The death of public figures I didn’t know personally usually has no more effect on me than a brief pause to register age, nature of demise and purpose of life, followed by a fleeting flutter of time-waits-for-no-man urgency. But in the case of journalist, novelist, sportsman, ‘voice of rugby’ broadcaster and passionate Welsh patriot Eddie Butler, who died in September, it was different. I felt authentically upset and bereaved.
My grief was nothing to do with the game of rugby union, since I have become virtually allergic to it over the years and find its modern manifestation almost impossible to watch. The coached-to-death, numbingly robotic lack of spectacle; the grotesquely over-developed musculature of the gigantic players; the endless stoppages, delays and interruptions; the absolute primacy of the ludicrous 185-page rule book that nobody has read which makes the referee the most important person on the pitch; the destruction of the rich character and depth of the club game in Wales for the sake of imposing meaningless, brittle, self-serving and failed franchises; the WRU itself, with its shameful history of anti-Welsh Toryism, class warfare, nasty ostracism of soccer and rugby league, propping up of apartheid and craven fawning to alien royals; and the range of ghastly types found at international matches today, from hooray-henry hooligans to corporate freeloaders, drunken piss-artists to thuggish exhibitionists. I could go on a lot longer, so to save time one bit of data will suffice to explain the deep roots of my antipathy: I went to a rugby-only school.
But, despite this, if anyone could persuade me to watch rugby on TV it was Eddie Butler in his role as the BBC’s senior commentator. He took over from the lip-smacking Scotsman Bill McLaren (1923-2010) in 2002, having learned at the master’s side as a pundit, and actually managed to exceed McLaren’s excellence with his unforced, natural eloquence; his effortless lyricism and pure phraseology; the pitch, tempo, key and cadence of his sonorous baritone voice; the way his words ebbed and flowed with the rhythms of the game; his articulacy and intelligence always apparent but never flaunted; and his ability to be intimately committed to the centrality of rugby union to Welsh identity, culture, history and society while also wise enough to know that the sport has been used as a substitute for nationhood, a posture of defiance to be ditched when the final whistle blows, a performance of independence instead of the real thing. This meant he never considered rugby as important in itself but saw it for exactly what it is: just a game.
He loved his rugby, for sure, and knew it inside out. He won 16 caps for Wales between 1980 and 1984, six as captain, and was an outstanding No 8 with Pontypool, his calm authority and intelligence being vital during Poolers’ glory years in the 1970s and 1980s back in the pre-professional golden era when the sport in Wales was a true spectacle of skill and courage, a spontaneous art form of sinews and mud created by men whose muscles were made by work not work-outs, and played out to live renditions of the spine-tingling songs of the bards and the sweet old hymns of Pantycelyn and Parry. Butler understood that rugby union had sold its soul to mammon, and he was clear-sighted enough to grasp that in Wales, where the sport is freighted with so much extra significance and meaning than anywhere else, the consequential profound losses have far outweighed any short-term gains. As he said when giving the inaugural Gwyn Alf Williams Memorial Lecture in Merthyr Tydfil in 2021: “There is something hollow about Welsh rugby, it has become a false symbol of what Wales is all about.”
He knew there was an answer to this loss, and to all the multitude of losses inflicted on Wales for centuries. And that answer is independence. Independence from the crippling handicap of being shackled to the rotten, rogue, failed UK. Independence from the humiliation and cruelty of being England’s battered, serially abused bit on the side. Independence from the insult of people we have never elected having any say whatsoever in our affairs. Independence so Cymru can rise out of the chaos and catastrophes of the despicable British state to associate in harmony and solidarity with the free and equal nations of the world.
Eddie Butler was becoming a major figure in Cymru’s fast-growing independence movement when he died in his sleep during a walking expedition for charity in Peru. He was only 65 and had so much more to give. The loss is huge.
Above all, he was a Man of Gwent, born in Newport, raised in Raglan, educated at Monmouth, adopted by Pontypool. He loved to wander the wild mountain tops above the ransacked coal valleys, the old by-ways saturated in the elemental struggles of Wales against our belligerent invaders. As another Man of Gwent, poet Idris Davies (1905-1953) of Rhymney, put it:
When the mountains are grey in the evening
And cool are the winds from the west
And the lights in the valleys are twinkling
And the birds and the beasts go to rest,
I hear the strange echoes of armies
That glittered and conquered of old,
That marched to the beat of the ages
And lay down to sleep in the mould.
And I dream of the prince and the peasant
Who died for Glamorgan and Gwent,
And the Norman who scorned the Silurian
And ravaged the way that he went,
And the blood on the walls and the arches,
And the sweat of the toilers untold
Who toiled to the beat of the ages
And lay down to sleep in the mould.
Cysga’n dda, Eddie bach, Cysga’n dda. The fight goes on.