Review: Hymns & Arias is a gloriously put together book, shot through with photographs and fine illustrations
In Jan Morris’s ‘The Matter of Wales’ she talks about the poets and poetry of the country and how their presence ‘startles strangers still, and not only in the Welsh speaking heartlands, where poets of all sorts are more conventionally expected to abound.
Max Boyce, a comedian much beloved in the clubs of the English-speaking and industrialized south, appeared at a Royal Command variety performance in London in 1981, and when he ended his bubbling hilarious act with a song of compasionate lyricism about the sadness of the mining valleys, the audience seemed to respond with baffled, if not affronted, dismay.’
The song could have been one of many penned by Max Boyce, but it might well have been ‘Duw It’s Hard,’ a portrait of a town, in this case Ebbw Vale, where the colliery is shut down and the ‘pithead baths are a supermarket now.’ The chorus runs:
‘Cause it’s hard
Duw it’s hard
It’s harder than they will ever know…
Max Boyce knows all about hard graft, having spent a decade hewing coal underground from the age of sixteen. His father died in an explosion a pit called Onllwyn No 3 a month before Max was born and his mother was given a derisory sum in compensation in order to look after her young son. But even as an entertainer Max has long had a reputation for working hard, playing the clubs, racking up the TV appearances to the extent that he once commanded an audience of 20 million.
His debut album ‘Live in Treorchy’ sold half a million copies. Gold, silver and No 1 records followed like the floats in Glynneath carnival. He gigged and gigged and gigged. All the while he was refining his songs after he performed them, chiselling new meanings or nuances into the deceptively simple lines.
His most famous song ‘Hymns and Arias,’ written half a century ago, has long replaced most of the other hymns and arias in the Welsh communal songbook and is now as synonymous with rugby as a pair of posts. In particular it signals those 80 minutes in the rugby calendar when the Welsh fan is really set on tenterhooks, teetering on the edge of a seat in Twickenham for another adrenaline charged encounter with England.
Boyce has a gift for an easy rhyme, very much on display in this book, such as in his account of the day when Neath and Aberavon lost 43-4 against the All Blacks, a scoreline that looks pretty respectable after last weekend, when Wales got heartily thumped by New Zealand. In the song he recalls how:
They didn’t leave the score up long
We chipped in for a wreath
Neath blamed Aberavon,
And Aberavon, Neath.
He’s particularly good at the magpie act of taking another song’s melody and appropriating it to his own use. In ‘He Picked a Fine Time to Penalise Wheel,’ he replaces ‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille’ brings on a ready smile. And there’s the painfully funny ‘I Guess It’s Been One of Them Days: the Saddest Ever Country Song’ which sees the ill fortunes of a family out west go relentlessly from bad to worse. Ma dies of the fever, there’s a terrible fire that burns the house down, pa turns to gambling, then to bank robbery and goes to jail, a song that manages to evince a smile from the heart of all misery.
Some of the songs are bright and telling slices of south Wales social history such as the account of Miners’ Fortnight, or of coal picking, where people would scour the spoil heaps for gleaming ‘gems’ of leftover coal.
Just like the game of rugby the book is one of two halves, the first made up of song and the other of stories. The latter are an amenable mix of anecdotes – you might be tempted to say that Max is well into his anecdotage – and this section abounds with allegedly true stories which tell us about his Cardi friend Berwyn, evoke childhood memories and take us on a few rounds of celebrity golf.
There are memories of staging ‘Under Milk Wood’ or playing elephant polo with some Ghurkas and he even manages to make a trip to open the Leekes superstore near Cross Hands into the stuff of legend, as he arrives by helicopter with some unexpected guests on board. Of course Max also strings together some very funny tales of rugby trips, from the one about the Welsh fan who drops into a vat of Guinness when out in Dublin, who dies a very slow death indeed to encounters with snails in Paris. There are also some vivid recollections of his time in the States, following the Dallas Cowboys – the subject of one of his television shows – and becoming a clown in the rough ‘n’ tough world of rodeo.
One thing that shines through the book is Max Boyce’s ebullient personality and genuine warmth. He may have traded in stereotypes, but they were, at least our stereotypes, recognisably based on the man holding the debenture seat in the Arms Park or that marvellous character down the club. The book is gloriously put together, shot through with photographs, fine illustrations and perfectly apposite cartoons by Gren, who seems to share Max’s humour to a fault. And there’s one story, about Berwyn at the car boot sale, selling Owain Glyndŵr’s skull to a gullible punter, which will have me chuckling the other side of Christmas, when this book will surely have been enjoyed by a legion of Boyce’s fans, as long as you can get a beautiful coffee table book into a stocking.
Max Boyce’s new book of selected poems, songs and stories is published by Parthian Books.
He will be signing copies on 26th November in Carmarthen Waterstones at 3pm and the Rhosygilwen Arts Centre Cardigan at 7.30pm.
On 3rd December Max will be in Swansea Waterstones at 2pm and on 4th of December at Storyville Pontypridd at 10 am and Griffin Books Penarth Saturday at 1 pm and on 5th of December at Bookish Crickhowell at 1pm.
You can buy a copy of the book here….
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.