Man of passion, writer of stunning clarity

Cliff Morgan pays tribute to the writer Geoffrey Nicholson who died last week
Click to follow
MY FIRST memory of Geoffrey Nicholson is of some 40 years ago when he and John Morgan, of Panorama fame, had written a book entitled Report on Rugby. I had just retired from playing and having read it I phoned him to tell him how much I admired the style and content of the book which was a critical and rumbustious examination of rugby in 1959 - and there began a lifetime of warm friendship.

My favourite quote was from a celebrated rugby player, Judge Rowe Harding. "For my part I would not exchange my aesthetic experiences in rugby for those of any painter for they are, after all, merely concerned with symbols... The rugby player during the course of the game is living life at its most intoxicating. There is movement, energy, grace, strength, fear, intelligence, competition, everything." That is a description that could equally have applied to the life and work of my dear friend Geoffrey Nicholson.

Brought up and educated in Dylan Thomas's "ugly, lovely town" of Swansea, he was passionate about Wales, passionate about rugby and passionate about the written word, which he studied at University College, Swansea, after completing his National Service as a lance-bombardier in the Royal Artillery.

Geoffrey always used to say that it was his good fortune that his first lecturer at university was Kingsley Amis. What he didn't always add was that Amis awarded him the Principal's prize for the best essay of the year, which was probably the first recognition of his talents as a writer. A writer who wrote with stunning clarity and appealing simplicity. I can see him now in the press room at Twickenham, poised over his typewriter, a Gauloise between his lips, eyes half closed, writing his column with independent judgement and a scrupulous eye for detail that set him apart as a truly great rugby writer. He never succumbed to the critics' scourge - cynicism - he always wrote with compassion and wisdom.

It was at university that Geoffrey first met Mavis Mainwaring who was to be the love of his life. By coincidence, they both in turn won an Edward Hulton graduate scholarship to train as advertising copywriters in London and in 1952 they got married. Theirs was to be a rich and vital partnership which flourished with their individual talents and their support of each other. They spent almost five years in advertising before Mavis left to have their first baby and subsequently to become one of the great television interviewers of her time as well as a leading columnist and author. Geoffrey was immensely proud of Mavis's professional success and relished the breadth of her achievements.

Although Geoffrey was successful in the advertising world, his heart was in journalism where he got his first taste when he was still at university writing rugby reports for the South Wales Evening Post. When he moved to London he continued to report on the odd rugby match and became a freelance book reviewer for the Guardian and The Spectator. Then, through his old school friend Paul Ferris, he eventually went to work for the sports desk of the Observer.

During the Sixties and early Seventies, Geoffrey moved on to the editorial side of sport journalism with his first appointment being that of deputy sports editor to Chris Brasher at the Observer before moving to the Sunday Times as sports features editor. He then left the newspaper to edit a new sport and leisure magazine but it was an idea before its time and it never got started. It was about this time that Geoffrey and I, together with the rugby writer David Frost, produced the Rugby Football Union's Centenary book Touchdown in 1971, and we both went on a year later to launch a children's weekly newspaper. In this venture we were the great crusaders to no effect. It survived for only 12 weeks and made no money. For years we chuckled over our naive enthusiasm.

In 1976 Geoffrey rejoined the Observer as sports editor, leading with considerable style a vintage sports team, including Hugh McIlvanney, Arthur Hopcraft, Chris Brasher, Peter Dobereiner, Clem Thomas and Richard Baerlein, who between them gave us some of the best quality sports writing of all time. However, after two years the lure of writing, the buzz of the press box and the freedom of the road led him back into reporting and writing.

Although Geoffrey was rugby correspondent of The Independent and later wrote on rugby for this newspaper, it was without doubt the Tour de France that he loved covering most and did so for 19 years. For him it expressed all that was good about sport - the characters, the guts and energy, the joys and tribulations, an ever-changing story of the toughest cycling race in the world. We sat together watching some of this year's race and his enthusiasm was as great as ever. In fact Geoffrey loved everything French - food, the Gauloise and that incomparable claret.

Sport enriched Geoffrey's life but his greatest love was for his family. His beloved Mavis, his three sons, their wives and his grandchildren. He was enormously proud of them and he cherished the times they were together. One of my last memories of him was seeing him sitting in the garden relishing the joy of watching his grandchildren laughing and playing.

Geoffrey never really retired and even last month was still working with Mavis on the production of the current issue of The Chronicle, a community newspaper that covers the valleys in the shadow of the Berwyn mountains, and in April he was made Welsh Sports Journalist of the Year. A small recognition of a great writer who was also a dear and generous friend to so many.

The funeral will be held tomorrow at 2pm at Seion Chapel, Llanrhaeadr- ym-Mochnant, Powys. Donations in his memory to the Llanraeadr Surgery will be shared with the Macmillan Nurses.