Back in the 1970s and 80s it seemed as if almost everybody smoked. There were no bidding boxes, or bridgemates to clutter up the table – just a large ashtray emptied regularly by the staff. Non smokers were surprisingly tolerant as the atmosphere gradually thickened, till your eyes smarted and you could hardly see across the room. Clothes worn on a bridge night went home reeking of cigarette and cigar. Hugh Kelsey was a particularly heavy smoker. When presented with a dummy he would immediately light a cigarette to give himself time to consider the play. When the play was particularly difficult he might have one cigarette burning in the ashtray and another in his hand.
Hugh was an international celebrity, often invited abroad. It was on a trip to the Netherlands in the 1980s that he suffered a massive heart attack from which he barely recovered. He was told to stop smoking. That was too much, but he replaced the cigarette with a cigar. The cigar also sat in the ashtray, but he smoked only one at a time.
As the damage to health caused by smoking became clearer so did the air in the card rooms. Various clubs tried to improve things in various ways: no smoking for the first hour; or for a spell halfway through the tournament; or confining smoking to certain areas. The Melville was one of the first to ban smoking in the card rooms altogether, after a campaign spearheaded by Fiona O’Brien. (Fiona was a non-smoker whose workplace was full of smokers. She died tragically young of lung cancer, leaving us with a legacy of clean air.) It was all quite controversial at the time. Some long-standing members resigned in protest. But the club survived and prospered. And saved money on redecoration.
I gave up smoking in the early 80s after a chest infection confined me to bed. There were no artificial aids in those days and I was very worried about how I would survive my first night of bridge without succumbing to temptation. Then I discovered that Carolyn Peploe had also given up around the same time. We both have a stubborn streak, equally determined not to be the first to crack. I like to think we helped each other through the first few painful months.
Another thing that was different was the amount of alcohol consumed. In my early days waitresses visited the tables taking drinks orders. The Melville stopped serving draught beer shortly after I joined – too much wastage – but having a drink during a session of bridge was the norm.
For some one drink was not enough. I cannot vouch for the truth of this tale, but it is rumoured that one evening, during a League match, the table where Moore McVeigh and Bob Sutherland were playing had consumed 15 double whiskies before half time. Why an odd number? They offered drinks to their opponents and one of them accepted once.
The night before Bob’s wedding to Christine coincided with the Carlton Ladies v Gents match, and my mother and I were paired with Moore and Bob. We helped them finish one bottle, my mother keeping her end up well, but (memory may be faulty) they were on their own for the second one.
Another possibly apocryphal story concerns a Scottish Cup match in Glasgow where Moore and Bob took on the Shenkin brothers who were equally fond of their whisky. In those days drinking and driving was quite normal. Driving home from Glasgow via the Trossachs was not.
In the late seventies I had a brief spell on the Melville board, thankfully cut short when I had my first child. I remember serving behind the bar occasionally. Someone ordered a whisky and bitter lemon. This seemed so bizarre that I queried it – was this in two separate glasses? No, it was Ricky Guetta’s favourite tipple.