Memory being what it is one can’t be exactly sure, but it is very probable that Clay Cross Chess Club’s first ever meeting took place at the start of the 1976 Autumn term of the Adult Education Centre in the town, where we were given the use of a classroom, probably on a Tuesday evening.
It is poignantly sad that one of the club’s foundational pillars began to feel a pain in his back in September this year, possibly exactly 40 years to the day after that first meeting. The back pain worsened astonishingly rapidly into an untreatable illness and Keith Myhill died early in the morning of the 13th November, 2016.
It is fair to call him a foundation pillar, and it is also poignant that in this age when chess clubs are collapsing as the main props like Keith fall away unreplaced, he had been strongly arguing that we “are no longer a chess club, just a set of teams”. He wanted us to meet weekly as a proper club again, to try to fulfil our constitutional aim of promoting chess in the local area, to be inviting for newcomers. “If we’re not going to be a club, we should abandon our constitution!”
His sudden passing makes that ambition to become a thriving club again more difficult to achieve.
At a Nottingham chess congress many, many moons ago a very young Paul Williams – a successful GCSE pupil of Keith’s and another of the club’s pillars - was doing battle to the death with another young player, in the last game to finish in a round of the Minor competition. Keith and I watched the excitement. A very officious Brian Eley moved in, towered over the game, and stopped their clock.
“You must both get your score sheets up to date before you play on”, he ordered. The lads, having made maybe 15 moves since either touched a pen, stared blankly across at each other and then meekly up at the controller, who stared expressionlessly down at them, repeating the order. At the side of the room Keith and I spent the next 15 minutes weeping in uncontrollable laughter at the absurd Catch 22ness of the scene: the ex-British Chess Champion toying cat-like with two minion mice over a rule with which they could not comply. You must continue the game, but you cannot continue the game until…
It was a moment that characterised his approach to life. Keith was an expert Catch 22 man at heart. He could sniff absurd nonsense – authoritarian or any other kind – a mile off, he revelled in having no truck with it, but in extracting enormous fun from it.
He was born in the village of Martham on 16th May, 1949, but was raised a few miles away, on the coast at Caister, plain Norfolk villages where he probably learned: “You decide what’s good and right and you don’t budge from it”. After Sunderland Art College and getting a teaching qualification in Leeds, Keith became an art teacher, and remained a contented classroom teacher throughout his career, certainly unwilling to jump through hoops to seek advancement, but always willing to support his fellow injuns when they got into difficulties, with the chiefs or otherwise, latterly as their union rep. And good teacher’s union reps don’t get kicked upstairs!
It was often injuns who ran school chess clubs, and until Kenneth Baker (Secretary of State for Education, 1986 to 1989) told injun teachers exactly what they did and didn’t get paid for, Keith did all sorts of things he didn’t get paid for, because he was a good enthusiastic injun, including Tupton Hall School Summer Camps and the school Chess Club. At a time – late 70s, early 80s - when it was difficult to find a suitable venue, Clay Cross CC met in a grim, freezing upper room of the Shoulder of Mutton, which we called The Pigeon Loft because our chess boards were squeezed between the pigeon racing club’s store of grimy bird cages on rickety trestle tables. This was not an attractive venue for middle-class adults but Keith’s school chess club brought a steady stream of youngsters into Clay Cross Chess Club and its only – Chesterfield and North Midland League – team. That was until Kenneth Baker gave him a whole new set of silly things to do – mostly filling in hundreds of bits of paper - for his salary instead. Without Keith’s pupil recruits the town chess club would probably have died in its infancy through lack of members.
As it began to thrive and grow he was always a leading member: treasurer, chairman or secretary, and usually one of its team captains; and a mentor. Paul Williams, a kid of 8yrs at the start, says:
“Keith was my teacher, my team mate, occasionally my employer - as he asked me to do various (building) jobs over the years - but most of all a friend. Not many have such an influence on an individual. He marked me Ds and Cs throughout my O level years only for me to finish with a B in Art, my best result. How he liked to mess with your head :-).
“He advised me as an 18 year old that I should take an active role in the running of Clay Cross Chess Club as I had had years of pleasure from playing chess as a child with the club. I duly obliged and to this day I still captain the A Team and have over the years captained all the (Derbyshire) county sides.
“I once followed him to a chess match not knowing the way and he found it highly amusing to drive round the roundabout half a dozen times while I followed him.
“He gave me a character reference for my current job with Chesterfield Borough Council. It just goes on…
“I will miss him.”
Offered free locations in Chesterfield – Eastwood Hall and the Winding Wheel – by the Trades Council May Day Committee, the club ran three very successful one-day events on bank holiday Mondays, which many will remember. Keith was tireless as an organiser, treasurer and a section controller.
In a sabbatical year out of the classroom he immersed himself in painting, and inspired by David Hockney and other artists' work produced a whole oeuvre of distinctive paintings. The one shown below is 2m high and was inspired by a beautiful morning’s “poly-bagging” – we didn’t have any sledges! – on a snowy hillside, and might be called “Ellen seen at speed from a BIGGER poly-bag”. Those dark polygon’s at the bottom are Keith’s feet, from which clues you can easily work out the rest!
Some years later (1993), following a parents’ evening at which Kissi, one of his pupils, wanted her mum Sharon to hear about her from a teacher whose lessons she enjoyed and thrived in, some kind of pre-twitter, pre-facebook banter with match-making pupils, like:
“Sir, Kissi’s mum fancies you!”
“Really! Well I think she’s very nice, too”… led to a hand-made Christmas card and eventually to a shy do-or-die phone call from established bachelor Keith:
“I was going to ask you if you’d have a date with me.”
“Well, when you decide to do it, let me know,” putting the phone down.
“If I don’t ask now I never will. Will you have a date with me?”
So Keith became (in 1995) a devoted surrogate father of two teenagers, Kissi and Jo(seph) and revelled marvellously in the responsibility of that and the role of husband thereafter.
A more steadfast man we will not meet.
"Ellen at speed from a bigger polybag"