The Shoals of Herring - Ewan MacColl / Una Furtiva Lagrima - Enrico Caruso
If there is one person who I could meet again from my rugby days, it would be Chris Mager. And some time during the evening I'd get him to sing "The Shoals of Herring". Mager was a centre back, a very good one at club level, a leader - often the first team captain, a great drinker of beer, a classic "lovable rogue" and most of all, a beautiful, powerful singer, around 90% heart.
This was his tour de force, the clubhouse in the middle of a raucous evening of singing and games, would go so quiet that you could have heard a stray hair falling through the air, and he'd sing this. And woe betide anyone who tried to join in.
MacColl's poetry is fine and bright as heading out to sea on a calm and sunny day:
With our nets and gear we're faring on the wild and wasteful ocean. its there on the deep that we harvest and reap our bread as we hunt the bonny shoals of herring.........
....and I used to sleep standing on me feet and I'd dream about the shoals of herring
well we left the homegrounds in the month of June and to Canny Shiels we soon was bearing with a hundred cran of the silver darlings that we'd taken from the shoals of herring....
....from the Dover Straits to the Faroe Islands
while you're following the shoals of Herring.
Well I earned my keep and I paid my way and I earned the gear that I was wearing sailed a million miles, caught ten million fishes, we was following the shoals of herring.
Chris told me a story of the year he spent playing rugby in Casale Sul Sile, where he lived in a small town about a third of the way down from Treviso to Venice travelling south. This was in the early days of Italian rugby, in the 1970's,Casale were in the 2nd tier, and Mager and his mate Paul Callow were there thanks to a friend, Pete Cunnigton , who was a coach at first division Treviso, just up the road. The three all shared a passion for opera, and Paul was friends with a major tenor of international renown from Finland I think, who's company was touring Italy and performed at the the famous La Fenice Opera House in Venice. They watched the opera and then drove him the twenty minutes to Casale for a meal and drinks in their favourite taverna. After the meal the locals challenged Paul and Chris to a singing competition, and the singing began, each taking turns, before an audience of about a dozen late drinkers. The Italians were good and Chris told me he pulled out his best performance ever of "Shoals of Herring" at around about 2.30 am to beat the Italians at their own game. Then suddenly the tenor stood and said he had to beat that, and besides, he must sing to repay their hospitality. Everyone protested feebly, knowing that touring professional opera singers are not permitted to sing for fun for fear of voice fatigue.
He opened with "Una Furtiva Lagrima" which starts quietly and builds. Chris told me it was then that he realised that opera tenors don't do "quiet". They just can't. To make that noise they have to make that noise.So at 2.30 in the morning the town awoke to a Donizetti aria. It was a weekday, so they could have been annoyed. But this was Italy. Grannies came out in their nightgowns, old men with sleeping caps in wheelchairs, mothers breast feeding babies, husbands in their underpants and string vests, urchins leaning off roofs, little girls on tiptoe at windows, dignitaries and waiters, bankers and roadbuilders, bakers and bus drivers, all forgetting about tomorrow. They wouldn't let him stop and he sang till the sun came up.