Tuesday, 26 January 2010

When sport really doesn't mean a lot. A tribute to Cecil Patrick Barnett 5/11/1926-19/01/2010

I GUESS by now regular readers of this blog will have noticed things have been a little quiet around these parts since the end of England's cricket tour to South Africa.
There's a good reason for that. The day before I was due to fly home, my wife Tracy's dad Patrick passed away. Just after England had slumped to defeat in Johannesburg. Times like this, sport is rendered meaningless.
Writing about South Africa coach Mickey Arthur's resignation, Arsenal's FA Cup failure against Stoke or Martin Samuel's pathetic World Cup-in-danger piece in the Daily Mail yesterday just doesn't really matter.
Pat Barnett, my father-in-law, was no ordinary guy. Before he went in Wycombe Hospital in the early hours of January 19, aged 83, he had written down every detail of his life in the army at the end of the war. Like he'd known what was coming.
Forced to leave school at 13 when they ran out of teachers in Ealing in 1942, he was in the cadets at 15 and went off with the Black Watch, that feared bunch of Highlanders, when he was barely 18. He didn't have a single kilt in his genes, it was just, as he explained in his beautifully self-concocted way: "They didn't have enough Scotch to fill the ranks."
So off he went to Greece and Egypt, surviving fatal truck crashes, endless journeys through Europe, the remnants of civil war in Athens, nights out in downtown Cairo and angry German prisoners of war on the Suez Canal. You want sport? I give you dear old Pat volunteering to play for the German prisoners against the Wardens in a hockey match in the middle of the desert watched by hundreds of bored troops. He still has the match report, typed out by a bespectacled colleague. It's like Escape to Victory without Sylvester Stallone. The Germans apparently ran the camp themselves, never tried to get out and only got difficult when the English found their beer brewing kit.
It's fascinating stuff, reading the war-time memoirs of a self-educated carpenter who gained an in-service promotion to sergeant. There's little doubt his words would stir people more than my own current book-writing efforts. I couldn't put his bulky scrap-book down until I had read the last words, seen the last sepia snapshot. There will never be another selfless generation like his.
But it's been a struggle trying to prepare for the funeral of a patriarch we thought would be around forever.
Before I left for the cricket tour he was suffering a low red platelet count. They struggled to solve the medical riddle, but he was happy, strong, still walking his greyhound Ella up and down the steep hill to the village.
He was the perfect patient. He never complained, despite the endless blood samples and bone-marrow taps. He'd make even the toughest National Health Service nurse smile with his banter. We always thought he'd battle through it, like he did the heart attack 15 years ago. When it came, the end was sudden, swift.
I returned from the mid-summer battle between two of the world's most respected cricketing nations to find myself drowning in a sea of mid-winter tears.
But after a difficult week (and there are more to come), the painful arrangements are in place. Tracy and her sister Lisa have put together what should be a fine send-off on Monday with their mum Georgina, who lived through the Blitz in Bethnal Green.
The order of service for the funeral can be found at the end of this piece, but it tells just a part of the story.
Pat was unapologetically old-fashioned. Guess you have to be when you were born in thee 1920s. The word "gentleman" was designed for him. He'd wear a tie to dinner, even a McDonald's with the grandchildren.
I never once heard him have a go at either of his daughters, he never needed to. He dealt with family crises with a look and a smile. Tracy and I were up until 2am last night, trying to write her tribute for the funeral next Monday.
He was a right character, plunging through the ceiling when he was building a loft room, building train sets and a miniature village for the grandchildren, he even put together three barrel organs with his own hands. They want a piece for the well-known "Barrel Organ Monthly" magazine now. Might be the toughest assignment of my journalistic career, that one. Harder even than this. A sportswriter trying to put down his feelings about the death of a loved one.
You visited here to read football? He never played the game. But he'd be up at the local Epilepsy Centre in the cold every Sunday morning, offering his gruff advice to Charlie and Harry and defending referees when the parents got out of hand on the touchline. He wasn't the best watching the boys play cricket, but I know when all four of us, Charlie, Harry, Kriss and I turn out for Chalfont St Peter's Sunday second team, he gets a twinkle in his eye. And it made you think of the childhood he had torn away from him by the war.
At the end of his bitter-sweet memoirs, Pat wrote: "I didn't do anything very brave but I made the numbers up."
Typical of the man. But to us he was the bravest, biggest of figures. In this small corner of Buckinghamshire, his passing is far more important than West Ham's new owners, the Superbowl or Andy Murray's efforts in Australia.
When his daughters Lisa and Tracy first started doing cartwheels, Pat turned himself into a gymnastics coach of some repute, a bit like Richard Williams, non-tennis-playing dad of Serena and Venus. Learning for his daughters' sakes, becoming a self-made expert.
He would be there to catch them when they slipped off the beam, his safe hands would be there when, in the grainy old videos, they flew around the parallel bars, high above inadequate matting at Chesham Leisure Centre.
Tracy and I wrote last night that he was always there to catch them when they fell. For forty years. All their lives. And now he's gone. There's crying to be done. He'll be missed. But he's only up in the loft. He's not that far away.

1 comment:

  1. Neal
    I don't know you nor did/do I know your late Father-in-Law, but this is such a wonderful tribute you have written. Just wanted to let you know