There are many fine sports commentators.
However, only a few act as the soundtrack to one’s childhood. One of them, Bill McLaren died last week.
He created the language of rugby and in doing so greatly enriched English as a whole. McLaren painted pictures using words or phrases which developed their own meaning. Since rugby is a fast moving game and the quality of camera work was sometimes less than great, his work had almost more in common with radio than TV. All the obituaries reminded us of the immense homework, McLaren did, the pack of cards with which he practiced the names of the players in forthcoming matches. This was vital to the execution of the piece. However, my great memories are of descriptions of beautiful aptness. “A man covering a substantial acreage”, “built like a brick outhouse” or “like a double-decker bus”. There is an almost Homeric use of epithets in expressions like “the Waikato farmer, Colin Meads”, said with a combination of awe and menace. McLaren had a respect for the big men who dominate rugby forward play. Besides which he forced the middle classes to work out what a brick outhouse was.
McLaren had been robbed of a Scottish cap as a wing forward by TB. He knew where the forwards came from: coalmines and steelworks in Wales, the Border farms of Scotland and perhaps strangest of all, the London and Irish medical schools. When rugby’s leviathans boiled over, it was a “bit of argy-bargy” not foul play at least until the referee called it that. McLaren understood. He didn’t just describe; he commentated. And yet, McLaren’s real delight was in great back play. He coached in the Scottish Borders where till the 1990s, there was a constant conveyor belt of quick passing, thinking players, some of whom like Tony Stanger he coached. Listening this weekend of the charming 1971 Scotland-Wales game you find the McLaren commentary almost like a rhythmical accompaniment to the exquisite Welsh inter-passing. All the same, one learns clearly who has the ball at each moment and a joy at seeing it handled and run onto so beautifully even if it was at the cost of McLaren’s Scotland.
I only ever wanted to impersonate two commentators: John Arlott, the cricket specialist, and McLaren. However, a listener knew accurately from cadences of his voice that Arlott was a difficult man, not at ease with himself. By contrast, McLaren lived a life of joy, not because his life was materially different but you could tell it from his language, the excitement at good things. As a child, I wanted to be McLaren. He could feel how ordinary listeners would be seeing a game while leaving us comparing gorgeous phrases used to describe his favourite players. The Bill trademark “xyz school will be very proud of ab, one of their former pupils” and “they’ll be dancing in the streets of” whichever town a star player or winning team just reflected this. A little bit of our childhood moved on last week.