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Giving voice to beauty

January 20, 2010

It’s a sad week when the world loses two of your heroes, but that’s happened to me in the last few days as we have learned of the deaths of singer Kate McGarrigle and rugby commentator, Bill McLaren.

There’s not much that obviously links the Borders born rugby man and the golden voiced Canadian singer, but their passing will leave thousands bereft, albeit in different ways. The clear connection, of course, is in their individual voices, how they used them, and the effect they had on their listeners.

Both of them achieved top success in worlds which are increasingly devalued in the twenty first century. Sports commentating, once a close relative of high grade sports journalism, an adornment to the beauty of perfect movement  achieved through the use of perfect language, can so often now be a refuge for former sportsmen and women who have an interchangeable stock of cliches and easy phrases. The world of contemporary music,  once reigned over by musicians connected to tradition and determined on excellence, has become, in many cases, an entry porch to nebulous celebrity. This was not remotely the case when you thought of Bill McLaren and Kate McGarrigle.

They truly deserve the epithet ‘We will not look upon their like again’, and perhaps the best tribute we can pay to them, by way of thanks for the enjoyment they have given us, is to spend some time reflecting on why, when we listened to them, we chose to hear.

The intensity, the accuracy and the evocative nature of the former’s rugby commentaries came about through a coalition of hard work, deep knowledge and passion.  Similarly, the beauty, emotion and  truth of McGarrigle’s performances and songwriting were testament to her craft, her talent and her deep commitment.

Yet, for all the intensity of those words, the glory of both these heroes was that, whilst never underestimating the importance of what they did to their listeners, neither did they ever take themselves too seriously. McLaren injected humour into his commentaries and was quite happy to take the mickey out of himself and out of some of rugby’s more self important luminaries; Kate could alternate between the most poignant of ballads and side splitting, weirdly funny numbers. I’ve often thought that those with the true ability to connect with our feelings, to raise our spirits, to make us cry, or share  pain, only really succeed if they can also make us laugh.

Not being a rugby fan, McLaren’s commentaries were not really a constant in my life, but I could not tear myself away from the radio when I heard him interviewed. I regret never having listened to his commentaries when my cousin played for Scotland – just so I would have had the joy of hearing his distinctive accent pronounce my surname.

I saw Kate and Anna McGarrigle twice in the Usher Hall  in Edinburgh. They were captivating, funny, moving, endearing and joyous. They turned the musty Victorian auditorium into a family gathering; no-one who saw them will ever forget the warmth of the experience

Perhaps a convincing  demonstration of the integrity of both McGarrigle and McLaren can be found in the influence they both had on their families. You cannot hoodwink children into following your interests; you cannot fool those who know you best and see you ‘off duty’, yet, for both of these ,the testament for the true passion they felt for their subject is found in their close and extended families.

It’s impossible to listen to Rufus or Martha Wainwright, to acknowledge their slightly off the wall, yet beautiful, approach to their music, without recalling the McGarrigle Sisters, whose debut album in 1975 hit us with such force: fresh yet familiar; comforting yet challenging; traditional yet strange. The purity of their voices was matched by the careful attention to detail in the writing, the production and the choice of songs. Talk to me of Mendicino and Heart like a Wheel cut achingly into our souls whilst Kiss and Say Goodbye, Complainte  pour Ste Catherine and Swimming Song unfailingly raise the spirits. In a way, Kate and Anna became ageless as they nourished and nurtured their children’s musical talent, leading them on but leaving the space for them to develop in their own directions, playing songs with them and their friends, continuing the tradition, glorying in music for music’s sake, and in family out of love and support.

Likewise, the continuance of rugby in many ways in Bill McLaren’s family is a testimony to his abiding love and passion for the game and the enthusiasm for its being played at its best that he passed on, not only to children and grandchildren, but also to  the primary school pupils for whom he was such a beloved and revered teacher for so many years. Can there have been a prouder or more sublime  moment in commentating than when McLaren commentated on his son-in-law, Alan Lawson’s try against England? Yet, tellingly, the commentary never wavered from the professional, because the Hawick man knew instinctively that anything else would not only have demeaned his commentary, it would have stolen some of the glory of the score.  Like Henry Longhurst in golf and John Arlott in cricket, he had the distinction of enhancing the game through description rather than participation. Who could ever forget his comment on Jonah Lumu: “I’m no hod carrier, but I’d be laying bricks if he was running at me”.

McLaren, of course, was always and forever identified with Hawick – he loved the place without ever becoming precious about it. Similarly, Kate McGarrigle will always be associated with her French Canadian heritage, though it never stopped her from experimenting and accessing other traditions and different cultures.

In family and geography, both these greats were grounded, connected and at ease in their own foundations. They were committed to excellence in their own particular areas of talent, but had the strength of character to hold all they did in context. I wonder if that’s why they were extra special.

As CLR James so tellingly wrote: “What know they of cricket, who only cricket know?”

They will be sadly missed but joyfully recalled.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Gerry permalink
    January 21, 2010 8:37 pm

    Thoughtful article. i hadn’t really thought about the demise of the sports commentator but it is undeniable. It has coincided with the introduction of much more technology whether that is linked or not I don’t know. In the old days, you had to listen to Bill McLaren to find out what the rules where and why penalties were awarded. Now rugby is so complicated even the commentators don’t know.

    There are still some good guys around, but the world of sport is now dominated by Rupert and Sky. So you get people like John Gregory appearing without the tiniest glimmer of embarassment.

    I think the word that defines your piece is integrity. Not everyone has it.

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