The Miracle of St. Helen's
From a type-written report in the Choir archives dated 1953.
Does anyone know who the writer is / was? His initials are R.G.M.
THE MIRACLE OF ST. HELEN'S
One cold bright Saturday afternoon in the winter of 1953, immediately prior to the match between Swansea and the touring South African Rugby Team at St Helens, a lean, loose limbed grey haired man walked out into the centre of the pitch and stood on a wooden box, which had been placed there for him.
He wore a brown sports coat and grey trousers, and looked as unremarkable as a man can look under the circumstances except that he carried in his hand a slim white baton. He had come to conduct the singing.
Until that precise moment I had lived in the belief that conducting music consisted purely of beating time with one hand, and indicating the twiddly bits with the other. Providing one had proper sense of rhythm, and the cheek to stand up in front of everybody, there really was nothing to it - my musical education was about to make a quantum leap forward. The lone figure on the box stood perfectly still, hands relaxed to his sides, baton out of sight against his leg. Then he began to turn, as if he were trying to estimate the number of people present.
Quite naturally without a word being spoken, the vast caterwauling hullabaloo of the crowd began to quench and diminish into a kind of murmuring calm.
With a single imperious gesture, the man raised the baton above his head, and abruptly, for all the world as if a plug had been pulled out, all noise ceased, and that huge, restive, bubbling cauldron of humanity, fell into a silence which was as weird as it was impressive.
A small silver band, hitherto un-noticed in the lee of the stands introduced the opening bars of the Blaenwern. The baton descended. The singing of a Welsh rugby crowd in those far-off chapel-bred days was justifiably one of the world’s unique cultural experiences. It was a time, now also long past, when every other man seemed able to harmonise at will in 3rds and 5ths. That the Welsh were a race of natural singers was a commonplace observation made by all who heard them. Certainly what followed on that day was a demonstration of mass singing of an excellence never to be heard again on a rugby ground. All around St Helens and beyond into the streets of the town people stopped what they were doing to listen, as the great chord structures took hold. Motorists travelling along the Mumbles road drew into the kerb and switched off their engines.
Dog walkers on the “prom” became rooted to the spot, and the story goes that the visiting South African team, in various stages of undress were all wedged in the tunnel, transfixed by the majesty of it. For my part I was too moved emotionally to risk singing a note, I just listened and marvelled as the glorious swathes of music gushed and flooded around me like a golden cataract. In a state of sublime euphoria I turned my attention to the nondescript figure on the soapbox who had conjured up this crescendo miracle from that formless hub-bub. I saw him no longer clad in the fustian of sports coat and greys, but in the shimmering vestments of a shogun, his baton moving amongst the stars, and his head bathed in the light of heaven. He was not just beating time; he was moulding the sound itself like a sculptor, lifting it, spreading it, heaping it up into incandescent cascades.
In a matter of minutes he had turned Babel into Arcady and as ordinary mortals into messengers of the spirit. It was not just singing, but also a people - rejoicing in awakened kinship, in the oneness of their emotional identity - I had seen my first great choral conductor. For the whole of the week that followed I was to hear comments on the impact the singing had made - an old man pruning an apple tree in his garden at Brynmill felt - “It was like God speaking out of the clouds.” People waiting on a ‘bus stop at Craddock Street heard it “like a tide rolling in waves across the town,” and a newsagent in the Sandfields who came outside his busy shop to listen on the pavement - “because it got right into my marrowbones.”
The B.B.C. got it into their marrowbones too, but lacked the equipment to record it. Three weeks later though, on the same ground, then the venue for the international encounter between Wales and Scotland, they were fully prepared. At strategic positions along the pitch they had erected a necklace of special microphones, cables snaked along the touchlines, and beside the town end goal posts, a ton of recording apparatus lay like a dead elephant. A fine, uniformed and braided brass band, under the direction of a burly moustachioed bandmaster, stood drawn up in column - of - route, warming their mouthpieces.
A live-wire master of ceremonies, microphone in hand leapt about hither and thither - explaining, inviting, encouraging, setting the scene for the right moment. The right moment when it came was a complete, unmitigated disaster.
In vain did the Bandmaster cutlass the air with white-gloved hands, in vain did his bandsmen blow, in vain did the master of ceremonies entreat, cajole and implore - his frustration pathetic to behold, - but all that came from the sullen Welsh crowd on that day, was a frowzy, lupine howling, the sort that masquerades as singing at the Arms Park today. In less than three months the “Champagne Superior” - the wine of paradise had turned into flat, grey slops.
As the sound engineers dismantled their equipment and retreated sadly from the field, the question “what went wrong” must have occupied their minds with more than a tinge of anger.
Few of them would have believed, that the answer lay in a white baton, soap box, and a chap in a brown sports jacket.
And now you may ask, who was this necromancer? This maker of miracles? This Rumplestilskin who could weave straw into a gold cloth? - The man’s name was Sims, Mr Ivor Sims of Morriston.