Saturday, July 24, 2010

BOOKS: A Christmas Stocking by Frank Stewart

Every now and then, when I'm down in the dumps, I pull out a slim red volume called A Christmas Stocking, written by one of Bridge's great southern gentlemen, Frank Stewart.

I had a chance to meet and then work with Frank during my brief sojourns as the PR flack for the American Contract Bridge League. His reputation is deserved. And he's a writer who can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned. He's mostly a column writer available here. But his little red book of feel good stories centred around Christmas at the Bridge Club. is a guaranteed pick-me-up every time.

How slim is slim? Well, at 64 pages including copious illustrations by Joellen Cianciola Watkins, it's actually got less wordage than most magazines these days. I normally head right for the concluding of five stories, Millard Pringle's Christmas. On my most recent reading, I then u-turned and read the first four in order. By the time the hour was up, I was filled once again with bonhomie and had put thoughts out of my head of committing bodily harm on some of my .... smarts-challenged .... clients.

Stewart certainly isn't the first or even the most prolific writer of tales told about a local Bridge Club stocked with colourful (and colourfully named) characters. Heck, I did more than a bit of it myself in my column-writing days. Most people who read the major magazines would finger Victor Mollo and later David Bird as the masters of the art. But, for my money, Stewart succeeds best in capturing the humanity that is Bridge at the local club. Mollo and Bird both strive for the yuks and succeed admirably.

The thing that resonates with me about the Millard Pringle story is because of my experiences as a young player at the Bramalea Duplicate Bridge Club, run by a pair of teachers from my former senior public school, Mark Loeb and Bob Fedosa. I think I was shepherded just right and it wasn't long before I was one of the better players at the club, despite still being in high school. One night I arrived without normal partner Don Penning and was faced with the proposition of playing with the club harridan or with a gentleman who was, simply, the worst player in the club. I picked the guy over the gal.

What happened next beggars my imagination, even these many years later. The whole night was a horror of bridge, with some bidding exercises that simply weren't possible. At the night's conclusion, we finished last. How badly last? EVERY OTHER PAIR FINISHED ABOVE-AVERAGE!!! You could imagine my reaction and the need for Mark and Bob to pry my fingers from around the throat of my incredibly inept partner.

And you'd be wrong. The goodness of my partner (one of the few people I have ever accepted an invitation to go to his home and dine with his family) shone through all night. Attacking him in any way would have been the equivalent of kicking a puppy. Repeatedly. We lost Arif Uzziman too soon from the local Bridge circuit.

The story about Millard Pringle ends differently in the book. The feelings it brings back aren't so different.

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