time, then said he would see into the matter.
In a couple of days, two letters arrived for me at the Albany Club – one thanking me for my exhibition, and the other containing an invitation card bearing the Royal Crest. When I arrived home I had both documents framed, and today they are proudly displayed in my billiard room. Needless to say, more than one bottle of Highland Queen was drunk during my visit to the Palace. When I departed I was in high spirits indeed, and would not have called the King my uncle. It is sad to relate that some six months later King George VI passed away.
Apart from my stay at the Albany Club and visits to the royal household and Scotland Yard, to my regret I did not see very much of London. It was very noticeable that those in charge of the Billiards Association and Control Council were reluctant to provide hospitality for visiting players, and I had to find my own way about the City, even to places at which I was to play. The championship matches were played at Burroughs & Watts Hall, which I knew was in Soho Square and eventually I managed to find it. I walked as much as possible for exercise, as well as to look around the City. Several times in the first few days I became lost. In most host countries it is customary for the controlling body to look after the wants of competitors as much as possible, but I regret that on this occasion such was not the case. The competitors were not even taken on weekend trips or shown around London. Even on the completion of the championship series there was no presentation ceremony or celebration, and most of the players made their way to a small café in Soho Square to partake of sandwiches and tea. On Sunday, Mr White, the Agent-General for Victoria, arranged for a car to take Bob Marshall and me to Brighton and Eastbourne, two seaside resorts. He also arranged for Bob and me to give an exhibition match at Scotland Yard, which was followed by a trip on the Thames in a police yacht.
After the championship matches were completed, Bob and his wife left for Scotland and I arranged to stay in London for a further week to have a look around. However, after one day on my own I became lonely, so I called on BIAC and was fortunate enough to obtain a seat for the following day. In spite of the disappointments to which I have referred, I loved London and its history and tradition. Much of the wartime bomb destruction still remained and it was obvious that the people had suffered severe hardship during the war years. However, the people whom I met were most hospitable and helpful. Incidentally, Bob Marshall won the World Title; Frank Edwards, the English Champion, was runner-up, and I was third.
First visit to India
In 1949, the strain of long hours and arduous duties at the Brunswick Club, as well as playing billiards on most nights, commenced to take its toll on my health. My son (Kevin) and daughter (Kathleen) had both married, which frequently left my wife at home alone at night. In addition, there was no doubt in my mind that the long hours and heavy duties, especially at night, expected of a Club Manager had hastened the death of my predecessor. All these problems were confronting me and, after discussing the position with my wife, I reluctantly decided to tender my resignation as Manager of the Club. It was a difficult decision to make, as the Brunswick Club had been very kind to me. Indeed, the Club had provided me with a business education, as well as enabling me to have an opportunity of becoming, perhaps, one of the top amateur billiard players in the world.
I gave the Club three months notice of my intentions, during which period I received an invitation from the Indian Billiards Association to make a tour of India with the object of promoting billiards in that country. As I felt the need of a holiday, I readily accepted the invitation. I left Melbourne in October, 1949, naturally in some state of excitement. I soon discovered that travelling overseas could provide many disappointments. For instance, the plane’s first stop after leaving Australia for Djakarta for refuelling. The passengers were herded like sheep, under a military guard, and were not allowed to leave the airport. We were not provided with food or drink until we again boarded the aircraft.
Our next stop was overnight in Singapore, where there was a long delay with Customs. My baggage was opened and the contents strewn all over the place. The official said to me, “have you any sticks”? I soon realised he was referring to cigarettes and answered, “There are a few packets there”. They were amongst my clothing and the official promptly selected six packets and placed them in his pocket, then cleared me. After I had rearranged my luggage it was left with BOAC for forwarding to Calcutta, my destination. Then with my overnight bag I was conducted to the Raffles Hotel for the night.
Next day I arrived at Dum Dum airport at Calcutta and was met by the Indian billiards officials. Unfortunately, my baggage had not arrived with the plane and all I had was what I stood in, together with the contents of my overnight bag, my cue and a set of billiard balls. I was in a nice fix, but at least I had my tools to work with! Ten days later I recovered my baggage in Madras. In the meantime the Indian Billiards Association fitted me out with a complete new wardrobe.
The Dum Dum Airport is about thirteen miles from the City of Calcutta, but it took about two hours to reach the Great Eastern Hotel where I was to stay. The roads were crowded with people and each vehicle using the road was fitted with two “tooters”. One worked from the car battery in the usual manner and the other was operated by hand. The latter was necessary because the car battery would not have lasted 30 minutes! It was necessary to blow the horn almost continuously to clear the road of people. The noise for the whole journey was deafening and I was relieved when we reached the hotel.
To add to my discomfort, I was nearly sick from the stench rising from the roadway. There seemed to be no sanitary conveniences for the general use of the public, and it was a strange sight to see men and women urinating and defecating along the public highway. I was informed that the ordure was gathered up weekly and subsequently burned, hence the horrible stench. At the time it was the dry season and lack of rain added to the problem. I was appalled at the conditions under which these poor people lived. Their clothing appeared to be only a dirty loincloth, and mostly they slept on the streets. A splash of water from an odd tap provided a wash, but they had no soap. Soap is a comparative luxury in India and these poor people were quite unable to obtain it. Perhaps they were not even aware of it.
The person responsible for my tour was Mr Begg, the President of the Indian Billiards Association. On my way to the hotel Mr Begg handed me some coins saying “Do not be too liberal with your money, or you will be inundated with beggars”. Upon arriving at the hotel I was besieged by servants who wanted to carry my luggage (my overnight bag and cue), but I was reluctant to part with it. Mr Begg muttered that it would be all right, and I was then taken to my room on the fifth floor.
After about half an hour I became worried that the servant had not arrived with my bag and cue. I was unaware that servants were not allowed to use the elevator. Eventually there was a knock on my door and three servants entered the room with my gear. I thanked them, but they did not move. I then realised that they were waiting for a tip, so I fumbled with the coins Mr Begg had given to me, but did not know their value or how much to give each servant. I decided to give each servant one of the largest coins, but their expressions indicated that they were not very happy. Eventually they left, but later I found out that the large coin was the equivalent of about one-penny. No wonder they glared at me! I was unable to rectify the matter as I was unable to tell one Indian servant from another. No doubt I was held in low esteem by all the hotel servants after that incident.
I was unable to sleep that night because of the loud “tooting” of passing motor cars. It was like a children’s party on Christmas Day! I had been placed in a second-class room which had no windows, but on the following day I corrected that. The following morning Mr Begg arrived with a tailor and a few samples of cloth. I selected a beautiful grey silk material and, after being measured, my suit was ready for me to wear at one o’clock that afternoon. I purchased the remainder of my requirements in the Great Eastern Hotel, where it was possible to buy anything from a pin to an elephant! Mr Begg apologised for my discomfort on the previous night and, after doing some more shopping, he conducted me to my new living quarters – a well-appointed large room with all modern conveniences. So I began to think that life in India was not so bad after all.
That evening I was given an official reception, amid much pomp and splendor. Whisky flowed like water, the food was appetising and I was waited upon like royalty. However, this luxury living was not to last, as I was informed that I was to commence my tour of the country next morning. I was to be accompanied by a Mr V. Freer, who was Amateur Billiards Champion of India at that time. He was a train driver by occupation and was a good all round player.
We travelled by train to Vizagapatam, which is approximately 100 miles from Calcutta, for our first exhibition match. The playing conditions were somewhat ordinary and the club in which we played only held about 60 spectators comfortably. However, about 100 people somehow managed to crowd into the billiard room, and there was scarcely room left for us to move around the table. Mr Freer and I played a match of 600 up. I broke and left the balls in a good position for him, which is the usual thing to do when giving an exhibition. He ran up a break of 110, and then played safety. I could see that he was going to be a tough opponent. Foolishly I tried to score but missed, leaving the balls in a good scoring position. This time he made a break of 169, and again played safety. By this time I was in real trouble. The table was fitted with block rubber cushions and was running fast – about nine lengths – and the cloth was like glass, with no nap left on it. The conditions were such that it was not possible for me to play top of the table. My opponent was in good spirits, for he was a good red ball player. I managed a couple of breaks of 100 or so, but he was too far ahead and ran out a winner by over 200 points. I was a little disappointed, but resolved to do better next time.
Mr Singh, the President of the Club – if, indeed, it could be called a club – made it easier for me when he informed me that Mr Freer had defeated Bob Marshall by about the same margin when Bob had played there about two years earlier. Incidentally, Bob had told me that he had been undefeated during his tour of India, but I later learned that he had been beaten on no fewer than six occasions.
After the match with Mr Freer at Vizagapatam an odd incident occurred. I asked one of the committeemen to direct me to the toilet. He explained that there was no toilet in the club and that I would have to go down to the river. I had no alternative. It was just as well that I invariably carried a handkerchief! This experience taught me a lesson, and subsequently I never failed to carry toilet paper in my pocket. Toilet paper was almost unheard of in India, and most of the Indian population use the left hand for this purpose. Some wash their hands afterwards, but some do not. It is no wonder that the people of India claim that the left hand is unclean.
Mr Freer and I then travelled south to Cocanada, Guntar, Vizayawada and Chennapuri. As we continued our journey our performances improved, the climate being cooler and more suitable in which to play billiards, but the condition of the tables left much to be desired. My best break was 296, and I was able to defeat Mr Freer in every subsequent encounter. In all the games there had been a referee, a marker and an official calling the hazards and six ball boys (one for each pocket). This made nine officials and it soon became evident to me that there was some method behind this apparent madness. After each game I was expected to tip each official 1 rupee (about 20 cents Australian). Mr Freer was not in a position to do likewise. As my expense allowance was somewhat meager, I could see that I was going to be flat out trying to make ends meet!
During the next exhibition match at Guntar I made a very bad faux pas. The night was sticky and humid, the table very fast and the pockets slightly under standard size. Lamps had been placed under the table to help dry out the cloth. Each time I visited the table I could feel perspiration trickling down my legs – I was the only person present wearing long trousers – and I was not in a good mood. The large crowd was expecting to see some big breaks but, under the prevailing conditions, I knew this was not possible. To add to my concern, all kinds of beetles and insects kept dropping onto the table. At my first visit to the table I had reached 96 and said to myself “I’ll make 100 this time, or die”. I played a cannon to reach the red ball, which was on the brink of a pocket when a beetle fell onto the table right in the path of my cue ball and turned it at right angles away from the red ball. I thus missed the cannon and the 100 break. I exploded and cried out, “This is a black fellow’s game”. Then all at once I realised I was the only white person in the room. I forthwith apologised for my indiscretion. Later on I managed to make a break of 176 and, following some trick shots which always add lustre to an exhibition, an enjoyable evening was spent.
After the exhibition I expressed a desire for a bath as I was wringing wet with perspiration. The President of the Club thereupon invited me to his home, which proved to be a rather primitive place. When we arrived he informed me that the bath was behind the curtain and that his servant would attend to my wants. When I pulled back the curtain I was dumbfounded. I had expected to see a nice bathroom, but instead there was a large tub – the kind used to bath an infant. It was placed in the middle of a square of concrete measuring about six feet by six feet. I had to sit in this tub while the servant poured water over me from a dipper. Nearby was a kerosene tin which did service as a toilet pan.
After the “bath” the President and I sat down to dinner. It was then two o’clock in the morning. It is the custom of the Indian people to dine late, but on this occasion it was much later than usual. I was starving, but try as I would I was unable to cope with the food, which consisted of curry swamped with chilies. Too hot for my taste!
After having been in the country for only seven days I had lost 8 pounds in weight! I practically lived on bananas during this southern tour and was glad when it ended. Madras was our next venue and again I was pleased to be in a big city, with the chance of enjoying some wholesome food. I stayed at the Conomara Hotel, a beautiful white marble building constructed by the Russians in 1900. Unfortunately this great hotel had become something of a “white elephant” because of changes which had been effected in the laws relating to liquor in 1920.
In Madras I gave three exhibitions with Wilson Jones, V. Salvaraj and V. Freer. Wilson and I turned on some scintillating billiards and snooker, each making breaks of 100 and 200 odd in billiards. My highest break was 347. Salvaraj also made the odd century, but he was largely a red ball player, hence his lack of success. Nevertheless, he was a charming gentleman and companion.
The large attendance at these exhibition games was almost frightening. Many hundreds of people were turned away. Those who gained admittance were jammed into the hall, some even sitting in the rafters! The temporary seating that had been erected looked by no means safe at any time and, in fact, on the last night it collapsed. I was in the middle of compiling a break when suddenly I heard a great noise. I glanced around to see dozens of people tumbling down towards me. In a flash, I dived under the billiard table to safety. Ten spectators required hospital treatment for broken limbs. Salvaraj’s cue was smashed. He had not been able to avoid the crush, and was also taken to hospital suffering with shock. Altogether it was a terrifying experience.
Because of the great success of these exhibition games, pressure was brought to bear on me to stay a further day. However, as I had a busy itinerary ahead of me I declined, as I was required to fulfil engagements at Bangalore, Coimbatore, Trivandru, Madras and other centres. A delay would certainly have disarranged the programme. It was just as well that I refused to stay the extra day for a calamity would have befallen me.
Bangalore is the coolest part of India and the playing conditions there were somewhat similar to those in Australia. I was playing at my top and made a billiards break of 456, and later a break of 99 at snooker. In this frame I ran out of balls, which deprived me of the opportunity of reaching the coveted 100. The spectators greeted this performance with great excitement and I was “king” of Bangalore that night!
Next morning I travelled on to Trivandrum by plane, where my best break was 367. This exhibition was not as hectic as that of the previous evening and I was able to get to bed reasonably early. But, alas, a tragedy was about to occur. The following morning I was taken to the airport to meet the plane that was to take me to Coimbatore. After a wait of two hours the plane had not arrived and I returned to my hotel. By this time fears were held for the safety of the plane and during the afternoon word filtered through that the aircraft was missing. Later a replacement plane took me to Coimbatore and the evening newspapers confirmed that the other plane was missing and was believed to have crashed.
I fulfilled my engagements and returned to Madras. Eight days later the ill-fated plane was found in jungle country. The bodies of the passengers and crew had been mutilated by wild animals. If I had consented to stay a further day at Madras I would have been travelling on that plane. Such is life! It was the first air tragedy to have occurred in India for ten years.
The next portion of my tour covered New Delhi, Agra, Lucknow and Govidina. Travel to New Delhi was by train, which was by no means safe as white people were not held in the highest esteem. I was placed in a compartment alone and was told to lock myself in. It was a 12 hour journey and I hardly slept a wink. It seemed to me that beggars were constantly knocking on the carriage door shouting “Sahib! Sahib! Sahib!” They were travelling on the footboard of the carriage. It was all very disturbing to my peace of mind and I was relieved to reach my destination.
I arrived at New Delhi on Saturday, which was a free day for me, and expressed a desire to see the film “Samson and Delilah” which was showing at the time. Arrangements were promptly made for me to have a private box at the theatre. A Government car was placed at my disposal and when the driver dropped me at the theatre he asked if he could go home to see his wife and family, stating that he would pick me up after the show. I agreed, and then entered the theatre where, presumably as a precaution, I was locked into my box. However, to my dismay I discovered that the sound track of the film was in the language appropriate to that part of India, and I was unable to understand any of it!
Next morning my chauffeur was directed to take me on a tour of Old and New Delhi. I had been suffering with constipation for about three days, so I asked him to stop at a chemist’s shop so that I could obtain a laxative. I duly swallowed three tablets and continued my tour. At lunch time we returned to the hotel for a meal. As I was settling down to enjoy my lunch an acquaintance walked over to me saying “Tom, you were indeed lucky to miss the plane that crashed!”. Suddenly, I could feel the laxative working, so I said “Excuse me, but I’ll be back in a few minutes”. I had to get to my quarters about 100 yards distant and up two flights of stairs. I had a feeling that I would not make it! Just as I reached the door of my room nature took its course. I was in an awful mess and it was necessary for me to have a bath and complete change of clothing. When I eventually returned to the dining-room my acquaintance was no longer there, so I was unable to explain my apparent rudeness. Little did I know that there was a toilet about ten yards from the table at which I had been sitting!
Wilson Jones came to New Delhi to play an exhibition match at Government House. On this occasion we each performed very well, making breaks of over 300 at billiards, whilst at snooker Wilson made a break of 81 and I managed one of 79. For our efforts we were each presented with a pair of gold cuff links.
Next day we visited the Cricket Club at New Delhi, where I met the famous Duleepsinju. He was a charming person and a good billiard player. I played a friendly game with him, during which he made a break of 125. Sad to relate, he passed away about twelve months later.
I then journeyed to Agra, where I played a couple of matches in private homes and was entertained by Mr R. Singh. My real reason for passing through Agra was to see the famous Taj Mahal, one of the great wonders of the world. I stayed three days in Agra, then travelled to Lucknow. This journey was something of an ordeal. It took eighteen hours and I was required to travel by oxen cart. What a nightmare it was! At the end of the journey I was sick, sore and sorry. My joints were aching so much that I had to rest for the next 24 hours. However, I was quartered in what I was informed was the best guest house in Lucknow. It was like a gaol! It was a hut about 16 feet square, with a concrete floor, and no bed. The windows were merely openings and were fitted with iron bars. I was unable to eat the food supplied to me so bananas again became my staple diet.
By this time I had lost 14 pounds in weight and was becoming fed up with this type of living. But what could I do? I was in the heart of India and had to put up with it. I said to myself “Only three more days and I’ll be back in Calcutta!”. Although I never saw a cloud in the sky in the three months during which I was in India, I carried with me an overcoat which, on this occasion, was to prove very useful. No blankets were provided in my room so I rolled the overcoat around my shoes and thus made a pillow. I was so tired that I slept like a log, with my clothes on, and did not open my eyes until 10 o’clock the following morning. In the act of putting on my shoes I suddenly noticed a large scorpion drop out of one shoe. I was really shocked to think that I had been sleeping with that scorpion close to my head. Eventually I recovered from the whole ordeal, but was glad to leave Lucknow.
I arrived back in Calcutta on 18th December in time for the National Championship series. The Commonwealth Cricket team had also arrived for the second test match. George Tribe, Cargie Greaves and Bruce Dooland, all of whom I knew, were travelling with the team and naturally I wanted to see them. I phoned George, who made arrangements for me to meet him in the cricketers’ dressing room, where I was introduced to members of the team.
It was an extremely hot day and the visitors, who had won the toss, decided to bat. Immediately I was invited to have a drink, and I was amused to see that nearly all the players were also drinking. The team had received a donation of six dozen bottles of Dutch beer and it was being consumed with enthusiasm. Cargie was to go in to bat at fifth wicket down, and by the time he had taken his place at the crease he had had a few beers. I thought to myself, “he won’t last long out there”, but he knocked up a century in 70 minutes, then threw away his hand. George Trible also made 71. Perhaps the beer had given them Dutch courage! I spent a couple of days with this cricket team – a welcome relief from intensive billiard matches.
The National Championship was contested by a strong field, including Wilson Jones, Chandra Hirjee, M. Lafir (of Colombo), T. Salvaraj, V. Freer, myself, and a couple of players of lesser fame\. Hirjee was regarded as one of the most brilliant and entertaining players in India. In 1954 he was selected as second string to represent his country in the World Championship series contested in Sydney. He came from a wealthy family engaged in the jute business. Unfortunately, he fell foul of the taxation authorities in 1954 and was not allowed to leave the country, which cleared the way for me to compete as second string for Australia in that year. As a result, I won the World Championship Title on that occasion – but more of that later.
Salvaraj and Freer, being red ball players, were considered not to have much chance of winning, whilst it was thought that the up-and-coming Wilson Jones might be the surprise packet. With the exception of M. Lafir, who was a promising player, the remainder of the field was given little chance of winning the Title. At that time, Lafir was better known as a snooker player, but in 1967 he was runner-up to Leslie Driffield (England) in the World Amateur Billiards Championship. Lafir was gifted with a keen sense of humor. One evening in Calcutta the players decided to attend a picture theatre. Instead of travelling by rickshaw it was decided that we should walk. As most people are aware, cows throughout India are regarded as sacred animals and roam the streets at will. Naturally they leave droppings in all sorts of unexpected places. As we made our way to the theatre I accidentally put my foot in a patch of cow manure. In a flash Lafir cried, “Foul! Four Away!”.
The National Championship was eventually won by Wilson Jones. He and I played off in the final, each of us being undefeated. By this time I was “browned off” with billiards and did not produce the form expected of me. Wilson went on to win the World Title at Calcutta in 1958, and again in New Zealand in 1964. He retired at the comparatively early age of 54. The Government of India invested him with a knighthood to mark his achievements. At that time he was the only Indian to have won a World Championship in amateur sport. Later he was presented with a testimonial of 100,000 rupees – at that time the equivalent of $A20,000.
Following the National Championship series at Calcutta, the last leg of my tour took me to Bombay. I considered this very interesting and large city to be the cleanest, wealthiest and most Westernised community in India. I was provided with accommodation at the Cricket Club of Bombay – a beautiful stadium with all modern conveniences. In fact, it reminded me of the Melbourne Cricket Ground. A Mr Visinji, millionaire employer of Wilson Jones, was in charge of my stay in Bombay.
When I arrived the great festival of Bombay, which extends over ten days, was at is peak. Mr Visinji said to me “Do come and see this wonderful procession. It is something you might not see again”. Later I was introduced to the Maharajah of Burdwan, the Maharani, and many of their family, all of whom seemed to me like characters out of a fairy tale. Dressed in gorgeous saris, they were all strikingly beautiful, and they all wore magnificent jewellery during the festival. Mr Visinji informed me that even a computer could not assess the value of all the diamonds and other jewellery worn at the festival. I was dumbfounded by all the display.
The people welcomed me with open arms and made me feel at home. I attended many public and private ceremonies more breathtaking that Cecil B. de Mille ever dreamed of. The climax came when I was invited to join the Shah of Persia and his Princess in one of the cars in the procession as it made its way through the streets. At the head of the procession were the Maharaja and Maharani of Burdwan, seated in a golden howdah on the royal elephant, followed by a retinue of people of lesser importance, but all looking resplendent in their trappings, with beautiful hand-painted designs on their foreheads. It seemed as if we were passing through a sea of dark faces, with waves going back as far as the horizon. Many people also were heightened further when daylight faded and the procession continued by torchlight. When later I thanked the Shah for the privileged position from which I had witnessed the procession, he remarked, “Oh! I do like to meet strangers”.
My programme for my six days stay in Bombay was: rise at 7.00am, take a bath, followed by breakfast comprised of toast, jam and a cup of black tea. Other food was available, but I was in no mood for anything more substantial. On arrival in India I had been somewhat overweight, but by the time I reached Bombay I had lost 18 pounds and I was feeling much fitter.
There was a good billiard table at the Cricket Club and after breakfast I would practice for about two hours. At midday a car would pick me up and take me on my way for exhibitions – perhaps two in the afternoon and one in the evening. During my short stay in Bombay I played 21 exhibition matches and was undefeated. Strange to relate, Wilson Jones was never selected to play against me, for what reason I do not know. The only conclusion I could arrive at was that the Indian authorities did not wish to risk him being defeated. I was playing at the top of my form and consistently had made breaks of over 200, and three breaks of over 400. However, my tour was a great success and the Association profited by many thousands of rupees.
During my stay in Calcutta I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of Princess Toy and her brother, Prince Sonu, as well as their mother, the Begum, all of whom were associated with the Indian Billiards Control Council. They treated me with great kindness and on many occasions invited me to their home. In appreciation of our happy times together the Begum presented me with five lovely diamonds. So much did I value this gift that I kept the diamonds constantly in my possession, even sleeping with them under my pillow. I wrote home to my wife telling her that I would bring her back some beautiful diamonds, something she had always wanted, especially from India.
Somoneith (Sam) Banerjee’s father at this time asked me if I would assist his son with his billiards with a little coaching. I readily agreed, whereupon a car was placed at my disposal each morning for one week so that I could travel to and from Sam’s home, where there was a billiard table. Sam was an apt pupil and my coaching enabled him to improve his game considerably. In appreciation of my efforts for Sam, Mr Banerjee presented me with a suit length, and asked me if I would like anything else. I told him I was satisfied with the cloth, but he remarked, “Surely that is not sufficient” and insisted that I name something else. I told him that I had been given some precious stones and that perhaps a gold ring might make a suitable mounting for one of the stones. He immediately ordered a chaffeur to take me to a jeweller, with whom I made arrangements to mount one of the diamonds on a ring. Two days later the finished ring and the remainder of the diamonds were returned to me at my hotel.
When I arrived back in Australia my wife was anxious to see these jewels. When they were shown to her she said, “I don’t believe they are diamonds, Tom, although they shine like diamonds”. Soon afterwards she took them to a prominent Melbourne jeweller to have them valued, to be informed that they were plain glass and virtually valueless. To this day I do not know whether the “diamonds” were switched by the jeweller. I would not be surprised if this had occurred, as sharp practices of this nature are not entirely unknown. Such was another sad experience for me in India.
The 1954 World Amateur Billiards Championship
Upon my return home from England in 1951 Walter Lindrum phoned to congratulate me on finishing third in the World Championship that year. He suggested that I take a break of three months from the game and I took his advice. When I resumed playing I noted that my form was better than ever. I found that consistently I was making breaks of 300 and 400 – and even an occasional 500. At the time I was employed by Mr Charles Allen, a leading snooker bookmaker and a member of the Victorian Club in Melbourne. I practiced mainly at that club and two of its members, Darcy Eccles and Bill Bailey, both great players, took a keen interest in me. Both saw to it that I worked hard, and it was nothing for me to practice four to five hours a day.
In 1954 I ran up breaks of 684 and 735 – two of my highest breaks – which were made mostly at the top of the table, with a few runs of nursery cannons. It was at this stage that I asked Walter Lindrum for some hints on these close cannons. I felt that if I were to become proficient at nursery cannons a break of 1000 would not be beyond me. Walter promised to help, but unfortunately, and to my bitter disappointment, he never came to the party. On three occasions he invited me to his home at Albert Park, but each time he put me off, making the excuse that he was too busy. To be quite fair to the “master”, I really do not think he could impart to others his knowledge of the mysteries of nursery cannons, or for that matter any other phase of the game. He was a supreme player and so far ahead of others in the game of billiards that I am afraid he did not know where to commence teaching, but I am sure he would have liked to help me.
I do not know of any other player who was helped directly by Walter. In latter years Jim Long was very friendly with him, and I know that Walter showed him a couple of comparatively simple moves. Many people may disagree with me on this point and I ask them to forgive me for expressing my personal opinion on a small aspect of the make-up and personality of the greatest billiard player the world has ever known.
The World Amateur Championship series for 1954 were staged in Sydney. Shortly before these games were to commence Bob Marshall had defeated me for the Australian Title in Launceston in a very tight game. For three sessions we were almost dead level, but in the last two hours Bob was too good for me and ran out the winner by the comparatively narrow margin of 202 points. The World Championship was to be contested in Sydney in the following month and Bob was automatically selected to represent Australia. Chandra Hirjee had also been selected to compete in this event as second string to Wilson Jones, representing India. However, Hirjee was unable to make the trip at the last moment and I was invited to compete in his stead.
The games were staged in the Anthony Horden Pavilion at the Sydney Showgrounds and were played on Walter Lindrum’s table. This was good news for me as I was aware that the cushions were fitted with strip rubber and I had learned the game on tables fitted with that type of cushion. This news filled me with confidence. The competitors for the Title included Bob Marshall (Australia), Frank Edwards (England), Wilson Jones (India), and Taffy Rees (South Africa). My first opponent was Frank Edwards. I immediately got away with a break of 156, but Frank countered with a 127. Then I managed 216, followed by 287. I was in my element with the soft strip rubber cushions, and at the end of the first session was leading by 457. On the home run I ran out a winner by 760 points. To dispose of such a fine player a Edwards was a great start for me.
The great Bob Marshall was my next opponent. I was quietly fancied in this match as I had been performing well at practice. The bookmakers were wagering rather heavily on this game. Bob commenced in great form and at the half way mark led by 261. The position looked bad for me, but I was still confident. In the second session I really struck form. At the commencement of this session I was in play with 56 unfinished, which I took to 286. A little later I followed with a 267, then a 367. Eventually I won the match by 605 points.
At this stage I had defeated two great exponents of the game and naturally I was in high spirits. However, I could not afford to be overconfident as I still had to meet Rees and Jones. In my match against Rees I made the best break of my career in championship billiards by compiling 682, which still stands as the highest break made in an Amateur World Championship series. In this match I was an easy winner.
To win the Title I then had to face Wilson Jones. Naturally I was a little nervous, particularly as Jones had nothing to lose. He had won only one match in the series and therefore was under no strain. After the first hour of play he led by 250. I said to myself, “don’t panic, but play billiards”. This I proceeded to do with breaks of 186, 240 and 299, as well as sundry breaks just over 100. The result of the match was in my favour, 1810 to 1498. Although a great player, Wilson Jones could not strike form in Australia. He visited Australia on three occasions, but never once did he play really well. Change in climatic conditions appear to affect the performance of many players.
I was greatly relieved and, of course, excited when that match was over. I had won my first and only World Championship. It was the highlight of my billiards career. I was 44 years of age at the time and felt that my success was the result of years of hard and earnest practice, as well as keeping myself fit and retaining good health over the years. The other competitors in that Championship Series were all about the same age as myself, which perhaps proves that it takes a good part of a lifetime to reach the top in billiards. Therefore I stress to young and promising players that they cannot expect to master the wonderful game in five minutes – or even ten years! It took many years for the greatest snooker player of all time – Joe Davis – to make the highest possible break of 147 at snooker in championship games. This occurred on the evening of his retirement in a match against John Pulman at Leicester Hall, London. Afterwards Joe remarked, “Fancy! I have been playing snooker all my life and no one knows how much work I have put in behind the scenes. It has taken me all this time to achieve the almost impossible in a championship match. It is like the tip of a cue – at its best when it is finished”.
Lindrum and Davis
Many snooker enthusiasts have raised with me the question: If Walter Lindrum had concentrated on snooker, would he have proved a greater player than Joe Davis? In my humble opinion, I do not believe that he would have done so. Walter had a round arm unorthodox cue action and nearly every stroke he played was made with spin, which allowed for a small margin of error. However, when potting the balls in snooker there is no margin of error – the player has to make his shot in a very deliberate manner. The cue action must flow freely and the arm should operate in the nature of a piston inside a cylinder – with great exactness.
During my visit to England in 1951 I recall talking to Joe Davis on this point. Joe considered that Walter was not a good business man. By way of explanation, he went on to explain thus: “At a billiards match played in Melbourne in the 1930’s, in mid-winter, Walter and I prepared to commence the game. Naturally we had each removed our coats. Walter broke and played out the session with a break of 4,127. Half way through the session I had to slip into my coat again because of the cold”. Joe went on to say that he considered that spectators attended a match to see both players in action, but Walter was so good that he did not know how to break down! He was so much like a billiards machine that very often the onlookers were almost unaware of his genius. By playing in this machine-like manner for long periods, Walter diminished his earning power.
Joe said that he gave this matter great thought and when he returned to England he decided to concentrate on snooker, in which game the spectators are treated to the skill of both players at short intervals. As a result, Joe became the greatest snooker player of all time – indeed, he retired from the game a rich man. Unfortunately, in spite of his great ability at billiards, Walter did not do likewise. However, the great “master” was generous man and it was nothing for him to give a billiard table to a worthy cause. At one time, he presented me with a table and all accessories to match it. Walter did not seem to care about wealth – all he wanted to do was play billiards and demonstrate his skill to the people. Walter badly needed an experienced person to manage his billiards activities. For a time the late Jack Rohan acted in this capacity with some success.
The 1958 World Amateur Billiards Championship
In 1958 India was the venue for the next World Championship series and I was to defend my Title there. My wife had never before had the pleasure of travelling with me on an overseas trip and I thought that if on this occasion she could accompany me it would be a wonderful experience for her. With the assistance of some good friends, her trip was made possible. Leslie Driffield’s wife also made the trip from England so my wife was in good company. On this occasion, Claude Harris, President of the Australian Amateur Billiards Association, also made the trip. Claude thoroughly deserved this privilege as for many years he had carried out a tremendous amount of work on the administrative side of the game.
We arrived at Calcutta in mid-November, to be met by officials of the India Billiards Association, and were given a warm welcome. The seven contestants for the Title were: Leslie Driffield, Wilson Jones, Chandra Hirjee, Rafik Dina, Mahomed Lafir, V. Freer and myself. Driffield, Jones, Hirjee and I were named the “big four” and after the earlier games had been played, w were left to fight it out. As all four players were in good form it was difficult to pick the winner.
Hirjee and Jones met in the first encounter and spectators were treated to some brilliant billiards, each player making numerous breaks of over 100. Hirjee then made a break of 246, which was quickly followed by 306 from Jones. On the billiard table no love was lost between these two players. They were keen rivals and were fighting to see who was India’s best player. At the first interval there was little between them, but Jones eventually ran out the winner by 260.
The next match was between myself and Hirjee. I at once struck brilliant form and made consecutive breaks of 190, 239 and 346. This burst seemed to demoralize Hirjee, and although he made two fine breaks of 165 and 176 in the second session, I was a comfortable winner by a margin of 960.
Wilson Jones was next in line for me. I knew that I would have to play at my top, as Jones had been displaying brilliant form in both matches and at practice. In the first hour of this match I ran up a handy lead with useful breaks of 165 and 158, but Jones fought back with a beautifully compiled break of 345. At the end of the first session the scores were almost level. Unfortunately for me, a tropical storm broke over Calcutta at 5.00pm that day. This was unusual as rain like this had not fallen in December for about fifteen years. The result was that the atmosphere became very humid. My cue would not slide properly through my bridge, making it difficult for me to play good billiards. Jones was not similarly affected. Like other Indians, Jones skin was hard and as dry as a bone. I was at a disadvantage, whilst he was in his element, playing as if nothing unusual had happened. He made further breaks of 186, 269 and several over 100 and won the match by over 500 points.
At that stage, Jones was undefeated, but still had to play Leslie Driffield. I also had to play Leslie. If I beat him and he defeated Jones, it would result in a three-way tie. I felt that I still had a fighting chance, but it was not to be. My match with Driffield was a thriller, but he defeated me by the small margin of 135 points. I thought I had him beaten right up until the last 20 minutes, when I was leading by 54. At that stage I had two shots “on”. Driffield’s ball was on the brink of the top left-hand pocket and at the same time there was an easy in-off the red ball. Should I pot him and play safety, or should I continue to play the red ball? By doing so I felt that the minutes would tick away and my score would steadily increase.
I got in-off the red ball and left myself with a perfect position for an in-off into the centre pocket. I told myself the game was mine! After scoring nine points I shaped up for my next shot. However, in my excitement and to my complete disgust I fouled the cue ball. I could scarcely believe it! The balls were then in an easy position for Driffield to score a cannon and, playing like a bulldog, he ran to 203 unfinished, thus winning the game. It was a great disappointment to me. I felt that I had had the game won, only to lose it by sheer carelessness. I just had to accept the situation as best I could. Thus ended all my hopes of winning that Title.
The final looked promising for a great game between Wilson Jones, the idol of India, and Leslie Driffield, the dour Englishman. Leslie was not very popular with the crowds in India and no doubt that feeling extended back to the days of Great Britain’s influence in India. However, the two players commenced their match in brilliant form. At the end of the first hour of play the scores were level at 340, each player having contributed two breaks over 100. At the end of the second hour the scores were: Driffield 880, Jones 757. The second session was played in much the same fashion, with Driffield leading by 312. In the third session Driffield went steadily ahead to increase his lead to 450.
In the first hour of the final session when Driffield was leading by 600 and looked a certain winner a startling change came over the game. Jones made a fighting 240 break. Driffield then missed an easy shot, to let Jones in for another nice run of 199. By this time the excitement was intense. The crowd was favouring Jones in no uncertain manner. At this stage, each time Driffield visited the table the crowd commenced to chant and hand-clap. They refused to stop when requested. These outbursts were uncalled for and Leslie became very annoyed. He turned to the crowd and appeared, “what have I done to deserve this”? This only incited the crowd to even worse behaviour and pandemonium reigned. In all the excitement Leslie broken down and cried.
It was ten minutes before the crowd quietened down to allow the match to continue. Leslie had put away his cue, threatening to forfeit the match. I went over to him and made an effort to comfort him, but he said “I am finished. I’ll never come to India again”. I said “Don’t forfeit, Leslie. Don’t take any notice of the crowd. You can still win the championship. You are in front, so don’t throw it away”. I then took his cue from its case and handed it to him. After he had received a nod from his wife, he continued to play. At that stage he was 90 points ahead, with 20 minutes left for play. However, it was obvious that the demonstration had upset him and he was shaking like a leaf. Poor Leslie could not get a shot, and Wilson Jones went on to win by 105 points. It was a sad ending to a wonderful Championship Series. Leslie Driffield left India next day.
The Indian National Billiards Championship
Wilson Jones, who hailed from Bombay, became a national hero and his employer, Mr Visinji, invited my wife and me to visit that city. After three days of celebration at Calcutta we arrived at Bombay amid great excitement. We were met at Santa Cruz airport by dozens of Government officials, Mr Visinji and his family and many notable sporting personalities. A great fleet of limousines was made available to drive us all through the streets of Bombay. Nearly every thoroughfare was decorated with bunting and thousands of people thronged the streets. It was as if the President of the United States of America was arriving.
After a drive through the city lasting about two hours, we arrived at Mr Visinji’s home to attend a banquet in honour of Wilson Jones’ victory. After a wonderful evening, Mrs Cleary and I were driven to the Bombay Cricket Club – the famous Brabourne Stadium – which was to be our home for the next seven days. Although playing billiards was not the purpose of my visit to Bombay, I was asked to give several exhibitions. I played on about ten occasions, but not once was Wilson Jones asked to play. At the conclusion of this visit, Mr Visinji presented me with a beautiful handwoven tablecloth. It had been hand sewn with hundreds of little mirrors interwoven. It was a beautiful piece of work and is still in use in my home.
At the end of my stay in Bombay I, and Mrs Cleary, were given a send-off at the Palace at the Shah of Persia. This was a magnificent building constructed of white marble. The Shah only occupied the Palace on occasional visits to Bombay, but it must have cost an enormous amount of money to maintain the Palace as twenty servants were constantly employed there. Such is wealth! The proceedings commenced with an Indian luncheon served in the banquet room. About forty people were present, including some of the wealthiest residents of Bombay. No cutlery or crockery is provided to eat an Indian meal – one has to manipulate the food to the mouth with the thumb and first two fingers. The table setting provided each guest with a large banana leaf, about 24 inches in diameter. This was used as a plate and all food comprising the various courses was laid out on the banana leaf.
The main course was a mutton stew, flavoured with chilies, which was considered to be a great luxury, but it was almost impossible to eat it. Too add to my discomfort, I was extremely thirsty because of the heat, but the only beverage I felt it safe to drink was a soft drink served from a bottle. In Bombay at that time it was not possible to obtain beer or spirits as the State was subject to liquor laws which prevent the consumption of alcoholic drinks. I asked for a glass of lemonade and eventually, when I was feeling particularly parched, it was served to me. However, before I had time to take even a sip, the servant attending me accidentally dropped some food into the glass and thereupon removed it. I had to wait about half an hour before I was served with another glass of lemonade, and by that time the highly flavoured food had made me very thirsty indeed. Although Mrs Cleary was quite hungry, she was unable to eat the food. She neatly folded the banana leaf around the food and explained to the servant that she could not eat because she had had a meal shortly before. In a foreign land such as India it is very difficult for the Westerner to fit in with the eating habits of the local people who, incidentally were always most hospitable and almost overwhelming with their kindness.
After leaving Bombay I journeyed to Madras, where previously I had been approached by the Madras Billiards Association officials by means of a somewhat flattering reception, accompanied by garlands of flowers for Mrs Cleary. There was a purpose behind this cordial welcome as they wished me to play in the National Billiards and Snooker Championships which were to be held at Madras following the World Amateur Billiards Championship to be conducted at Calcutta. The officials were well aware that my entry in these events would be an additional draw card towards attracting spectators, as at the time of the invitation I was the reigning World Champion. This interlude meant a further stay of 21 days in India, and as my wife had not seen Madras I decided to accept the invitation to play in the “Nationals”, as they are called. However, I informed the Madras billiards officials that I would compete only under certain conditions:
- That first-class accommodation was provided for me and my wife.
- That I be granted an allowance of £3 a day.
- That I be provided with two plane tickets from Calcutta to Madras.
Upon arriving at Madras after the completion of the world’s championship series at Calcutta we were driven to the Air Lines Hotel, where we were provided with second-class accommodation – not at the beautiful Conamara Hotel which I had hoped for. I immediately contacted Mr Nardu, Secretary of the Madras Billiards Association who informed me that he had been unable to obtain accommodation at the Conamara. Later I discovered that his was not true. I had become very friendly with Sam Banerjee, of Calcutta, who was a competitor at Madras and who was staying at the Conamara at his own expense. He informed me that there were plenty of vacancies at that hotel – so the first condition I had imposed on the Madras officials was not met. Sam came from a very wealthy family and at this time was a considerable help to me. As he was about to leave the Conamara Hotel each morning on his way to practice he would phone me and arrange to pick me up in his taxi outside my hotel, thus saving me some little expense.
At the time of our visit to Madras it so happened that Marshall Tito was also visiting that city. One morning, when my wife and I were waiting outside the hotel for Sam to pick us up, there emerged from the crowd in the streets two young girls, no more than 19 years of age, who came up to us and shouted “You imperialist pigs!” and then spat in our faces. My wife was angry and wanted to remonstrate with the girls, but I immediately ushered her into the hotel. We felt that the insult was unwarranted, but no doubt all white people fell into the same category so far as the girls were concerned. However, my wife was extremely upset by the incident and, on the following day, became very ill with a high temperature. The manageress of the hotel called in a doctor and eventually engaged a nurse who scarcely left my wife’s side for three days. After about ten days Mrs Cleary’s temperature returned to normal and she slowly regained her health.
On another occasion when Sam Banerjee called at my hotel to pick me up I recall noticing six very well-built young men pulling along the road a dray carrying a load of jute. I remarked to Sam, “They do it the hard way here”. He replied “How much money do you think they earn?” He then continued, “In your money it is eight pence per day. Why, a traffic policeman only received eighteen pence a day”. Such is life in India!
Before the National Championships I practiced for one hour each morning at 8 o’clock. At several of these practice sessions I noticed in the audience an attractive young girl who seemed to be very interested in what I was doing on the table. One morning when a suitable opportunity presented itself she politely asked me if I gave coaching lessons, to which I replied “do you play?” She said “I mainly play snooker, but have made a break of 82 at billiards, also a 59 at snooker”. I was mildly astonished at this and invited her to play a few shots on the table. Thereupon she produced her own cue and proceeded to play billiards. A set of snooker balls was then produced and I placed the coloured balls on their respective spots. From in hand she then potted the six colours. Her stance, bridge and cue action were well nigh perfect, in the style of Joe Davis. I enquired how much practice she was able to get, and she replied “not as much as I would like. It is hard to get a game as there is not much opportunity here for girls to play”. She went on to explain that her father owned a billiard table, but after his death it had been sold.
It is interesting to contemplate what effect an outstanding woman player would have in the field of male competition in both billiards and snooker today. However, I venture to say that if this girl, whose name was A. Kamala Devi, could have been given suitable coaching she would have defeated British women players, including Joyce Gardner and others equally well known. Later I discovered that this girl was an actress and entertainer who performed on All-India Radio. On one occasion she took my wife and I on a visit to the radio station where she played for us a number of her recordings. Unfortunately, I have not heard of her since that time. Perhaps she gave up playing billiards and snooker because of lack of opportunity and encouragement.
The National Snooker Championship was to follow the Billiards Championship and competitors included Wilson Jones, who had just won the world’s Amateur Billiards Title, and Rafik Dina, both of whom represented Bombay. Other competitors were Sam Banerjee, from Calcutta, T. Salvaraj and V. Freer, from Madras, Mohamad Lafir, from Ceylon, and myself. Wilson Jones and I were seeded No. 1 and 2 in the billiards series, the other competitors not being given much chance of success – and thus it was proved. However, my semi-final match with Salvaraj was a thriller. Between the illness of my wife and the constant demands made upon me to play billiards I had become a little “browned-off”, and was not producing my best form in the match. Although Madras was a “dry” area, the President of the Billiards Association conveyed a message to me asking if I would like a “reviver”. It was apparent that the officials wanted me to appear in the Final against Wilson Jones, as that would ensure a good attendance. Within a couple of minutes of my indicating that I would like a drink I had passed to me a soft drink bottled containing whisky and water. The spectators naturally thought the bottle contained a non-alcoholic beverage, but after a couple of nips I felt like a new man. Soon afterwards I compiled a break of 373, which enable me to win the match.
In the meantime, Wilson Jones had won his way into the Final, but to my dismay he suddenly reported that he was ill, and announced that he was unable to play in the Final. Immediately the officials were in a state of panic. They were hoping for a full house and a good gate for the final match. The doctor who attended my wife during her illness was called to examine Wilson Jones, and he later confided to me that, in his opinion, Jones was not ill. After persuasion from the officials, Jones eventually consented to play, but he performed as though he were a sick man. Eventually I defeated him in the Final by over 500 points, thus winning the All-India Amateur Billiards Title.
The snooker championship series followed immediately, the same players taking part. After some excellent snooker from all players, I made the Final to meet M. Lafir, of Ceylon. The match was of seven frames, to be won by Lafir in the last frame when he potted the pink ball. I made the best break of the series with an 83. It proved a successful championship series for me as I won four of the five trophies contested – the All-India Billiards Title, Highest Billiards Break of 373, Runner-up in the Snooker Title and Highest Snooker Break of 83. These trophies are still displayed in my trophy cabinet at my home, together with many others I have won over the years.
A tour of Ceylon
A late invitation was extended to me by the Ceylon Billiards Association to make an eight-day tour of the island, giving exhibitions and lectures on billiards and snooker. As it was on my way home and as I had heard a lot about Ceylon, I accepted the invitation with the provision that first-class accommodation be provided, my friends in Bombay having informed me of living conditions on the island. I received a reply to the effect that my wishes would be complied with and that we were to stay at the Galle Face Hotel – a first-class hotel but which provided air-conditioning to VIPs only. Fortunately, we were classed as VIP. The hotel was famous for its European food, especially Australian beef, and naturally my first request was for some Australian steak. This was the best meal enjoyed by my wife and me since we had left Australia three months previously. Our stay at the Galle Face Hotel was almost too good to be true.
After three days of lectures and exhibitions in poor conditions, we left for Kandy and Nuralia, a journey of some 100 miles. We stopped overnight at Kandy, where I was scheduled to play an exhibition match. The table with which I was confronted was a “shocker”. It had so many uneven surfaces that it seemed like a scrubbing board! However, I managed to make a break of 100, but I was like making 500 on a good table.
We then journeyed to Nuralia. This trip was the worst that I encountered during the tour. The roads were in a terrible state, ascending steep hills and winding around elbow bends. When we arrived at our destination, I was too ill to play that evening. Next day I felt refreshed, for at least Nuralia had a cool climate.
I played at the Kenya Club and among the crowd was a fair sprinkling of Europeans. The table was excellent and the conditions to my liking, there being no humidity. My opponent was the local champion, who had a big reputation – hence the large attendance. Unfortunately, he struck me at my best. The game was 600 up, and at the finish the score board read: Cleary: 600, Nankeo: 69. I rounded off the game with 369 unfinished. We then played the best of three frames of snooker. Nankeo won the first frame and I won the other two. In the last frame I ran out of balls with a 98 break, which gave the crowd much pleasure. After these exhibition games came further entertainment. A four-piece orchestra went into action, with food and drink in plentiful supply, although my wife and I carefully by-passed the Indian food. The entertainment concluded at 4.00am. Ceylon is noted for its tea plantations and one gentleman told me that he would forward a chest of tea to me in Australia. I am still awaiting the arrival of the tea!
Next morning the trip to Colombo was a nightmare. Travelling down hill was worse than going up. It was like an Indian told me, “An elephant will catch you travelling uphill if he wants to, but he hasn’t a chance downhill”. We were relieved to reach Colombo, but a shock was in store for us. Instead of taking us to the Galle Face Hotel, our driver delivered us to a third class hotel, and informed us that we were to stay there for the remainder of our visit. My wife and I were furious and immediately protested. The driver said that it was the President’s instruction. I said, you get in touch with the President and tell him it’s the Galle Face or nothing”. After two hours on the telephone, he received permission to take us to the Galle Face Hotel, but we were given a room with no air-conditioning.
This was too much and I refused to give any further exhibitions. I then got in touch with BOAC seeking a return booking to Australia, although three more days of my tour remained. The booking clerk at BOAC stated it was impossible to get me an immediate booking, but when three pounds sterling was placed in his hand, he said he would give us the first cancellation. Next morning, we were on our way back to Australia.
The 1964 and 1967 World Amateur Billiards Championships
Although I retained my form during the ensuing years, I found that the continued strain of competition matches and many years of hard training, together with the fact that I had achieved the world’s highest honour for an amateur player, was affecting my keenness and my eyesight was starting to fail.
By 1964 Jim Long, who had been improving all the time, had caught up with me. In that year he won the Australian Championship and became eligible to represent Australia in the World Title event to be contested in New Zealand. Unfortunately for Jim, he was unable to make the trip because of pressure of business, and I was sent in his stead. This was my seventh appearance in world championship matches. This series was won by Wilson Jones, who defeated Jack Karneham of England, I finished fourth, but never at any stage reached top form.
In 1967 I won my twentieth Victorian Amateur Billiards Title. And then announced my retirement. However, many friends persuaded me to change my mind and I continued to play, but again Jim Long proved too good for me and defeated me in the Australian Championship in 1967. At this time Jim was available to travel to Colombo for the World Championship. However, a prominent Sydney businessman and a good friend of mine, Mr Keith Lord, offered to sponsor me to Colombo if permission could be obtained from the Australian Amateur Billiards Association to allow me to make the trip. The Association was agreeable, and I am indeed grateful to the Association and to Mr Lord for his generosity and kindness. So far as I am aware, no other private individual has ever sponsored an Australian Amateur Billiards Player on an overseas trip to contest a World Championship Series.
On this occasion, Jim Long was Australia’s Official Representative and I was the second string. I told Jim that we would find it difficult to win in Ceylon because of the climatic conditions. Jim dearly loves the cold weather and the strip rubber cushions. After all, billiards is a winter game and it is difficult for many players when the World Championship is contested in a country that has a hot climate. I venture to say that Jim and I were the two most knowledgeable players in this series, but because of the climatic conditions we were unable to exploit our style of top of the table play and had to revert to all round billiards. To add to our discomfort, we had to resort to using gloves in an endeavour to combat the problem of perspiration. Needless to say, we were both unplaced.
Leslie Driffield eventually ran out the winner. He proved just too good for the opposition, with his painfully slow all round billiards. I am sure that he did it on purpose to upset his opponents. On one occasion he took 47 minutes to make a 371 break, although in the prevailing conditions it was a good effort. M. Lafir, of Ceylon was runner-up, but he would not have come within reach of the first ten players in Australia. So much for the 1967 World Championship Series. Nevertheless, we met many kind and hospitable people who, after all, are not to blame because their climate is not conducive to good billiards.
Late in 1968, I suffered a severe illness, with the result that I lost the use of my right arm. However, excellent medical treatment and therapy have enabled me to recover my health, but my touch is not the same; thus my competitive billiards life has come to an end. It has been with great sadness and regret that I have had to leave the competition side of the game, which enabled me to make so many wonderful friends, both among my opponents and the many followers of the game. Early in my billiards career I entertained three main ambitions: Firstly, to visit England, the home of billiards; secondly, to win a world championship; and thirdly; to make a break of 1000. I managed to achieve the first two, but to my lasting regret my third objective has eluded me.