I mentioned music at the end of my last blog and thought it might be something I’d like to explore as a way back to myself. Music has always been important to me, as a girl I sang in the local girls choir where I grew up in Llanelli. Choral singing has an effect on me like no other music, or least singing it does. That feeling of making something together that you can’t do alone, of being in time and in harmony and creating out of mediocre voices something incredibly beautiful.
Calling the Hywel Girls Choir “the local girls choir” is a bit like calling Buckingham Palace “a London town house”. It was already by then one of the longest running girls choirs under the same conductor in the country and our conductor, John Hywel Williams, was a martinet who expected us to behave professionally both musically, in our staging and in our personal behaviour. He thought that being an amateur was no excuse for doing things amateurishly. I learnt a lot from him that translated across my life but I didn’t recognise it at the time. We learnt all our music by heart, and as so many of the girls didn’t read music that meant relentless note bashing for 2 hours twice a week which made recording several albums of music a challenge. And he didn’t shy away from difficult music – we did our share of the easy popular tunes like “Edelweiss” (with the added twist of being sung in Welsh which 40 years later I can still sing) but also we tackled Benjamin Britton’s ceremony of carols with gusto. The older I got the more I relished the challenge of these more difficult pieces.
We travelled far and wide with the choir, to Canada twice (once for nearly a month), the Albert Hall, Cornwall and a plethora of concerts more local. We sang for the Queen and with Max Boyce and the excitement for both was indistinguishable. I remember the second time we went to Canada being on the “older girls” smaller bus as I was 15 (the age range of the choir was about 10-18) and we constantly sang. On the bus, sitting about waiting for rehearsals to begun, to thank our hosts if we were being farmed out to local families for Sunday lunch, when we were the first European group up the (then new) tallest tower in the world the CN tower in Toronto. And on the bus. I’m not actually sure that we were ever silent on the bus and mostly in three- but sometimes four-part harmony. I recall the bus driver asking in awe “Do you ever NOT sing?” of course I like to think it was awe rather than deperation.
It had a huge effect on my life that choir, it taught me perseverence and attention to detail, communication, patience and it taught me never again to wear pink crimpolene. I have destroyed all evidence of those particular stage costumes.
So when I mentioned music, I was thinking that I might try to find a local choir and take up singing again. But as it happened, music hijacked me when I wasn’t expecting it.
Let me set the scene by explaining that my son was 13 this week and he’s a big fan of the Arctic Monkeys. I’m no fan but I have been subjected to enough of their music in the car to know some of the songs and to be able to sing along to Daniel’s horror. But still no fan. I would so love to be able to say that I had scored him some tickets for his birthday. But no. He discovered however that the Antarctic Monkeys were performing in Islington the week before his birthday and begged me to get tickets for him and his friends. I find it so hard to resist him (please don’t tell him, he has NOOOO idea) so I caved, contacted the other parents and agreed that I would trail up to Islington with them (being under 18 they needed an adult with them). So far so good.
We arrived early to a small disappointingly empty venue with wood floors and a basic bar. The boys looked a bit crestfallen, I think they were expecting a theatre with rows of plush seats but my spidey senses were tingling and long forgotten memories of gigs in dark basements below Mexican restaurants off the Tottenham Court Road flooded back. This was a PROPER gig! I braced myself and kept my fingers crossed that the boys would enjoy themselves. I positioned myself at the back (near a chair!) and the boys waited down the front.
The place filled up and whilst they were the youngest there, I was the oldest as the thirty-something crowd arrived. Beers started getting passed over heads, the floor started getting sticky and the temperature started rising. Then the band arrived and the first notes rang out. Well “thumped” would be a better description. The boys looked startled and there was much rummaging to find the earplugs they’d been supplied free at the bar.
That was pretty much the last I saw of them until the end.
I’d forgotten the sheer joy of music played so loud that it makes your lungs vibrate to the tune, of groups of people all singing in unison and bouncing up and down together, of beer spraying over your head and not being able to wipe the smile from your face.
Daniel came up to me at the end – the same big smile I wore:
“That may well be the best night of my life!”
We all agreed that we had to repair to the Wagamama’s next door for drinks and pudding to ruminate over the concert some more. Excitedly chattering about favorite songs, favorite moments, funny drunk fans and the good-natured crowd. We cooed over the selfies with the lead singer who posed in true rock star fashion.
I smiled for days as I remembered those gigs from my youth – long forgotten bands along with the few names who went on to become big, Kirsty McColl being a memorable one. And now the Antarctic Monkeys. If you get a chance to see them, go, because everyone’s life needs a bit of pounding base in it. https://www.facebook.com/antarcticmonkeys/
But to bring things back to Llanelli and picking up the theme of life-affirming musical moments – we lived down the road to a pub called The White Horse which was run by an ex-Welsh rugby international Normal Gale. One evening we had friends visiting from England – The Eversheds. Off we went to the pub to give them a taste of true Welsh hospitality. After arriving and nursing our half pints of Felinfoel bitter, a gradual hum started and then the sound of “Myfanwy” in four-part harmony swelled and filled the pub, moving on through “Sloop John B” to other well known songs. Our friends were amazed and delighted by this example of Welsh artistry, exclaiming how you wouldn’t hear such a thing in an English pub.
“It really is true what they say about the Welsh and singing” they gasped as we nodded sagely in agreement that it was truly a womder that all Welshmen are born with the ability to harmonise effortlessly.
We rolled out into the cold air and continued rolling down to the Post Office my mother presided over.
The following morning bright and early, they set off back to the land of the Saes and we waved them off brightly, wishing them bon voyage and I remember turning to my mother and asking:
“Are we ever going to admit that was no ordinary pub crowd but Llanelli Male Voice Choir in there after their weekly practice?”
But we never did…