Bringing Chess to Visually Impaired People

The Gazette - August 2016

Edited by Julie Leonard
The views expressed in the Gazette do not necessarily reflect the policies or views of the BCA, nor those of the editor.

Gwen’s Story, by Graham Lilley

My mum was born in Liverpool on the 16th of February 1919 and was Christened Gwendolyn Berry so her initials were ‘GB’. I thought that she was ‘Great’ but I am biased! She had a happy childhood and couldn’t wait for her seventh birthday because back then you had to be seven to take out library books. When the day finally came she stood outside the library waiting for it to open and so started many years of avid reading until she stopped in her late eighties because she found it hard to see print. Gwen was also the May Queen when she was seven.

At fourteen Gwen left school and had three jobs before a year had passed. Her third job was as a trainee telephonist. She qualified and stayed in that job until she married at the age of 28. Her youth was spent riding her bike with friends. They rode from Liverpool to Southport and all around the Wirral on the other side of the Mersey. She also loved reading poetry and often went to the theatre to watch plays, operas and ballets.

Just before the Second World War, Gwen met Edwin Herbert, known to everyone as Bert. He was barracked in the street where she lived. At a party she told him that it was her birthday and she didn’t believe him when he said that it was also his. It turned out that they were both born on the same day, of the same month of the same year. They did not see one another much throughout the war. Bert was fighting the enemy and Gwen was working as a telephonist in the heart of Liverpool, spending a lot of her nights in the air raid shelter at the bottom of the garden. The war ended and Bert came home. They married in March 1947 and moved to St. Helens where Gwen spent the rest of her life. My brother, Jonathan, was born in the March of 1951 and I came along in the August of 1954. Throughout my childhood, dad and I were constantly in and out of hospital. After dad died in August 1966, my grandmother came to live with us. My mother went back to work in Liverpool in July the following year. She commuted an hour each way by bus, which made the days very long.

In 1974 my mum and I went to the AGM Weekend Tournament. It was the first of many BCA events that we attended together. At the British Chess Championship for the Visually Impaired in Blackpool 1975 I did well enough to be picked as the travelling reserve in our squad for the IBCA Olympiad team in Finland the following year. Mum’s work mates assisted by raising money to help pay for her to go with me. The venue was a sports centre 200 miles north of Helsinki. Many of the teams were accommodated in log cabins. In our cabin, mum and I had a room to ourselves and Colin Chambers, Jack Horrocks and Geoff Carlin slept in the main lounge and bedroom. Imagine the look on her colleagues’ faces when mum innocently announced that she had slept in a log cabin with her son and three strange men for a fortnight! We had two wonderful weeks, during which we had a party to celebrate my birthday. There was a lot of beer but there would have been more if our coach hadn’t dropped some, smashing them to pieces. I wanted a smashing time but not like that! While in Finland, mum wanted some milk to make tea. Not knowing the language, she got her milk by miming milking a cow!

In 1977 we went to West Germany for the Six Nations tournament and to Blackpool for the British Visually Handicapped Chess Championship, where I finished third. Then in summer 1979 we went to Chorleywood to play in the Visually Impaired Chess tournament where I finished third again. I qualified for the 1980 Olympiad in the Netherlands and this time played on top board. We had a great time there! The food and drink were excellent. Once again we celebrated my birthday during the event but the real party was on the last night. In those days the Russians weren’t allowed to drink until they had won the Gold Medal. Then after finishing their drinks they threw their glasses over their shoulders, smashing them on the floor. We partied all night and finally went to bed at 5am. Mum took the key to my room, so she could let herself in and wake me up for breakfast just two hours later!

In September 1981 we went to the Six Nations in Switzerland; a country mum had always wanted to visit. Sadly, this trip was tainted for her because I was ill for some of the time. Nevertheless, she loved the mountains!

The next Olympiad was in Spain in 1985. I found it far too hot there and became very ill. I didn’t eat for a whole day, which is most unusual. Mum cared for me and brought me food in bed when I could eat again. Together with some antibiotics from the doctor, her attentive nursing restored my health in time to travel home as planned.

In 1985 I won the British Chess Championship for the Visually Impaired, which entitled me to play in the World Individual Chess Championship for the Visually Impaired in Moscow in October 1986. We had to raise a lot of money for this trip but we managed it in the end. We set off with my coach, John Littlewood, and when we arrived in the heart of the city, mum spotted the statue of Yuri Gagarin, which was about 300 feet high and could be seen for miles. There were also numerous skyscrapers with shops at the bottom of them and the metro train stations were massive, made of marble. Mum said that big was beautiful in Moscow, so I would be happy there, and I was. During our stay, mum and John went for a trip on the Metro and got lost. Luckily John knew some Russian and was able to ask the way back. The trolley buses were interesting. No matter how full they became, people were never prevented from boarding. One day, mum made the mistake of standing by the ticket machine. The other passengers passed their money along the bus and the one standing by the ticket machine had to put the money in and pass the ticket back down the bus to its owner. Mum did this for the whole journey without letting on that she was English. On one of our days off we decided to visit the museum. Stefi Cohn came too. The entrance queue was very long and as we only had the afternoon we thought we wouldn’t get in until it was time to come home. A Russian gentleman behind us knew some English and heard us talking about it. He advised us to go to the front of the queue and say that we were tourists. We did this and sure enough we were allowed through by a guard with a rifle on his shoulder. Inside, mum said, “Look at this!” putting my hand on the massive foot of a statue made of solid stone and standing 30 feet high. A female member of staff immediately ran over and started gesturing at us and speaking in Russian, presumably telling us not to touch things. She followed us around for the rest of our visit. We flew back into London at night and mum said it looked like fairyland with all the bright lights of the city lighting up the dark.

In 1987 we were off on our travels once again, this time to Paris, for another Six Nations. Our team finished equal first and we were each presented with two bottles of Champagne of the same vintage that the Queen drinks! Later that year we went to Hungary to play in a strong team event in Budapest, which is an interesting city and was very cheap in those days. In May 1988 we had another enjoyable fortnight in Hungary, near the Yugoslav border.

In 1990 we went to West Germany for the Individual World Chess Championship for the Visually Impaired. Once again mum’s miming came into its own! She managed to get across to reigning champion, Berlinsky (USSR), that he was little and I was large. The Irish representative, Mike Meaney, played music every night for the whole fortnight, which made this trip especially enjoyable. Mum came with me to Dublin in 1990 and 1992 but didn’t travel to chess events abroad after that. Her last BCA event was the 70th Anniversary in York, 2002.

Gwen died on the 29th of April 2016. Rest in peace, Mum. I hope you are swinging on a star with your beloved Bert, reciting your favourite poem, Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.