Thursday, January 25, 2007

Ground Control to Dr Llewellyn

If there had been a prize for the hippest Welsh person of 1967 then surely it would have gone to Dr John Anthony Llewellyn (see pic). Llewellyn (Tony to his friends) was an astronaut in an era when the race to the moon was at its most intense and glamorous.

Originally from Cardiff, where he gained a doctorate in chemistry, Llewellyn moved to the US in 1960 to teach astronautics at Florida State University. In 1967 he joined NASA's astronaut training programme in Houston, Texas.

When he wasn't practising lunar landings Llewellyn enjoyed scuba diving, motor boating and driving around in a sports car. The prospect of venturing into outer space didn't faze him one bit - he thought it would be like driving through New York traffic during the lunch hour.

Mysteriously though the Welsh astronaut dropped out of the space programme after 13 months citing "personal reasons". Llewellyn was married to a Welsh woman (Valerie Davies-Jones) and they had 3 small children - perhaps this had some bearing on his decision. Within a year Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had landed on the moon.

It's highly unlikely the silver-haired Welsh astronaut would have been involved in that first moon landing. He was part of an intake of astronauts that would go on to pioneer the Space Shuttle in the early 80s. As for Llewellyn himself he went back to an academic career and disappeared off our cultural radar altogether.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Lewis Lewis

Welsh Jazz Age adverts - how marvellous! This newspaper ad (circa 1929) is for Tricoline and Hopsack coats at Lewis Lewis, a department store in Swansea.

Monday, January 22, 2007

A Clockwork Orange

Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange had its cinema release in 1971. In 1973 Kubrick withdrew the film from distribution in Britain after it inspired a spate of violent attacks by youths. At Ninian Park, Cardiff, some football hooligans could be seen dressed up like Alex and his droogs.

The British public wouldn't see the film again until Kubrick died in 1999. The curious had to make do with low quality pirated videos or (as in my case) nipping over to Paris to watch it in the cinema where it was permanently on show.

The film of course is based upon Anthony Burgess' book of the same name published in 1962. It's worth noting the Welsh influence upon the novel. Burgess had married Llewela Jones from Bedwellty in 1942. In that same year she was violently assaulted by a gang of American GIs and suffered a miscarriage. This episode is said to have directly inspired the violence in A Clockwork Orange, in particular, the shocking scene in which Mrs Walker is raped.

Burgess was also a polyglot with a basic grasp of the Welsh language. The term 'droog' comes from the Welsh word drwg (pronounced droog) which means 'bad', 'naughty' or 'evil'. Burgess would certainly have been familiar with the word. Burgess' wife Llewela was a bit drwg herself - she became an alcoholic and regularly slept around. Burgess often came home to find her blotto on the sofa with the likes of Dylan Thomas and other members of the literati.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Was Freddie Welsh the Great Gatsby?

Was the inspiration for The Great Gatsby really a boxer from Pontypridd? That's the fascinating theory posited by Andrew Gallimore in Occupation Prizefighter: The Freddie Welsh Story.

Gallimore's biography of Wales' first boxing world champion is a terrific read with the author unearthing many new facts about the enigmatic pugilist. We learn of his essentially middle-class upbringing; his precarious life as a hobo in north America; and his arduous struggle to become lightweight champion of the world.

All the great scraps are covered in detail: his win over Abe Attell; his infamous domestic dust-up with Peerless Jim Driscoll; the world title triumph over Willie Ritchie; battles with Ad Wolgast; and ultimate defeat to the great Benny Leonard.

We see Welsh changing his name, reinventing himself as an intellectual boxer who enjoyed reading Ibsen and Maeterlinck. We learn of his idiosyncrasies - his vegetarianism and friendship with an alternative lifestyle guru. But most of all we see him win fame through sheer hard work and strength of will.

When Welsh loses his world title we observe the flip side. The rapid disappearance of glamorous acquaintances. The painful slide back to obscurity and poverty. And tragically for Welsh, death in a squalid hotel room in Hell's Kitchen. Welsh's story is, of course, the classic pursuit of the American Dream and what happens when it all turns sour.

But what of the link between Welsh and The Great Gatsby?

F Scott Fitzgerald certainly met Freddie Welsh and is said to have sparred with him for 3 rounds. They also had a mutual friend in the writer Ring Lardner. There are superficial similarities between Welsh and the character of Jay Gatsby in Fitzgerald's most celebrated novel - both are sportsmen; both changed their names and reinvented themselves; both rose from nowhere to become wealthy; both lived on Long Island in luxurious properties; both had intellectual pretensions; and both had extensive libraries.

The clincher for Gallimore though concerns an auto crash Welsh suffered in 1924. The person he exchanged details with was one Myrtle Wilson. If you've read The Great Gatsby (1925) you'll know the denouement features a car crash in which a certain Myrtle Wilson is killed. It's intriguing stuff.

Gallimore's exhaustively researched biography is the first proper account of a teenager who left Pontypridd and conquered the fistic world. In a career largely conducted in America - where historically British fighters have proved notoriously fallible - Welsh beat every major Stateside challenger on his journey to the top. You'd be hard pushed to find a British boxer who has been more successful in Uncle Sam's backyard. Occupation Prizefighter tells the full story for the first time and whether you're a fight fan or just interested in the Jazz Age you'll enjoy this book.

Occupation Prizefighter: The Freddie Welsh Story by Andrew Gallimore is published by Seren.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Candylion - Gruff Rhys

Candylion, the latest musical offering from Gruff Rhys, is a joyous celebration of hybridity and cultural cross-pollination.

A female voice starts things off by intoning This is Just The Beginning. It's the kind of intro that Italo Calvino would have been proud of.

Candylion is the first tune proper and the album's keynote song. Rhys trys out various odd juxtapositions: penguin and carnation, lemon and dalmation but it's candy and lion he likes best. Playful and melodious Candylion puts you firmly in touch with your inner child.

The combination of the ancient and the technological is a bit of a Gruff Rhys lyrical trademark so it's no surprise to hear references to mythology and magnetometers in The Court of King Arthur. And it's always nice to hear songs about archaeology.

Next up is Lonesome Words the most elegaic track on the album. It has a brooding Spaghetti Western feel and a great string arrangement. Cycle of Violence introduces the album's salient philosophical theme: that harmony and tolerance are better than strife.

Painting People Blue is a psychedelic/jazz hybrid that references Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. Beacon in the Darkness has lots of lovely harmonies and at some point morphs into a country and western song without you noticing.

Con Carino is in Patagonian Spanish which I don't speak but as we all know music is an international language so I'll translate for you anyway: it's lovely. Rhys and a female vocalist croon at each other across a Velvet Underground backdrop.

The current single is Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru (Drive Drive Drive) which is, oddly enough, a driving song. Not any old driving song mind but one with the hood pulled down and what sounds like the whole of Rio de Janeiro breezing by. If God really existed this would be at Number 1 in the hit parade.

Now That the Feeling Has Gone is reminiscent of early Super Furry Animals psychedelia with some Girl from Ipanema jazz drumming mixed in. As for Ffrwydriad yn y Ffurfafen (Explosion in the Sky) it's an insidious Welsh-language cosmic delight.

If you happen to be searching for the perfect expression of the Welsh post-modern (and let's be honest who isn't?) then look no further than the concluding track Skylon! This 14 minute lyrical masterpiece is set on an aeroplane and taps into hijack-neurosis and celebrity culture. It's a perfect summation of the album: playful, absurd, experimental and post-modern (there's a 3 point deconstruction of the narrative in the middle of this song!). And once again it is a plea for tolerance or as Gruff Rhys himself would say: "now we're in this shit together... let's let each other live."

Candylion, available on Rough Trade, is on sale now.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Great Balls of Fire

The only thing I find more interesting than reading about old Welsh gigs is reading about old Welsh gigs that never actually happened. Yes, I know, it's a character flaw.

Like for instance when Jerry Lee Lewis first came to Britain in May 1958. A tour had been arranged and Cardiff was on the itinerary - two shows lined up at the Capitol Theatre. Tickets went on sale and adverts (see pic) were printed. Youthful rock'n'rollers at last had the chance to see in person "the dynamic young American star".

Teddy boys and teddy girls from all over South Wales were in a state of heightened excitement. They'd already heard his incredible record Great Balls of Fire on the wireless; and seen him attacking his piano in a recent film.

And then the shit hit the fan. Jerry had just got married again. To a 13-year-old girl. She was his cousin. He hadn't yet actually got divorced from his previous wife. The British press went ballistic.

Morally outraged the Rank organisation quickly pulled the plug on his tour including the Cardiff gig. Thus the Welsh public were denied seeing the planet's most visceral, demonic, musical phenomenon performing live in his absolute prime. A genuine cultural tragedy.

Of course he's been back to play in Wales since but it's not quite the same is it? It's not the real badass 23-year-old Jerry Lee up there, not the devil personified, not The Killer! So it's his phantom gig at the Capitol Theatre that I prefer to remember.

*Rather curiously Jerry Lee's sister Linda Gail Lewis used to live in Penarth. Check out her book The Devil, Me and Jerry Lee for a good insight into her relationship with the rock'n'roll legend.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Death of Dorothy Edwards

Today is the 73rd anniversary of the horrific suicide of Dorothy Edwards. Edwards was a young and gifted Welsh writer whose only two books Rhapsody (1927) and Winter Sonata (1928) were critically acclaimed upon publication. My 1986 Virago reprints are falling to pieces I've read them so many times.

Her prose, measured, precise, almost minimalist, is beautifully crafted. Beyond playing musical instruments her characters rarely engage in strenuous physical activity. Their feelings too are always kept firmly in check. Beneath the calm surface you feel an explosion of emotion will occur at any moment but it never does.

These claustrophobic stories often take place in country houses and there is usually a musical theme. Her writing owes much to nineteenth century Russian fiction, particularly Chekhov, Turgenev and Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata.

Given the perfect restraint of her fiction her violent suicide is all the more shocking. On January 6, 1934, she threw herself under a train near Caerphilly. The following morning her mutilated remains were discovered between the rails. Protruding from her pocket was a suicide note. It read: "I am killing myself because I have never sincerely loved any human being. All my life I have accepted kindness and friendship, and even love, without gratitude and given nothing in return."

Her battered corpse was fully clothed except for an absence of footwear - no trace of her shoes was ever found. An inquest into her death held at Caerphilly delivered the verdict of: suicide during temporary insanity.

It seems rather odd that she travelled all the way to Caerphilly to kill herself. After all, her home at Pen-y-Dre, Rhiwbina, is situated right next to a railway line. Edwards shared a house there with her mother. It's possible that she didn't want to exacerbate her mother's grief by doing the deed on their own doorstep.

Legend has it she was in love with a married man, a cellist in a Welsh orchestra. Unfortunately he was unwilling to leave his wife. It has been suggested the affair distressed her so deeply it led directly to her self-inflicted death. This theory though seems to contradict the sentiments expressed in her suicide note.

On the day of her death she spent the afternoon in her garden burning letters and personal papers, so we'll never be absolutely certain why she killed herself. She then walked over Rhiwbina Hill, called in on some friends, before departing for Caerphilly.

Dorothy Edwards' body was cremated at Glyn Taff, Pontypridd.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Mahala, Maureen and Louis Armstrong

This is a great picture. I found it in an old and long-since defunct newspaper from 1957. The photograph shows two Cardiff nightclub singers Mahala Davis and Maureen Jemmett with none other than Louis Armstrong. I reckon it must have been taken in May 1956 when Armstrong and his All Stars were on tour in London.

The newspaper story is basically a standard Welsh-person-doing-well-in-London showbiz piece. Mahala (left) had apparently sung a blues number The Hip Shaking Mama on a New Year's Eve TV show and previously appeared in a TV production entitled The Georgia Story.

In Neil Sinclair's invaluable book Endangered Tiger the author suggests Mahala and Maureen were resident in the Westbourne Park area of London at about this time along with other Cardiff exiles. He even talks about bumping into Maureen Jemmett in a West End jazz club.

As well as Mahala Davis and Maureen Jemmett, Sinclair namechecks other 1950s Cardiff vocalists: Rohima Ali, Patti Flynn, Lorne Lesley, Rosie Roberts, Selina Duncan and Shirley Bassey of course.

This is fascinating because these girls represent a veritable wave of young, black, Welsh, female talent, trying to break into the world of showbiz in the Fifties. This phenomenon is sorely underwritten in the history of Welsh (and indeed British) pop culture.

Anyway, here's to those forgotten singers and Happy New Year.