Saturday, October 28, 2006

Trezise Can You Spare a Dime?

Well done to Rachel Trezise for scooping the inaugral Dylan Thomas Prize and the 60,000 smackers that go with it.

It's great that a writer as naturally gifted as her has achieved this success. That she also comes from the Rhondda and writes about the area and its people is a bonus.

Hopefully she's going to enjoy the experience of being in the media spotlight and can come up with a good answer to the inevitable question: so what are you going to spend your money on then?

Her winning collection of short stories Fresh Apples is well worth getting hold of, as is her debut novella the equally excellent In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl.

Cardiff After Dark

Last year marked Cardiff's centenary as a city. You'd never have noticed - Cardiff doesn't really do a reverence for the past. A couple of photobooks were published to commemorate the event but in all honesty they were disappointing. Lots of pictures of shiny new buildings and some politically correct portraits of carefully selected citizens. More like tourist brochures than a true representation of the Welsh capital city.

What they lacked was any sign of people interacting with each other and their environment. You couldn't accuse Maciej Dakowicz's subjects of not interacting with their environment - they're too busy urinating on it; throwing up over it; and crawling along it on hands and knees. But they are also kissing, laughing and loving there too. In short, there is life in his pictures.

Ten years ago if you'd wanted to photograph Cardiff you probably would have opted for black and white shots - gone for that gritty urban realist look. Dakowicz's realism is altogether more colourful and exuberant; spontaneity and drama the hallmarks of his shoot from the hip style.

There are other interesting features. Check out the way he uses artificial lighting in his night time scenes - his subjects illuminated by mobile phones, neon signs, club doorways. Another familiar Dakowicz motif is the way he wittily incorporates advertising into his photographs. The result: Cardiff perfectly captured in all its glitzy, vulgar postmodernity.

Of course people have been snogging and eating chips in South Wales since time immemorial. But the Polish lensman has arrived in Cardiff at a fascinating time in its history. After decades of decline the city is going through a phenomenal rate of growth and Dakowicz has plugged right into this boomtown energy. I have no doubt at all when future editors are putting together photobooks to define 'Devolution Cardiff' it is Maciej Dakowicz's work they will be using to represent the era.

Dakowicz's photographs can be found at photobase and flickr. As well as his Welsh pictures check out his Indian, Asian and Polish shots too - you'll enjoy them.

* Special thanks to Maciej for allowing me permission to use the above photograph.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Ponty's Mod Boutique

Any Valleys faces ever frequent In Gear, the Pontypridd mod boutique? Maybe you purchased your mohair suits and Gangster jackets from there. This newspaper advert is from 1967.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Back to the Badlands

In 1989 John Williams toured the badlands of America seeking out its crime writers. Amongst those he tracked down were Carl Hiaasen, James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard, Sara Paretsky, George V Higgins, Eugene Izzi and James Lee Burke. For him these were the true chroniclers of American life, unafraid to tackle issues like crime, poverty and race - issues ducked by more "literary" authors in an era of political conservatism.

Staying in the kind of lowlife motels that featured in the works of his heroes and immersing himself in the seedy locales that inspired their fiction, he wrote Into the Badlands, a book that would introduce a new wave of American crime writers to a British audience. What shouldn't be forgotten either is that it is an absolutely cracking piece of travel writing.

Fifteen years on, after a massive boom in the genre, Williams has gone Back to the Badlands to interview some of the writers he missed first time around and to gauge whether the heartbeat of American life can still be most keenly felt through the pages of its crime fiction.

Back to the Badlands is in two parts: Part 1 consists of 5 chapters taken from Into the Badlands (basically interviews with Hiaasen, Burke, Ellroy, Crumley and Leonard); whilst Part 2 features 5 additional writers.

So which new authors made it into Williams updated book? First up, a ride around Washington DC in George P Pelecanos' Infiniti G 35; then it's skydiving (well almost) with Vicki Hendricks in Florida; a tour of SoCal surf spots with Kem Nunn; on the campaign trail with Kinky Friedman in Austin, Texas; and finally a refreshing swim with Daniel Woodrell deep in the Ozarks. Which, all things considered, is a pretty cool way to spend a month of one's life.

The new chapters follow the same winning formula: Williams books into a downbeat motel, hits the streets checking out local record shops, diners, and bars - then goes and interviews an interesting writer. Essentially you get two perspectives of a given place - Williams' own outsider observations followed by the author's insider knowledge. Of course, you also get plenty of fascinating biographical information about the authors themselves and why they do what they do.

General differences between the 1989 chapters and the 2006? I'd say, inevitably, the new stuff is more reflective, less earnest, than the earlier interviews. Williams seems to be having a lot more fun this time around. He's (slightly) less of a fan boy and, as a respected writer/editor himself, maybe meeting his interviewees on more equal terms. Which is all a long-winded way of saying he's older now.

Things I especially like about the book are the humour; its spirit of adventure; Williams' obvious love for American pop culture; and his er, anorak knowledge of music (Jandek anyone?) and crime fiction. Perhaps the best recommendation I can give is that after reading Back to the Badlands you end up with a list of books you simply have to get your hands on. But do yourself a favour - get your hands on this one first.

Back to the Badlands, published by Serpent's Tail, is on sale now. The missing chapters from Into the Badlands can be found on Williams' own website along with a few other interesting bits and pieces.

Friday, October 20, 2006


The aerial shots looked sensational: a pristine coastline gave way to a cityscape that positively shimmered in the sunlight. Wouldn't mind living there I thought to myself, before realising I actually do live there and that place up on screen is Cardiff. It could have been Miami.

This was the premiere of Torchwood, the new Dr Who spin-off set in the Welsh capital. At the St David's Hotel a specially invited audience was being treated to a sneak preview of Russell T Davies' latest TV enterprise. No, I don't know why they invited me either...

What I can tell you is episode one of Torchwood is a visual delight. Cardiff as a backdrop scrubs up splendidly alternating between futuristic and gritty urban. Sci-fi buffs will be more than happy with the alien count as well as all the gadgetry on show, but this is no geek-fest. There is enough humour, sexiness and relationship development to keep the rest of us entertained too.

The press conference that followed was interesting. The tabloids, out in force, had one major preoccupation: sex. Do any of the characters snog an alien? Are there any nude scenes? The Welsh media predictably was more apprehensive - will the English like it?

Russell T Davies reassured the locals - if it's well-written people will watch it wherever it's set. Cardiff is buzzing right now, one of the fastest growing cities in Europe. We wanted to tap into that energy source. No, there isn't any nudity.

The cast took questions. There's sexual chemistry between all of the characters said the lovely Eve Myles. I've recently moved to Cardiff said John Barrowman, who plays Captain Jack. They were charming and eager to please but you could detect a hint of nervousness too. This is that gut-wrenching time before a programme's first airing when everybody is wondering whether the show will take off into TV heaven or nosedive into obscurity.

For what it's worth I thoroughly enjoyed it. As well as its cinematic eye for landscape it managed to create tense and claustrophobic situations reminiscent of the best of Davies' early Manchester-based work. Will it be a hit? That remains to be seen but, slickly written, and looking fantastic it has every chance of capturing the X-Files audience that it is clearly aimed at.

And then it was time to hit the after show party. Celebrities in abundance. Billie Piper leaning against the bar - for the record there's absolutely nothing going on between us. Hotel staff handed out free booze all evening - I've never seen so much. I drank most of it. And then out into the night with a lingering sense that beneath the luxurious facade of Cardiff Bay something darker and altogether more sinister might be lurking.

Torchwood will be shown on BBC Three at 9pm, Sunday October 22. It will be repeated on BBC Two at 9pm on Wednesday, October 25. If you can't wait that long check out the official Torchwood website.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Franco's Welsh Postage Stamp

Here's a cultural curiosity that'll make your average Welsh philatelist go weak at the knees.

In 1971, with General Franco still at the helm, Spain issued a postage stamp featuring St David's Cathedral. The blue, 3 pesetas, horizontal stamp clearly shows one of Wales' best known landmarks. So what was a Spanish fascist regime doing issuing stamps with Welsh buildings on?

Well, 1971 marked the Holy Year of Compestela, a celebration of Santiago de Compestela, a cathedral in northern Spain. The bones of Saint James are supposed to be buried there so it has always been something of a magnet for pilgrims. In the Middle-Ages many of these pilgrimages started out from St David's in Dyfed and when they reached Santiago de Compestela it is said the pilgrims sang in front of the altar to the accompaniment of the Welsh harp.

The stamp commemorates the link. So now you know.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Panama Al Brown: Friend of Wales

Whatever happened to Panama Al Brown's silver-plated miner's lamp? I often wonder...

For the uninitiated Panama Al Brown is a boxing legend, the first ever Latin American World Champion. The "elongated Panamanian" (he stood 5'11" but weighed a mere 126 lbs) reigned as Bantamweight World Champion from 1929-1935. He was a cultured fellow and like many other black icons of the era made his home in racially-tolerant Paris. For a short spell he was even managed by Jean Cocteau.

In 1931 Wales was the only country in the British Isles that didn't operate an official boxing colour bar. This prompted Panama Al to cross the Channel to fight our very own Ginger Jones of Ammanford. The scrap would take place at Mountain Ash.

To everyone's astonishment Panama Al Brown arrived in Cardiff in September 1931 and was put up at Barry's Hotel on St Mary Street. So iconic was the hispanic fighter he was met by a deputation of black men and women from Butetown (Tiger Bay) who welcomed him to Wales. Brown set up his training camp at the Singleton Club in Cardiff.

The Panamanian was popular with the Welsh public who were amazed such a pugilistic legend had actually come to Wales. It also helped that he was a nice fella. Taking time out from training he handed out championship certificates in Tonypandy; visited sick children at Cardiff Royal Infirmary; and attended a boxing tournament at Ammanford.

The fight itself at The Pavilion, Mountain Ash, proved to be a one-sided affair with Brown predictably dispatching the plucky Welshman with a left-hook to the solar-plexus in round 9. However, before the fight itself the crowd had sung him the Welsh national anthem, Swanee River and For he's a Jolly Good Fellow. Brown was apparently so moved by the gesture he agreed to box an exhibition bout in Cardiff for free a few days later.

He honoured this promise at the Drill Hall, Cardiff, where he sparred with 3 different boxers in front of 2,000 people. £200 was raised for the Caerphilly Catholic building fund. He stayed a few more nights in Wales attending various dinners in his honour.

At one such dinner in Porth he was given a silver-plated miner's lamp which he declared to be better than any purse he had ever been paid. "I did not come here for this," he said, " but when I have given up boxing for good I shall be proud to think that a nation that is not my own should have given it me for such a slight service as I have been able to render. I sincerely hope that the day is not far distant when I can again do something to show you how much I appreciate the hospitality of the people of Wales."

Before he left he promised to come back the following year to fight the best featherweight in Europe for free. In 1932 he duly returned to Cardiff where he fought and beat Italian champion Luigi Quadrini at Ninian Park. 4,000 punters watched the fight in the dismal rain with all proceeds going to charity.

So what became of this pugilistic friend of Wales? It's a sad story really. After retiring from the ring Alfonso Teofilo Brown like many other boxers struggled to find an alternative career. For a while he fronted an orchestra on the French Riviera before eventually moving to the United States. While in America he became a cocaine addict and a down and out. He was deported to Panama for a year for cocaine use before returning once again to America. In 1951 he died in New York City of tuberculosis. Although initially buried in NY his body was later disinterred and reburied at the Amador Guerrero Cemetery in Panama City, Panama.

Sadly, as far as I'm aware, the only biography of the great man in existence is Panama Al Brown: 1902-1951 by the Spanish artist Eduardo Arroyo which has yet to be translated into English (or Welsh).

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Dalek Nation

My collection of other people's birth certificates seems to be getting out of hand. Only yesterday I picked up Dalek-creator Terry Nation's for a mere £7 (see pic detail). Whovians will be intrigued to learn that Nation's dad was an upholsterer. Maybe that's why Daleks have castors.

Daleks were essentially born out of Nation's childhood fear of the Nazis. From his parents' house in Fairwater Grove West in Llandaff he heard the Luftwaffe regularly bombing Cardiff docks. A stray bomb even destroyed part of nearby Llandaff Cathedral.

Nation came up with the Dalek concept back in 1963. More recently his 'tinpot Nazis' have returned to our screens in Russell T Davies' enjoyable Dr Who revamp. A whole new generation of frightened kids have been sent scurrying behind their sofas for safety. Another upholstery link for you there.

Terry Nation died in Los Angeles in 1997.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Shirley Bassey and her Dog

Amazing what you find when rummaging through old boxes in charity shops. Like this photograph of Shirley Bassey arriving at court with her dog in 1959. The caption on the back reads: "Mr David Gilmour, Miss Shirley Bassey's Private Secretary, appeared at Bow Street Court today on a charge of receiving some of the property that was stolen from her flat." Cool.