The Tail Gunner

Gentleman is such an old-fashioned term.  Even in my childhood, it was a form of chastisement at school.

‘Campbell,’ there were no Christian names at my school, ‘act like a gentleman, do your tie up, and get your hair cut,’ my housemaster, Mr Porteous, would say with a resigned glare.

We were taught that ‘being a gentleman’ was to act with dignity, manners, and humility.  However, in those days, it was like being associated with conforming and behaving to a set of rules.  Forty-five years ago, I wanted to be a bloke or a lad who set his own rules. Becoming a gentleman was not part of my ambition or aspiration. 

Using the word to describe someone today is still a bit antiquated, especially in the gender-fluid, non-binary world that we live in.  But learning of the tragic news of Gavin Chater’s untimely death has made me reassess the word ‘gentleman’. It perfectly describes Gavin, a gentle man.   

Gavin wasn’t a close friend but a schoolmate, and we played on the same school rugby team for many years.  He wasn’t gentle on the sports field, just a hard, uncompromising openside flanker, whereas I was a flouncy non-tackler who hid in the backline.  Gavin had legendary stamina and wonderful ball skills.  I first noticed him when we took gym lessons together in senior school.  I wasn’t used to being upstaged, but Gavin was a stubborn competitor with great skills and was the doyen of the team football five a-sides, with a wicked left foot. However, Gavin was confident but never big-headed, unassuming, and always had kind words.  He had an even temperament and never seemed too vocal, just a presence of authority.  I suppose all tributes convey the same view, but there is no gilding the lily here; I can’t remember anyone ever having a bad word to say about him. 

It wasn’t until he followed me to Chester College to study Physical Education in 1981 that I saw another side of him.  Gavin was funny, social, popular with all, and a regular visitor to the women’s halls of residence.  On nights out, Gavin often had his shirt off and tie wrapped around his head, enjoying drinking with friends.  But he always retained that glowing grin of happiness and contentment. 

I played one game with him at college before an injury led me to pack in the course and leave Chester.  However, I followed his progress as he starred in the Chester College 1st XV.  I’m sure they won the British Colleges Cup in one of his three years at Chester.   This was significant as the PE wing colleges in those days included colleges such as Loughborough, St Luke’s, Exeter, Borough Road, London, St Mary’s, Twickenham and Jordanhill, Glasgow.  Gavin gained selection to the English Colleges XV, a significant step up the representative ladder.  Unfortunately, his rugby days were curtailed by injury.  It cut short a player in his prime, a ‘tail gunner’ as Bill Maclaren would have described flankers in those days, but similar in style to modern players like Ben Earl or Hamish Watson.

We lost touch until 2006 when, one sunny Saturday morning in March in Crieff.  My son was playing for Stewart’s Melville College against Morrisons.  In the distance, a lone athletic figure was herding a crowd of youngsters for rugby training.  I recognised him immediately.  He hadn’t changed, was super fit, understated, content, and clearly enjoying his role as a teacher.  We connected via Facebook and commented on each other’s posts and news.  In touch but distant.  Over the years, I had glimpses into his life with old Chester College friends and family.  Last November, we had a small gathering of the Stewart’s Melville leaving class of 1980.  Gavin was meant to be attending.  We were all excited about meeting up with him again.  Unfortunately, he cancelled and said he’d make the next gathering.  What none of us realised was that he was ill.  To the end, private, reserved, and unassuming. 

As I stated earlier, Gavin was a true, gentle man taken too early.  

Rest in Peace, my friend.