Wednesday, 6 January 2010

The kings of the underworld

Spell-binding excerpt from an interview with Richard Burton where he talks about mining. Some wonderful lines. It's a reminder of why coal miners were held in such esteem - not to say awe - back in the day.

I'm sure he's being straight when he talks about the attractions mining had to his family and his schoolboy peers - appealing to an idea of machismo.

My family, however, were rather more circumspect. 'Being sent down the mine' was held out as a horrible fate, one that was made flesh when we used to visit my Uncle Horace whose silicosis - a lung disease caused by rock dust inhaled down the mine - meant he couldn't move far from his armchair and oxygen cylinders. I can still hear his awful, rattling wheeze. And I suppose the familial desire to 'get on', to avoid any chance of ending up down the mine, eventually resulted in my growing up in Gloucestershire rather than the Taff Valley.

The film is also a reminder of what a wonderful talker Richard Burton was, what terrific charisma he possessed. His death in 1984, four years after this interview, was the only one outside the family to have traumatised our household. He really was a hero to my Dad's generation. Perhaps though not so much to the one before: Taid and his brother, my Uncle Elis, thought him a self-romanticising show-off. Of course, both views were correct.

In any event, he seems pretty stupendous to me. He had everything. People are aware of his voice, his acting, his sexual success. But Neville Coghill, the don who was his Oxford tutor, reckoned he'd taught only two students of genius: WH Auden and Burton. He also played first class rugby for Aberavon when not much older than a schoolboy and was reckoned by some - including Bleddyn Williams, reputedly - to have been good enough to have one day played for Wales.

So much for the good fairies. Unfortunately, the bad fairy also gave him a susceptibility to alcoholism, like his father. Burton was only 58 when he died: we might have expected much more from him. His O'Brien in 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' could have been the start of a brilliant late-flowering.

I've discovered the full interview here (it's inset a little over half way down the article). Also the Melvyn Bragg biography 'Rich' is a good, romantic read. It's for sale for 1p on Amazon - plus p&p of £2.75!


worm said...

"I'm sure he's being straight when he talks about the attractions mining had to his family and his schoolboy peers - appealing to an idea of machismo."

that machismo is obviously a deep rooted thing in the welsh valleys as they currently have a totally out of control steroid problem

Sophie King said...

Mesmerising - what a voice. I first heard the Burton recording of Under Milk Wood when I was in my early teens and became hooked. Then, in 1978 he came to film one of his execrable later movies, Absolution, just up the road from my parents' house. Unbelievable excitement when my parents confessed that Burton had offered to rent our house with his then wife, Suzy, for the duration of the filming, while we received a large sum of money to go elsewhere. My parents declined on a number of grounds, muttering about damage, inconvenience etc. Swallowing our disappointment, my brothers and I went to watch a bit of the filming at Ellesmere College. Although the voice was absolutely intact, I was horrified by Burton's appearance - shrivelled and old-looking, not how I had imagined him at all. His wife, however, was clad as a Burton wife should be: a floor-length fur coat and diamonds.

malty said...

Nothing gives the male vocal chords more knicker removing power than lubrication with one litre of vodka, pre breakfast.
Burtons downfall was Liz Taylor. the most voracious feline on the planet, and when on form in the right vehicle, one of the better Hollywood actresses. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf was merely an excerpt from their daily life.

Hope that I got most of the spelling right, apparently Margaret Rutherford's watching.

Sean said...

I know exactly what you (and Burton) mean, when I was a kid I was very aware of the miner/steelworker rivalry. Who was the better engineers, who moved more ore or produced more tonnes.

I just carried playing with my Tonka toys until I got my chance.

These days when the family get together the inital "Man"talk is produced by SatNavs, how long did it take, which route is best at which time of day, how I shaved 3 mins of the inital satnav route calculation ect.ect.

Burton to me always seemed a bit lost in the movies, as if he was too good of them. Patrick Stewart is a lot the same, just mailing in the JM Picard role for the money and struggling to find something really meaty to have a go at.

Anonymous said...

Eddie Francis, formerly from South Wales, is 90 years old this year. He went down the mine in 1934 at the age of 14. He was a 'miner's boy' and spent much of the time running and crawling between the coal face and the surface on errands. As soon as he was old enough, at the age of 18, he joined the army. Eddie was sent to India with the army in 1938 and from there to Iraq, where he dug tank traps. War came and Eddie spent the entire time away from South Wales. He was at Tobruk, injured and evacuated to Cyprus, and eventually fought his way up the Appenines.

From all that experience the most frightening event Eddie witnessed was a collapsing coal face. Apparently being holed up in an Italian farmhouse whilst being shelled by the Wehrmacht was a walk in the park in comparison. His seargeant major became shell shocked as a result.

When Eddie speaks of the war there is a twinkle in his eye; he saw the world and escaped from South Wales. Whereas he hated his four years in the mine.

Richard Burton is talking about himself and his own self-perception, not about coal mining or even his father.

Gaw said...

Worm: I can imagine body building is popular now. An example of Weberian sublimation, no doubt. (How's that for Pseud's Corner?)

Sophie: He was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and kidneys in 1981; presumably the physical deterioration had become well entrenched by 1978. Great story. But what a near-miss disappointment!

Malty: Apparently he'd smoked two to three packs of fags a day from the age of eight (bull?): bound to give the vocal chords a bit of gravel. (In fact, I believe Rod Stewart started smoking so he could sound like a bluesman.)

Margaret Rutherford? I've never been so flattered.

Sean: Good point about Burton and Stewart. They somehow seem too big for the small screen. Perhaps it's the voice.

Nonie Mouse: Thanks for the great story. I'm not sure Burton was bulling totally. There were some who felt proud of being a miner and feeling proud provides some form of enjoyment.