When I started writing these diary offerings I felt very much that the appropriate approach would be to focus upon my experiences at the Day Hospice. It never occurred to me that I might produce a piece of nostalgia harking back to a much earlier time in my life.
From time to time patients will bring along items of interest to the Day Hospice. These include books, photographs and press clippings, often about how life used to be in Wellington, Dawley or wherever. So when I came across an old scrapbook, I took it with me one day and showed it to a few folk. It has to be said that it occasioned much interest, as well as a certain amount of disbelief, since it comprised a collection of press cuttings from papers in the USA about a tiddlywinks tour.
The year of 1962 was a significant one for me. At the end of May I celebrated my 21st birthday just before the end of my second year reading maths at Oxford, then came August and this tiddlywinks tour. It is important here to provide a little background about tiddlywinks. For most people it is a simple childish game where the object is to flip winks into a pot, using a large wink called a squidger. Whilst this is indeed the end objective, achievement of this can be frustrated if any of your winks are covered (squopped) by another wink. A squopped wink is unplayable and it is necessary to desquop the wink. This can be done by yourself or your partner adding a further wink on top of the pile. Alternatively, the player who has the covering wink may elect to move it for tactical reasons. Strategy and tactics are key features of the game, together with manual dexterity as played under international rules. It has to be said that the modern game has moved on considerably since its early beginnings at Cambridge University around 1955, with Oxford launching the Oxford University Tiddlywinks Society (OUTS) around 1958.
I became involved with tiddlywinks really by chance when I discovered Oxford University Tiddlywinks Society meeting for its weekly practice at my college. It was on a Sunday with not too much else to do. One attraction was that here was a mixed gender game – of considerable interest in those days of single sex colleges. It turned out that I was pretty adept at the game and progressed to the first team in due course, eventually becoming Master of the Winks. In 1960-61 the Prince Philip trophy for inter-university competition had been won by Oxford and after some negotiation with Guinness, who had a growing interest particularly in the East Coast market of the USA, agreed to sponsor a team of four of us to go over to America.
Our budget was fairly limited but it paid for a passage by boat over to New York, a return charter flight back to Gatwick and something towards accommodation early on in the YMCA. The only match we had managed to arrange in advance was with a group of Madison Avenue Public Relations executives who frequented a restaurant called Maria’s Chin Chin, so there was a considerable degree of uncertainty as to just how we would fill in our time in the States.
We need not have worried: these Madison Avenue types had all the right contacts and made sure we had good press coverage as we duly beat them. It also seemed to be the silly season over there which resulted in us ending up with more offers of matches and hospitality than we could fit in! Whilst in New York we met up with the New York Giants American football team: these were really big fellows but chickened out of playing a match with us.
The publicity generated by these events was considerable and it was picked up right across the States. One outcome was that a West Coast brewery flew us across to San Francisco where our arrival prompted almost a full page in the San Francisco Chronicle on 21st August 1962. The headlines were “Fierce British Winks Team Here” with the sub-title “Killers With a Squidge”. We were put up in the Press Club and played a match but this was not just any old match: we were kitted out in full morning suits and played the game in the Sheraton-Palace Hotel Garden Court.
We were flown down to Los Angeles to appear on a coast to coast TV programme called “Who in the World?” Then up to Seattle before returning to New York for some more matches. One of these involved flying to Boston to take on Harvard University, who were duly trounced like all other opposition.
Amongst others, there were matches in Philadelphia, at the Bucks County Playhouse in Pennsylvania, and in New Jersey. Unfortunately, time did not allow us to take up an offer to go to Las Vegas for a match. All of these opportunities came our way after our early apprehension that we might end up with hardly any games!
Even when we returned home after our all-conquering tour there were still bits of media coverage. There was a full page article in TIME magazine in September 1962, LIFE Magazine in December 1962 and even The Observer in its ‘Sayings of the Week’ column had as one of its half dozen quotes “English Rules are much more complex” (Mary Hoffman, US Tiddlywinks Coach). There is no doubt that our tour kick-started the interest in tiddlywinks among the Ivy League colleges in the USA.
I was able to continue my tiddlywinks career for the 1962-63 season and played for England against Scotland in Edinburgh, we won. That was to be the final highlight of my career before retirement but it is always best to retire at the top! The continuing bonus of tiddlywinks was that it was a useful talking point at early job interviews, quite apart from providing some fascination for prospective girlfriends.
For much more information about the history and development of the modern game, together with rules and explanations of strategy and tactics, have a look at the Wikipedia entry on Tiddlywinks or the English Tiddywinks Association website (www.etwa.org).