Farewell to Jonathan (Johnny) Bruce

Jan 04, 2021
In Memory of a Real Tennis Player and a Real Character

Jonathan Bruce Obituary

Johnny Bruce, a man of many passions.

Growing up in Seaton Sluice, Northumberland with brother Chris and sister Joanne, Johnny’s parents were teachers, though he insisted that he was “descended from mining people; mine owners of courseâ€. Several early memories are of prodigious levels of domestic smoking: “at house parties there’d be at least 1,000 cigarettes smoked inside, maybe 1,500 if it was a long nightâ€.

Sporty, intelligent and promoted a year at school, Johnny went to Newcastle RGS and then to Sheffield University (“not Polyâ€) where a drunk and disorderly time proved to be the perfect grounding for a career in tax accounting.

Johnny was outstanding in his field. The depth and breadth of his knowledge was unequalled, as was the range of his experience. He excelled both as gamekeeper for the Inland Revenue and poacher, first for Ernst and Young and then from 2008 as a partner at Lewis Golden. In the late 1990s, Johnny was instrumental in the implementation of self-assessment at Ernst & Young – “tax needn’t be taxingâ€. He also re-wrote the Tolley’s Tax Guide to the Taxation of Lloyd’s Underwriters. While he was demanding and set absurdly high standards, he worked twice as hard for his team and was often thoughtfully and quietly generous.

On moving to Crouch End in 1986, Johnny joined the nearest cricket club, which turned out to be Hornsey, and nothing was ever the same again. Over 999 games (second in club history), Johnny scored 19,419 runs (second all-time) and took 886 wickets (twelfth all-time).

With the bat, Johnny was free flowing and direct. He scored 15 centuries with a highest score of 200 not out against Leverstock Green II in 1992; topped 1,000 runs in a season five times; was the club’s leading scorer in three of those and had his best year in 1995 with 1,481 runs from 45 innings. He also hit a club record 44 sixes in 1993.

With the ball, Johnny bustled in off ten paces. He liked to open the bowling and usually had to have the ball prised from his grasp fifteen or twenty overs later. Bowling gun-barrel straight and often brushing the umpire as he went past, he took 50 wickets in a season three times, with a highest of 58 in 2009 and best match figures of 25-4-68-8 versus Eastcote III in 2002. All these figures are sourced from Johnny’s monumental Hornsey Almanack, which runs to 1,574 pages and was published in two volumes in 2015.

Statistics were important to Johnny but they only scratch the surface. Every one of the 999 games played was a do-or-die performance. Oppo and umpires needed to be argued with, scorers overseen (Hornsey approved scorers preferred, coloured pencils not), laws debated (“actually we’re not debating it, I’m right and you’re wrongâ€), statistical milestones anticipated, beer and curry planned, other teams and league tables checked, North Middlesex C.C. worried about, availability for next weekend assessed (“unacceptableâ€) and the need for a bath remarked on (“Jane...â€). All this and a game of cricket too.

For all his success on the field, he was proudest of the Horney Colts team he managed. They were together for well over 100 games, winning the Gubby Allen Cup as under 10s in 2009 and the Middlesex Under 19 Cup in 2018. More or less the same team played throughout, winning everything in sight and becoming men in the process. To be caught up in the train of the team’s progress was to join an action-packed, 365 days of the year ride requiring a minimum 200% commitment. The team’s celebration dinner at Lord’s in 2016 was one of the greatest nights for everyone there.

The only gap in the record was a year spent in Australia in 1990. Johnny came back slimmer, fitter and – a turn or two of the romantic roundabout later – met Jane. Jack was born in 1998, which explains why Johnny only managed 23 games for Hornsey in 1999. Joe followed in 2002. While Johnny was a wonderful public performer, he was also a very private man. In the quiet moments, when balls were being picked out of the hedge or pints poured at the bar, it was clear that Jane, Jack and Joe were the people who mattered most. Johnny was deeply in love with Jane and he simply couldn’t imagine her not being around. And he was hugely proud of Jack and Joe. He knew he should have said so more often.

It wouldn’t be true to Johnny to ignore the fact that he could be bloody annoying, endlessly stubborn, completely uncompromising and not remotely politically correct. That aside – and it wasn’t always easy to put to one side – Johnny was one of the most extraordinary people any of us will ever meet. If you passed muster and became a friend, you became a friend for life – “I don’t need any more friends, I chose wellâ€. As a friend, you were bound to his energy, sense of fun and insistence on making the most of every minute.

The range of Johnny’s enthusiasms was matched only by the certainty of his convictions. For example, an incomplete list of Johnny’s sports and competitive pastimes: backgammon (“I’ll be unbeatable when I master the doubling cubeâ€); cricket; cricket scoring (“definitely competitive, I prefer the Frindall method and my own handwritingâ€); crosswords (English and Latin); cycling; golf (“I can’t tell Jane how much my clubs costâ€); squash; Real Tennis (“magnificent, the most statistically complete sport in the worldâ€) and shooting.

Also, a provisional and incomplete list of Mastermind specialist subjects: Crouch End and Hornsey local history; Hornsey cricket club; the Rules of Golf; the Laws of Cricket; the J.F.K. assassination (including the Warren Commission hearings and report); Miles Davis (“I’m a completist when it comes to Miles Davisâ€); the Grateful Dead (“though I’m not as completistâ€); the London Underground; the word “mackerelâ€; Newcastle United F.C.; the preparation and presentation of Old Fashioned cocktails; Panerai watches; Thelonius Monk (“completistâ€); Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 1864 to the present day (“I’m aiming for two full sets: one for Jack and one for Joeâ€) and Woolacombe tide tables.

When he died, Johnny didn’t know the result of his Latin GCSE taken a few weeks earlier. He did know, in fact he was certain that he could take Anthony Joshua to a points decision, could prop for England (“either side of the scrum, though I’d probably have to come off at half-timeâ€) and would make the G.B. Olympic shooting team in 2024 “if I gave it my full attentionâ€. He said he was indestructible and everyone believed him, which is why he leaves a crater-sized hole in so many lives.

Abiit nemine salutato*

Jonathan Andrew Bruce was born on October 14, 1964. He had a heart attack and died at home on December 13, 2020, aged 56.

*he went away without bidding farewell

Recollections of Johnny Bruce from his Real Tennis friends who played National League matches with him over the years.

From Mark Heffernan:

My own recollections of Johnny are many and varied. I marked virtually all of his home National League matches (no one else would) and every time I called one of his high “giraffe†serves (not sure if that’s the correct terminology) OUT, he would stop, turn around to face the dedans and ask me “Are you sure?â€

Trips back from away matches late on Friday nights were an education of sorts. Whether it was his complete disdain for craft beer, his encyclopaedic knowledge of cricket or his personal database of every real tennis match he had ever played, the conversations were never dull and always opinionated. (About 6 months ago he told me that we had played each other 51 times for total handicap change of his favour, of course).

The choice of music to play on journeys to away matches was always problematic. If I pandered to Johnny’s love of jazz, he always claimed to have a better version of what I was playing on the car stereo in his collection at home.

I do recall him telling me that he was taking his Latin GCSE and his tutor had asked him to translate something “contemporary†into Latin. He could barely contain his delight when telling me he had translated all the lyrics of the theme tune of “Are You Being Served?â€

Ground floor: perfumery Stationery and leather goods Wigs and haberdashery Kitchenware and food

Going up etc.

That was Johnny...always full of surprises, insanely competitive, grumpy in the extreme when beaten, the easiest team member to captain (he was totally reliable) and the only real tennis player I’ve met who never attempted to hit the winning gallery.

He was one of a kind.

From Frank Goulbourn:

I knew of his love for trad Jazz (I had to listen to enough of it on away matches) - so much so that I got a random CD of Thelonious Monk in the post as a form of ‘education’ as he put it.

He loved his conspiracy theories of course, travelling especially to Dallas for the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination - he knew I had been there and visited the 6th floor of the Texas Book Depository and grabbed me a copy of the Dallas newspaper of the day as a souvenir.

I joined him on tours with MURTC to New York and Chicago - rooming with him on both occasions - he insisted on finding anywhere that served good steaks and frothy beers and lambasted any other choices in his inimitable way. Paul Rivlin and I had booked Alinea in Chicago (a 3* Michelin restaurant of global repute) and this became a running joke to him after he saw both pictures of the meal and a copy of the bill!

He was greatly affable, superb company and certainly made his views known.

At our last final meeting, 3 weeks ago he continued in the same vein ‘I’d rather walk on broken glass than go electric’ on finding out I was buying a Tesla - ‘let’s try and get a drink in around Christmas if Boris lets us!’ alas this was never to be.

We will all miss him.

From Nick Hamilton:

You will all have seen our announcement before Christmas of the sudden and tragic death of Johnny Bruce, a long standing member of our club and our Fixtures Secretary for over a decade.

Johnny was an enthusiastic sportsman across a number of sports and much loved as a character at his cricket club, Hornsey CC, and across cricket clubs he played against.

If you once met Johnny, you would not forget him.