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RUGBYPASS+ A sad farewell to the Bard of Monmouth

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A sad farewell to the Bard of Monmouth
2 weeks ago

“Of all the things we do, Aylwin, this is the best part,” Eddie Butler said, pointing at his laptop.

He should know. He has done pretty much all there is to do with any single life. And so those words made quite an impression some 20 or so years ago.

Most of his words do. Whatever the medium, spoken or written, as commentator, presenter, voice-over artist, journalist or author, he was a master, which ought to be enough for any single life, but then you consider the rest of it: captain of Wales, Lion, Pontypool, the languages, the travelling, the education, the culture, the outdoors. He might have chosen a different end to his days, certainly a different time, but in a tent in Peru on a charity trek at altitude is not inappropriate. Vigour, colour, selflessness, it’s all in there, as in his life.

He was a maverick, deeply uncomfortable with convention, formality and the institutional. And yet he was deeply soulful, which inclined him far more towards smaller institutions like teams and friendships.

I just missed his career as a rugby player, but it is not hard to imagine what he was like on the field. The fire could rise up in those yellow-brown eyes as quickly as the laughter. One raging argument springs to mind in a vodka bar in Paris on the eve of the 2007 World Cup final. Think it was about scrummaging. More telling is the way arguments seemed to deepen his friendships.

That was the fire, but there was the physicality too. He would sometimes muse on the close-quarter nastiness of an age when rugby was less scrutinised than it is now by the cameras at every corner of every match. And he was a very big man. Those hands had seen some action, as had that grizzled chin. He didn’t need his words to get that across. The hardness and the passion were elemental and unspoken, the underpinning of the poetry.

Like most people of my generation and after, I first came across him through those words on television, debating their merit or otherwise with fellow students. Is he too Welsh, why so poetic, what’s with the pronunciation of all the French names? Happily, I found myself taking his side in any debate, which made it easier when I first met him for real on joining the Observer in 2000.

Eddie Butler played for Pontypool, Wales and the British & Irish Lions in a celebrated career (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

He loved writing for the Observer, making that laptop sing. He loved the people on the sports desk, fiercely loyal, just as he loved his colleagues at the BBC, which made touring with him – and thus often them – such a joy.

It was easy to forget you were in the presence of someone so renowned, but on occasion as we hovered on the threshold of a crowded bar you could see him hesitate, knowing he could not hope to pass through anonymously like the rest of us. If the group were committed to entering, though, he would gather himself and walk in with head held high for the sake of continued revelry. And he would return jovially the greeting of every reveller.

Some of the feats of journalism were extraordinary to witness. Routinely at the big matches he would commentate on national television, then turn round an immaculate match report of 1,000 words in minutes, often dictated down a phone. On one occasion, his order was a match report followed by a 500-word colour piece. He had a very tight deadline for the colour, so on the desk we were prepared with a picture to fill the hole if he missed the first edition. He didn’t. The time stamps for the filing of his match report and his colour were eight minutes apart.

As a journalist he was his own man, one of those with a licence to follow his path wherever it took him. As close as he came to the nitty-gritty of the journalist’s beat was ghostwriting.

“Er, 500 words in eight minutes, Ed… That’s quite impressive.”

He scoffed: “I had a very good copy-taker.”

How long does it take just to read 500 words out loud, let alone write them while you’re doing it. Let alone make them sing…

As a journalist he was his own man, one of those with a licence to follow his path wherever it took him. As close as he came to the nitty-gritty of the journalist’s beat was ghostwriting. If he had to, he could only do it with someone interesting and/or punchy enough to satisfy his muse. Austin Healey it was then.

Their partnership became legendary on the 2001 Lions tour of Australia, reaching its climax on the eve of the final Test when Austin/Eddie tore into Justin “The Plank” Harrison and all things Australian. It seems safe now to reveal how it came about, as Eddie tells it.

Eddie Butler
Eddie Butler had an immense intellect but he was good company and a fine raconteur. Pictured here at  Michael Aylwin’s wedding in 2006.

Throughout the tour, they met up and chatted, Austin dropping in little one-liners. Harrison was a recurring theme, a “plank” thrown in here, an “ape” there. At the end of their final chat of the tour, Eddie said: “Your mate Harrison is playing this weekend. Got anything to say?”

To which Austin replied: “Oh, we’ve talked about him enough this tour. You’ve got it all on tape.”

So Eddie went through all the tour recordings and pulled out each and every turn of phrase, concentrating them into a single, sustained diatribe that changed the face of ghostwriting. He also did it in the small hours of the morning. And, he was later able to confirm, he did it very, very drunk.

“Bit close to the bone, that one, Eddie,” said Austin, come the furore.

“Yeah, sorry about that, Oz.”

It’s the affection he inspired in those close to him, though, that should stand as his greatest accomplishment. Happy indeed is the man whose grown-up daughters embrace him the way Eddie’s do. And great is that man.

But for all the sound and fury of pitch, bar and press box, he was happiest in a field or coppice around his lovely home on a hill in Monmouthshire. Or in his cave, working that laptop, whence emerged two novels, sweeping in their scope, about a maverick No 8 and his crimes and misdemeanours. He was as proud of Gonzo Davies as any of his more famous flourishes.

It’s the affection he inspired in those close to him, though, that should stand as his greatest accomplishment. Happy indeed is the man whose grown-up daughters embrace him the way Eddie’s do. And great is that man.

For us on the Observer sports desk, we make do with his heroic efforts to appear at various gigs. There is an annual golf tournament for the green jacket, the OS Masters. Eddie drives from Wales each year to make it, be it in Brighton or London. This year, on 6 September, we came to him at his local golf club, the Rolls of Monmouth.

His legs were lacerated with cuts and scratches from his hours among the brambles at home, but he led us off with a perfect drive to par the first hole. Then he imploded and came last, grumbling about it only occasionally over the hours that followed. But those hours resounded with all the usual laughter, until we repaired to his homestead to drink wine into the small hours. Sue, his wife, joined us, as did Nell, the youngest of his three daughters, youngest but one of his six children. All was well. We talked shop and made plans.

Eddie Butler
Eddie Butler was a well-loved colleague at The Observer (Pic credit – Brian Oliver)

“Another glass, Ed?”

“I’ve got to do this walk in Peru.”

“Oh, come on…”

Breakfast the next day was another Butler triumph with conversation to match. That was less than two weeks ago.

Unless you’re on a Butler-esque deadline, you tend to reread an article just before you write the conclusion. Just noticed this one accidentally slips into the present tense from time to time, as if he’s still tapping that laptop, still telling those stories, still turning up. As if it’s all still happening. Let’s leave it that way.

Because it’s incomprehensible that, so suddenly, that’s it.

Go well, Ed. We’ll take 500 on the whistle when you get there.

Michael Aylwin will donate his fee for this article to Prostate Cymru

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