Hymns and arias

Yes, the rugby world cup (RWC) is upon us. Played in glorious New Zealand, the land of the chokers, so they say. Growing up in the 60s and 70s one team ruled the rugby world – mine –  Wales. Despite rumours to the contrary there is only one code of rugby, Union. Anybody who defects instantly becomes a non person. Sadly in the glory days there was no RWC and so the great names have no medals or trophies except the Grand Slams. I am afraid Dan Carter isn’t a patch on Barry John or Phil Bennett. There has never been another JPR and never will be. The Pontypool Front Row is immortal. Nobody has bettered Gareth Edwards.

The bard of the era was Max Boyce. I have a small book from 1976 (thank you, Roger) called Max Boyce, his Songs & Poems (with an introduction by Barry John). His wonderfully uplifting song, Hymns and Arias tells of the biannual pilgrimage Welsh fans make to London to see their team play the great enemy. In one famous sketch he tells of the Englishman trying to sing along, doing fine until he gets to the line “And Harry’s got a horse”. The Welsh smile at his ignorance, his failure to comprehend “Ar hyd y nos” – All through the night. Wales is all about rugby, beer, singing and the mines. Not necessarily in that order. Most of the mines are closed now. Our village turned the slag heaps into rolling greenery.

No-one forgets Aberfan. As we approach the anniversary of 9/11 with all its trauma, in 1966 the mourning in Wales was equal as 144 were killed as a spoil heap shifted and crushed a school. 116 lives between 7 and 10 were killed minutes after singing “All things bright and beautiful” in the school assembly.  Duw its hard.

If you can’t sing you aren’t Welsh. My late father sang on what was then the Third Programme of the BBC. O for the wings of a dove. Somewhere we have the letters of appreciation of hearing “Little Jimmy” singing on the wireless. I didn’t inherit his talent but I can sing very loudly and that’s good enough.

Beer was part of the training in those days. As Barry John put it, you either drank to celebrate or you drank to drown your sorrows. Generally Wales was celebrating. We were generous with it too. Max sang:

We sympathised with an Englishman, Whose team was doomed to fail, So we gave him that old bottle, That once held bitter ale

To understand that generosity you need to know that once you were in the North Enclosure you couldn’t get out easily so if you ‘needed to go’ you used a beer glass or a bottle. Always happy to share with an Englishman, we were. My first trip to The Arms Park (Parc yr Arfau) was a school trip. Can you imagine that today? The namby pamby, health & safety, politically correct, molly coddling do-gooders that today wrap our children in cotton wool would never embrace the idea that a coach load of pre-teens would be let loose in a rugby crowd. No seating in those days. You stood. We lived in halcyon days, sang Cwm Rhondda and my mum taught me Sospan fach for the day out. Nobody came to harm.

We played rugby at school. The school was technically in England – by 23 miles – that was the furthest from Wales my mother would go. But we escaped back over the border whenever we could. There were no soccer pitches at the school. Only rugby. Don Sparks taught us rugby and I was always Barry John. Except I wasn’t. Too tall and too skinny, I was knocked all over the place. My side step was not fast enough to avoid getting clobbered. But as with us all, the older I get, the better I was.

Tomorrow evening I will settle in front of the TV to watch South Africa play Wales. We will be the underdogs but I always, but always start out believing we will win. You see it is our birthright. And before I shuffle off this mortal coil I know we will be crowned RWC Champions. Just maybe not this time. And then Max will immortalize it. I hope I am there.

And to my 3 kiwi friends who have tickets for the quarters and the semis, but not the final. Shame on you. You could never be Welsh.


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