Decamot of the month


Steve Jones’ friends always assumed his frequent mention of the Class of 66 was a reference to England finally winning the World Cup by beating West Germany 4-2 at Wembley; but it wasn’t.

It did involve his alma mater but 1966 was the year he attended a funeral with four other special class mates.

The dearly departed was one Ruddy van der Haard, a PE teacher, originally from South Africa, who put together a group of first year students eight years earlier whom he coached and cajoled into the best basketball team in the history of Hessle Grove County High School at Epsom in Surrey.

The team had been on the brink of national stardom when tragedy struck.

The very first All England Basketball final was due to take place at Crystal Place National Sports Centre against a team from Northumberland - Byker Grove Metro High in Newcastle.

The venue was only two years old with state-of-the-art facilities, which the newly elected Labour government keenly promoted as a prime example of socialist achievement.

The Daily Mail characterised the contest as North v South and dubbed it ‘the battle of the Groves.”

Two days before the final, Hessle Grove’s head coach was involved in a fatal accident which took place on a farm owned by the father of one of their fellow school mates. An iron chain had spun loose from a combined harvester and struck van der Haard on the head. He was killed instantly.

“A freak accident” was the official verdict but many of van der Haard’s disciples consoled themselves with a variety of conspiracy theories to explain their hero’s death. One even suggested their charismatic coach had been targeted by the South African secret service for opposing the apartheid regime. Many parents wanted the Final postponed or cancelled but Surrey County Council decided it should go ahead.

The service of remembrance took place at Christ Church on Epsom Common and featured an eloquent eulogy by the Head Master for a highly influential member of staff. Van der Haard had brought huge esteem to Surrey’s educational establishment during his eight -year stint as Head of Physical Education, not just in basketball but other minority sports like lacrosse and korfball.

“Ruddy Hardman” was the boy’s nickname for their coach due to his idiosyncratic way of motivating players which included intimidation. If used today, he would provoke a wave of protests from activist groups determined to classify every utterance as bullying. Van der Haard included ritual mocking of anyone guilty of falling short of his demanding standards.

“Those things on the end of your arms are hands, not claws!” he would bellow if a basketball was dropped.

“Stop flapping – you’re not a performing seal!” was another favourite reserved for goalkeepers who came off their line during a football match but failed to punch away a dangerous looking cross.

Peak physical fitness was demanded of everyone which meant regular sessions on an army style assault course, half marathons before breakfast followed by ice cold showers.

Steve Jones played pivot in the team although van der Haard’s tactical acumen meant frequent changes in formation whenever he called for a time out. The one call which they all dreaded was the signal to go “full court man to man” which meant you had to stick to your opposite number where ever he was on the court. The alternative and more usual tactic involved sprinting back to your own half the moment possession was lost, forming a defensive wall, then picking up your opposite number as he approached.

Ruddy van der Haard’s methods were extremely effective.

He quickly achieved cult status with a coterie of pupils who enjoyed the acclaim that followed their sporting success. The Hessle Grove Basketball Team never lost a single match and frequently won by huge margins. They all bought in to his mantra of relentless continuous development built around the pursuit of excellence for its own sake.

The funeral was a grand affair attended by around 300 mourners. Van Der Haard’s immediate family lived in South Africa but his father, a diplomat, was visiting London, so was able to be present. He graciously acknowledged the condolences offered to him with a shrug of his shoulders.

He accepted the explanation of the accident with dignity saying “these things happen but Ruddy lived his short life to the full. We are proud of his contribution to Hessle Grove”.

After the funeral, Steve Jones invited the Class of 66 to meet him at the Glyn Arms, one of their favourite watering holes, for a less formal gathering to remember their coach. All four responded with enthusiasm. They shared a feeling that the official ceremony had failed to capture Ruddy van der Haard’s unique contribution to Hessle Groves’ sporting prowess.

They all felt Ruddy’s take on life merited a different type of memorial that only the all-conquering Basketball team could supply; one that might last for a lifetime.

The Class of 66 consisted of the five members of the team who usually started every game. The other members of the team were Michael Andrews whose mother was the school’s cook, Peter Pritchard whose father was a theatrical agent, Andy Nightingall, whose family owned some riding stables on Epsom Downs and Matthew Pembleton whose mother and father were both lawyers.

“Do you remember that time Johnny Russell let a ball slip through his legs to give Sutton High a goal they never looked like scoring” said Michael Andrews sipping his second lager shandy.

“How can I forget it” replied Andy Nightingall. “I was in the changing room after the game when Johnny offered his apology to Ruddy”.

“I’m sorry boss,” he said, almost in tears, “I should have kept my legs together”.

“It’s your mother I blame” replied Ruddy. “If only she had kept her legs together.”

There were guffaws all round, followed by a silence as they all took extra sips of their drinks.

“I must say,” ventured Peter Pritchard cautiously. “I didn’t understand the joke at the time”.

“Don’t worry, Peter.” replied Steve Jones “neither did any of us!”

“Well, I still don’t!” exclaimed Matthew Pembleton.

All five burst out laughing and toasted the memory of their late coach with five Babychams which arrived on a tray, courtesy of Beryl the barmaid.

It wasn’t long before the inebriated Hessle Grove Basketball Team were comparing themselves to the victorious England World Cup Winning Football Team.

“The point is ….” insisted Matthew Pembleton, trying to conjure up the right phrase to recover from his earlier confession of ignorance …. “Ruddy’s methods will have an enduring legacy which I suggest will outlive Bobby Moore and his team!”

“Hear, Hear! I totally agree” proclaimed Steve Jones, seizing the opportunity as an excuse for future gatherings. “I propose that we meet every year to test the veracity of your proposition!”

They all agreed without a moment’s hesitation. Not one of them wanted to admit they didn’t know the meaning of ‘veracity’.

“Furthermore” continued Steve Jones, sensing an open goal. “As a newly qualified actuary, I will devise a formula which we can apply which will prove how prescient Mathew’s proposition is.”

They all agreed without a moment’s hesitation. Not one of them wanted to admit they didn’t know the meaning of ‘prescient’.

Steve Jones Formula for Life is celebrated yearly by the Class of 66 at different locations chosen by rota. The venues became ever more salubrious as their taste for fine dining developed in line with their blossoming individual careers.

Peter Pritchard joined his father’s theatrical agency and engineered a merger with Cameron Mackintosh to become a major force in the West End.

Andy Nightingall took over the family’s stable complex and turned it into a major activity centre which incorporated a specialist riding centre for the disabled as well as a highly sophisticated rehab centre for injured thoroughbred racehorses. Many of Andy’s clients were wealthy aristocrats.

Michael Andrews became an award-winning architect with a string of public commissions worldwide whilst Matthew Pembleton followed his parents into the legal profession by taking silk as a high-profile criminal barrister. He did resent having to style himself KC rather than QC upon the death of The Queen in 2022.

Steve Jones went into financial services where his actuarial knowledge bamboozled record numbers of corporate clients into appointing him their adviser on occupational pensions. He sold the business after ten years to concentrate on freelance writing.

At each gathering Steve would toast the memory of Ruddy van der Haard by quoting the Class of 66’s Mortality Factor of 45.45. The cohort was happy to join in without questioning their de facto captain’s mastery of actuarial science which remained a complete mystery to them.

In 1993 Bobby Moore died after a brave fight against cancer. The 27th location for their celebratory meal was Quaglino’s where Steve Jones announced that the Mortality Factor had improved in favour of the Class of 66 from 44.45 to 50.

They all agreed but not one of them admitted they knew what their resident actuary was talking about. They had long since moved on from Babychams to Italian Prosecco and were not bothered anyway.

In 2007 Alan Ball died of a heart attack at age of 62. He had been the youngest member of the team who many judged was Man Of The Match.

The Class of 66 were at Gleneagles for their yearly gathering and were happy to accept Steve Jones announcement of an improvement in their Mortality Factor from 50 to 55.55.

They each raised a glass of Moet & Chandon having finally arrived at genuine champagne via the plucky pretenders, Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava and English Nyetimber. As ever, Steve Jones MF assessment went unchallenged.

There followed a 10-year sequence during which the yearly event passed without any change in Steve Jones Mortality Factor but 2018 was the beginning of a momentous sequence during which the Class of 66 witnessed a sea change in expectations summarised thus: -

2018 Ray Wilson dies moving the MF to 62.5

2019 Martin Peters & Gordon Banks both died moving the MF to 83.33.

2020 Nobby Stiles & Jack Charlton (the oldest member of the team) died moving the MF to 100.

Covid prevented a physical celebration in 2020 but all five members met on a Zoom call and toasted each other with several bottles of Dom Pérignon, having finally arrived at the holy grail of sparkling wine perfection. Martin Pembleton shed a private tear at the passing up of Waitrose Bollinger Special Cuvee but managed to hide his disappointment until the Zoom call was over.

The Class of 66’s positive Mortality Factor came under pressure when Peter Pritchard and Andy Nightingall had hip replacements, Michael Andrews had a Transient Ischaemic Attack or “TIA” to those in the medical profession, and Steve Jones suffered an ingrowing toe nail.

Steve was able to dismiss these medical incidents as minor actuarial inconveniences having little or no impact on the bigger picture.

This proved to be an accurate prediction as the deaths of Roger Hunt (202I) George Cohen (2022) and Sir Bobby Charlton (2023) produced new MFs of 125, 166 and 250 respectfully.

The Class of 66 57th annual gathering was in Paris. Steve Jones was able to confirm the 250-figure speaking from a table at La Tour D’ Argent on 15 Quai de la Tournelle overlooking Notre Dame.

It is the oldest restaurant in Paris having been founded in 1582. It claims patronage from an eclectic mix of guests including Henty 1V (1582) and The Wright Brothers (1906). It was here that Steve Jones announced that he had already arranged the 58th annual celebration for 2024.

“I took an executive decision.” he said, “I have booked a table for six at Astrid y Gastón Casa Moreyra, Lima, Peru. It is Gastón Acurio’s flagship French-influenced restaurant, run by Diego Muñoz. By all accounts, it is a culinary tour de force. The menu features traditional Peruvian fare, but, apparently, it is the exquisite fusion specialties that make it a sublime fine-dining experience.”

“A table for six?” asked Matthew Pembleton.

“Yes, indeed” replied Steve Jones with a smile. “I have invited Sir Geoff Hurst to join us.”

“What a brilliant idea!” exclaimed Peter Pritchard. “We can finally mix our sporting metaphors by declaring “game set and match” to Ruddy van der Haard!”

“But what if Sir Geoff … err … doesn’t … err … make it …” said Michael Andrews sotto voce.

“It will mean the Mortality Factor finally moves to plus 500!” announced Steve Jones triumphantly.

This Decamot was inspired by the following items: class, stable, wave, cook, father, Lima, funeral, chain, claw, iron