" THE SMOKERY"

 

By Natban F. Spielvoge1                                  (From the.’Ballarat Courier’,  9th April 1932)

 About 5 o'clock on a dreary afternoon is the best time to visit the Smokery at the Mechanics' Institute.

 “Out in the street‑ The wind blaws as t'wad blaw its last, The rattling showers rise on the blast”.

But whistling wind, sleety rain, and bitter cold are all forgotten once you enter the cheerful smokery, the air of which is a fog produced by­ more or less fragrant tobacco. Nearly all the chairs are occupied. Fine, solid old‑fashioned chairs they are! Some of them. black and shiny with the friction of thousands of trousers, must be a hundred years old.

Around the fire lounge the politicians. Fierce and fiery are the denunciations of Langism, of Bolshevism, of the perfidy of the United States,. of the degenerate spirit of the age. One orator eloquently and loudly proves that the ruin of the country is caused by the crass extravagance of the Parliaments. and another is pleading for a trial of the theory of Henry George. And there is always an audience to applaud or to offer ribald comments.

Duels of grim earnestness are being fought across the chess and draught tables, for you must certainly know that the Smokery has produced at least three chess players considered good enough to play for Victoria against New South Wales, and to‑day John Armstrong, a son of the Smokery is playing off for the draughts championship of Australia. Around each table is a group of onlookers ever ready to give unsolicited advice how the game should have been played. No insult will silence them!

Once upon a time a player challenged his foe to play a game of chess for a pound. His opponent politely remarked he did not care to play the noble game of chess for the filthy lucre. The challenger looked round at the circle of grinning spectators, and said he had no objection to the filthy lucre. What he objected to was the filthy onlucre. It may be added he is still alive!

In a cosy corner a noisy, merry game of Ricketty Kate is in progress, and 80year‑old young "Dick" Mitchell gives an exhibition of how the game is played according to Lancashire rules. Nearby a loud, defiant cry of "Nine clubs" shows where the 500 experts are doing battle.

            Everything is going merrily till a queer, quaint sound rises from one of the draught tables. It is only a player in a tight corner easing his feelings by breaking into song. He gets as far as –“There’s a green little spot in old Ireland”, when howls from all sides silence his dismal carol.

There are few young men in the Smokery.  Anyone under 50 years of age is looked on as a mere boy. And there are some ripe old lads taking their ease on those old chairs. Alex. Don is well on to his ninetieth mile post, and is still able to give the best of them a good go over the draught board; Harry Mitchell, who taught school as far back as 1865, and is still as straight as the proverbial poker. is there; Edgar Martin, despite his 80 years, worries his opponents both at the chess table and on the bowling green; John Andrews, the evergreen, sits and smokes and murmurs cynical gibes about the blunders of the chess players.

The hands of the clock creep round to 6 o’clock. Reluctantly the men drift out, mindful of :

 “Where‑sits our sulky, sullen dame

Gathering her brows like winter storm,

Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.”

 The apostle of fresh air throws open all the windows to clear the room of the stale tobacco fumes. And then he, too, departs.

Only one man remains. quietly reading the evening paper. What tales he could tell about the actors who strutted upon the boards of the old theatre, of Stewart and Maggie Moore, and John Sheridan and Charles Anderson, and other celebrated folk!

I sit me down and in the gloaming muse about all the men who came here to take their leisure on those hard old chairs; men who have all gone on their last long voyage. Then methinks I see them here again. That sturdy little Scotchman, John Munro, eternal flower in the buttonhole of his double‑breasted  reefer coat, ever ready to take up the cudgels on behalf of Tory ideals;

Slim, kind‑eyed J. M. Bickett courageous dabbler in mining.shares; Don Ricardo, the Spaniard with a Galway brogue, who waylaying any youth who poked his inquisitive nose inside the door, dragged him in and taught him how to play chess (he must have taught hundreds of us); quarrelsome Harry Rawlings, the watchdog of the Institute, ever ready to jump on anybody who broke the unwritten laws of the Smokery; W.B.Withers, the author of "The History of Ballarat” who came in to play chess, and looked with deep contempt on all the amateur politicians; and then in stalked R.T.Vale, meniber for Ballarat West, just for the joy of a blow up with the group round the fire.When he had reduced them all to silence he would chuckle sardonically and stalk out. I remember him ending a debate by telling his opponent he was nothing else but an iconoclastic anachronism! A nice name to call a decent hard working man!

And in came little Dick Mitchell, father of young Dick. He wore a long flowing beard, and his eyes were full of fight. He been champion draughts player of the goldfields, and was still prepared to take anyone on for a bout. Along the western wall sat a group of men who had been mining-mates in the days when the Affair at Eureka was but a thing of yesterday, and when they were giants in the land.

And, again, I, a callow youth, snuggled close besides them, and listened to their entrancing stories of the days when the world was wide. Gentle fatherly Tom Muir; friendly Bob Gullan, with his high boxer hat; Jack Tatham, the smiling Yorkshire man; very tall and very frail Charlie Martin, with his treble voice, and cultured, well-read Reeves, the bookseller.

I look at the clock. An hour has slipped away while I have been communing with the dead. The time for the evening session is approaching. Tom Opie sets up a patience deck, and a group gathering round watch his amazing manipulations of  the cards. Crib and euchre schools are formed. In the cosy corner, a solo school goes its misares and pays out its fishes. At the other end of the room frowning brows and tense silence betray the bridge fiends. Among these are J.C.Fletcher and T.R.Odlum who have the honour of holding the record as the oldest continuous habitués of the Smokery. They came here long, long ago, young bright-eyed youths -how long ago may be judged by the fact that both of them played in a chess tournament in 1890, a tournament in which there were 24 competitors.

From the crib table came the ancient tags- “Two’s the crew,” “Three’s the weight,” “Four’s the score,” ”Six’s the fix.”

And from the euchre school good-natured banter and merry laughter. Swiftly the hours glide away.

 “The storm outside might rain and rustle,

They did not mind the storm a whustle”.

 The door suddenly opens. There stands the caretaker. “Time, gentlemen, please!”

On with the coats! Out with umbrellas! Friendly good nights! And the Smokery is deserted. Perhaps now the ghosts of the old players return to their beloved haunt to play their old games over again. Certainly there would be stern Herbert Lockett, bold and adventurous Ernest Figgis, merry George Rowsell, little big-browed P.Lampe, gentle Bob Clarke, imposing J.Lee Archer, dignified Jacob Showman, noisy Reg Fray, musician Hatfield, as well H.H.Morell, cigar-smoking Goddie Abraham, pleasant Tweedie, cunning Power, mighty Tullidge, schoolmaster Burgess, foul-mouthed ??

But such meetings are not to be seen by human eyes. They certainly are not seen by the weary caretaker tidying up the room for tomorrow’s revels.