Sunday, August 19, 2007

Surprise, surprise

My 'farewell (to England) party' was, in one way, a bit of a damp squib this year, since 5 or 6 people cried off at the last minute, citing holidays, work commitments, tickets for a Prom concert, or simply having forgotten what day it was....

On the other hand, this did leave me free to enjoy a long evening alone with my old college chum Ned in his 'home patch' of London. Ned is one of my very dearest friends.... and a pretty formidable pool player (despite - he claims - now only playing the one day a year that I catch up with him. He is, in fact, the most intimidatingly naturally-gifted games-player I've ever met..... he used to be a croquet champion.... but that's another story!).

Alas, we discovered that our 'usual' pool venue, what had become the traditional site for these send-offs of mine over the past few years, an otherwise charmless pub called The Pimlico Tram, had undergone a radical revamp of image, which involved the removal of the pool table and the previously rather excellent jukebox. It's now aiming to make the most of its space and its light wood floor by positioning itself as a more upmarket, loungey, coffee bar-y sort of place - all plush sofas and abstract art on the walls. It has yet to establish a new clientele, however, being still dominated by the same old crowd of intriguing but occasionally rather scary toothless working-class geriatrics from the adjacent housing estate.

And the beer tasted a bit 'off' as well, so we weren't going to hang around there. The barmaid was good enough to give us a few tips for other bars in the area where we might be able to get a game of pool. And that it was that led us to the charmingly-named The Surprise nearby - a pub I have often walked past, but never thought to enter. I don't know where that strange name came from. One 'surprise' about the place - which nearly thwarted our pool-playing plans - is that the pool table is housed in a back room which is unsignposted and completely separate from the main bar (yes, you have to go back out on to the street, round the side, and in through an unmarked door...... curious indeed!).

Here, the 'regulars' are considerably younger, and almost exclusively West Indian (Jamaican, I'd guess, although we didn't go into it) - all supping on bottles of imported Guinness (stout is astonishingly popular with West Indians). Useful pool players, too.

Despite being out of practice and not really liking the mini-table, tiny balls, I found I was playing pretty well. I 'played on', and saw off 3 or 4 of the locals. But I lost to Ned. Nothing suprising there; he was beating everyone. (It's not particularly good form to do that when it's your first time in a new bar: you never know who might get pissed off about it! Luckily for us, our companions on this night were a pretty affable bunch, and decently respectful of his skill.) I waited patiently for a chance to get back on the table while he racked up a string of 8 or 10 victories; then he beat me again. Then, in the interests of diplomacy, he finally managed to throw a game against one of the more venerable Jamaican dudes. Shortly afterwards I got back on the table, won a few games..... and then lost to Ned again. This always seems to happen; he is my Nemesis on the table. I mean, he's very, very good, but.... I rarely take 1 game in 5 off him. And he's not, I think, as good as The Chairman, with whom (if I count all of my 'unworthy' victories when he's a little off his game) I am running more or less neck-and-neck. I think the problem is that somehow it never really bothers me losing to Ned - perhaps because he's such a nice chap. Not that The Chairman isn't a nice chap also, but I have determinedly made him the reference point against which I gauge the waxing and waning of my pool skills. With The Chairman, there's a bit of an edge to the competition; with Ned, it's always just a laugh.

Anyway, I vicariously enjoyed my friend's success just as richly as I might have enjoyed my own. We made some new temporary 'pool buddies' around the table (must go back for the regular Friday night 'killer' tournament some time). We attained just the right level of drunkenness (definitely a light-headedness, but nothing fally-down). And I managed to catch the last Tube home.

A pretty good send-off night, then. I think I'll be returning to The Surprise.

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