Why I failed to get away

By Peter Jones

Why I failed to get away…and why I am so pleased I didn’t

Any resemblance between this tale and what actually happened is pure happen-chance since that truth will have survived almost fifty years fading memory, retelling and goodly doses of b/s. But the gist of it is valid.

1969. Man walks on the moon, Woodstock kicks off, first Jumbo flies and Keith Jarret kicks half of the points in Wales win over England. Same old. I had just returned to work in London after a year in Geneva, still newly-wed, and living in a flat on the edge of Regents park (not a result of affluence but wife working for the lawyers who controlled it)…thoughts turned to rugby with a new season approaching. Better go for a run…when i spot some lads chucking a ball about on the eastern fringes of the park. Hampstead on expedition from Albany Street. Joined in to find myself alongside two other first-timers….Richard Wheatley and Duncan Florence. Couple of training sessions later we were asked if we fancied playing for the club against Public School Wanderers on the Tuesday night…and I am sure that we played against a touring team from Lusaka on the Wednesday. So with addition of the now-legendary Tony Macfarlane and Tony (‘yours’) Hill…those were the backs for the second season of Hampstead Rugby Club First XV. Duncan and I had established that we had played University rugby against one another a couple of years before…I recognised the colours of his Uni socks and we then found that we had probably marked one another. Given his elusiveness it is not surprising that we didn’t recognise one another…probably never got near him. Also found that Richard and Peter Hartley had been coached, at Birmingham University, by a guy with whom I played in the centre for Birmingham at the same time. One of the delights of rugby in those days was coming up against and playing with guys one had played against in the past…even if a beery haze often removed much recollection…or at least confused that recollection.
First Saturday game that season…to repeat, the second season of the club …away to Worcester….I think. Those were the days when their pitch backed on to a river and they had a guy in a boat to fetch the ball when it went in. (Played there a few years earlier for Birmingham and we had sweepstake on who could get the ball into the river most…I couldn’t kick then nor since). Coach got as far as Hanger Lane when it was realised that the shirts were still in the laundrette in Hampstead. The valiant Mrs Brown (lovely wife of acting captain scrum half Alastair Brown….Gerry Coade was on walkabout round Europe with Gerry Matthews and Bob Prescott…how could they miss the start of the season?)…ferried the shirts to Hanger Lane where we were all sprawled about the grass. Full ahead to Worcester…well not quite because we ran into tourist traffic in Broadway. Somebody had the idea of changing on the coach….which caused a deal of surprise to some of the elderly female denizens of Broadway…and elicited the comment from one of the Berisners that ‘this is just like the war’……to our amazement he explained that he had been an Israeli paratrooper, or something like, in the Six-day War…and we were worried about Worcester!) We arrived a little late…some of their lads had taken a pint to watch their second team…but we played…cannot remember exactly what happened. I confess that I am probably conflating this story with another visit to Worcester…the one where Gerry Coade kicked a penalty from half-way to win the game…only its didn’t because somebody was in from of the ball…still delighted that I was not on the field at that point because I had had left it with one of the 32 hamstring tears in my short career. (Got one into an early bath though.) Need guidance for clarity on this.
The Lusaka connection was very relevant. The club had been invited to tour Lusaka in the not too distant future…and I am sure that it was not just me, among those of us who were ‘newbies’ , who thought we would at least stay around till that had been accomplished. Then Apartheid South Africa refused to let Basil D’Oliviera tour with the England cricket team…and through what seemed a natural progression then, our trip to Zambia was off.
But we were in….the Club that is! All thoughts of going off to try our luck at a ‘proper’ rugby club were gone. ‘Proper’ rugby clubs had rules and old farts to run them. We were quickly mesmerised by the semi-anarchic way the club functioned No ‘old farts’…but the beer was always there on the Saturday night…in a club-house which surely would have caused a nervous break-down for any Public Health Officer…the numerous teams were chosen each week and opposition turned up to play them. I am humbled that I was blissfully unaware that all these things were being done by guys who had jobs to hold down, girl-friends (and even the odd wife) to mollify…usually their own…
The friends I made in that club at that time have, I am delighted to say, remained with me throughout my life. Only those who have played rugby will understand the camaraderie that the game can instil. Is it too soft to say that one gets to respect those around you on whose performance, one’s enjoyment and , at times, physical well-being can depend. You need to trust your mates! But more, for Barbara and I, at that time, in the great then of London, great pals with lovely partners….no real responsibilities….Saturday was rugby, the club, partying with a gang. It was B’s introduction to rugby…and when I left to go play at New Brighton in Liverpool a coupe of years later she could not believe it that ladies were not allowed in the Long Bar (the main part of the clubhouse) on match-days.
I have rambled. Quite a few of the guys I played with would have progressed further in their rugby careers had they gone to older, bigger clubs. The invitations were there. But the pull of Hampstead was too great. There would have been no stories like some of those above..

or the Ball at Madame Tussauds…( years later I played squash against the then Finance Director of MT…he couldn’t believe that a rugby club and used it, went back to check it to find it was logged out to Camden Conservative Association

or the away game to Lydney…where we came second best on the pitch but thrashed them in the clubhouse. After the traditional pie and chips supper their lads started to drift away…only to be called back some time later because we were still there and singing. They came back and provided us with a fish and chip second supper…we left at some ungodly hour in the morning. The coach driver hit the gate post on the way out…cannot see why, he hadn’t’t drunk anywhere near as much as we had I seem to remember that we picked up two hitchhikers who wanted to go to the Army Apprentice School. We were passing that… but they asked to get out early, given the way the driver was performing. Early next morning we poured out into our cars to drive home…yes drive home…among the early church-goers in Albany Street

or the first sevens squad I can remember the club put together…and won four sevens tournaments. For each of which I promised B that we would go out for lunch ‘after we have been knocked out’…only to find ourselves in the bar at seven o’clock, having won, in our kit and having passed up on the bath (which was now cold and with six inch sediment of mud after everyone else had used it). That first Sevens when Stan Hannath kicked three touch line conversions to keep us in the final, then we took ages to score a winning try in extra time even though two of the opposition were crippled. I remember walking through the crowd to get on the pitch for the final when I hears someone say “Who the hell are these blokes anyway”….” Just some bunch of guys from Camden way’…Jerry was really indignant.

or arriving back in the clubhouse early evening…among the various Antipodeans and guys from other origins, to hear someone quizzing ‘who is that guy at the bar’….when told he was playing for..was it the third team…..he pointed out that the previous summer he had been the Australian prop agains the All Blacks.

I did not manage to take part in a Hampstead tour. I am sure that whatever sanity and longevity i enjoy will have been enhanced by that omission. But I believe that some of the tales I have demonstrate the semi-anarchistic nature of the club week by week…not just on tour.

..this story is second-hand…from a guy who I found reported to me when I took on a new job. He was not prone to hyperbole…but this one did stretch credibility even of Hampstead. (He was fixture secretary at Rosslyn Park..in the days of their pomp…fixture secretary for more then ten sides, which made me question the time and commitment he had for my interests.) Hist team turned up at the Heath to play for one of Park’s lower sides against our seconds or thirds. Hampstead’s were a couple of players short…so Park ‘lent’ them a couple since they, Park, were over-staffed. When both teams breasted the rise from the changing rooms, there was alarm that were were no posts. Resilient as ever Hampstead persuaded them to play..using coats as goalposts…no penalties or conversions today! The first half was chaotic…people running in all arts of directions without the reference point of goal-posts. At half-time, when the respective teams broke roughly into two groups…which had not been a feature of the first half….Park’s captain was able to count how many were playing for Hampstead…seventeen. The two missing players had turned up late and joined in. I accept that this story stretches the imagination…but we all learnt to suspend judgement when tales are related about the first…or was it the second…set of Glory Days…with many mare to come.

Any reflections on this era are bound to include stories of Mike Flynn. One could not ignore him and without his influence the club’s character would have been different. Even if some would not believe all his impact benign, if one wants to celebrate that club character one must nod one’s head in his direction. Many will have far better stories about Mike than mine…but one which sticks out for me was the occasion of the celebration of the opening of the ‘upstairs bar’ in Albany Street. The whole concept of a separate, exclusive …I hesitate to use the word sophisticated..area was a little alien to the club’s ethos. But the ladies..to whom we owed so much…(often a whole litany of apologies)…did deserve somewhere to sit. Mike was climbing the stairs to this new ‘loft’ when he heard someone holding forth in the bar…and it was him. Ramsey was capable of the most lifelike impersonations of Mike..and was in full flow. I saw Mike stop for several seconds…his face the very definition of bewilderment….’Couldn’t be me…I’m here and i do not seem to be speaking’. Not exactly a spell-binding tale…but whenever I think of Mike I have that, very uncustomary, image in my mind.

First team Captains…or at least those under whose flags I served.

One might think that bringing order to such a group of players in such an outfit required a special skill…one which Stalin or Ghengis Khan had in abundance. But in my time we were lead by three of the nicest guys one could wish to meet. Moreover in most sides in which I ever played, as far as we backs were concerned, the captain had merely to toss the coin, decide which way were playing, shout at the forwards and just occasionally admonish the backs for dropping the ball…or even the wing for forgetting the code to which jumper would receive the ball at a line-out (remained pretty random if i ever got to that number even if said wing could remember the code). At Hampstead they were required to be nursemaid and housemaid too. Initially a bit surprised that my new captain was swanning around Europe when the season started, I soon grew to admire Jerry’s enthusiasm and ability…..which other captain would spend a good twenty minutes, walking up and down the car-park at an opposition ground, trying to persuade a distinctly riled prop that he should forgive whoever had forgotten to wash the shirts and don the wet and dirty one available…he played. On only one other occasion did I see his monkish commitment to his duty waver….on the way to the Heath, in sundry cars, we halted outside a three-story house just north of Swiss Cottage or Primrose Hill somewhere, from the door of which emerged a beautiful young lady who made it very obvious that her relationship with Jerry was far from platonic…what’s this… Coade picking up his’ bird’ on the way to a game……smart guy, our Jerry…or we would never have met the lovely Sal who has subsequently lighted our lives for years. Then Ken…of whose wonderful company, sense of humour and kindness we were all deprived far too early. I remember the first time I met the man, sat in the dressing room, new to me because he had just returned from Canada (having taken a sabbatical from rugby in Hampstead’s first year). A huge, seemingly unkempt beard…which might have been the prompt for Lear and his…”two Owls and a Hen, four Larks and a Wren,Have all built their nests in my beard”. When that beard disappeared it took Val a day to notice…and a workmate declared three days later that she had realised how different he was, he had grown a moustache…which he kept till the end of his days. Beard or no beard we all wanted to do our bit for Ken…and without Ken we would not have met the lovely Val. Moreover Ken was among the very few of our coterie who produced off-spring who played serious rugby well…Gemma and Nathalie. Then…for me briefly…Ray Muggeridge..who I did not know very well but much respected…for me more conversations about life and lifestyle than rugby. A thoroughly decent man….and another gentle giant from the pack. I don’t think either Ray or Ken did nasty…(I had previous always liked playing with a psychopath in ‘our’ second row…because ‘they’ had probably got one and if there was any trouble going…comes of growing up then with midland rugby But neither gave quarter. I still shudder at one episode under Ray when I think that we were playing London Fiji..whose team was somewhat bolstered by members of the national Fijian touring team which had inflicted untold damage on Englands representative playing population. At one point their diminutive fly- half, trapped on his knees and, holding onto the ball in two hands, he attempted to ‘nut’ the in-rushing, high stepping Ray in the knees. Gentleman Ray almost fell over trying not to hurt him.


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