On the eve of the 2012 Six Nations tournament, Gaw brings together his two loves: rugby and poetry…
We cannot look, however imperfectly, upon a great man, without gaining something by him. He is the living light-fountain, which it is good and pleasant to be near. The light which enlightens, which has enlightened the darkness of the world; and this not as a kindled lamp only, but rather as a natural luminary shining by the gift of Heaven; a flowing light-fountain, as I say, of native original insight, of manhood and heroic nobleness;–in whose radiance all souls feel that it is well with them.
Heroes and Hero Worship, Thomas Carlyle
We tend not to think in those terms any more, thank God. Our heroes are more earth-bound: grittier, more workaday, often flawed. However, there’s one area of life where Carlyle’s habit of thought persists, if not his high-flown language (though you do find the odd broadsheet columnist strays sometimes – mostly in The Times for some reason): in sport. I suppose it’s permissible here as we know that whilst it means a lot, it’s not really important.
Which makes it strange that there seems to be so little poetry extolling sporting heroes (though, admittedly, there is a lot of doggerel). After all, heroism has been a subject for poetry since at least as far back as Homer.
I thought I’d seek out some epically sporting verse after recalling today’s pick. Predictably, given it’s such a literary sport, I did find a few cricket ones – for instance, by CLR James (Pascall Bowled – boring at this distance, I’m afraid) and John Arlott (on Sir Jack Hobbs – I enjoyed it but it’s more about the nature of cricket than the nature of heroism). But that was it. Am I missing something?
If not, then I guess we should put it down to the very different places sport and poetry occupy in the culture. But if Max Boyce could pull it off…
Anyway, this weekend sees the start of the 2012 Six Nations rugby tournament and it features one of the oldest international sporting fixtures, England vs Scotland. Scotland aren’t what they were and haven’t been for a while; here’s a sonnet in which one Scot remembers another.
(Rugby player – “The Ayrshire Bull” – d 2001)
Their gratitude for your career was such
That when some District prop in his narrow pride
Stamped on your head, and legged it into touch,
The Board banned you (that’s rugby suicide):
Who blew through London Scottish on the breeze,
When I’d been training with the fourths or thirds
And dreamt you said I’d like to meet him, please!,
Till someone drew me in, and we had words.
You knew two bits of Burns. Still you pretended
Poems would outlast what the British Lions did,
You, who had beaten Springbok and All Black;
And when you put your spare hand on my back
I felt at first a woman, then a kid,
And then a man, the thing you had intended.
That’s by the late Mick Imlah, one of the perhaps puzzlingly rare breed of literary men who also wrote about rugby. His hero (top) was a member of all three of the legendary British Lions touring sides of the 1970s. As you may have gathered he had what’s euphemistically known as an uncompromising approach to the game (though wasn’t too keen on training). Apparently, the “District prop” ran but was unable to hide, being thrown to the ground and soundly booted. And all for the fun of it…
His unyielding commitment, and never-say-die attitude allied with great skill and courage, assured his name would go down in history as one of the greatest forwards this country had ever produced. Any yet, in an age when sports stars can command salaries that resemble telephone numbers, the man known affectionately as Broon frae Troon did not make a penny from his world-class sporting talent…. the rugby legend left behind just 50,000, a sum many modern rugby union stars could expect to earn in half a season, never mind a lifetime [from here].