The following was written and read by Paddy Butler at the Service of Thanksgiving for Bob Bairamian on Friday 28th September:
In the early 1990’s, as an escapee from league cricket, I found myself drawn to a merry band, who assembled every year for a festival of cricket, on the Nevill in Tunbridge Wells, known as Bluemantle Week, under the superintendence of “The Headmaster”, Bob Bairamian.
To the uninitiated, Bluemantle Week may have resembled a raucous bacchanalia, but that interpretation would be to overlook 2 critical conditions under which it took place, both of which were dear to Bob’s heart: firstly, the cricket had to be competitive; and, secondly, there must be good fellowship.
By the time I started playing, Bob had limited influence over the former, but exercised considerable direction over the latter.
I never had the privilege of playing with Bob, but those of his exploits that were capable of corroboration were legendary: as a merciless hooker of the ball; and a devilish bowler; who tried to complete each over within a minute, never allowing the batsmen to settle.
After Bob stopped playing, and no matter what insanity was taking place beyond the boundary rope, he demanded that what occurred inside it must be of the highest competitive standard. This was essential to show respect: to our Bluemantling forebears; to the glory of the Nevill; to the groundsmen; to the umpires; to the scorers; and, above all, to our worthy opponents.
With his headmasterly bearing, Bob was less impressed by talent than by the effort you could muster and, thereby, extracted excellence out of his cricketers, who, like me, were of decidedly modest ability, and so populated clubs with generation after generation of enthusiastic players.
But Bob often found the names parents had given to his protegés unfit for purpose. So he would rechristen people according to their attributes, perhaps relating to their name, or occupation. Mark Church was obviously “The Vicar” – and I became “M’ learned friend”. Whereas John Shepherd of Kent, Barbados and the West Indies was elevated to the ancient heraldic title of: “The Blackmantle”. In one match I played alongside a “Watermelon” and “the Blond Baboon”.
And so Bluemantle Week would kick off with the match against our Patron’s XI and various totems that had to be observed.
There would be a ceremonial toss of the coin, irrespective of which way it fell, out in the middle, the Patron’s captain, the elegant Nigel Wilkinson, would signal to his team that they were fielding.
Upon this signal Bob would summon a crew, comprising 3 or 4 lower order batsmen, including the novice hairy quick, “to collect the glasses”.
“Collecting the glasses” was a poorly veiled euphemism for a trip to The Bull Inn on the Frant Road, where its gentle landlord, Edward, opened up early, and, inexplicably, felt under a civic obligation to accept Bob’s cheques long after commercial judgment suggested this was unwise.
Edward often started sentences with the line: “Robert, I was meaning to have a word about that cheque, you see……” before an imperious wave of the Armenian Ambassador’s arm would silence him as Bob commanded: “Eduardo, M’ learned friend’s glass needs charging”.
Bob would use the occasion of “collecting the glasses” to administer his first “bobbing” of the week. This involved taking the novice hairy quick to one side; filling him with ale; electing him a member of the Bluemantle’s Cricket Club by an ad hoc committee of one; following which Bob extracted a joining fee; an upfront annual subscription; and, further relieved the youth of several months’ allowance by selling him the entire catalogue of Bluemantling accessories, comprising long and sleeveless sweaters, shirts, caps and ties. Bob could always do a deal for cash.
At that time the Club had a batch of ties that bore a label on which someone…… and today is not the day to name names……. upon which someone had taken a biro and carefully crossed out the words: “100% polyester”.
As long as the Bluemantle batting line-up held off the opposition, which was judged by whether Rupertus had made a panicked phone call from the Ground, then Bob was safe until 12.30, at which time he would return with the newly elected member, staggering under the impact of 3 pints of Spitfire and the weight of his new wardrobe.
If the script had not been followed, and the Bluemantles found themselves in the field, then Bob could be seen leaving the ground having borrowed members of the opposition “to collect the glasses”, who would return an hour later, staggering under the impact of 3 pints of Spitfire, and, as newly elected members of the Bluemantle’s Cricket Club, fully accessorised, but somewhat conflicted when sporting their not-polyester ties.
Bob’s faith in his batsmen was well placed and he could usually rely upon any of the likes of Fyffie, The Vicar, Wyatt Earp, Lee (SPG or Anto-Panto), Wesson (Ed or James), both Huttons, either West, Brodhust, Brocklehursts (T, or D) – Yorke, a brace of Holes, Ruperts Bairamian or Harris, Edi, Al Denham, Hancock, Openshaw, Brigadoon Dobbie, the Wheeler-Dealer, Galloway, the Blond Baboon, the drummer from MacFly, a fresh-faced A. Strauss (on one occasion a very fresh-faced D. Cameron) all capable of putting runs on the board, so that Bob could then concentrate on the important matter of his guests.
By this time, Bob’s latest wife, Roz, or “The Badgerina”, along with Anna, who were responsible for feeding the 5,000, had already suffered at least one crisis in the kitchen preparing the “specialité de la maison”: hot chicken in tarragon sauce.
Wonky pilot light, few pots, broken pans ….. no tarragon – their anxiety would have to be soothed away with chilled rosé. It is fair to say that Bob never dealt with these crises very well, or at least never to Roz’ satisfaction – probably because he wasn’t at the Ground.
And so these moments would light a long fuse of exasperation that would lead to an explosion of marital fury witnessed by everyone, except Bob, who would be watching the cricket from the safety of any unlocked car.
By 1 o’clock the guests would be assembling. Former players, friends of the Bluemantles, blokes Bob had met in a pub, would all come for lunch, based on a long-forgotten invitation issued by Bob, in which he had no concept of numbers.
Within the class of former players was a battery of stalwart supporters made up of retired Brigadiers, who would complain about the traffic in Crowborough, before settling down to watch the cricket with a cup of instant coffee and listen to Brigadier Wah read out The Times’ obituaries.
“Brigadier Wah” was the name given by Bob to Brigadier Wilson because, at the end of each sentence, he made a very peculiar noise: “I say Roz, that chicken stew was jolly delicious, WAAAAGHHHH!”.
Brigadier Wah’s reading of the obituaries was a parlour game played by the Brigadiers in which they would award each other a score of between 1 and 5 depending upon their level of intimacy with the deceased’s wife.
On one such occasion Brigadier Sherman, unsurprisingly renamed by Bob as “The Tank”, looked down in pained embarrassment and confessed: “Oh dear, I fear I am entitled to claim all 5 points.” thereby, reducing Bob to a puddle of giggles from which he could not be reconstituted.
It was customary for Bob to extend his lunch invitation to the Mayors of Tunbridge Wells, confident that, for reputational reasons, they knew better than to accept. However, on one occasion, the Mayoral Limousine pulled up unannounced and outstepped the newly elected Mayoress, in full regalia.
Lesser men might have panicked, but not Bob, who greeted her at the top of the pavilion steps with a gracious bow and offered her olives that had been hand-picked and brined the previous day on his estate in Armenia and flown by private jet to The Nevill in honour of her visit.
Our Lady Mayoress was so blinded with enchantment that she never thought to query why Bob would transfer such delicacies into Tesco’s packaging. She then proceeded to be well and truly bobbed, wobbling down the steps a couple of hours later, scarcely coherent, and wondering what Bob meant when he posed his infamous catchphrase: “but are you getting enough?”.
In an especially chaotic moment in Bluemantle folk-lore, our Dear Leader from the College of Arms, the Bluemantle Pursuivant, made a memorable appearance. Previous Heralds had wisely ignored that one of the perks of the job was having patronage of their very own cricket club and had stayed away when Bob’s invitation landed.
However, one Patron’s match saw the arrival of a pasty-faced academic, wearing horn-rimmed spectacles and threadbare tweeds, who had clearly not researched his cricket club, or, more importantly, Bob!
As Bob plied him with more and more wine, Bluemantle’s natural reserve gave way to increasing levels of affection, climaxing with a declaration that his heart was full of “joy and rapture” at making everyone’s, indeed anyone’s, acquaintance.
By mid-afternoon our elected President, the owlish Herbert Hunter, so alarmed by the Bluemantle’s increasing disinhibition, decided that he should be driven to the station before he had to be stretchered there, volunteering his octogenarian wife as chauffeuse, whereupon Bluemantle looked Mrs. Hunter up and down and disgraced himself: “Well, she is not a very glamourous ride!”.
Every day after lunch, as Brigadiers snoozed, Bob would hold court on the raked seating outside the pavilion. This often started with Bob noticing that we had forgotten to fly the Club’s standard. Heated debate would then follow as to who had custody last. Invariably, the flag was found in the boot of Bob‘s car where, through overexcitement at the onset of Bluemantle Week, he had forgotten he had left it.
Once hoisted Bob would wax-lyrical about the generous donation of the flag by one Maurice Williams. However, no-one, except Bob, had any recollection of a Maurice Williams. In order to emphasise Maurice’s contribution, Bob regaled us with his feats of derring-do in the Bluemantle’s name, citing his heroic innings in the gloaming at Four Elms on a Bank Holiday Monday to win us victory with a ball to spare.
As doubts were expressed, our resident archivist, Rex, would be summoned from the scorebox to confirm Bob‘s account. However, in spite of extraordinary loyalty towards Bob, that survived even after Bob fired Rex as a Maths teacher for incompetence (and then made him our scorer), Rex wouldn’t confirm that Maurice Williams even existed, or that we ever played Four Elms on a Monday.
So Bob would settle the argument with a flourish by pointing to the flag and declare that the initials “MW” were embroidered into its hem. We would all look up dutifully…….yet initials saw wee none.
Then the thorny issue arrived of when to declare the Bluemantle’s innings closed. Whatever the Captain was considering, Bob would hold the contrary opinion – in his view we were constantly at risk of having 25 runs too few, or of batting 25 minutes too long. Of course, Bob was generally right, of which he took great pleasure in reminding the Captain after the close of play, during drinks in the bar, over dinner, throughout the following day and in occasional phone calls at the dead of night.
Once it came the Bluemantles’ time in the field Bob, yearning company, would hold court with the opposition in the same seat and gales of laughter wafted over the outfield.
After tea the Brigadiers would consult a dog-eared Ordnance Survey map to plan an orderly retreat avoiding the traffic lights at Crowborough, while washing-up details were requisitioned to give Roz and Anna whatever assistance their saintly souls required.
By now Bob had peaked and would take himself off to the back of the Bluemantle Stand where he would doze, waking only at the clattering of the ball hitting the roof.
Once revived Bob provided coaching tips from his vantage point at deepest Long-Off, mostly to the Umpires, and would declare the outcome of appeals before the poor oppressed official had even considered his verdict. “Of course that’s plum!”. I estimate that around 18% of all Bluemantle wickets were acquired by Bob’s timely kidology. The perfect 12th man.
With the last 20 overs called and the opposition sniffing victory, Ted Rose would be introduced into the attack, twirling away arthritically, we always knew that the sheer absence of velocity behind the ball with scarcely enough puff to disturb the bails, was likely to make batsmen lose their brains and meekly surrender their wickets, much to Bob’s merriment, until the spoils were ours. As each batsman trudged back to the dressing-room, Bob offered a single, consoling, word: “Idiot!”
When play was over we mingled cheerfully with our opposition, all of whom spoke warmly about their day’s cricket, the lunch they had enjoyed, the wines they had drunk, and the incredible stories they had heard about the life of a Senior Armenian Diplomat in exile, before they went on their way, promising to return next year, which they invariably did.
Bob always took the time to talk to his players about their performance, ever the school-master, he was keen to point out the good, the bad, and the ugly, but always gave praise and spoke encouragingly about what mightier feats were yet to come.
After 9 hours the Bar at The Nevill no longer inspired Bob, and so he would persuade us all into Tunbridge Wells to restaurants where he was clearly well-known and generally welcome. Bob started by ordering himself a bowl of soup and a handful of spoons. When it arrived he would take a mouthful and exclaim: “That really is very good – have some.” And would pass around the bowl, insistently, until everyone had partaken in his salty stirrup cup.
It was on one such occasion that I began to appreciate Bob’s methodology. For in that place, at that time, quite deliberately, Bob had made everyone around that table feel special about themselves and the company they were keeping. He had inspired us to play our best cricket, encouraged us to play even better, and taught us the essential value of comradeship.
As we left the restaurant weary players would scatter to various billets around town, to gird our loins for more of the same the next day, and the day after, until the week was done, convening the next morning and waiting for a sign that it was now time “to collect the glasses”.
I hope this daft rambling may have stirred some memories for anyone who was privileged to play cricket for, or against, Bob and his mighty Bluemantles.
I can safely say that this passage of my life produced some of the happiest moments at a cricket match that I can recall, but many that I can’t.
So I should like to close by saying something that you may not have heard too often during Bob’s lifetime:
“Bob, I remain forever in your debt!”.
28 September 2018