Cymru Culture

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Steve Lamb - The school eisteddfod

(March 01, 2016)

The school eisteddfod

At least a third of the members of staff of the grammar school were Welsh speaking in 1972 and Welsh culture was celebrated explicitly in the life of the school. Every Friday the morning assembly was an all Welsh service and all pupils sang energetically along to well known Welsh hymns and they recited Gweddi'r Arglwydd, the Lord's Prayer, confidently. Urdd Gobaith Cymru (the Urdd) had an aelwyd in the school and there had been, until the recent retirement of a long serving deputy, a well supported weekly after school evening of activities broadly in line with the values of that organisation. This was all new to me, but I had been introduced to the Welsh language at university in Aberystwyth. My halls of residence had been Neuadd Pantycelyn and then Cwrt Mawr, both on the road to Machynlleth. I enjoyed using the reading rooms of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru and obeyed the ubiquitous signs to 'dim ysmygu'. Just use your imagination to enjoy the sound of a Birmingham teenager getting his nasal accent around those linguistic challenges. Needless to say this brought huge pleasure to well meaning Welsh friends determined to help me master a, thankfully, phonetic alphabet.

Another important facet of Welsh cultural life in school was the eisteddfod; an event I knew little about. I was aware that the National Eisteddfod had been held in Pembrokeshire earlier that year but I was ignorant of everything else. When school started back after Christmas we were warned that there would be house assemblies in order to begin preparations for the school eisteddfod. This was to be held towards the end of February and linked to St David's Day celebrations when we would have a half day's holiday to honour the patron saint. There were four school houses and all pupils belonged to one of them. If you had older brothers or sisters already attending the school then you joined the same house, otherwise your membership was determined by a simple system of sharing out evenly. The same was true for members of staff and I joined Tŷ Llywelyn. Tŷ Glyndŵr was the leading house at the time winning the previous year's eisteddfod as well as rugby and athletics honours. Caradog and Hywel were the other contenders, but destined to be runners up or worse as Glyndŵr continued to inherit talented youngsters who already knew what was expected of them.

I stood at the back of the house assembly impressed that it was entirely conducted by sixth formers eager to secure enough competitors to ensure success at prelims and effective performance on the stage, if judged to be worthy. The range of on-stage and off-stage junior and senior competitions also impressed me. Most of the challenges were clear even to a Birmingham ignoramus, but I had no idea what to expect from 'cyd adrodd' for example. Subject leaders had already set curriculum-specific tasks for each year group: the English department set titles for short stories and themes for poetry; the Home Economics department challenged younger pupils to make Welsh cakes and older pupils to plan a three course 'Cinio Dydd Gŵyl Dewi' appropriate for the saint’s day. The school threw itself enthusiastically into preparations and staff, with the exception of those in the Welsh and music departments, were only called on for fine tuning before prelims or to chase backsliders who were not attending choir practices or were likely to miss deadlines for off-stage entries.

The set pieces in Welsh and music were also set pieces for the Urdd National Eisteddfod. This was to be held that year in Ynysangharad Park in Pontypridd during the Whitsun half term break. Pupils had extra motivation to do well in the early rounds of the competition in order to ensure the school was represented in the finals as it would be so close to home. The annual Urdd National Eisteddfod is the biggest youth arts festival in Europe and it remains a moveable feast like its senior relative held each year in August. I had been involved in drama, public speaking and recitation competitions while a schoolboy in the Midlands but they were as nothing compared to this all round celebration of the talents of Welsh children and young people.

Weeks passed and excitement mounted. Evidence of completed off stage competitions gathered in wall displays in the art room and short listed pieces appeared on notice boards in subject specific classrooms. At lunchtimes and after school, groups of serious pupils rehearsed and polished their performances. The day itself was astonishing. All pupils, bedecked in house colours, gathered in the assembly hall which was quartered for the occasion giving each house separate territory. On the stage, to the audience's left, was a large blackboard and easel, similarly quartered with chalk lines. Each quarter was headed with the name of a school house. Beneath each name was a zero. As the day advanced following adjudication after adjudication, the scores beneath the names grew larger – and the passionate support of house members rose equally.

The adjudicators of on-stage competitions were guests from the local community known for their involvement in music, drama or with Welsh culture generally. There should have been little that could be controversial about their work but I remember a generational clash when it came to the senior instrumental solo. There were four staged finalists, one from each house – that was the pattern that everybody hoped to see. Caradog and Hywel were represented by pianists, Glyndŵr by a violinist and Llywelyn by a sixth-former playing acoustic guitar. The guitar player captured the audience entirely, never mind house loyalties. He played the theme tune to a TV detective series of the time set in Amsterdam and in doing so brought the house down. A pop instrument and a hit TV series: it was a rich mix in the middle of an ultra traditional day. When the adjudication came and the violinist took first place there was an audible moan across the room and it seemed like the nearest thing to revolution that the grammar school had known. To be fair to the adjudicator, who was at least 70, he explained that to his ear the competition was very close but the difficulty the violin posed as a solo instrument had swayed his decision. He had few supporters and none from Tŷ Llewellyn.

Nevertheless the day proceeded well and for me the highlight was the 'cyd adrodd' or choral recitation. I was aware of something similar in Greek theatrical tradition but not with poetry brought alive by pupils in every year of a secondary school. Small groups took turn to speak in unison with exaggerated expression to bring to life a variety of verse – like radio drama in an enchanted language. It was magic to someone from another culture hearing all this for the first time.

The boys from Glyndŵr who won the senior duet that day went on to represent the school successfully in the 'cylch' and 'sir' eisteddfodau locally and regionally. This meant that they would compete at the national in Pontypridd. They got through the prelims there and were staged yet again. Almost inevitably they went on to win and the victory brought the story of my first school eisteddfod to a proper close. I saw many more, 29 more to be exact, but none matched the impact or quality that I remember from my first year in south Wales.

And yes, Glyndŵr did win the Eisteddfod Shield that day over four decades ago.

Steve Lamb, March 2016

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy Steve's previous stories:
     The school play, December 2015

     Corridor duty, September 2015
     End of an era, June 2015
     Teacher training, March 2015
      "... the best thing that happened to me in school", December 2014
     The punishment, September 2014
     The interview, June 2014

Steve Lamb is a retired teacher who lives in south Wales. In a career spanning more than forty years he worked as a teacher, local authority school improvement officer and inspector of education services for children and young people.

 

Steve Lamb - 2014 Steve Lamb - 1972
Steve Lamb ... now  ... and then (1972)

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