I’m thinking about a coathanger and grinning to myself. Not just any old coathanger, mind. No, a very specific one. It’s a bittersweet memory that strikes a sad note. But then..heh..you have to smile..
It’s the time of the year you see. With the World Snooker Championships on telly and the May Bank Holiday weekend approaching, I always tend to get a bit nostalgic about Sheffield. My home city, where The Crucible Theatre is, where the snooker’s at. And that feeling is getting stronger this year because, during a break in live coverage, they’re showing a retrospective of the famous Steve Davis vs Dennis Taylor final from 1985. If you’re old enough to have watched it, then you probably remember it. 17 frames apiece and both needing just the black to become world champion. That was the same year that I left Sheffield. The year of Coathanger. And the snowman. Oh, and the hippy chick. And, of course, The Alamo. Yes, I remember The Alamo..
Watching that intense black ball tussle again all these years later, but this time already knowing the outcome, I focus in on the players. As the tension mounts and their cueing becomes more tremulous, each man in turn has a moment, after playing a bad shot, when their statures shrink slightly, their shoulders drop a little and their facial expression says, I’ll get my coat..
..Coathanger. Like I said, I’m smiling now, at the knock-on memories that the match evokes. Misty eyed, but definitely smiling, I’ll tell you why, if you have a couple of minutes to spare. I’ll tell you the Coathanger story..
Chalk – a soft, white, porous sedimentary rock, a form of limestone composed of the mineral calcite.
Chalk, in the form of small blue or green cubes of the stuff, became significant in my life during my late teens, when I started playing snooker regularly at the local YMCA. In New York at that time, YMCAs may well have been hot beds of gay sexual liberation, where constructions workers were shagging cowboys, if the hype was to be believed, but in Sheffield it was just a place up the road where me and my mates could play snooker for several hours a week for not much money. The tea lady took a shine to us and gave us free teas. I had my own cue. And chalk.
Then in 1977 the Embassy World Snooker Championships took up in residency the city. I recall the first ever final at The Crucible, when John Spencer beat Cliff Thorburn, as part of it was being played out whilst I was busy being Best Man at a YMCA snooker mate’s wedding. I’d been asked to do the honours at the last minute after the original best man lost his nerve. It was a hastily arranged affair all round, as my mate’s wife-to-be was ‘in the family way’. After the service, on the telly in the pub, the snooker players drank beer and smoked whilst waiting for their next shot. My mate kissed his new missus-with-child. All very Saturday Night, Sunday Morning..
I’ve never been to watch any live snooker being played, preferring the view from the sofa and I rarely missed a final in those early Crucible years, when the game was massively popular. 18 and a half million people saw Davis and Taylor slug it out in 85. I was one of them. But only just..
I decided to go out that evening. And for me to have eschewed the snooker final in those days, must have meant that whatever else I was doing had to have been pretty important. It was. And it involved, not chalk, but another type of sedimentary rock..
Coal – a combustible black or dark brown rock consisting chiefly of carbonized plant matter, found mainly in underground seams and used as fuel.
A few weeks previously, on March 3rd to be exact, the year-long miner’s strike had come to an unceremonious end. It was a big defeat. Massively dispiriting. I’d been quite involved, mainly in my capacity as a comic, doing benefit gigs but also joining the odd picket line. It had been an extraordinary year in many ways, with people from all walks of life, countrywide, finding amazing strengths and showing sides of themselves that they didn’t even know they possessed. Whatever the history books say about it, at a human level it was a game changer for many men and women, in terms of how, and what they thought about politicians, the police, their workmates, their neighbours and their families; the world. But in the end they/we lost. And for some time after, a flat atmosphere and sombre feeling hung over many of the folk that had struggled long and hard, and those who had supported them in that struggle.
On the same evening of the Davis/Taylor final, a play was being staged in a pub, The White Lion, in the Heeley area of Sheffield. A play about the miner’s strike. It had been conceived before anyone knew the strike was going to end in defeat. The door takings were to be donated to the strike fund, which was still ongoing as it supported miner’s families whose livelihoods had been lost for a whole year. I wanted to attend, to show support and celebrate some of the spirit of the people involved. A last gasp you might say.
So I went along with a couple of friends who lived near me, one of whom had unwittingly become a cause celebre of the strike, the year previously. A member of Women Against Pit Closures, she had gone along to Orgreave colliery on a day that became known as the Battle of Orgreave, a bloody scrap between pickets and police.
Whilst there she narrowly escaped being brained by a riot cop, as she was tending to an injured miner. Luckily, someone pulled her out of baton’s way at the last moment, but a photographer called John Harris caught the incident on his camera and it became an iconic image of that time. You can see the photo here:
A bit of related trivia: The 1990 chart hit and club classic, Hippychick, by a band called Soho was, according to the band, inspired by the woman in the photo. It includes the lyric – ‘And love, I stopped loving you since the miners’ strike..’
So, on to the Coathanger story which was told to the partisan audience that night by an actor playing a policeman. Of course many were already familiar with the story, as it had been doing the rounds for some time and I had even told it myself at gigs. Over time and the many retellings people had added their own embellishments and developed it, but here is the basic story as I recall it –
At Cortonwood Colliery where the strike had initially begun, there was a picket line that was manned 24/7. It always had at least two pickets present, a brazier constantly on the go, and there was a small hut there, on which hung a hand-written cardboard sign that said, The Alamo. This place came to symbolise the heart and spirit of the strike. Whilst ever The Alamo was in place, you felt there was hope.
And so it was, that during one of the cold months, in the previous Christmas/New Year period, on the picket line at The Alamo, some pickets built a snowman.
But on this particular day, a senior police officer who was well-known to the miners, as he’d been present at many of the pickets and clashes over the year, was also at The Alamo. This police chief was known to the miners by the nickname they had given him. ‘Coathanger’. Or, if using the broad South Yorkshire pronunciation in which the name was usually uttered, Coit ‘anger. This pet moniker had been given to Coit ‘anger in light of him being ‘a bloody massive bugger’ with shoulders so broad that it looked like he had a coathanger under his uniform.
So, the story goes that Coathanger did not like this snowman. Some say that a police helmet had been placed atop the large snowman’s head, turning into a mocking effigy of Coathanger himself. I also heard that there was some snowball action involved, and a robust pelting of the police by some strikers, or ‘The Enemy Within’ as Thatcher called them..
But Coathanger was in no mood for games that day, and so, after his repeated orders to the pickets to remove the ‘obstruction’ had been ignored, he instructed one of his men to drive a police vehicle into the offending snowman to flatten it. At which point a riot cop duly put down his shield, got into a police van, the type that pickets were used to being routinely thrown into the back of, and drove straight at the snowman, scattering miners in the process. Problem being, that what the cops didn’t know, was that the snowman had been built around a very large concrete post..
Now, I’m sure that your reaction to this story will be somewhat less beer-spittingly, air-punchingly joyous as was generally the case in 1985, when it was told in pubs and on picket lines around the Yorkshire coalfields. But at the time it was a zinger, chuffing brilliant. One for the underdogs. Get in!
So, after the play in the pub, I got back to my mum’s where I was living at the time and found to my delight that the other drama, the one playing out at The Crucible, was still in progress. I hadn’t missed it after all. It had turned into a classic, with tit for tat frame winning that meant it had gone on later than any other match there before it. My mum arrived back from our local pub, The Hanover, where, she said, they’d all been engrossed in it too. We sat rapt, along with the other 18 and half million viewers as the match went well past the midnight hour into the 35th and deciding frame, and that last nail-biting…
… final black. The atmosphere still grabs you, even after 30 years, watching the drama unfolding again. The deadpan, robot-like Davis from Romford, against Taylor the jokey and jovial Irishman with the funny glasses ( like chalk and cheese..). Once again locked at 17 frames each. Between them, they will take 7 shaky shots at that black ball ( black like coal..), before Taylor will eventually pot it, to fall over the line and win. He will wag his finger in victory, and Davis will sit still and stony faced, looking gutted, (like the miners) in defeat..
I decide to write this blog and wonder what to call it. Hmm, snooker and the miner’s strike, summed up in one sentence? Got it! Well, pretty obvious innit? – You’ve Gotta Picket a Pocket or Two.
Alright, I’ll get my coat..