“Old friends / Sat on their park bench / Like bookends” (Paul Simon)
This rather touching, if melancholy Simon and Garfunkel song about old friends and ageing was resonating in my mind as I was driving back home to Worcester on Saturday evening. Paradoxically perhaps, I had spent the day watching a collection of worryingly good juniors playing in the Witney Rapidplay, which I was attending in order to present the prizes, along with the ECF Website of the Year Award for the splendid Witney Chess Club site.
The event itself had been a genuine pleasure to watch. It was run by a friendly and capable team of local players, led by Alan Kennedy, whose relaxed warmth and wit in introducing the event set the tone for what followed and made sure that the players and their parents had a stress-free, enjoyable day. I’m grateful to Mike Truran for the invitation and for his kind hospitality, despite his not having the decency to let me win our blitz game. (Alan beat me 2-1 as well – really, is this any way to treat an honoured guest?)
Days like this help to recharge the batteries of this occasionally weary soul, preventing me from drowning in the murky waters of the ECF’s funding debate and other important but not always uplifting matters. They’re a reminder of what a joy the game of chess is and of the decency of the vast majority of people involved with it. There have been days over the last couple of months when my work for the Federation has left me feeling anything but joyful, so the reminder was both timely and very welcome.
Everyone I spoke with was unfailingly friendly, and the conversations touched on everything from junior development programmes (Witney Chess Club’s is self-evidently a tremendous success, built upon a determined effort to reach out to local schools and provide a supportive and encouraging environment) to daytime chess clubs for older people and the age-old question, “How do we attract and retain more female players?” (to which I wish I had a good answer).
One doesn’t expect to solve the problems of English chess through chats like these, but it all helps. I did learn a useful tip for those looking for a best-selling snack treat: chocolate frogs. Helen Hackett, of Hackett’s To Go, who was providing the abundant catering for the event, could hardly restock the supply fast enough. Junior event organisers, take note!
The day before, I had accompanied a small delegation from the Worcestershire Chess Association to the home of the remarkable Bert Foord, where we were to present an engraved glass gift as a token of the association’s appreciation for Bert’s astonishing twenty-five years as WCA Treasurer, a post he had relinquished a few months previously. What I hadn’t realised until then was that Bert’s quarter century of voluntary service on behalf of the WCA had not even begun until AFTER Bert had retired from full-time work. Now in his nineties, he still enjoys regular tussles with his chess computer, his pleasure in the game undiminished after more than seventy years.
Bookends. It was the juxtaposition of these two events – both unalloyed pleasures from my point of view – which caused my mind to wander to the Simon and Garfunkel song. Part of it was a reflection on ageing – my work with Age UK tends to lead me to think about this and, let’s face it, I can lean towards the melancholy – but most of all it was the combination of the young children and the nonagenarian, bookends united in their love of the same absorbing, inspiring, maddening game.
It’s tempting to focus on the development of younger players, and of course this is vitally important for the health of the game. We should never forget, however, that one of the marvels of chess is that it both spans and unites the generations as few other activities can. I want very much for the ECF to grow junior chess, but this has to be in parallel with work to promote opportunities for older players as well (everything in-between).
Bookends come in pairs. If you let one go, the books fall off.