Alan Barber (1905-1985)
In the death of Alan Barber in March Eton Fives has lost its wisest mentor.
In retrospect, it is remarkable that the game enjoyed so much of his zeal. Such was Alan's skill as a sportsman, a real Corinthian if ever there was one, that he could have been lured elsewhere. Had he been other than a working schoolmaster by profession, perhaps cricket, football or golf would have claimed more of his time. His prowess as a player of these other sports needs little elucidation here. As a fives player Alan won the Kinnaird Cup with Desmond Backhouse in 1934 and in 1936. After the war he played briefly with Charlie Sheepshanks in a partnership which displayed, more than any other perhaps, the skills and beauty of the game. He was a very fine player until well into his fifties.It was Eton Fives, then, which was lucky enough to benefit from his services for so many years. When Jack Peterson became Headmaster of Shrewsbury in 1950, Alan took over the Chairmanship of the EFA, a post which he filled with no little skill and enthusiasm for the next 23 years. In 1973 he succeeded Lord Home as President and he maintained a lively interest in all aspects of the Association's business.
It was as Chairman, though, that Alan guided the Association with firmness and fairness at a time when the game was expanding: at more schools the game was thriving, and Eton Fives was no longer the preserve of a few bastions. While recognising that wider interest was beneficial, even vital, to the game, he, conservative to some, was determined that Eton Fives should avoid the pitfalls into which so many other sports had fallen and that the spirit of the game should far outweigh the confines of petty legislation. Fives, to Alan, should be a game which was entertaining and fun for all. How right he was! Meetings at the Sports Club were notable for the good humour of the committee members and for the generosity of their host.
At Ludgrove, too, Alan was a fine host. He took particular pride in doing all he could for the players and was regularly to be seen sweeping the courts before a Kinnaird or a club match. He realised it was a logical step, but he was naturally disappointed, when, after the Kinnaird weekends had become established, the semi-finals and finals were no longer staged at the school. However, school, Old Boy and university teams have rich memories of games with A.T. Barber's IV and of the hospitality of the game's First Lady.
Alan's involvement in the game elsewhere was extensive, too. He would travel miles, because he wanted to be there, not because he thought he ought to be, and took equal delight in opening the courts at Queen Elizabeth's School, Barnet (sweeping again!), in presenting a trophy, or in playing against young or old. An incongruous pair, Alan Barber and Neville Ford, short in shorts and long in longs, was a familiar sight at Eton: a (too!) competitive young Harrow pair was rarely rewarded with more than a lesson tactfully taught.
As coach to generations of Ludgrove boys he would stand for hours in wind and rain, encouraging, suggesting, and even cajoling to bring out the best in any individual. Criticism was seldom part of his repertoire: Alan saw the best in people. One fears that all too often an absence of adequate protective clothing and of umbrella can have done little for the arthritis of which he made so light.
It was the final illness, though, that was so cruel. For one who had been active in so many spheres to have been confined to sedentary inactivity was a crushing blow. Alan himself was stoical about it and made the most of what little he could do, ever keen to hear news of what he would have loved so much to witness for himself. Dorothy's support to him throughout the years had been inestimable: now her devotion and care were unremitting and her resilience quite remarkable. The sympathy of all their very many friends in the game goes out to her and the family.
The Alan Barber Cup, for which Old Boys clubs compete, inspired perhaps by Alan's ties with Arthur Dunn, is without doubt the most successful of the post-war introductions to the Eton Fives calendar, and has fittingly produced the highest standards of sportsmanship, which Alan held so dear. It would, perhaps, be right and proper if the early-season encounter at Ludgrove between the Jesters Club, of which Alan was an early member, and the Old Salopians, his own Old Boy club, were officially known as the Alan Barber Memorial Match.