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The Old Westminsters, with Andrew in the middle of the front row

Andrew Aitken (February 1954 – April 2015)

An Eton Fives record – in two parts

1 The story

Andrew Aitken was secretary of the Old Westminsters (OWW) Eton Fives Club for over 30 years and transformed the club. He died in a local hospice in Suffolk from an unrelenting cancer with friends and family nearby in April 2015.

Fives at the school was popular in the 1960s, coached in the traditional way by a schoolmaster as an add on: John (Jumbo) Wilson was, I think, well into his sixties, bald with long baggy shorts, but always positive and encouraging. Andrew, playing with Philip Wilson or Paul Hooper or sometimes John Sanderson, led a strong and solid second pair before becoming captain of Fives. Sadly this was in a school side that once went a year and a half without winning a match – not an auspicious start. There were better times at Oxford University in the early 1970s, mainly in the Peppers.

The OWW EFCin the late 1960s was not quite moribund, but almost on its last legs. There were one or two fine individual players, but the club relied on Frank Hooper (ex-president of the EFA) and his brother John (even rounder in shape and less mobile) both in their sixties to be able to turn out three pairs. It was with the club at this low point when Andrew took over as club secretary in the late 1970s. Fortunately a few others of us from university joined at the same time and virtually doubled the numbers overnight to perhaps eight regular players.

Andrew oversaw the rebuilding of closer links with the school and the recruitment of players after university and made additions to the club year on year. This was in the days when letter and phone calls were the main (indeed only) methods of communication. He also saw the opportunities available in the league for regular competitive Fives to drive standards up and to slowly build the standing and reputation of the club. Within a couple of years we were fielding two teams in the league and plenty of good Fives was had by all.

Andrew spotted the opportunity to strengthen the club with the addition of a top player from outside to play first pair. Mike King (Old Aldenhamian) was the first: he played a number of successful seasons with Neil Margerison. Andrew was able to move to second pair which suited his robust style of play and there were some notable scalps. This model was followed in the late 1990s with the introduction of John Reynolds (Old Citizen) who played regularly with Giles Coren.

The annual school magazine The Elizabethan featured reports from old boys sporting clubs. Andrew was always generous to others in these reports and his dry sense of humour always raised a smile. It was clear that the club was always friendly and welcoming – and this came in no small part from him.

Andrew also looked to his succession, making sure that there were always two or three of us who match managed a ‘team’ for the season. When the cancer arrived in 2012/13 and he had to step down, there were ready made successors in Edward Levy, Chris Watts, Freddie Krespi and others. He even turned up in 2013 at the very old Westminsters versus very old Ipswichians fixture that he and Mike Fenn dreamed up a couple of years before, although he could not play. He did carry on working at Galleries magazine through 2014 and even early 2015 before the end came.

Secretaries from other clubs and over the years will have their own memories of Andrew. He was unfussy and practical; not particularly drawn to the higher echelons of the game – though a shrewd and wry observer. However he immediately saw the importance of a book on how to play Fives and with Richard Black and one or two others from the EFA he contributed many hours to this project: ‘How to play and coach Eton Fives by John Reynolds’ first published in 1993. His Fives legacy is in the strength of the OWW club – over many years now – and in the pleasure and enjoyment so many of us experienced on the court (and in the pub) over three decades. Irreplaceable. [NJM]

2 The man

I first played Fives with Andrew Aitken in 1969 and regret with all that cancer has taken him from the court. Like many of my favourite partners he appeared almost to the end, without smelling badly or changing shape, to be wearing the same tracksuit bottoms - never were his legs uncovered - that he wore in 1969, and did his gloves wear out? Just possibly, towards the end, and he did wear patriotic Old Wet fives shirts, largely vainly giving the lead to the rest of us. But he was the same.

He was a good partner to play with. A hard but not impossible (alas) cut, wiry in defence and attack on the upper step, a fly-swatting action characterising his volleying and like all OWWs of his generation, Jumbo Wilson's call of 'Volley, volley' you knew was on endless loop in his ear. His enduring and endearing weakness was the cut that caught the ledge and flew out of the back or top, giving the goalkeeping tendency in his partner full rein. He was faithfully positive to play with, though frankly a bit right handed in brain and footwork.

What was going on inside? Reliably, a sort of echo-sounder of history pinging the modern day for resonances. This ASDIC set to a personal historical wavelength was manifestly on on the day when Old Westminster Napper Tandy came to play. I got the full works as the game progressed, Andrew thoroughly enjoying, not marvelling or revelling those not being his way, that this descendant of the Irish revolutionary of The Wearing o' the Green ( 'I met with Napper Tandy and he took me by the hand' - Andrew reeled off the whole verse), should be parmi nous on the top step. Andrew went 'Don't you remember how it goes?' Not the first time I was surprised by a generous assumption of his.

He was a dogged manager - he ran the Oxford Peppers when there were no courts due to a rebuild and we posted to Eton for matches. We were going to be there. Now there's faithful in support of the well-designed game. And he carried on, one simply turned up confident. [JS]

NJM and JS are Neil Margerison and John Sanderson – and have incorporated contributions from two of those closest to him: Paul Hooper and Philip Wilson