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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue