Len Williams – a tragedy

Another thing that middle aged men do is join male voice choirs. Some have always sung, but others take it up for the first time when the kids have left home. I remember well the time I signed up for an evening class on singing at the local high school. We were twelve or so, men and women. We learned that two of the men were members of a local male voice choir and our teacher was their conductor. Were they there to learn or to make up numbers so the class would have sufficient singers to run?  Even then, was the choir was being exploited to further personal ambition?

There was never any hint of truculence or irritability in those evening sessions.  Len’s style was ever encouraging.  We did a range of material:  popular hits, traditional folk and songs from the shows. One of his favourites was ‘Skye Boat Song’. Presumably it is relatively easy for beginners. Only two months ago, he went up to the west coast of Scotland, and took in a trip to Skye. He had the fanciful idea that ‘over the sea to Skye’ was a long way, a substantial journey requiring preparation and not to be undertaken lightly or frequently. So imagine him at the Kyle of Lochalsh, crestfallen at the site of the toll bridge.

I went to the class for twelve months; enough to feel confident about joining Len’s choir. I’m not sure how long it continued after I left, but I still meet many of my fellow students at concerts, singers in other local choirs.

Joining the choir was embarrassing, because I did’t know the repertoire, I couldn’t read music and I wasn’t acquainted with anyone there. I didn’t even know whether I was a tenor or a baritone. I soon found out; I couldn’t hit the high notes.

However, after twenty years bullshitting and toughing it out in medicine, surviving the first few months of the Len’s choir was a breeze. We practised in a primary school assembly hall which doubled as a gymnasium. I’m not sure what wall bars do for acoustics but I suspect it’s not a lot. I wrestled with pieces like ‘Jolly Roger’, ‘Llanfair’ and ‘Gwaholiad’, and seven years later, I’m still not sure about them. So it’s new songs that get you started, and my first was ‘Evening Pastorale’, an unaccompanied evocation of country life at the end of the day. It was during the learning of this piece that I began to get to know another side of Len. If the evening class was the opening scene of ‘Len Williams:  A Tragedy’ then this was when the plot began to thicken. We couldn’t get the baritone solo correct. Time and again Len had us repeating it and he got rattier with each repetition. One of us was out of tune, and to avoid the wrath of the maestro, certain individuals didn’t sing, including me. So eventually it was in tune, but rather quiet. Len let it go then, and I assumed he’d got the message. Had our silence suggested to him that he wouldn’t get the best out of us by throwing a tantrum? Not a bit of it. Within the month we’d been auditioned, those of us who had the courage to attend. I do remember the baritone numbers dropping for a while, but we didn’t sing any bum notes again. It’s strange to think back on it now. Such a peaceful piece and so much anger.

It became an abiding image, Len ‘on one’ during practice. We never got to running a sweepstake as to whether he would blow up on any particular night, but how he might be became a frequent and hotly debated choir topic. Some of us wondered if he might be depressed and whether medication was involved. Good nights were when the dose was correct, and he was all smiles and compliments. When he forgot his tablets, however, we were in for a bad time.

He had particular irritants, when individual singers would be singled out for humiliation, rather than the relatively benign blanket bollocking of a complete section. Turning up late and entering the practice room during the warm up was bad. People could be genuinely late, but some of us got a little complacent as the start time slipped back week by week. On on occasion, three of us were late – not  together. We each walked in alone, separated by two or three minute intervals.

‘What time do you call this?’ A mild enquiry of the first latecomer. By the time the third arrived, Len was steaming. I don’t remember what was said, but I do remember the sensitive, mild-mannered man who was on the receiving end.  Whilst some people could laugh Len off, others couldn’t.

He wasn’t good with questions either. ‘Are we doing it this way?’, ‘Can we go over that again?’ would be met with a put-down. As if he was affronted; as if his musical pedigree was distrusted. I suspect some individuals, who asked questions regularly, secretly hoped for a reaction. They were the brave ones, who risked the angry repost. The rest of us kept quiet, frightened we might be out of tune again.

Eventually Len’s temper became folklore. You weren’t a proper member of the choir until you’d been balled out by him. It was sniggered about in corners. Heads would turn away and hands would cover mouths. Someone once wrote a letter of concern to the committee, but the next practice was hell. He was so incandescent that fifteen or so left, one or two permanently. Most of us, however, simply adapted to how it was and Len would never know how we felt.

Despite the tantrums, the choir was, and is, a good place to be. Since the evening classes, I have rarely spoken with Len, but I have improved as a singer, and grown in confidence. Two out of three concerts go well and are enjoyable.  The social programme is fun and not compulsary – dipping in and out is permitted.

This then has set the scene for our tragedy. In 1991, Len, to use his own words, ‘took twenty or so ruffians off the street, and made them into a male voice choir.’ And that he did. In 2002, the choir has over fifty members, a repertoire based on Welsh hymns and Verdi opera, and good enough concert attendances. A virtuoso choir it isn’t, but it’s something. And Len did it – with persistence, bullying and a lot of pride and passion. He lead and others followed. He had the vision, the inspiration and the drive.

The working relationship between Len and his choir has had its stormy periods, and certain individuals have fallen overboard or bailed out. However, without Len noticing, the choir has ceased to be solely his. To complete the sailing metaphor, the choir’s stability and ability to weather the storm has been based on good timber, sound rigging and a reliable officer corps. As the first act comes to a close we realise that the choir is now bigger than one man, but is that man aware of it?

The second act does not take place in front of the majority of choir members. It happens off stage in the committee room. We must have all been here. Our dream project is stymied by a grey wall of men in suits. Seemingly a series of Len’s projects have not been ratified by the committee but have gone ahead anyway, some with a significant element of financial risk. He is always one jump ahead. You have to admire the man as well as tear your hair out. We need people like him or it would be  a grey world indeed. When you think about it, the choir is actually full of people like Len, but under control. Our battlefields are elsewhere – we come to choir for a rest and a different sort challenge. But, just below the surface, we’re a batallion of bright and intelligent dreamers and its surprising that many of us have been so passive for so long. We’ve been Len’s men regardless. There was, and is, a lot of respect for his music, his abilities, his stories and his welshness. As the curtain falls on the second act of our tragedy, did he realise that we, the silent majority, were all onside?

It had to stop, of course, and last week it did. In the final act of our tragedy, Len resigns, following a vote of no confidence by the rank and file. It started innocently enough, though some seeds had been sewn. ‘Why are we singing at that opera do?’ ‘It hasn’t been passed by the committee you know.’  A different piano accompanist comes to the next practice.

‘Lets do the Nabucco, ready for Friday,’ suggests Len.

‘Oh, what’s happening Friday?’

‘It’s been on the board for weeks.’

‘But it’s not an official choir concert, Len.’  Len is aroused.

‘How many are coming.’ he demands, exasperated. Eight hands are counted.

‘That’s it then, the job’s gone. I’ll have to get some other singers in.’

‘But you knew the numbers would be small; there’s a list.’

‘I thought I could have relied on you. You’ve let me down.’

As a number of people speak at once, he rounds on us, like a cornered animal.

‘I only want those who are singing Friday.’ The left overs are dismissed. Some go home; some hang around for a drink.  The following day, twenty sign a petition and an Extraordinary General Meeting is convened and the rest is history.

That moment of dismissal, as the Greeks say, was ‘hamartia’, the false step. Right there, right in that moment, he lost what good will he had left. His beef was with the committee, but he took it out on us. A politician he isn’t.

Tragedy is a classic dramatic genre. Originally from ancient Greece, it was  revived in Elizabethan times, notably by Shakespeare. Now it has been brought right up to date, here in The Holme Valley. Or rather, an episode of real life has had the hallmarks of a good old Greek tragedy.

The great tragic parts, for example, Oedipus and King Lear, are moral and courageous characters – neglectful maybe, but not wicked. Their scripts have a common theme. Within an ordered world, events do not occur by chance. Whilst defying order is a magnificent gesture of the human spirit, it will result in suffering. Overconfidence (‘hubris’) will be punished by downfall (‘nemesis’). How much does Len’s story conform?

It’s certainly not the fickle finger of fate. He’d been working up to this for at least five years. Was he simply neglectful, out of touch with members’ feelings? Or was he ambitious, using the choir to further his own fame and fortune? The real question is ‘Who is Len?’ – few of us know him well. Bald and portly, he is an unlikely looking vehicle for conflicting and tempestuous behaviour. Being an operatic tenor from North Wales might explain the passion and the pride. He’s sung with many opera stars in many far-flung places, so he’s streetwise. Then there’s the supportive and encouraging teacher and parent. Does this describe a man who cuts his own nose off to spite his face? The choir was his project, and he is one of the few founder members that remain. What do founders think and feel about their projects?  Ownership and jealousy are a powerful twosome. But where does the brittleness come from? His musical credentials are impeccable, so why the anger and insecurity? Endings are sad events whatever. The fall of the great man, the collapse of a dream, the ruin of ten years work should therefore be mightily saddening. Yet it doesn’t appear to be. Len’s ‘hubris’ is still in tact. Is he really Walter Mitty, not King Lear?

We, the ordinary members, will never know. We, on the face of it, are more sickened and saddened than he.Tragic drama, as an imitation of an action, is intended to provoke pity and sadness in the audience and thereby foster cartharsis, a dissolution of fear. We singers have been both the audience and the cast, watchers and actors. It was, after all, our vote of no confidence that lead to his resignation. I, for one, have prized Len’s outrageousness, recognising his professional expertise and his leading from the front. I have sometimes struggled to follow because I wasn’t sure of the route. The beacon shone at times, but at other times, it was obscured, often when the terrain was at its most arduous.  I’m part way there, because of the blokes who sit on either side of me. When I slip they support me and when I fall they help me up. It’s that rich culture that has been betrayed. We feel let down too, sickened by the causal events and our inevitable reaction.

I suspect and hope that we are also saddened. Saddened by both his and our loss. Midlife is a wonderful and cruel time. Many of us have had to adjust massively, following  events that seemed beyond our control. Yet most of us will admit we had a hand in our own misfortune. We had our privacy, our intimates and we survived, the better for our experiences. Len’s demise is very public. There’s a lot of vulnerability here as any football manager would attest, particularly if you’ve assembled the players, trained them and got them into the league. I’m not sure how I would cope.

Football managers and musical directors seem to tolerate reversal as part of their lot, soon bouncing back somewhere else. Maybe this is the part of Len’s story that is missing for me – his history of resilience in adversity. Maybe this has all happened before and he was prepared for it to happen again. His closeness and commitment to the project were tempered by a remoteness from the people. I don’t know, but maybe being out of touch protected him from the mutiny he knew somehow would happen. He forsaw the end and was ready.

You have to ask the question, like all the great mavericks, what else has he got up his sleeve?

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