The London Irish Bs vets team at Brixham …
Tom Daley it was who brought me back to the Bs – no not some gnarled old prop that you are struggling to pretend you remember from yesteryear. Rather I am meaning the precocious young Olympic diver with the pet budgie down his trunks who could not conceivably be further away from the stereotypic B if he tried. But this young Tom it was who after all this long time away brought me back to the B’s so he did. in case you are interested this momentous reunification happened in that pub the Cow at Stratford’s shiny Olympic Park, by Boris’s orbit. Now a stranger pub for a reunion with the B’s it would be hard to credit, unsaturated as this callow pub is in tradition; and anathema to any right drinking B with all its faux rustic airs, when any B worth his Guinness would crave the fastness of wee brown bars, especially on sunny summer days.
It all came about because i had been refused entry to the 2012 English Games on the fatuous grounds that i had no ticket. I was too weak to argue the toss with G4S heavies at their most ferocious so sat there in pub minding me own while watching the throng get over exuberant about sports that never usually stir the slightest passion on these shores – or I would think on any other. It was at that exact moment of feeling a reassuring rush of detached superiority – glad that i nothing in common with these Coe inoculated sheep – that i thought i recognised the back of a head straining towards the TV screen. It was a tight curly press of a barnet nicely backcombed and only minorly streaked with grey. ‘Come on Tom’ bellowed the as yet unseen face hollering in basso profondo Waterford.
This hair and voice combo could only belong to the remains of Bootise Walsh, improbable as this locale would seem. And so indeed it proved to be the very same Bootise that lived and breathed. i approached him cautiously at first not wanting to shock him with my miraculous state of preserved handsomeness – in unrelieved contrast to his clearly near terminal decline. I was of course pleased when he recognised me not as a fellow diving fan but as a true green B. As we chatted much was learned: not least the incredible but true fact that he is now President of the whole club while the B are going strong in the absence not only of me but of many others long gone ago. Ohhh and while being reminded that i live in the wild West Country he let me know that the Geese play Brixham and Exmouth near me in their new league.
Bootsie said to keep in touch. and to bring Peter Morgan from our era along for us all to meet at these games. Enlivened by this encounter i rang Morgan only to find that he had booked a golf holiday in Turkey at the same time – so we settled instead for second best which was to meet at his posh restaurant inTorquay. There we reminisced about all things B’s; but actually about the B’s set in aspic as between us we had no real recent memories of the team. Instead we were living on the memories of memories that we each rework when we meet. Among there reminiscences the Museum of Ham in Lisbon features prominently; as does a vision of Big John Barbieri being perpetually carried down the spiral stairs of some in a elegant cafe somewhere, the memories satisfyingly blurring into a unifying narrative.
This sepia toned nostalgia fest does little to prepare me for the reality that dawns on that portentous day when memory was to meet current reality. Typically Bootsie failed to mention that the Bs themselves are playing as the the warm up event that day at Brixham, As a result i miss the B’s in action but on the touch line watching the main event I find a character replete in LIRFC blazer and honours tie surrounded by others less well outfitted, He recognises my honours tie and we fall into conversation. It turns out that this cove goes under the name Dean and that we have a few things in common – like both living in Cape Town at the time of 1997 Lions and being at same Stellenbosch game together in honour gf Robert Jones – in fact Dean played, while Thompson, Brian Little and others watched.
As Dean name checks me I go through the litany of those with whom i played. Oh, those golden boys of the Bs generation Mc Devitt’s, McCarthy’s, Johnston’s, Douglas’s all … McLarnon Thompson Bootsie O’Hara, the Mouse, Gerry, Kitty Murphy, Lowe. As I go on to recite the names of captains i served under – Egan, Healy, Tommy Joy – I catch myself short to allow the lump in my throat to rise as I realise that ‘my’ captains are all now dead. As I cough on this realisation Dean says “I guess this is not time to tell you that Dermot Hogan is dead – taken suddenly from us. I suppose you knew Dermot ..’ I shudder .. how could Dertmotty the life and soul of so many parties now be mentioned in the past tense? I croak ‘Ohhh do i know – sorry did I know – Dermot ! and what a fine man he was.’ I explain that he used to come visit me in Edinburgh; ‘such times we had such times such times.
Dermot was the spirit of affability alway a permanent grin and a good word for all souls which is unusual in a B -how in the name of god could such an friend be taken from us?’ Dean has no answer as these imitations of mortality gather.
Once the mist clears I muse on exactly what generation of B’s i belong to now, after many years away. I think that because I joined at about the same time as Bootise – in time to catch the comet’s tail of Egan’s unparalleled reign – then I saw myself then as a ‘young B.’ Then i remember over the course of the Eighties graduating to become a B B, a normal B , a medium B. And now without realising it I am in the eyes of these lads on the touch line a ghost B, a lucky to still be here B, a has B (een), And in my eyes these lads are barely protean B’s, zygote B’s, unformed and unfamiliar. Still scratching my memory for some recall that might me seem more current I venture to say “I think Gerry Ryan was my last captain .. yeh he ushered in a coup to oust Tommy Joy, stabbing him the back in the dead of some Parisienne night.’
They seemed relieved to hear me mention someone living. ‘Ahh yeah- Gerry is still alive and kicking in fact he has scarily stopped playing and is here at the ground, just along the touch line, .’ All this is recounted as the players in the fog on that high hill thud into each other – while reassuringly familiar smart alec remarks about the flaws of mighty Geese sneak out from these young Bs. But are they really young Bs? Do they see themselves as such? Do they know the legacy they carry? Well if they do not know the legacy then they certainly perpetuate the banter of old, the self deprecating mockery that kept us anciens alive through dark passages in the past.
I am asked by someone called Pav for my email and willing surrender it, little knowing what i might be letting myself in for, or of what might be landing in my inbox now. With a parting thump on the back from Dean I make my way along the crowded touchline in search of Bootsie.
Never hard to find, he is on his feet bellowing at the Geese who have by no means won the match yet; while silent brother Frank lets Bootsie do the hollering. As the Geese sense danger and begin to gain control Bootsie tells me of fine times recently had in Edinburgh, mostly spent in Kays bar. `Now that bar was a place where i practically lived for a while and had met Hogan and also Thompson and O’Hara there too – all those criss-crossing threads that rugby and life weave. As we chat a a figure looms up out of the fog, a battle-scared face sporting dark inense eyes beneath beetle brows.
‘So do you remember me?’ this face growls in challenge. I reply ‘Of course it is you Gerry Ryan long lost captain of mine!’ It is a thrill to see him still in one piece. ‘Well he said ‘I would have recognised you walking down the street Blocker without being told it was you – but would you have recognised me?’ Without knowing where this perverse challenge was going i had to say out of context i could not be sure – he nods as if i have under interrogation admitted some unpalatable truth that he had long suspected.
Meanwhile back on the increasingly fog bound pitch the life goes out of the stout Brixham resistance while LIRFC continue their inexorable trip to promotion. At one level this promotion makes me sad as it means the B’s will not visit Brixham again just when i had grown to like the idea. Is this anyones’ idea of progress? Inside the bar things are nicely chaotic. Gerry introduces me to current Bs not yet met, some of whom are curious to know who i am, this stranger in the long back coat blazer white shirt and honours tie.
Apparently one rumour says I am a rich backer of the club or possibly the chairman. Though charmed by these delusions, I am just about to explain who i really am and what i am doing here when Gerry helpfully interjects to say that i am an old B; that I was on the run then put into witness protection under an assumed name in the West Country years ago: and that I can only really come out now and then only for limited periods.
He explains that i should be rights be behind bars rather then be protected, and that i was not to be trusted around women. Not finding the energy to deconstruct this emerging narrative i go with it instead and begin to enjoy becoming the international man of mystery. The remains of the once vaunted ‘table-cloth man’ reduced to this, a fugitive from justice.
All too soon it is time to beat a reluctant retreat from these revolving absurdist conversations. Bootise bids me a truly warm goodbye. I say that I am reminded that the B’s still palpably live, and that this a great little club within a club will persist long after concrete stadiums in Reading and their bourgeois occupants are totally forgotten. He said – while chocking me in a headlock – ‘If the B’s are still a fine team then you Blocker have been a part of making it what it is.’ That sentiment gave me a real warm glow.
And since that encounter with Pav the emails flow and i am feeling a part of it all once more. I am wanting to know more of these new Bs but also happy to build my own fantasy B team based on these snippets of banter that come through the interweb. And it is also consoling to be reminded that despite electronic gadgetry that the Old Paulians still persistently cancel; and that the Heavies remain the implacable enemy and never really beat us, just score more points.
If you want to know more of the Old B’s then my video company through Tom Touhey and Ian Black (now also dead) made a fine movie “B’s on Toast’ in 1985 which i will put up on Youtube on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=URmwsqz1UgQ&feature=youtu.be– being uploaded as we speak so be patent if you cannot find it