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

Show Hide image

No, David Cameron’s speech was not “left wing”

Come on, guys.

There is a strange journalistic phenomenon that occurs when a party leader makes a speech. It is a blend of groupthink, relief, utter certainty, and online backslapping. It happened particularly quickly after David Cameron’s speech to Tory party conference today. A few pundits decided that – because he mentioned, like, diversity and social mobility – this was a centre-left speech. A leftwing speech, even. Or at least a clear grab for the liberal centre ground. And so that’s what everyone now believes. The analysis is decided. The commentary is written. Thank God for that.

Really? It’s quite easy, even as one of those nasty, wicked Tories, to mention that you actually don’t much like racism, and point out that you’d quite like poor children to get jobs, without moving onto Labour's "territory". Which normal person is in favour of discriminating against someone on the basis of race, or blocking opportunity on the basis of class? Of course he’s against that. He’s a politician operating in a liberal democracy. And this isn’t Ukip conference.

Looking at the whole package, it was actually quite a rightwing speech. It was a paean to defence – championing drones, protecting Britain from the evils of the world, and getting all excited about “launching the biggest aircraft carriers in our history”.

It was a festival of flagwaving guff about the British “character”, a celebration of shoehorning our history chronologically onto the curriculum, looking towards a “Greater Britain”, asking for more “national pride”. There was even a Bake Off pun.

He also deployed the illiberal device of inculcating a divide-and-rule fear of the “shadow of extremism – hanging over every single one of us”, informing us that children in UK madrassas are having their “heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate”, and saying Britain shouldn’t be “overwhelmed” with refugees, before quickly changing the subject to ousting Assad. How unashamedly centrist, of you, Mr Prime Minister.

Benefit cuts and a reduction of tax credits will mean the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for “equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome” will be just that – with the outcome pretty bleak for those who end up losing any opportunity that comes with state support. And his excitement about diversity in his cabinet rings a little hollow the day following a tubthumping anti-immigration speech from his Home Secretary.

If this year's Tory conference wins the party votes, it’ll be because of its conservative commitment – not lefty love bombing.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.