Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes: Sketches from Memory
Read an exclusive excerpt from Stuart Barne' new book
Last Updated: 24/12/18 2:56pm
Remembered as one of the most controversial playing names during the dying days of the English amateur era and now regarded as one of the shrewdest and most perceptive observers in the media - both on television and in print - Stuart Barnes has spent over 40 years of his life immersed in rugby union.
In Sketches from Memory, he combines autobiography with an objective and off-beat study of the sport, taking us on a meandering journey from his childhood in the 1970s, through to the height of his playing career in the 1980s and 1990s, and right up to the present day as he studies the contemporary game with the astute eye of a master analyst.
Eschewing the more traditional structure of a sports book, Barnes abandons chronology to allow past and present to mingle, presenting his memoirs as an alphabetical soup with the letters of the alphabet and not the numbers, dates and years of his life leading the narrative. It is a refreshing, beguiling and absorbing approach that allows the dedicated reader to complete the book in sequence, or the bed-side reader to flick from one letter to the next without losing the thread.
Honest, insightful, funny and wise, Sketches from Memory is a fascinating study of the game of rugby union, exploring its myriad enchantments, controversies and world-famous characters in a way that no other book has done before.
Read an exclusive extract from Stuart Barnes' memoir, Sketches from Memory.
RECREATION GROUND, BATH
It has been a struggle to formulate these thoughts, commit them to the page . . . some inner warning telling me to let good things stay where they are, tucked deep in the recesses? Where will the tapped memory take me? The old battered Recreation Ground, the changing rooms . . . ground floor. Beneath the clubhouse.
Beneath the members' bar. Stone steps lead up into the changing room area, turn right if you are a Bath player. Left for losers. The external steps give way to what I remember as internal tiling, brown? The home door and a room with barely space enough to squeeze the team and replacements. The senior players have their own pegs. It took me a while to claim mine. Once in possession I never let it go.
The opposing teams were always made welcome. Afterwards. During my three-year tenure as captain, my hospitality forte were trays of gins, a few tonics poured randomly . . . a £100 kitty which the late Lang Jones, deputy head of King Edward's School and head of bars at Bath, ensured went further than it really should. A friend to the players. Drink in despair, drink with the heads held high. We poured drinks for our infrequent conquerors.
As for the team, there is no continuity between then and now. A team is about people. I can understand a fan following the name. The badge. The ever-changing kit (closing the mind to the commercial cynicism of the bewildering new colour combinations). But to have been a player is to have been in the metaphorical trenches with friends . . . not always friends off the field but soulmates on it.
If one person creaked the edifice could crumble, even something with as strong a set of foundations as our team. Bath is Cooch, Dawesy, Oafie, Dadda Vic, Ollie, Morph, Del Boy, Spudsy, Simmo, Robbo, Egdy, Clarkey, Withey, Hally and Hilly. Knighty, Bammers, Hallers (pronounced Hal-urz), Jerry, De G, JP, Catty, Swifty, Mofield, Barry, Tricky, Oiker, JC, Webby, Jim, Mas, Robbie, Chalkie, Lil, Bob Hoskins, Reader, Jimmy Deane and so many more unmentioned. They are my Bath. And, of course, the coaches, Tom, Dave, Brian, Hank the Yank and above all, Jack Rowell.
If R represents the Recreation Ground, it has to be bracketed with R for Rowell. Jack was not a 'nice' man. He'll take that, I hope, as the compliment, it is earnestly intended. He wanted to win. End of story. And he would go close to whatever lengths were necessary, 'In the nicest possible way, Chilcott.' That pointed finger, the loaded gun . . . the promise of something, anything, but nice for the intended victim. He saw something in a young Gareth Chilcott where few others did. Jack grasped the importance of violence, of intimidation and made Roger Spurrell an early club captain. A defining statement. Over My Body for those who would beat Bath. Jack was a rugby gangster. Our Capo. He does business in the Ukraine to this day. He loved a certain frisson.
Jack called us a rock group. Didn't care that we combined club blazers with scruffy jeans and straggly club tie, or bow tie. This was his backhanded idea of a compliment. He was our Phil Spector as well as Al Capone, rolled into one. He was Bath. The cup final was the highlight of the amateur club season. Under Jack, Bath did not lose a final. The closest they came was when some stupid cocky kid missed a kick to win in 1984 . . . thereafter it was all Bath until Harlequins took us to extra time and I brought my kicking career full circle, both times to the benefit of Bath.
The night of the final, an orgy of alcohol in a Bath hotel. The next day . . . round to the Rowell residence for a party before the open-top bus tour of the city. Eternally grateful to the enthusiastic teenage fans who sprinted from one viewing spot to the next, short cuts keeping them ahead of the bus and we bleary-eyed drunks. At the end of the evening Jack would still be there, his wife, Sue, smiling at the alcohol-fuelled antics. A captain of industry with a fixed grin that was set in stone on cup final Sunday. Unbreakable.
Sketches from Memory: A Rugby Memoir, will be published on 7 February 2019 by Polaris Publishing.