WALLY WEST – A MEMORABLE MAN

 

Another slice of snooker history

 

By  John James Carty

You will not easily find Wally West’s name in the records of amateur snooker champions but during my time in snooker –  and before – he was one of the best-known non-professional players in Britain and Ireland. He was a fine craftsman, an artist, on a snooker table with a cue in his hands. He could produce the sort of shots that made Alex Higgins a star and in his own mind he pushed beyond the limits of the dramatic performances of Higgins or John Spencer.

In the early 1970s there were very few non-professional players who were well-known, even in their own local area, but Wally was a player who seemed to wander the country, becoming known as a good player and a good talker who could turn up in Dundee one day and Donegal the next.

His travels would often produce a job for a week or two, working in a snooker club or giving lessons. He was not a hustler and when he played in gambling matches the stakes were usually small. If he couldn’t play, he could talk: he knew everyone in the small world of snooker and he always had tales to tell about his friends, the professional players who appeared on television in ‘Pot Black’. As the game started to expand the pro players became more famous, more important, and even if his stories were sometimes ‘a stretch’ it became clear that not only did he know them, but they knew him.

He was not a fraud; the basic facts of ‘Who is Wally West?’ were true. But he was a fantasist or fabulist on an epic scale and in my opinion the stories he created about himself and his talents were detrimental to his ability to win competitive matches at the highest levels. He could play all the fancy shots in a match and, given the chance, could produce big breaks. But while he was ‘playing to the gallery’ – an audience could be anything from four to forty people – even in the most routine match, he carried the weight of his audience on his back. These people had not wandered in off the street; they were serious snooker fans and many of them were players too.

But under the strict rules of official match snooker Wally couldn’t just ‘get on with it’ and win his matches. He took it for granted that his opponent, perhaps a plumber who had worked a full day before the evening match, was nothing special, not a threat. Wally wanted to play the dazzling shots and when he was in the mood he could be an excellent ‘safety’ player, but he often broke down on a break because he could not resist going for a risky attacking shot instead of a sensible safety shot.  By chance, I saw more of his losing matches than his wins and his typical comment afterwards was ‘I don’t accept that result.’ Which made no sense at all in the real world.

I have been unable to find any photographs of Wally in those days. He was a man a little below medium height, in his early forties, with a large leonine head and very broad shoulders, the sort that wheelchair athletes get from their primary sport, archery. As far as I knew, Wally never had what we’d call a ‘proper’ job. He considered himself a businessman and was always full of optimistic plans and schemes. The only time he defined his profession for me he said he was – or had been – a painter and paper-hanger (wallpaper) and that he was ‘the fastest paper-hanger in London’.

I was surprised at this nonsense, what did they do, hold competitions throughout London every year? How much was the prize money?  Could they come round and do my house for the final? But it was no casual remark, he wanted to insist on its truth. I laughed so much he became offended and went off in a huff.  This was a typical Wally West statement – totally incapable of proof, but innocent enough. As were most of his exploits: a telephone call to me on some other subject might often end, ‘Have you heard what Wally West is doing now?’ Usually I hadn’t. One example was typical, harmless but somehow (in those days) daft.

He had taken a job as a manager of a new snooker center in Glasgow and the word was going around that he was giving bunches of flowers to women customers (he was a strong supporter of women’s snooker) and, they said, running to the table of anyone who made a 100 break to award them a prize of a chicken. I thought for a minute: running to the table? what was this ‘running to the table’? Listen, I come from Glasgow and in the billiard halls of my youth nobody needed to run for this purpose. If anybody won a chicken in those days the manager could send an order for another chicken direct to Kentucky and it would be delivered in plenty of time for anyone making the next 100 break.

But my opinion was well out of date. Times had changed since the chicken-free days of my youth. With the enormous growth of the game and the introduction of the Super Crystalate ball, both in the late 1970s, many snooker centers, especially those which attracted the best players, could see thirty or forty century breaks made in a day. The standard had improved so much that an enterprising snooker club owner could do well to establish a wee chicken farm in the Glasgow Green, the front garden of my youth.

But Wally had moved on to his next adventure before his imaginative scheme could threaten Colonel Sanders.

The Glasgow Green

To me, Wally was a memorable man for three reasons:

  1. The Guinness World of Snooker
  2. The Jimmy White affair 1979/80
  3. He sued me for libel – and won!

1. The Guinness World of Snooker was a competition held in the Isle of Wight, England, in about 1981. If you look at a map you’ll see that you can’t get any further away and still be in England. Wally was the sole organizer of the tournament, which had high prize money, sponsored by Guinness of course. I don’t remember much about it but the notable thing was that it happened at all. Hardly anyone could obtain sponsorship for snooker from a great international company, even with the promise of television coverage. The most successful professional promoters like Barry Hearn and Mike Watterson needed proven ability, a record of success, an efficient organization and the possibility of television exposure.

Wally had none of that, but he somehow secured the sponsorship and ran a good tournament. It was not an official event, it carried no champion’s title and it was never repeated. But Wally was the only individual ever to produce such a high-value event in amateur or Pro-Am snooker in Britain.

2. The Jimmy White Affair:

Jimmy won the English Amateur Snooker Championship in Helston, Cornwall, in 1979 beating Dave Martin in the final and thereby qualifying for a place in the World Amateur Snooker Championship to be held in Tasmania, Australia in 1980. Few followers of the game doubted that he would win the world title.

Then disaster struck: the tabloid newspapers reported that Jimmy (at 17 then under the legal drinking age) had been out drinking with friends and that they had been very noisy drunks. I knew nothing except what I read in the papers but there was no mention of property damage, violence or criminal charges, so I thought no more of it.

Then Bill Cottier, the chairman of the B&SCC, the national governing body, announced that he was displeased and would not allow Jimmy to go to Tasmania representing England. Bill Cottier ruled his domain the way the first Mayor Daley ruled Chicago, but he alone did not have the power to ban Jimmy and I knew – or thought I knew – that the full council of the B&SCC would not support this unconstitutional punishment.

I was a busy man in those days: in my opinion Bill Cottier was a silly old booger with dictatorial tendencies, and Jimmy was a silly young booger with teenage-type tendencies. So I deplored the threat and, I suppose, waited to see what would happen.

Wally West phoned me in a state of outrage: he had no official connection with Jimmy and was simply a friend and occasional practice partner. I couldn’t see why he was so upset, but he convinced me that the 30-odd men on the council (no women then) would not go against Bill Cottier and indeed might support the ban with a big margin. In that event Jimmy would not be in the world championship, even if his expenses could have been raised by collections and so on.

I had met most of the members of the council and thought they were reasonable men. Even Bill Cottier was courteous and sensible whenever I met him. Wally persuaded me that my faith was misplaced. He knew these people and had been around when the great power struggle between the North and South of England was at its height in the sixties (the North won). He simply knew more about snooker and its history than I did.

So we agreed to telephone every member of the council and a few interested journalists. We split the list between us and made all the calls over three days. I was polite to the council members and they were kind to me, but there was quite a strong northern bias against London. Most of the northern members were, on balance, against Jimmy, mainly because he was ‘a flash young southern kid’ and (unstated) a better player than any of them had been or ever would be.

They were not strongly in favor of Wally either, because he was ‘a flash London git’ and (unstated) a better player than most of them had ever been. It took a lot of persuasion but in the end we knew we had convinced them that the punishment was out of all proportion to the offence. We had the votes against Bill Cottier’s plan. As far as I remember the matter never came to a vote of the full council: the drumbeat was heard in the corridors of power and Cottier gave in with a good grace.

I am not writing this to claim a share in the success of the campaign – it was all Wally West. If he had not called me I would probably have relied on my own ignorant opinion and done nothing, and Jimmy would have been deprived of his right to go to Tasmania. Of course Jimmy White would still have gone on to have a great professional career with earnings of over seven million pounds, but the record books would not show Jimmy as 1980 world amateur snooker champion. The records books do not say that Jimmy won that title owing to the efforts of Wally West. But I do.

3. The libel (defamation) action:

In this life there are some things worse than receiving notice of a libel action, but not many. English law is very severe on the defendant who has no defense; the damages awarded start in the thousands of pounds and cannot easily be calculated. For the average journalist or publisher who does not have libel insurance it’s a nightmare.

In about 1984 Wally West and an associate had a plan to start some sort of organization for the benefit of tournament players. As the editor of Cue World and an official of LHC who was easily reached on the phone, I was an appropriate person to receive news and complaints; also, as noted above, gossip and rumour. As a result of the information I was hearing, I included in an article I was writing, in passing, that some subscription money for this plan had been collected and had not been repaid when the plan did not go forward. If I could not prove that this was true, I was guilty of defaming the persons concerned.

A letter from attorneys soon arrived, claiming damages, and we began to check back with the people who had called us (so far as we could remember who they were). But no one wanted to verify the complaints. We heard: ‘no, it wasn’t me’, ‘I don’t remember’ or ‘I was just reporting what my friend told me.’

Without any hard evidence to support our statement we had to give in and settle the matter. The magazine’s owners were very good about it and, although they paid several thousand pounds in compensation and lawyers’ fees, it cost me nothing – and I learned a harsh lesson.

While all this was going on, there were, unknown to me, unrelated negotiations being concluded for the sale of Cue World, so I was soon out of the editor’s chair and shortly after that, out of snooker. I never saw Wally West again. He retired from competitive play and became a breeder of pedigree dogs in his retirement. He died in about 2016.