Born 27 October, 1931 - died 26 August, 2020
On Thursday, August 27, the bowls world was shocked to learn that the man who is universally regarded as the greatest-ever exponent of our sport had passed away peacefully overnight at a Care Home in Clevedon, just two months short of his 89th birthday. David Rhys Jones (DRJ), who partnered DJB to ten English and five British titles, and who was a close friend for more than half a century, gives his reaction and tells readers of Bowls International more about the legend who was David Bryant.
He was a very ordinary guy, David would tell you. And I think he was. A single boy, born to loving parents in Clevedon, a beautiful yet remarkable small town on the Bristol Channel, educated as a teacher and married a local girl's gem. He was a talented goalkeeper in his younger days and played table tennis and snooker to a high level. He was a local YMCA member, enjoyed trout-fishing, and was an avid rose-grower. He was also a faithful man of the family, who idolized his two daughters, punctuated his grandchildren, and recently became his great-grandfather.
But David Bryant was an exceptional person, an internationally renowned sporting icon, despite that cozy image. He was a world star who dominated a sport heavily focused on Lady Luck's attentions, a sport that seems to have been built to avoid dominance. His record on the honors board speaks for itself, but the respect he received from those who knew him was not based on his sensational performance, but on his winning personality.
With a humble modesty and warmth that won the hearts of people, David combined the determination, strength and authority that allowed him to win. How can someone who is so successful, and so relentless in his search for perfection, be so lovely, so grounded, and so approachable?
The question is a good one! Mike Rowbottom compared David to Superman, who performed amazing miracles all over the world, then returned home, put on his slippers, reached for his pipe, and became the homely, lovable, and very ordinary Clarke Kent in an amusing tribute in the online magazine Inside the Games. This world-beater, with all his jet-setting, was definitely content at home.
The aspirations of David were worthwhile in life but modest. He wanted to be the best, however, in bowls - nothing less. And he fulfilled his ambition without a doubt. Reluctant to join the crowd, he was a pioneer and free-thinker. He tore up the orthodox coaching manual after beginning to play with a traditional straight,' athletic posture,' and developed his own stance and delivery style.
He crouched, rose to a height divided by how much weight he needed to bring behind the bowl for drawing shots, then swooped down in a controlled manner to dispatch the bowl effortlessly and with seemingly no effort. He would stand upright while shooting, with an extended arm, using a long back-swing and forward-swing, releasing the bowl at a rate. In both cases, his bowling arm would rotate on the back-swing, breaking from standard coaching theory, then back again as he lunged forward.
But, I definitely don't have to say, that worked for him! David watched his father Reg play bowls as a toddler and in his early teens, and decided to join him. Reg found some old bowls behind the greenkeeper's shed when the family were in Exmouth for the Open tournament, and bought them for David, who used to play to the content of his heart on the lawn of the family home in Clevedon under the watchful eye of his mother, Evelyn.
David played green on the Clevedon Promenade on the seafront at first, too young to join the Clevedon club on approved premises, and, when he eventually joined his dad's club, in 1948, at the tender age of 16, he won the club handicap singles. Teaming up with West Backwell's friend Roger Harris in his youth, a few miles from Clevedon, the young pair asked their dads, Reg Bryant and Len Harris, to join them in the county fours, and in 1957, when they won the fourth title in Paddington, the quartet hit the headlines.
His last major international success came when he captured the WBT World indoor pairs title in 1992 with Tony Allcock (for the sixth time) and David last qualified in pairs with Steve Withers in 2003 for the English national championships. Amazingly, he won the world outdoor singles title three times in the 55 years between 1948 and 2003 and the triples once, while indoors he won the world singles title three times and the pairs six times.
Then there were his record collections, which are actually too numerous to mention here, of British, English, and Somerset county titles. He helped his beloved Somerset win four times in the Middleton Cup.
And he won the Jack High Masters - covered by BBC TV in Worthing - nine times in 12 attempts between 1978 and 1989. Many shared their surprise and disappointment that he was never knighted, as tributes poured in from fans of the great man.
However, in 1969, when he was named MBE 'for services to bowls' and in 1980 when the honor was elevated to that of CBE, his accomplishments were remembered by Her Majesty the Queen. In 2003, the Knights of Southampton Old Green ennobled him in a picturesque ceremony (a club that goes back to 1299). So he was at least respected as 'Sir David Bryant' in Southampton.
In 1963, when I took up a role as a drama teacher at the Gordano School in Portishead, where there are two fine bowling greens on the picturesque Lake Grounds, I had my own introduction to David Bryant. In those days, however, the closest bowl club was in Clevedon, five miles away. I had already played a bowls nut for the junior Welsh side (under 35's in those days), and after a good interview in Portishead, as I drove back to my home in Llanelli, different thoughts were running through my mind.
Clevedon, Clevedon - the name of the city is familiar... Isn't that where the up-and-coming world star of the game comes from? David er... Bryant, that's it! Hasn't he just returned from Perth in Australia, where he won a couple of gold medals at the Commonwealth Games? - Wow! - If I join the Clevedon club, I could meet him, shake his hand, play in some club friendlies with or against him. In the England pairs in 1959, David and his pal Roger were runners up, but Roger had wanted to go back to cricket.
I was unaware of the situation, but David was actively searching for a new partner - and he asked me to play with him in the county pairs championship the following year during my first season with the club, in the summer of 1964. I was living a dream, but there was more to come - and soon! We captured the Somerset, English, and British pair titles in our first year together, and the records show that we went on to win the national pairs, triples, and fours three times each - plus the title of the national indoor pairs once for good measure. I think it's fair to say that I probably would never have played for England if it hadn't been for David Bryant and I wouldn't have been able to carve out a career as a broadcaster and journalist.
There was so much he showed me, and he made me believe in myself. Without rising a few inches in height, you couldn't be in his business! Funnily enough, one incident when we met Worthing duo Rex Glover-Phillips and George 'John' Scadgell in our first national pairs final at Mortlake in 1965 demonstrates clearly how I had already been corrupted with the confidence of the Bryant - although it was probably all due to sheer naivety on my part.
After a dismal start, after 11 finishes, we trailed 18-6, and our dream seemed to turn into a nightmare. The audience of a few thousand spectators was becoming nervous. Most left their seats and started for the exits, making up their minds who would win. It's been so one-sided. On the twelfth end, after I had bowled my four kinds of woods, we passed mid-rink, and a disconsolate David confided in a whisper: "Look, they're all leaving, and going home - this is getting embarrassing!" Having never tasted defeat in tandem with the great man.
I still believed we were going to win, and I was brazen (and perhaps silly) enough to come up with a brilliant - if unrealistic - response. "They'll be sorry when they read the result in tomorrow's papers," I said. As he always did, David grinned, rubbed his hands together with glee, and strode off confidently to play his first finishing bowl. And we continued to draw, 24-21! I felt that evening that I had made a small contribution to that bold and impossible victory.
In 1960, David first won the EBA (national) singles title, and he saw him put his hand up for selection at the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth in a strong international series in 1961. It was his first international stage venture and his first acquaintance with the quick greens of Australia.
He cherished them and came home in singles and fours with gold medals. And, in exchange, he was cherished by the Aussies. He was the first winner of the World Outdoor Singles Championship at Kyeemagh (Sydney) in 1966, and when the World Indoor Singles Championship was established, he was the inaugural winner at Coatbridge in 1979. An aside - it is important to note that when he captured the first of his three indoor world titles, he was 47.
How many more titles could he have won if the title had been up for grabs before? In the 1980s, in order to equate it with that of other top foreign sportsmen, an eminent sports psychologist came from Canada to research David's personality and approach. He told me that in David he had noticed the same characteristics as he had with the other legends of the sport.
Initially, that shocked me - but I recognized it to be real after thinking about it. He didn't want to lose - but losing wasn't a major issue. He had things in sight. It was not the be-all and the end-all to win.
More than anyone I know, with grace, David was willing to lose, showing a compassionate heart. In the state of lush, inclement weather, or even the attentions of Lady Luck, he will never seek excuses. Whatever the result, he would always hold his hand out to his opponent as the last bowl rolled, smile widely, and utter the immortal words, "Very well bowled! - all the best in the next round!" His other winning attribute was his ability to tolerate less than ideal playing conditions and to cope with green-speed extremes that demanded the exercise of strength ranging from ferocious to ferocious.
He would shrug it off if the grass was very long, or if the green was tricky, and would treat it not as a trap, but as a challenge. To be read and dealt with, challenges were there. He cherished Mortlake's Watneys greens, where many of his domestic triumphs were accomplished. They were fast, and the way they were liberally sprinkled with sand, he approved. But there is no doubt that Down Under - in Australia and New Zealand, where a reasonable percentage of his accomplishments were registered, his favorite greens were to be found.
Perhaps that was why, in the southern hemisphere, he was praised as a genius, where he was far more highly respected than he was at home in the UK.
Without mentioning the pipe, we could not possibly understand David Bryant's life and times. It's true that he liked to smoke a Holland House tobacco-fuelled Falcon pipe. "Even now, it is still possible to hear members of the general public who enjoyed watching bowls on TV in the 1980's say, "Bowls? I don't know much about bowls - but I remember the man with the pipe!" The famous pipe was lit in the early days - but only outdoors.
Later on, when his head was lifted by the dreaded health and safety, he still kept it with him on the green, but it was empty. It remained, however, a recognizable emblem of David Bryant himself - an integral part of the image of the brand, and something that was almost the sport's own badge. When he was voted Pipeman of the Year in 1986, he was chuffed to pieces, joining a group of 'A' list celebrities, including Harold Wilson, Peter Cushing, Eric Morecambe, Freddie Trueman, Patrick Moore, Henry Cooper, Ian Botham, and Tony Benn.
You'd know all about the pipe—and you'd be familiar with the confident swagger, the intense focus, the technical abilities, the good sportsmanship, and, above all, the invincible aura it created. For those who have seen him only from a distance, I have a surprise: he also had a sharp and mischievous sense of humor. David and I once popped into the hospitality tent between the third round and the quarter-finals of the national pairs championship in Worthing's Beach House Park and enjoyed a fast pint of amber liquid.
A fan standing near us approached the great man and said, "David, I've been watching you play for 30 years, and you've given me no end of pleasure. And this morning you played like a machine. What will you have to drink?" David responded, "A pint of diesel please!" without a pause for thought, after last visiting David in his Care Home - the excellent Poets Mews in Clevedon - before lockdown. We enjoyed reminiscing about a lovely hour, and David came up with trumps with some cracking one-liners.
It was the love and loyal support he got from his wife, Ruth, in my opinion, that gave him such a sense of peaceful well-being. They met when Ruth, you would imagine, showed up at the Clevedon club to help with the teas, and they got married on April 2, 1960 — earlier this year, they duly celebrated their Diamond Anniversary at Poets Mews Care Home. David was a committed family guy, truly.
Jackie and Carole, who may never have had bowls, but who had five grandchildren between them (Lisa, Hayley, Ryan, Samantha, and Connor). More recently, David was proud to be Theo and Olivia's great-great-grandfather. "He was the best dad and granddad.
He was funny, supportive, easy-going, generous, and enthusiastic." He was even known for his daft sayings, such as, "All aboard the Skylark!" They were also known by the workers at Poets Mews. "He would say, "Yeah, you know, up-and-down, like the Weston donkeys!" when they asked him, "How are you feeling, David?" In his short stay at Poets Mews, everyone on the staff fell in love with him fairly and referred to him as a "proper gentleman," who always expressed his appreciation for the slightest thing.
It was 'beautiful' or 'gorgeous' every morsel of food or drink, and it became an affectionate joke. "Is that nice, David?" they would ask. "Gorgeous," he would answer, "Beautiful!" I can't disagree with any of that. Over 57 glorious years, I have witnessed his wit and good-humored friendship. At his funeral in Christchurch, which overlooks his beloved Clevedon bowls club, I have been given the heavy burden of writing and delivering the eulogy, and I am writing this a few days before the committal takes place. I'm going to stress the attributes of David as a bowler—the best, certainly, since Adam rolled an apple into the Tree of Wisdom.
To his mastery of strategy, techniques, and temperament, I will pay tribute. Any of his accomplishments I will mention. Not all of them, because it would be too time-consuming! But most of all, I want everyone to know that caring, kind, compassionate, patient, and grounded was the greatest bowler that ever walked this planet—a devoted family man who possessed an infectious sense of humor and was a true friend. I feel honored to have shared with his space and time and to have played a small role in his story. Adieu, my mate.