Chapter 2: Win Some, Lose Some

Now, let’s be clear: it’s not like I sat down one morning, got out a piece of paper, and said, “Right! What are the options before me that will take advantage of my blind eye and narrow field of vision?” and then whittled them down until I came up with snooker. To be honest, I’m not quite sure how I actually found myself there. It probably all stems from my dad.

My father, who has never been sporty, (does watching the horses count?) has always enjoyed snooker and he was pretty good at it too. He used to take part in a local league once a week, and I remember seeing the scrawled scoring cards on the mantelpiece, gradually getting more and more messy as the match went later into the night. But in most of the cards I saw, he was often the player that won. He had a genuine love for the sport. One of the first memories I have is of a nightclub contact card with a scrawl on the reverse:

‘To Dan
Happy Birthday
Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins.’

Nice.

Snooker was one of the few sports that I loved watching on TV. It seemed to offer so many things: skill, ability, resilience, and a mild awareness of maths. Whether it was watching Cliff Thorburn cut a ball in from the finest of angles, or Kirk Stevens smash a red into a pocket from one end of the table to the other, I was hooked. World Championship finals offered the faint promise of a later-than-usual bedtime, making me feel part of a national family as we watched these two gladiators battle long into the night, fuelled by marmite on toast and hot chocolate.

It wasn’t long until I started to pester Dad for my own snooker table. So desperate was I to have one that I used to get some balls and a broom handle and just hit them along the living room floor. Dad, realising that we weren’t quite this poor, finally relented and bought me my first ever snooker table. And this wasn’t some cheapo job that you just rested on your dining table. Oh no. This was a proper, actual snooker table. It was 6×3 foot with a genuine slate bed, lush green felt, and pockets made from mermaid hair. The spots were chalk marks, not plastic dots. It came with its own scoreboard for crying out loud! It was like being in my own little Crucible.

Alongside snooker, music was fast becoming the biggest thing in my life. Dad had bought me a stonking great ghetto blaster. It was massive: twin tape decks, FM stereo, and an aerial that reached to the moon. Michael Jackson’s Bad was permanently on play, though I never really got past ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’. I also had the latest Johnny Hates Jazz album, but let’s not dwell on that.

Thankfully my music collection expanded massively when I won a competition on Going Live! One day in April, Phillip Schofield and Sarah Greene were showing off a revolutionary piece of technology: a gadget that stored music. Amazingly, when you spoke to it, it would play back whatever song you wanted. Of course, this kind of technology is something we accept as an everyday concept today, but back in the mid- eighties it was science fiction. And some lucky person had the chance to win it.

All you had to do was answer one simple question: what is the official name for Galki Day? I thought for a moment… Galki Day?! Never heard of it. I then remembered the date: April 1st. Ah, it must be another name for April Fools Day, I reasoned. I found a blank envelope, scribbled my name, address, and answer on the back and sent it off to Wood Lane.

A couple of weeks later there was a knock at the door. Mum answered it to find a postman standing there with a massive package… addressed to me! I tore open the box to discover an Ice Cube stereo, the Top 40 singles, and the hallowed device that would play back music. There was also a letter inside:

‘Dear Daniel.

Congratulations! You won our Galki Day competition on Going Live! As you are probably aware, that competition was aired on April Fool’s Day and was, in fact, a hoax. But, because we had such an overwhelming response, we felt it was unfair not to give a prize. Your name was pulled out of the hat and so you’ve won all the goodies included in this package. Have fun!’

I couldn’t believe it! I’d actually gone and won something, and won something big! My moment of glory was, however, tainted by the fact that I never heard them read my name out on TV. Oh well, the prizes were what mattered, and they were good’uns. The Ice Cube stereo had a tape deck, radio, and a lid you could take off to store cans of drink when you took it to the beach. They also gave me the actual music player itself, with little memory cards to store the music. It didn’t work, of course. I wish I still had it, but alas, it’s lost in the sandstorm of time. What I do still have is that bundle of Top 40 singles, and what a bundle it was: Paula Abdul’s ‘Straight Up’, Kon Kan’s ‘I Beg Your Pardon’, and thirty-eight other smash hits I’m completely unable to remember.

My bedroom was slowly becoming my own little haven of entertainment. And so when friends came round (inevitably after spending hours on the Grand Pier playing Double Dragon), we indulged ourselves in music and snooker. I particularly enjoyed the snooker bit because I usually won.

As much as I loved having my own snooker table, nothing compared to playing on the full-size versions I would see on TV. When I was really young I would stand on a beer crate just to get my hand on the baize. Now I was a bit older and I could fully immerse myself in these halls of quiet reverie. I loved the smell and the ambience: beer soaked bar cloths, the hushed tones of concentration, the soothing ‘clack’ of ball-on- ball. Add to that the simple delight of pushing 20p into a slot on the wall every time you wanted to keep the lights on over the table, and I was in my own little paradise. Even better, I was starting to beat my dad more and more. To celebrate my coming of age, a family friend gave me a professional snooker cue that had been cut down to size, perfectly fitting my diminutive form. Solid wood. A one-piece. My wand.

I was so into snooker that on a family holiday to Devon I was entered into a fancy dress competition. What did I go as? Dennis Taylor? Ray Reardon? A trophy? Nope. My parents put me in a bin liner, stuck a snooker cue in my hand, and taped a piece of paper to my chest with the words ‘Pot Black’ written on it. I didn’t win.

After a suggestion from Dad, I joined the 147 Snooker Club run by the brilliantly named Bruce Bernard (that’s Bernard, not Bernard). Every Sunday morning, groups of children would practice their techniques and play against each other in the best of three frames. I must have caught the eye of Bruce because, not long after I started, I was asked to play in the junior league. Sporting glory at last.

Okay, so I was no Alex Higgins, but I wasn’t too shabby either considering I was blind in one eye and short-sighted in the other. Actually, I’m pretty sure that helped. It seemed to focus my line of sight on just the ball I was hitting. I won a couple of trophies in the league (and one from my mum), made some great long pots (thank you, eye) and generally did pretty well. And no one ever really knew about my sight. I think that made Bruce, my parents, and me a little bit proud.

Whilst I was doing my best to become the next Jimmy White (I actually wrote to Jim’ll Fix It asking if I could have a game against him: it never happened), things had been developing with my health. In 1985 I underwent a CAT Scan and then an angiogram. The CAT Scan involved going inside a large tube (‘the polo’ as Dad called it), to take X-rays of the inside of my head — the angiogram involved pumping a coloured dye around my body in order to get a better look at the structure of my vascular system. The consultants wanted to look in more detail at these ‘tortuous’ blood vessels around my eye and brain that were caused by the Wyburn-Mason syndrome. How intricate was this network of engorged vessels? How far reaching were they? Could they start to affect the vision in my other eye? Their conclusions were that the AV malformations were severe but did not threaten the vision in my right eye nor pose any neurological threats. I can only imagine the huge relief this gave my parents. If I’m being honest, I don’t remember this phase of my life that well (the medical records have helped fill in the gaps), but I do remember Mum and Dad buying me a Transformer toy as a reward, and that made everything okay.

As if that wasn’t enough, I had also been diagnosed with a systolic heart murmur. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute:

A heart murmur is an extra or unusual sound heard during a heartbeat. Murmurs range from very faint to very loud. Sometimes they sound like a whooshing or swishing noise. Normal heartbeats make a ‘lub-DUPP’ or ‘lub-DUB’ sound. This is the sound of the heart valves closing as blood moves through the heart. Doctors can hear these sounds and heart murmurs using a stethoscope.

I don’t remember hearing any extra ‘lub-DUPPs’, but obviously it was something that the consultants wanted to keep an eye on, especially given the complications I had with my vascular system. By the time I was nine the murmur had gone. It never really got in the way: I could still run and jump and do all the things the other kids could do — even if my face did get a bit red and blotchy whilst I was doing it. The only thing I couldn’t do now was wee properly.

Now at this point you might be thinking, Whoa, Daniel! Do I need to know this? Well, maybe you do and maybe you don’t, but I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t tell you about my circumcision. And besides, there are some cracking snip-based euphemisms coming up.

For some strange reason I was finding it hard to wee. It was painful and I didn’t like it. Mum took me to the doctor and after some investigations it was decided that the best course of action was to say bye bye to ‘Robin Hood’ and hello to ‘Little John’. The circumcision itself was fine — I had a shiny new winkie, albeit a little sore. The hospital sent me home and Mum put me to bed, replete with copies of the Beano and a bottle of Lucozade (crinkly orange wrapper intact).

The next morning I awoke, went to get out of bed… but couldn’t. I lifted the blankets and, to my horror, saw that my cocktail sausage was stuck to the sheets. And I mean properly stuck. During the night, pus had leaked from my ding-a-ling and formed a natural glue, welding me to the crisp, white bed linen.

“MUUUUUUUUUUMMMMMMMMMMMM MM!!!!!!!!!”

She raced upstairs to see me like a rabbit in the headlights, sheet in hand and pointing down to my joystick. She knelt by the bed, evaluated the situation, and looked me deep in the eye(s). I knew what was coming.

“We’re going to have to rip it off.”

I gulped, accepted my fate, gripped Mum’s hand, and — WHOOSH — it was off. Tears formed. Lucozade was spilt. But I was free.

For some unknown reason the Hospital had neglected to tell us that this was likely to happen. Mum, who rarely gets annoyed, took me to the doctor’s surgery to explain what we’d had to do, practically thrusting my crust-laden todger in his face. They quickly provided us with a plastic stool that I had to put over my lap to keep the sheets from touching. Oh, how the simplest things can help! With the exception of waking up one morning and weeing all the way down the stairs, this little snip caused minimal problems. Looking back, I’m glad I had it done.

Foreskins are so last century.

 

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