Singing Hymns in Welsh

In the 70s we spent a number of Augusts working at the St David’s Arts Festival. It was a long journey; it would take about nine hours to drive from Sunderland to this westernmost part of Wales. The motorway driving wasn’t bad but once we got to Ross-on-Wye, oh dear! The A40 through Abergavenny, Brecon and Carmarthen to Haverfordwest was only dual-carriageway for very short stretches, and the rest of the time…

Well, let’s say that if Dai wasn’t out in the tractor, Blodwyn was off in the car to do the shopping, both travelling at 20 miles an hour (max!) in the middle of the road. That stretch took almost as long as the journey from Sunderland to Ross.

Once we arrived in St David’s, we would head straight for the digs. We always stayed with Mrs Beer – and it was always “Mrs Beer”, never “Elizabeth.” Oh no! She might have called us Irene and Peter, but for us it had to be “Mrs Beer”.

The ritual was always the same. She’d greet us at the door – “Lovely to see you. I’ve put you in your usual room” – and we’d go up and unpack. A little while later we’d go downstairs and she’d be there, waiting.

“Kettle’s boiling. Cup of tea?”

“Thank you. Yes,” was the only acceptable answer, so, tea and biscuits served, she’d enquire about our health and hope we’d have lovely weather for Festival. Then she’d tell us about her son, John, and about how much more of St David’s her brother David has bought up since last year, and finally the – inevitable – climax of the conversation: “Cymanfa ganu on Saturday night. You will be coming, won’t you?”

Cymanfa ganu – that’s “Kuh-man-va ga-ny” – means “singing festival” and, specifically for Mrs Beer, it meant community hymn-singing at Tabernacl (that’s the right spelling; it’s Welsh), the chapel in Goat Street. And even more specifically it meant community hymn-singing in Welsh.

In St David’s in the seventies you were either chapel or pub. They were the places you found your entertainment and never the twain would meet – at least, not as far as the chapel folk were concerned, for alcohol was evil, a veritable tool of the devil.

By this time the pubs were open on Sunday in Pembrokeshire and there was a bit of an influx of “arty types” (Hippies!) but otherwise St David’s was very old fashioned Welsh. For a significant proportion of the population Welsh was still their first language and Mr Morgan the milkman was still, even by English speakers, referred to as “Morgan the milk.”

Anyway, as we were staying in a chapel household, we were “invited” to go to the Cymanfa Ganu on our first Saturday, an invitation that was hard to refuse for Festival hadn’t yet started and we didn’t rehearse on Saturday nights.

So that’s what we did, every first Saturday night of Festival, Irene and I; we went to Tabernacl to sing Welsh hymns! When we first went the only Welsh words I knew were bore da (good day), nos da (good night) and Croeso i Gymru (welcome to Wales) – oh, and the words of the Sospan Fach chorus, which I’d learned from Irene’s involvement in a production of Emlyn Williams’ How Green Was My Valley.

Isn’t theatre educational?

They allowed for our ignorance – they announced the hymn numbers in English as well as Welsh – and so we sang, among many more, Calon Lân, Marchog Iesu, Diolch i’r Iôr and, of course, Cwm RhonddaArglwydd, arwain trwy’r anialwch.

At the end, after a long extempore Welsh prayer, the congregation would spill out onto Goat Street and everyone seemed to want to greet us. “Nice to see you!” “Hope you have a good Festival.” After about ten minutes or so of good wishes, they were all gone, off to their homes and, when the last figures vanished from sight, we walked down the street to the Farmer’s Arms for yet more singing – of a different kind generally, although Calon Lân often made its appearance, as it does when any Welsh singers get together – and “Welsh singers” tends to mean anyone from Wales!

I remember singing it with a Welsh actor in a restaurant in Islington (we were a little the worse for wear but the waiters applauded us at the end!) and with a teacher in a school dining-room in South Shields. And Michael Bogdanov used it (in four-part harmony) in his excellent – well it would be; it was Bodger after all – Wales Theatre Company production of Under Milk Wood which toured all over the UK.

And of course everyone sang Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, the Welsh national anthem, as fervently as any chapel congregation singing their hymns!

So, the Cymanfa Ganu made a big impression on me and to this day I still enjoy hearing – and joining in! – Welsh hymns. I’m not religious – far from it! – but I was brought up a Methodist and Methodism, the hymn book tells us, “was born in song.” So we, as the Calon Lân chorus says, “Canu’r dydd a canu’r nos” – sing by day and sing by night!

Theatre really does give you a wide – and sometimes quite odd – range of experiences!

Nevermore

You leave Threlkeld and head up to Gategill (where the Blencathra foxhounds used to be kennelled – and might still be, for all I know; it’s been a long time). You keep going till you reach the last drystone wall, with a sheepfold on the left. At this point you bear right up the fairly steep slope of Halls Fell. Suddenly the path veers to the left and heads towards a narrow rocky ridge with a steep drop down to Gate Gill on the left and Doddick Gill on the right. Now it’s an exhilarating walk – at times a bit of a scramble, but nothing taxing and certainly not scary – straight towards Blencathra summit, with impressive close up views of the gills and enclosing ridges to right and left and a wide vista of Lakeland behind.

Once we walked that route through thick cloud – when you’ve only got a week you cram in as much as you can, regardless of the weather – and picked our way very carefully along the wet and slippery rocky ridge.

Suddenly we were out of the cloud and in bright sunshine, the sky a brilliant blue from horizon to horizon. We turned, looked back the way we’d come and below us lay a white carpet of cloud, totally unlike the grey, clinging, soaking fog we’d been walking through.

We sat down to take it all in. There to the south east across all of this whiteness was Helvellyn, and as we scanned westwards we could see Bowfell and Scafell Pike, then Gable, all just emerging from the cloud. We walked the remaining few hundred yards to the cairn on Blencathra top and, as far as we could see, we were the only people on the hill that morning. We certainly didn’t see a soul as we dropped down to the Glenderaterra valley via Roughten Gill and walked back to Threlkeld, then drove along to The White Horse in Scales. There were, however, quite a few people in the pub shaking their heads and saying, “Oh no. Not going on the hill in this.”

A wonderful memory, the most outstanding among many from the Lakes, the Highlands, the Isle of Arran, Preseli in West Wales, Northumberland, the Yorkshire Dales and the North Yorks Moors. Memories, because COPD (the legacy of 55 years of smoking), knackered legs and – quite simply – age mean that I will never be able to walk the hills again and my battered and stained by frequent dampness, annotated copies of Wainwright’s invaluable Guides to the Lake District’s mountains – bought in the sixties, so now more than fifty years old – are just armchair reading.

Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

Aye, all very romantic and sweet and sad and Wordsworthy, but why don’t you tell them about the time you decided to break in a new pair of boots by traversing Blencathra up Blease Fell and down Scales Fell and ended up walking back to Threlkeld in your stocking feet with blisters on your blisters? Whimpering, you were, like a bairn.

Radgie! Shut up!

Or the time you froze up when you were climbing that crack on an exposed slab at Crag Lough and it was only when your second started hoying rocks at you that you got moving again?

Radgie! Watch it!

Or…

Radgie! Foxtrot Oscar!

Meet My Alter Ego

When 12 year old Billy Batson saw a crime being committed and knew his alter ego would be needed, he merely had to say the magic word “Shazam” and lightning would flash, thunder would crash and he would turn into Captain Marvel.

In Metropolis when mild-mannered reporter Clarke Kent saw Superman was needed he would make for the nearest phone box or similar location where he would rip off his clothes, revealing the Superman outfit beneath.

Actually, there are a few things about that I’ve always found puzzling, like how could he wear his cape under his everyday clothes? The rest I can see, but the cape? Wouldn’t it give him a bit of a Richard III look? And what happened to his clothes when he ripped them off? Did he just leave them and have to go back for them once the emergency was over? Wouldn’t someone nick them occasionally? Did he intend to abandon them? But that would mean he’d have to have a huge number of identical outfits. Massive wardrobe needed! Or perhaps he had some way of carrying them with him, some sort of concealed pocket? But for suit, shirt, tie, socks, shoes, trilby hat, glasses? Or perhaps he had an additional superpower, the power to make clothes invisible. If so, it’s a good job he was highly moral or poor old Lois Lane might have had a few nasty moments!

And in Gotham City, when the batphone rang or the batsignal lit up the sky, Bruce Wayne had to run down into the batcave beneath his mansion, change into his Batman outfit, start the batmobile and drive off to where he was needed. And if he was somewhere other than his mansion, well… Hardly what you’d call rapid response!

So now let me tell you about my alter ego.

“And who is that?” you may ask.

Radgie Gadgie, that’s who that is. And he doesn’t need any magic words or ripping off of clothes or running into underground caverns; he just appears instantaneously when… well, when he feels like it, I suppose. I might be driving, watching TV (especially the News or whenever politicians are speaking), shopping, reading Facebook statuses – at almost any time at all Radgie Gadgie can appear out of the blue, in full flow with, as Noël Coward sang in Señorita Nina from Argentina, “language profane and obscene”!

For those who don’t know, “radgie” is derived from the word “rage” and a “gadgie” is an old man, so it roughly translates as “extremely bad tempered old git.”

He could quite easily take over a blog entry at any time without notice, so – be prepared! But he will, he says, try not to be too offensive.

I didn’t say that! Does he think he’s a journalist, making up quotes like that? Twat! I’ll be as offensive as I like.
RG

Why blog?

I was fed up.

No, that’s not really accurate. Pissed off is a much better description. Even well pissed off – an even better description and even more accurate.

And why?

In June 2014 I directed the biggest play I’d ever written, Cold in the Clay, a community production with a cast of 22, a choir of 11 and a brass band. Then I devised and directed By the Pricking of My Thumbs…, a compilation of Shakespeare’s nastiest bits, with a brilliant professional cast. Both were for the Customs House in South Shields. Later that year I revived Drac and the Rat to be performed by staff and clients of NECA (North East Council on Addictions) Darlington.

Nothing much happened in early 2015 but in September I had my one-woman monologue Curtains performed at Alphabetti Theatre’s Write Back, directed by an excellent young director and performed by an equally excellent but even younger actress, and then I was cast in Beckett’s Words and Music (a piece for two actors and a chamber orchestra) for Durham University’s Musicon and immediately after that I went into Arctic Convoy (in which I wrote part of the script, played a small part and directed) in North Shields. During September and October I also ran a playwriting course for South Tyneside Library Service at the Central Library.

Finally I directed an amateur panto, Puss in Boots, for the Westovians in South Shields, which was performed in January 2016.

Since then, nothing. Rien. Niente. Nada. Nichts.

Early in 2016 I was diagnosed with COPD and it knocked me sideways. I’m beginning to suspect that the knocking sideways was psychological rather than physical because I lost all my energy and enthusiasm and, as the old saying goes, “My get-up-and-go got up and went.”

I even gave up directing. I told people, “I don’t have the energy any more” and I believed it.

So here we are, more than halfway through 2017, and I am pissed off with myself and need to get going again. Oh yes, I’ve been doing news stories and reviews for the British Theatre Guide but that’s not exactly creative and I need to get that creativity going before I stagnate into the pipe and slippers routine. Well, e-cig and slippers to be precise, but you know what I mean.

Hence this new blog. I’m setting myself the task of updating at least twice a week to get the creativity flowing, so please, do keep coming back to read my meanderings.

What will they be? Memories. Rants and raves. First explorations of new ideas. And I’ll introduce you to my alter ego, the very unlovable Radgie Gadgie. Now who’d want to miss that?

And, of course, you’ll be helping rehabilitate a sad sorry-for-himself old man. Your good deed for the day.