Nostalgic wallows 1: Bill McLaren

 

From bloodandmud.com

 

We’re now ten days into the Japan-hosted 2019 Rugby World Cup and my mental health feels more kicked around than the ball in the matches.  One of the two teams I support is already in danger of making an early exit from the tournament.  Meanwhile, the other team I support seems to have haplessly manoeuvred itself into a position where it’ll face New Zealand’s steamrollering All-Blacks in the second stage.

 

But aside from the anguish…  The tournament reminds me yet again of how much I miss being able to watch an international rugby match and at the same time listen to the knowledgeable and dulcet tones of Bill McLaren.

 

Although McLaren, who died in 2010 at the age of 86, worked as late as 2002, it was in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s that he was indisputably the voice of British rugby union.  This was an era when sport, if you weren’t at the live event itself, was viewable only on a handful of terrestrial TV channels.  It was common for one channel to have a monopoly on broadcasting one sport and, by extension, for one commentator to have a monopoly on talking about that sport.  Hence, in my youth, it was almost impossible to see horse racing without hearing of the posh but eerily robotic tones of Peter O’Sullivan, or boxing without hearing the excitable Harry Carpenter, or Formula One without hearing the gaffe-prone Murray Walker, or rugby league without hearing the indescribable-sounding Eddie Waring.  McLaren fulfilled this role in the world of rugby union and for me was the best sports commentator of the lot, though I’m undoubtedly biased.  Rugby has always been my favourite team sport.  Plus McLaren came from Hawick in the Scottish Borders, the rugby-daft region where I spent many of my formative years.

 

There were three reasons for McLaren’s greatness.  Firstly, he knew his stuff.  I remember watching a McLaren-commentated game on a pub TV in Aberdeen sometime in the 1980s.  I was in the company of my good friend, the late Finlay McLean, and at one point, Finlay turned around to me and marvelled, “He’s just steeped in the game, isn’t he?”

 

When a try was scored, McLaren didn’t just tell you the name of the player who’d crossed the line.  No, he’d also observe how the player was the great-great-nephew of the man who’d kicked the winning points in the legendary Hawick-Galashiels derby of 1937, or a direct descendent of the tight-head prop with the great Western Province team that’d dominated South Africa’s Currie Cup in the 1890s.  It wouldn’t have surprised you if he’d identified the player’s granny as the stylist responsible for grooming J.P.R. Williams’ sideburns in the 1970s.  He seemed to know everything about rugby.

 

McLaren’s knowledge was encyclopaedic, but this was backed by a conscientious and professional attitude to research.  I read somewhere that when preparing for a game, he’d cover a full sheet of foolscap with notes about each player.  This meant that in the commentator’s box he was constantly shuffling around some 30 sheets of paper.

 

Secondly, although he was a Scotsman and often commentated on games involving the Scottish rugby team, he was never biased.  On the contrary, he always applauded good rugby, no matter who was playing it and even if Scotland was on the receiving end of it.  McLaren’s neutrality was especially admirable when you compared him with the international football commentators on the BBC at the time (and indeed still now), who seemed incapable of narrating an England World Cup match without speculating every second minute about whether ‘we’ could win the World Cup just like ‘we’ won it back in 1966.

 

Thirdly, and most importantly for me, his commentaries were laden with poetry.  McLaren had an amusing, fanciful, frequently wonderful talent with language.  Admittedly, he could be a tad unflattering in the turn of phrase he used to describe the over-sized players on the field.  English prop Colin Smart – famous for getting stomach-pumped after drinking a bottle of aftershave as a post-match lark – consisted of ‘considerable acreage’; English captain and lock Bill Beaumont looked ‘like someone who enjoys his food’; Welsh forwards Scott and Craig Quinnell were ‘two well-nourished individuals’; Scottish flanker Finlay Calder had ‘hands like dinner plates’; and Calder’s gangly fellow-Scot Doddie Weir was ‘the lamppost of the line-out.’  As for the legendary and frankly massive New Zealand flanker Jonah Lomu, running into him was like ‘trying to tackle a snooker table’.

 

© BBC

 

He had a fondness to likening players to animals.  They might behave like ‘a demented ferret’ or ‘a bag of weasels’ or ‘a raging bull with a bad head’ or ‘a whirling tsetse fly’ or ‘a runaway giraffe’ or ‘a slippery salmon’.  The Scottish scrum-half Roy Laidlaw (whose nephew Greig plays in the same position in the current Scottish team) was as elusive as ‘a baggy up a Borders burn’ – a baggy being, to quote the Dictionary of the Scottish Language, ‘a species of large minnow.’  Unsurprisingly for a Borders man, Scotticisms were common in his delivery.  Rugby balls were likened to ‘three pounds of haggis’, the famously square-shouldered Scottish skipper Peter Brown was like ‘a coo kicking over a milk pail’ and an injured player sitting dejectedly at the side of the field whilst sucking on a mint was at least ‘enjoying his sweetie.’

 

When it came to describing the turbulent passions and physical violence often unleashed on the pitch, McLaren was amusingly euphemistic.  Cheating was frequently described as ‘jiggery-pokery’ and punch-ups were dismissed as ‘a bit of argy-bargy’.  I remember how when fists started flying in the middle of one scrum, he commented: “It’s getting a bit unceremonious in that front row.”  And when Scottish centre Jim Renwick – whom McLaren had coached as a schoolboy – missed a kick and was caught by the camera mouthing the F-word, McLaren diplomatically remarked that he was ‘muttering a few naughty Hawick words.’

 

Some of his sayings became catchphrases.  When a player prepared to kick a conversion and half the stadium made disparaging noises in the hope of distracting him and making him fluff it, McLaren would invariably remark: “There’s some ill-mannered whistling.”  And when a conversion-kick made it between the posts despite being taken from a torturous angle, he’d declare: “It’s high enough, it’s long enough and it’s straight enough!”

 

Aware that in the Borders towns local players who’d made it onto the national team were seen as heroes, he’d often serenade the scorer of a Scottish try with the lines, “And they’ll be dancing in the streets of…” or “And they’ll be drinking his health down in…” – Hawick, Galashiels, Kelso, Melrose, Selkirk, wherever – “…tonight!”  As an honorary Borderer, I’d say they were more likely to be drinking his health than dancing in the streets.

 

McLaren’s manner and delivery were immensely relaxed and comforting, but his early life had been no bed of roses.  As a young World War II serviceman, he had to endure the Battle of Monte Cassino, of which one eyewitness said, “The men were so tired that it was a living death.  They had come from such a depth of weariness that I wondered if they would quite be able to make the return to the lives and thoughts they had known.” McLaren himself described Monte Cassino as a ‘vision of hell on earth.’

 

After the war, he was diagnosed as having tuberculosis, which put a prompt end to any hopes he had of becoming a rugby internationalist.  TB was then considered incurable and he wasn’t expected to survive, but he and four fellow sufferers agreed to be guinea pigs for the trials of a new drug, streptomycin.  Thanks to this treatment he recovered, but three of the four other volunteers died.  It was while he was convalescing that he produced his first sports commentaries – describing table-tennis matches over the hospital radio.

 

McLaren was passionately attached to his hometown and famously said, “A day out of Hawick is a day wasted.”  A few years ago I visited Hawick for the first time since the 1980s and was upset to see how much it’d deteriorated.  Its high street was run-down and riddled with derelict properties – thanks to an economy weakened by the closure of local woolen mills, and also thanks no doubt to the opening of branches of Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s and Lidl, which’d sucked the retailing life out of the place.  My first dismayed thought was: “What would Bill McLaren have said about this?”

 

McLaren’s commentaries were emblematic of an earlier, more innocent age, when rugby was still an amateur sport and because of that it was incredibly accessible – especially if you lived in a rugby-centric place like the Borders, where the guys you saw performing heroic deeds for Scotland on TV on Saturday afternoons existed during weekdays as mortals like everyone else.  As a kid living there, I was delighted when the man from the electricity board who came to our house to check on a power outage was none other than Jim Renwick.  Meanwhile, Scottish fullback Peter Dods was a joiner down the road in Galashiels and my old man, a farmer, was on nodding terms with Scottish flanker John Jeffrey, who farmed in Kelso – Jeffrey’s teammates had nicknamed him ‘the Great White Shark’ but to Bill McLaren he was just ‘the big Kelso farmer’.  And let’s not forget local electrician Roy Laidlaw, whom legend has it had to rewire the public toilets in Jedburgh the Monday morning after the 1984 Scotland team he was part of won the Grand Slam in Paris.

 

Yes, Bill McLaren’s voice evokes a simpler time in rugby, before professionalism, sponsorship, corporatism, razzmatazz and a profit-driven need to win at all costs took over.  But homespun though his persona was, I don’t believe there’s been a sports commentator in the years since who’s come close to matching him.

 

© From rugbyrelics.com

 

All over bar the scouting

 

 

Illustrating this post are pictures of what, for me, seems like the most ancient structure in my hometown of Peebles in the Scottish Borders – the Scout Hut, headquarters for as long as anyone can remember of the 1st Peeblesshire Scout Troop.  And that really is for as long as anyone can remember, because I read somewhere lately that it was built more than a century ago.

 

The green corrugated-iron hut, containing a hall with two adjacent rows of rooms along its front end and rear wall – the Scoutmaster’s office, the Venture Scouts’ room, the toilets and several storerooms stuffed with tents, canoes, wooden benches and tables, paraffin stoves, lamps, tools and other outdoor and sports paraphernalia – already looked ramshackle when I first set foot in it as a novice boy scout in 1977.  It blows my mind to think that for decades afterwards it continued to serve as a base for subsequent generations of scouts.  Indeed, just a few years ago, I was astonished to learn that one of my little nieces was attending a playgroup held in the hut.  By this time, it looked in a state of severe disrepair and its back half seemed ready to be swallowed by a jungle.

 

 

Still, despite its decrepitude, seeing the old place again always brought back fond memories.  I’d recall games of indoor football played there before and after the scout meetings (which were held every Friday evening), conducted with the recklessness and abandon of a rollerball derby, with little scouts getting heeled off the ball by bigger scouts and frequently sent flying into walls, doors, doorframes, window-ledges and various other hard surfaces, corners and edges.

 

And I’d recall doing outdoor activities on the steep slopes of Venlaw Hill overlooking the hut.  The best one I remember was when each scout patrol was told to rig together a makeshift stretcher and use it to carry one patrol-member from the top of the hill to the bottom, in a race to see who could get their man down first.  This was great fun, except for the poor bastard on the stretcher, who must have found the experience akin to being on, but not strapped into, a hurtling and disintegrating bobsleigh steered by half-a-dozen mad idiots.

 

What else?  I’d recall treasure-hunt sessions spent running around the streets of Peebles, and canoeing on the River Tweed next to Hay Lodge Park, and games of British Bulldog – the least health-and-safety conscious activity in the history of children’s recreation – back in the hut.  (With so much thumping and crashing going on inside, no wonder the place was falling apart.)

 

Every July, just after the start of the summer holidays, the troop would go on its annual week-long camp, which for a couple of years was at a site a few miles south of the Borders town of Hawick.  I remember those camps as being an odd mixture of the miserable – stepping in cowpats, being nibbled incessantly by midges, getting pushed into the latrine pit*, enduring the potato-peeling, stew-stirring, sandwich-making drudgery of the day when your patrol was the duty one – and the wonderful.  One day, we went on a four-hour hike around the surrounding hills and for the first time I realized what truly wild and beautiful and inspiring landscapes the Borders region possessed.  I became a keen hillwalker after that.

 

Also memorable were the campfires, around which we would gather after dark and try to freak each other out by telling the scariest ghost stories and most horrific horror stories our imaginations could summon.  Needless to say, I was pretty good at that.  I remember my patrol really freaking out a few hours after one such campfire session.  We were asleep inside our tent when suddenly, in the pitch blackness, a mole surfaced and crawled over someone’s face.

 

© John Baker

 

On the last full day of the camp, we’d get to go into Hawick, which I remember then as a solid, prosperous country town.  We’d trail around the shops and stuff ourselves with ice cream and cake in the cafes and then, in the evening, go to watch a movie in the little Hawick cinema – I remember seeing there 1977’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, which elicited big cheers when Sinbad managed to spear the giant saber-toothed tiger at the end.  I didn’t return to Hawick until 35 years later, when I went on a cycling trip around the Borders, and I was upset to see how much it’d changed since my scouting days.  The high street was run-down and infested with derelict properties, which was no doubt due to the usual culprits – Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s, Lidl – opening their doors in the town and sucking all the retailing life out of it.

 

I find it ironic that the Boy Scouts of America have recently been embroiled in political controversy after a lad got thrown out of his local cub scout association for asking a Republican senator, who was meeting a group of them, some awkward questions about her attitudes towards gun control and African Americans.  When I was in the Peebles troop, I knew at least two kids – all of 12 or 13 years old – who declared themselves proud communists.  Imagine the awkward questions they’d have asked Margaret Thatcher if she’d come to talk to us.   There was also muttering about why we had to salute the Union Jack when it got unfurled at the beginning of each scout meeting and a few souls were constantly threatening to sneakily and subversively replace the furled British flag with a furled Scottish Saltire beforehand.  But they never did.

 

Looking back, I have to admit I was a pretty crap scout.  I did just enough camping, hiking, cycling, canoeing and knot-tying to earn the basic Scout’s Standard badge, but that was it.  I never bothered to get any of the available proficiency badges.  Mind you, the Scoutmaster did once tell my parents that I was the best storyteller the troop had had for years, so if there’d been a proficiency badge for storytelling, I suppose I would have got that.

 

For the first year or two, I was blissfully happy being an ordinary scout.  I also enjoyed it when I became an assistant patrol leader, serving under a patrol leader called John Ogilivie, who later went to Sandhurst and became an army officer – I imagine him doing well in that career.  But I enjoyed it less when I became a patrol leader myself, because there were a couple of lads in the patrol whom I didn’t particularly see eye-to-eye with and to get my way I became bossy and ended up throwing my weight around too much.  Many years later, when I started to supervise people as part of my work, I underwent enough management courses to know all about such important leadership techniques as going for a win-win solution in confrontational situations and dealing with people assertively, rather than passively or aggressively.  If only I’d known back then what I know now…

 

Later still, I became a Venture Scout, which was okay, but by then I was experiencing the siren call of other things – girls, parties, rock ‘n’ roll, underage boozing, the social scene at the local rugby club.  I’d hung up my scout neckerchief, lanyard and toggle by the time I was 16.

 

© Weidenfeld & Nicolson

 

Still, I always feel a surge of nostalgia and kinship when I’m in a foreign country and stumble across traces of indigenous scouting activity – for example, one afternoon when I was strolling along the seafront at Algiers and discovered the office and shop of the Boy Scouts of Algeria, or the day I went exploring the east coast of Mauritius and encountered a camp set up by a Mauritian scout troop.  And I was pleased to find out that Keith Richards, one of the coolest – if gnarliest – organisms on the planet, was once in the 7th Dartford Scout Troop.  According to his 2010 autobiography Life, he rose through its ranks and became leader of its Beaver Patrol.  He was obviously a better scout than I was: “I had badges all over the place, unbelievable!  I don’t know where my scout shirt is now, but it’s adorned, stripes and strings and badges all over the place.  Looked like I was into bondage.”  I’d like to think that from his experiences of running Beaver Patrol, old Keith got a handle on how to run the Rolling Stones later on; and particularly, he learned how to keep Mick Jagger in line.

 

Anyway, I was inspired to write this blog entry because, a few weeks ago, I was back in Peebles for a short visit; and when I wandered past the site of the old scout hut, I discovered it was gone!  It seems that the Peebles scouts have finally managed to find the funds to replace it with a new building, a fragrant, varnished-timber, IKEA-looking effort.  If it can withstand half as much punishment as its predecessor did – a century of wear and tear, plus countless hell-for-leather games of indoor football and British Bulldog – it’ll do well.

 

 

* I should point out that the camp latrine pit was a pit with stones lining its bottom that people peed into.  There was a chemical toilet-tent if you wanted to release anything solid.  So when you were pushed into the latrine pit, you dropped a couple of feet and landed on a bed of small stones.  You weren’t soiled when you climbed out, but you might smell slightly of wee.