A Decent Bloke

They should have written a novel about him.

Brian Palmer, who died last week, was my cricketing team mate at Holy Cross Academicals for over two decades and was, in so many ways, a unique character.

For those who played against him he was instantly unforgettable – battered panama hat, baggy Aran sweater almost to his knees, and a joyful RP accent which would ring out delightfully in places as diverse as Myreside and Armadale, Fauldhouse and Falkland.

When he first came to play for Cross, his appearance – the result  of long hair and  some Chinese heritage, allied to our well known eclectic recruitment approach – led to some puzzlement: “Have you lot got an Eskimo playing for you now?”

But – and these are strange times to make such a reference – he was one of a breed of slightly dishevelled, witty, and intellectually sharp, English public schoolboys who tend to inspire affection rather than disdain, because their style is underpinned by a basic kindness, tolerance and empathy. He was, in the language he would have used himself, a decent bloke, and you could not help but value his company and enjoy his wisdom.

In one game, he was fielding at short midwicket, when a  full blooded pull shot went over his shoulder, whistling past his ear. He never flinched – indeed never showed any indication that he was aware of the ball’s passage. It was only when he became slowly aware of the verbally expessed disappointment of bowler and team mates that he stirred himself.

“Sorry, Skip – I was thinking about life!” 

His batting betrayed some solid coaching – probably at Cheltenham School, and as a bowler, always with shirt sleeves remaining buttoned, he gave little away. However, the energy  required for athletic fielding was largely beyond him.

As a captain, he was tactically aware and a good man manager – up to a point. His philosophical approach to the game often led to a period of reflection and self absorption after he was out, especially if it was a cheap dismissal, which he often referred to as “like losing the love of a good woman”. While we may have been waiting for some strategic advice, he would amble away to a distant spot on the boundary where he would remain for  a time, hunched over in thought, puffs of smoke rising from the inevitable roll up, as he considered the vagaries of fate. Our resident voluble Yorkshireman would berate him “We wanted your instructions but you were away in Eeyore’s Gloomy Place”. The reply to this would be a tolerant smile.

This interplay between Yorkshire and Hampshire revealed all of Brian’s noble patience. Often wincing at the volume and  crass nature  of the remarks which issued forth, Brian would occasionally mutter a quiet “Oh, really!” with raised eyes, but more often enjoy a quiet chortle at the wit employed.

After our playing days were over, half a dozen of us instituted a regular dinner date. We originally entitled ourselves the “Old Farts”, but Brian re-named us the “Old Bores” – typically more tasteful but just as accurate.

Brian would organise menu and drinks for those meals  which were hugely enjoyable, involving reminiscence, wit and friendship, all of which Brian, quiet by nature,  greatly appreciated, even though they became more raucous as the night went on. He would sit there, eyes twinkling, quietly enthused by the comradeship he had engendered.

And, against the odds, often these get togethers took on a more reflective tone – celebrating our years together, remembering those we had lost, and sometimes developing more serious themes. Brian’s account of the VC his father won, in the Great War at Courcellette on the Somme, held the table in awe – his wonderment at his dad’s bravery demonstrating his ongoing affection for the father he lost when he was very young.

Like cricket itself, those meals were a heady coming together of celebrations – of friendship, memories, life choices, the profane and the emotional, the funny and the sad. Part of Brian’s talent was that he had the skill and humility to be a gentle enabler  of such an all encompassing  mixture – of people and subjects.

Brian was a writer as well as a university lecturer, and his writing mirrored his character – moving, witty, articulate and insightful – all skills which were verbally mirrored perfectly in his tour de force after dinner speeches. We would often swap pieces we had written and his comments would  be kind, positive, accurate and inevitably helpful. On and off the cricket field he was not a man to flatter, but his praise carried the weight of intelligence and integrity.

But I suppose my main reason for writing this tribute comes from my appreciation of his kindness – and in particular one such incident that brought me great joy.

Like most of our generation, we were romantic about the game of cricket, its traditions and its lore.  I had often talked with him about the game’s origins at Broadhalfpenny Down at Hambledon in Hampshire – Brian’s home turf as it were. Having relations in the area I had actually visited the ground once and been awed by its untamed position on the edge of the downs, the Bat and Ball pub still overlooking the field. “Imagine playing there in the steps of all those early pioneers!” we used to muse through the years.

Well, with his local connections, Brian eventually organised a tour of Hampshire and the south west for Holy Cross, and though I could not make the entire week, he made sure I would play at Hambledon.

It was a surreal experience – to step out on to the rough turf where the game I loved had been played for centuries. In the dressing room before the game, Brian and I caught each other’s eye. “Oh God,” he said, “I’ve never been this nervous before a game in my life.” I was feeling exactly the same and it was a lovely moment to be treasured. We both knew!

The Bat and Ball X1 captain seemed rather nonplussed to be playing this motley crew of cricketers – the first Scottish team to play at Broadhalfpenny, and with a name like Holy Cross Academicals!We were desperate not to let our country down and, despite an acute awareness of the occasion, gave a decent account of ourselves.

With two balls left in our innings we lost a wicket. I was next in – I was going to bat at Broadhalfpenny Down!

As I headed from the pavilion, the home captain exploded: “Oh for God’s sake, there’s only one ball left, what’s the point!”

Brian as skipper stood up and shouted: “Oh let him have his bat!”. In other circumstances it may have sounded patronising, in Brian’s case it was kindness. He knew!

Having survived my only ball at Hambledon, I was absolutely delighted to capture the opposition captain’s wicket with my best ever caught and bowled during the home side’s innings. I dedicated that to Brian!

In another quintessential Palmer move, he called on his great friend, Chris Kerr, to bowl an over or so of his leg breaks. Having a shoulder injury, Chris would have to bowl underarm – bringing much excitement to the local stratistician who opined that it was the first time underarm bowling had been seen at Hambledon in almost two hundred years – another magical moment.

Others will  have many more tales of Brian from the wider elements of his highly  accomplished life – but that kindess, tolerance and understanding  has always resonated for me in the limited areas in which our lives overlapped.

At Broadhalfpenny, the clouds gathered and evening rain swept in across the downs, ensuring an honour satisfying drawn game. Leaving the field, I paused to take in the moment – a life highlight made possible by Brian’s kindness.

Far below as the Hampshire Downs swept away from us, in the gathering gloaming, there were the lights of many tractors as they hurried to try and save the hay before the rain ruined their chances.

It was positively Hardy-esque, a goosebumps moment.

And it occurs to me, if that novel about Brian had ever been written, Thomas Hardy would have been the man to do it, featuring this unique man rooted in a solid landscape to which he remained honest and true – his father’s  son, his own man, but a friend to so many.

I am so glad I knew this most decent of blokes – and, with affection, I will miss his wisdom, wit, and kindness.

Published by seánmcp

Former deputy headteacher; Edinburgh born Leitrim man; family man; writer, photographer and sports fan: cricket, football, GAA, athletics. Education & Welfare Officer at Hibernian FC; follow Hibs, Southport FC, Leitrim GAA, Dunedin Connollys GAA, Drumkeerin GAA, Cricket Scotland and Scottish Wildcats.

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