Cliff Morgan and Seamus Heaney: Poetry, romance and rugby

Modest, confident and at ease with themselves - the deaths of Welsh rugby icon Cliff Morgan and the Irish poet Seamus Heaney have been a double blow, writes Jonathan Smith.

For a schoolboy in Wales in the Fifties, there were three stars, three heroes, and they were all box-office: Dylan Thomas, Richard Burton and Cliff Morgan. Poetry, romance and rugby, and all three crossed over into each other and informed each other, as in Wales they tend to do. And there was, I admit, something a bit personal, too. Cliff Morgan, the son of a miner, was born in Trebanog in the Rhondda Valley. He went on to Tonyrefail Grammar School. Tonyrefail, the next town along, was where my father, the son of a cobbler, was born and grew up. To those three words, then – poetry, romance and rugby –you could now add a fourth: education. In the Valleys it would be difficult to disentangle those.

Morgan was to Welsh rugby in the Fifties what Barry John and Phil Bennett became in the late Sixties and Seventies: that bloodline of brilliant outside halves who defined their nation. They were great individual talents, but they stood in a tradition. Morgan inspired Wales to the Triple Crown and then inspired the British Lions in a memorable tour to South Africa. He embodied a Welsh approach and he expressed a particular kind of Welsh inventiveness.

He also brought glamour to the game. Like Barry John, Morgan retired at the height of his powers, in his late twenties, but he was always Cliff, in the way that Barry was Barry and Phil was Phil. No need for surnames, boys, because you knew them.

In the early Sixties I was teaching English in Scotland and was more interested in literature than rugby (but only just), and it was in the New Statesman in 1964 that I first encountered Seamus Heaney’s poetry, and I liked what I heard: a new voice.

I knew something of Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes, but nothing of the Irishman. Then, in 1966, Death of a Naturalist, Heaney’s first collection, was published and things were never the same again.

He dug deep. He turned the turf, and with his spade and plough he took us into his life and the bogs of Ireland. His great spirit became the dominant force in our poetry for the next 50 years. He re-marked the pitch.

Seamus Heaney, the son of a farmer and the eldest of nine children, was born in Mossbawn, County Derry, in Northern Ireland. I have just gone over to my bookshelf and some of the titles, taken down at random, bring him and it all back: North, Field Work, Station Island, Seeing Things, District and Circle, and his final collection, Human Chain, with those intimations of mortality.

I doubt there is an English teacher in these islands who has not taught a Heaney poem, if not a selection of his work, and felt the pull of the divining rod:

We marked the pitch: four jackets for

four goalposts,

That was all. The corners and the squares

Were there like longitude and latitude

Under the bumpy thistly ground, to be

Agreed about or disagreed about

When the time came. And then we

picked the teams

And crossed the line our called names

drew between us.

Youngsters shouting their heads off

in a field

As the light died and they kept on playing

Because by then they were playing in

their heads . . .

I doubt if there is a sports fan who has not heard Morgan’s commentary on Gareth Edwards’s try for the Barbarians against the All Blacks at Cardiff in 1973. I was watching the match on television with an English friend and we were both on our feet, screaming at the set, punching the air at the sheer joy of it; a joy that Morgan had captured perfectly as a commentator because he knew when to hold back with words and when to let go.

The deaths of Cliff Morgan and Seamus Heaney, within a day of each other this past week, were a double blow to those of us who feel a romantic attachment to words and sport. When I heard Morgan had died I had to sit down; when the news about Heaney came through, I thought I was going to keel over.

As the rugby commentator Bill McLaren might have said: “There’ll be tears tonight in Trebanog and Mossbawn.” And far beyond. Because although very Welsh and very Irish, they crossed many borders and their voices, open and warm, travelled far and wide. They were leaders in their fields but also team players.

Both men had great public careers. Both were accomplished performers with a microphone, at ease with themselves. Both remained modest. Morgan had a twinkle in his voice matched by mischief in his eye; Heaney was more sonorous and measured, a man with a deeper tone and a greater reach.

They both read well, and read people well. They both loved singing and sing-songs. Morgan once sent a note to his rugby club: “Can’t make practice Wednesday. We’re doing Elijah.” They delighted us because they celebrated life.

If you say “Cliff Morgan” to me, I can see the way he carried the ball in both hands and showed it to everyone as the field opened up before him, his quick-footedness, balanced and brave, clever and crafty, feinting and running unusual lines. Come to think of it, that all applies to Seamus Heaney, too.

Jonathan Smith’s most recent book, “The Following Game”, is now out in paperback (Peridot Press, £6.99)

"They delighted us because they celebrated life" - Cliff Morgan and Seamus Heaney. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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Donald Tusk is merely calling out Tory hypocrisy on Brexit

And the President of the European Council has the upper hand. 

The pair of numbers that have driven the discussion about our future relationship with the EU since the referendum have been 48 to 52. 

"The majority have spoken", cry the Leavers. "It’s time to tell the EU what we want and get out." However, even as they push for triggering the process early next year, the President of the European Council Donald Tusk’s reply to a letter from Tory MPs, where he blamed British voters for the uncertain futures of expats, is a long overdue reminder that another pair of numbers will, from now on, dominate proceedings.

27 to 1.

For all the media speculation around Brexit in the past few months, over what kind of deal the government will decide to be seek from any future relationship, it is incredible just how little time and thought has been given to the fact that once Article 50 is triggered, we will effectively be negotiating with 27 other partners, not just one.

Of course some countries hold more sway than others, due to their relative economic strength and population, but one of the great equalising achievements of the EU is that all of its member states have a voice. We need look no further than the last minute objections from just one federal entity within Belgium last month over CETA, the huge EU-Canada trade deal, to be reminded how difficult and important it is to build consensus.

Yet the Tories are failing spectacularly to understand this.

During his short trip to Strasbourg last week, David Davis at best ignored, and at worse angered, many of the people he will have to get on-side to secure a deal. Although he did meet Michel Barnier, the senior negotiator for the European Commission, and Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s representative at the future talks, he did not meet any representatives from the key Socialist Group in the European Parliament, nor the Parliament’s President, nor the Chair of its Constitutional Committee which will advise the Parliament on whether to ratify any future Brexit deal.

In parallel, Boris Johnson, to nobody’s surprise any more, continues to blunder from one debacle to the next, the most recent of which was to insult the Italians with glib remarks about prosecco sales.

On his side, Liam Fox caused astonishment by claiming that the EU would have to pay compensation to third countries across the world with which it has trade deals, to compensate them for Britain no longer being part of the EU with which they had signed their agreements!

And now, Theresa May has been embarrassingly rebuffed in her clumsy attempt to strike an early deal directly with Angela Merkel over the future residential status of EU citizens living and working in Britain and UK citizens in Europe. 

When May was campaigning to be Conservative party leader and thus PM, to appeal to the anti-european Tories, she argued that the future status of EU citizens would have to be part of the ongoing negotiations with the EU. Why then, four months later, are Tory MPs so quick to complain and call foul when Merkel and Tusk take the same position as May held in July? 

Because Theresa May has reversed her position. Our EU partners’ position remains the same - no negotiations before Article 50 is triggered and Britain sets out its stall. Merkel has said she can’t and won’t strike a pre-emptive deal.  In any case, she cannot make agreements on behalf of France,Netherlands and Austria, all of who have their own imminent elections to consider, let alone any other EU member. 

The hypocrisy of Tory MPs calling on the European Commission and national governments to end "the anxiety and uncertainty for UK and EU citizens living in one another's territories", while at the same time having caused and fuelled that same anxiety and uncertainty, has been called out by Tusk. 

With such an astounding level of Tory hypocrisy, incompetence and inconsistency, is it any wonder that our future negotiating partners are rapidly losing any residual goodwill towards the UK?

It is beholden on Theresa May’s government to start showing some awareness of the scale of the enormous task ahead, if the UK is to have any hope of striking a Brexit deal that is anything less than disastrous for Britain. The way they are handling this relatively simple issue does not augur well for the far more complex issues, involving difficult choices for Britain, that are looming on the horizon.

Richard Corbett is the Labour MEP for Yorkshire & Humber.