Had Owen Sheers’ soaringly uplifting account of Welsh rugby, Calon been published a decade ago rather than last month it would have been a shoe-in to be selected for this volume. Sport‘s anthologist Gareth Williams made his priority the ‘quality of the writing rather than the sensational headline’ and averred that his model for the book would be his ‘much-thumbed Best American Sports Writing Series.’
And there is, indeed, plenty of quality writing about facets of a Welsh ‘small country psychology ‘ that holds, according to Rhodri Morgan’s foreword a ‘special kind of need for heroes that could reassure us of our existence as a country.’ And there are plenty of heroes in the pantheon, too, from Billy Meredith, who scored 470 goals during a total of 2,000 games of football through the self-publicizing goalie Leigh Richmond Roose and leaping Lynn Davies who, in Tokyo’s gloom ‘left the vivid air signed with his honour’ to Olympic swimmer Martin Woodroffe whose success caused Cardiff’s Empire Pool to fill with children ‘heaving through the water like arthritic frogs.’ There are other heroes who prove their pedigree by the stats alone, not least the ‘fistic marvel’ Jimmy Wilde, who lost only four out of 864 fights.
Some heroes have lost their halos since this book was compiled and one cannot but read David Eastwood’s appraisal of Ryan Giggs wherein it is said that ‘Friendships and family affections are not something to be paraded occasionally for the press, but to be lived and nurtured’ without sensing some bitter irony, in light of the Man U. player’s much publicized infidelities. But as the late Hywel Teifi Edwards’s essay suggests, sex and soccer are so often bosom chums.
The sport on display in the pages of this volume ranges widely, from early ball games such as cnapan, bandy and bel ddu through mountaineering and pigeon racing to the very popular game of football – including, unexpectedly Kenneth O.Morgan’s paean to the Gunners, to Arsenal , or in his words ‘the greatest team on earth’ – and, of course, rugby. The last of these claims the lion’s share, or maybe the Lions’ share, with about a third of the book given over to it.
Disarmingly, nay, distressingly, the opening piece of the book is a withering diatribe against Welsh sportsmen, written by ‘Draig Glas’ – the pseudonym used by Arthur Tyssilio Johnson when he penned The Perfidious Welshman. This book surfaced from a lagoon of spleen in 1910, and upset a nation with bitter opinions such as these;- ‘On the whole, the Welshman as a sportsman and drinker – for both pastimes are inextricably connected – cuts a very sorry figure. He is too mean-spirited to attack his game with fair-weapons, and, being so hopelessly devoid of humour, pluck and enterprise, and so wrapped up in self-conceit, he is incapable of understanding – much less appreciating – any kind of reasonable recreation.’ If there was an Olympic medal for spluttering tea there’d have been a Welsh winner among the readers of Johnson’s bilge and bile. As indeed there would on first reading John Toshack’s poetry, which also claims a little space in the book, albeit more as curiosity than for its accomplishment, even though it does rhyme. Just.
In Sport are many generalist writers turning their attention to sport, not least the poet Dannie Abse who’s been following the Bluebirds for many, many seasons. His account of going to his first game alone is tender and affecting, not least because he loses the sixpence he needs for his ticket, but a policeman gives him the necessary coin to get him in. The poets Gwyneth Lewis and Tony Curtis turn to golf for inspiration, while a clutch of writers get fired up by boxing, including, of course, Ron Berry and Alexander Cordell portraying Peerless Jim Driscoll. Oral historian George Ewart Evans turns in a fine piece about dog racing, with its fleet portrait of Black Diamond, a dog whose ‘body was a bit of poetry from the curve of his tail to the tip of his sharp-pointed nose.’ It’s a dog that wins races even while being scared of the starting pistol and Evans’s spirited piece ends with the good news of a victory in London being cabled home to Wales from the dog’s owner to his wife thus – Buy yourself a new clothes-mangle. Home tomorrow with the paper train. Twm. Oh the largesse of the man!
But it’s the sportswriters who win the gongs in this anthology, not least the great Hugh McIlvanney on the fight between Merthyr’s Howard Winstone and Mexico’s Vicente Saldivar, which includes insightful social history, detailed observation and the feeling that you really get to know the Welsh boxer, his entourage and the town that nurtures and, of course, supports him.
Dai Smith suggests that ‘Boxers were as much the totems of modern life in American Wales as they were in America itself. ‘Leaders of thought’ may have wilfully missed the point, then and now, but the deep social significance of boxers for societies-in-flux is one that the history of modern Wales amply affirms…’ Smith, citing the example of Freddie Welsh, further suggests that ‘If to be modern is constantly to give up that which you become then Freddie Welsh lived on the knife-edge of that quintessential modern experience.’ But that experience has its downside, too, as when we visit another pugilist, Billy Eynon’s flat in Merthyr, a home that underlines that he hasn’t much to show for all that pain and punishment. Eynon’s lonely life is still that of a hero, and it’s a heroism analysed by John Morgan in his essay ‘Dying Demonology’ which suggest that nothing, not even professional football ‘offered miners riches beyond the avarice of shop-keepers’ like boxing did.
The fat section devoted to rugby has some lovely writing, from Alun Richards on his friend Carwyn James to ongoing debates about contested tries. We meet ‘The Greatest Player of All Time’ in the shape of Arthur Gould and enjoy Gwyn Thomas taking the piss. Rugby, he suggests, ‘as played by the Welsh is not a game. It is a tribal mystery. This fancy for violent movement, for suddenly scragging a fellow human who is trying to pass you, probably goes back far into time. It might have been a device to fool the Normans into thinking that we were constantly mobilising for another round of playing it up around Chepstow.’ J.P.W. Mallalieu suggests that ‘The Welsh were made for Rugby. They have in them a blunt but insidious cunning which shuns the light of day, which is designed to work deviously underground and which is ideal for operations on the blind side of a tight scrum.’ Running through these pages, in a sort of extended version of fantasy rugby we glimpse the ‘unruffled grace’ of Bleddyn Williams ‘wisping himself towards the England line.’ We imagine what might have happened had Richard Burton stuck with the game and revel in his gutsy, loquacious account of playing against men who ‘smiled seldom and when they did it was like scalpels’ and who had razor blades growing out of their chins. Then there’s Cliff Morgan, with a ‘range of facial expressions seldom seen north of Milan’ in a joint-authored vignette by Gareth Williams and Dai Smith. And Barry, and Gareth and Gerald, and all the other greats…
After one famous Welsh victory against the Barbarians Carwyn James, writing in his weekly column for the Guardian, described a moment that was ‘rare and unforgettable, when you can play outside the conscious; when everything is instinct, but as clear as a bell because you have practised it so often and, especially, dreamed it – that unique moment when sport, lovely sport, not only achieves, but assumes, an art form.’ This book is shot through with such moments, tellingly told by people who know their art, too.