Sunday, February 25, 2007

Steel Town

I recently came across this 1952 edition of Picture Post (see pic). Inside is a big feature on the post-war steel boom in Ebbw Vale.

It's a very positive piece although somewhat stereotypical in its choice of photographic subject matter: the noble Welsh worker; the chapel; terraced cottages; brass bands; committees etc.

The aesthetic is somewhere between cosy Wales and Soviet Wales. Everyone is really into the joy of work and much is made of the area's socialist orthodoxy.

When not striking Stakhanov-like poses at the steel furnace the workers are shown enjoying picnics with their families at municipal parks. It's Ebbw Vale as a kind of socialist Eden.

One small nod toward the decadent joys of capitalism though - the Steel Town of the title refers both to Ebbw Vale and a Hollywood film showing in local cinemas at the time.

Ebbw Valians and others of an industrial persuasion can find the Steel Town article in Picture Post Vol 56 No 7, 16th August 1952.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Seven Sleepers Den

One of the albums of last year, said the helpful girl in Spillers Records, which for my money is better than a five star review in Mojo.

And she's right too of course. Released without fanfare last May Richard James' solo debut proved to be a quiet triumph, an understated gem that nevertheless acquired a word of mouth following.

Eschewing meretricious gimmickry for the traditional virtues of fine musicianship and quality song-writing James' The Seven Sleepers Den never dips below absolutely lovely on the lovely-o-meter.

From the melodious My Heart's on Fire to the cathartic Wanna See You Die all emotional bases are covered. It's a slow burner but trust me, this insidious beast will eventually worm its way into your bones.

The people at My Kung Fu are fellow travellers. They'll be re-releasing The Seven Sleepers Den on March 5. So, if you missed it first time around here's the perfect opportunity to redeem your sorry selves.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Reefer Madness

Here's a Reefer Madness-style article from the Cardiff Times published in 1957. It's yet another example of the demonisation of Tiger Bay - a regular occurrence in the 1950s. You get the feeling ex-Detective Superintendent Tom Holdsworth was no Sherlock Holmes either; and that the only dope he regularly came into contact with was that bloke staring back at him in the bathroom mirror every morning:


A 999 call sent police cars racing to a house in Grangetown, Cardiff. Night detective officers found the house a shambles, the walls and floor of the kitchen spattered with blood, and next door three hysterical women - all three had been slashed with a knife.

The coloured man who had wielded the knife sat huddled in the passageway of the house. The women were taken to hospital and it was touch and go whether one would live. She managed to pull through, however, and the coloured man's defence to charges of felonious wounding was that he had been drinking wine all day and had been given a "reefer" cigarette. Under the influence of the drug and alcohol he claimed he did not know what he was doing.

The "reefer" - hashish or marijuana mixed with tobacco and rolled in a cigarette paper - was known to be peddled in Cardiff among Indian seamen before the war. The smoking of the drug, however, was confined to the Indians and seldom used by other foreigners.

With the war-time influx into this country of coloured Servicemen, both American and West Indian, the "reefer" craze grew. Illicit trading in Indian hemp and marijuana became highly profitable and widespread. The smuggling into post-war Britain of hashish and marijuana reached a scale hitherto unknown. We had no opportunity to build up an undercover tip-off system in Cardiff about trafficking in this drug.

The "reefer" craze spread rapidly among the coloured population and white people became addicted as well. Swiftly a network of supply agents had been built up throughout the country. As the demand for the drug grew so the agents took greater risks in smuggling considerable quantities of Indian hemp past Customs and anti-drug police squads.

Supplies of the drug were coming into Cardiff via other seaports - Liverpool, London and Southampton. A tea chest on its way to a house in the docks area was intercepted and found to be half-filled with cups and saucers, the other half held Indian hemp. We occasionally grabbed the small fry - unemployed Jamaican peddlers - from time to time, but never got near the big-time men who distributed the drugs and made a lot of money.

Acting on a tip-off from the City police Customs men at Southampton intercepted a likely agent as he stepped ashore after returning from a voyage to the East. In his sea-bag was a large box of chocolates neatly tied with brilliant ribbons. A customs officer broke the seals, despite many protests. He turned back the fancy wrappings inside and found 2lb of Indian hemp.

Hashish is the prepared drug from the resin from Indian hemp or Cannabis Sativa. Marijuana is really the same drug, but one plant is grown in India and the Far East, the other in South America. The "reefer" addict has no need to prepare the drug. He can smoke the dried plant, provided it's mixed with tobacco. It cannot be smoked on its own.

Even the drug smugglers had their own forms of "spiv trading." One addict was pounced on by detectives in Cardiff's dockland and in his pocket was a parcel of Indian hemp - it resembled dried weeds. Scientific tests, however, showed that the resin had been extracted, his parcel was useless and we could not take action against him, because in that form the hemp was not a dangerous drug. He was furious and told us that he had bought it as genuine Indian hemp. But though he was annoyed at being caught, he refused to say who had sold the useless weed to him. It was obvious that some smart agent had obtained a supply of the de-resinated plant, probably from a manufacturing chemist, and had sold it in 1/4 lb packets at £10 a time.

There were a few white men we suspected of indulging in "reefer" smoking, but we could never prove anything. One of them, however, was brought to justice in a most unusual way. He had been puffing the weed and returned to his council home on the outskirts of the city late at night. He was indulging in one of his favourite pastimes - beating up his wife - when her cries for help were answered by the next door neighbour. Unsuccessful in his attempts to pull the drug-crazed man away from his wife, the neighbour swiftly bent an iron poker on his skull. It was very effective, because when we arrived to collect him he was still unconscious. Doctors at Cardiff Royal Infirmary stitched his head wound and then on examining him, said he was suffering from the effects of hashish. In his pocket we found a packet of Indian hemp, which clinched the issue.

Uniformed policemen attacked by coloured men under the influence of hashish have found them a rare handful. One of the effects of the drug is to make the addict temporarily possessed of enormous strength; they also feel gay, happy and on top of the world.

With constant action by the police and Customs I am glad to say that most of the big drug rings were smashed some years ago. It is still smoked in Cardiff's dockland and there's no doubt that "reefers" are still being peddled around the streets. But compared with the immediate post-war craze the supply of the drug finding its way into the city is a mere trickle.

I am afraid that where West Indians are to be found so also will be found quantities of Indian hemp and the habit of smoking "reefers."

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Jane Russell in Newport

In 1968 entrepreneur Annis Abraham opened Cleopatra's Palace in Newport. It was a restaurant-casino type establishment which put on cabaret acts. Having spent a lot of money on the joint he wanted quality entertainment to match.

Scoring something of showbiz coup he managed to secure the services of Hollywood sex bomb Jane Russell. Yes, she of the most famous cleavage in pop cultural history fame. Incongruous though it might sound the star of The Outlaw and muse of Howard Hughes did seven shows in Newport.

Her act consisted of singing a few standard cabaret numbers - Mack the Knife, When the Saints go Marching In - that kind of stuff. Apparently she didn't have a particularly great voice but it didn't matter, it was her the punters were paying to see.

She mixed a few gags into her act too but nothing risque - there were no references to her famous boobs. In fact by this time in her life (she was 47) she was a dedicated Christian. Back home in California she had even built a family chapel.

Despite her advancing years she still looked good. She was slim, tanned, with her dark brown hair worn short. Her figure was an impressive 37-27-37. In her Hollywood heyday it had famously been 38-24-36.

Russell was certainly no stranger to the work ethic. After each Newport show she sped off to the Webbington Hotel and Country Club near Weston-super-Mare and did a late night concert there. She was reputedly earning £6,000 per week.

At that time she was also picking up a residual income from a film contract she'd signed with Howard Hughes - an arrangement that would continue until 1976. She was getting handsomely paid for films that would never get made.

Jane Russell is still alive today and living in California. She is 85 years old. As far as I'm aware her residency at Cleopatra's Palace was her only visit to Wales.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Runt - Niall Griffiths

The hero of Niall Griffiths' Runt is a savant, an epileptic teenager whose name we never actually learn. Like Dostoyevsky's Prince Myshkin (another epileptic savant) the boy is a force for good. He absorbs rather than passes on pain. He is attuned to the natural world. And he is also a seer.

Sent away from town to escape domestic abuse he takes refuge at his uncle's hill farm. But his is no pastoral idyll. As many monsters are lurking in the countryside as in the town from which he has flown. Imagined monsters like the creature in Lake Bala. Bureaucratic monsters like the MAFF men who shot his aunt's sheep. And Arthur, a red-bearded ogre, for whom violence is a way of life and who wants to kill his dog.

The novel turns on an episode at the exact mid-point of the book when the narrator suffers a grand mal fit. During his seizure, which reads like a cross between the transformational myth of Taliesin and an LSD trip, he cryptically foresees - but doesn't understand - the dramatic events that await him. The novel ends with a fulfilment of this prophecy and a trademark Griffiths Grand Guignol episode of violence.

Having to convey the narrator's innocence the author employs an intentionally naive prose style. Long linked sentences where "and" is used instead of full stops is reminiscent of crudely written stories penned by children but actually has a sophisticated rhythm that is often beguiling. In fact one of the pleasures of Griffiths' work are the many rhapsodic passages which compel you to read them aloud so that the enjoyment becomes physical as well as intellectual.

Another feature of the text is that it is virtually free from worldly or contemporary cultural references. Even the computer in the narrator's bedroom is logged onto a webcam that is permanently pointed at Lake Bala.

Nature as always in Griffiths' writing is a powerful, omnipresent force. And whilst he never romanticises or Disneyfies it he always manages to convey a total sense of awe in it. From the stark grandeur of the mountains to the runt in a litter of kittens we are left marvelling at its brutal beauty.

Runt, published by Jonathan Cape, is on sale now. Griffiths will be reading from his new novel at Clwb Ifor Bach (Womanby Street, Cardiff) on Wednesday 28th February at 7pm. Entry is free.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Yoko Ono's No Show

In the Spring of 1968 there was going to be a "happening" at the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre, Cardiff. Avant-garde artist Yoko Ono (who had been paid 50 guineas) would be there in person to conduct the event. Whatever it might be. Nobody was really sure.

Well over a hundred tickets had been sold and at 7.30pm the mainly art student audience began trickling into the auditorium. Before them was a stage, bare except for a grand piano and a stool. They waited.

At 7.45pm a chauffeur-driven limousine pulled up outside the Theatre. Two men got out and handed an object and a piece of paper to a Mr Keith Richardson Jones who was master of ceremonies. There was no sign of Yoko herself.

Five minutes later Mr Jones appeared on stage. He placed a 2 foot by 2 foot photograph of Miss Ono on the keyboard of the piano and walked off again. The audience murmured and there was some nervous laughter.

Several minutes later Mr Jones reappeared with a typewritten notice from Yoko Ono herself. It said: "fly". The crowd wanted to know what it meant - after all they had forked out 5 shillings for a ticket.

Did it mean she would be flying in later on? Did it mean they should let their imagination fly? Did it mean they should fly off home? Remember, this was 1968. It could be interpreted in whatever way they wished, said Mr Jones. He would be staying there till midnight just in case she showed up.

A chorus of disapproval arose. This "happening" just wasn't happening. They wanted Yoko - the real one - to validate the event. Mr Jones, in a bid to quell the growing discontent offered to reimburse them their 5 shillings. Placated, the materialistic celeb-obsessed students (never trust a hippy by the way) began drifting away.

One malcontent took off his shoe and tossed it onto the stage. A cheer went up. They'd seen through the emperor's new clothes and were off. Some die-hards remained, they hoped the footwear-throwing incident was part of the show and stared intently at the shoe.

At 8pm a handful of people were left. By 8.15pm the Theatre was empty. Only the photograph of Yoko Ono remained. It was a close up of her face - she was laughing.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Pepsi-Cola Addict

If you haven't read The Silent Twins (1986) by Marjorie Wallace then do so - it's excellent. The book tells the true story of June and Jennifer Gibbons, identical twins from Haverfordwest, who ceased speaking to adults and retreated into their own private fantasy world. The girls drifted into petty crime, committed acts of vandalism, and eventually wound up in Broadmoor.

Prior to their incarceration the twins locked themselves in their bedroom and decided to become novelists. Already compulsive diarists they signed up to a postal creative writing course and systematically set about teaching themselves the rules of fiction. In the cramped confines of their room these 17-year-old autodidacts wrote several novels. They were like the Bronte sisters, only black and from Haverfordwest.

Ever since I first heard about their novels (The Pepsi-Cola Addict; The Pugilist and Discomania) they have fascinated me. Unfortunately they are virtually impossible to track down. Over the years I've ransacked second-hand bookshops and charity outlets in search of them but to no avail. Even the internet has drawn a blank - these books are cult-fictional gold-dust.

Last week though I finally managed to get my mitts on The Pepsi-Cola Addict (God bless the inter-library loans system). My joy was tempered somewhat by the condition of the book - it had been rebound with no trace of the original cover. A quick scan of the text revealed a multitude of typographical errors. No matter, in my hands were 129 pages of pure cult-fiction, the creative outpourings of June Alison Gibbons.

The Pepsi-Cola Addict is written in the third person. It tells the story of one Preston Wildey King, a white 14-year-old boy who lives in Malibu, California. He is addicted to Pepsi-Cola but hates Coca-Cola. Eerily foreshadowing the twins' own fate Preston drifts into crime and is detained in a juvenile correctional centre. The novel ends with Preston committing suicide, washing down barbiturates with Pepsi-Cola.

The book is written entirely in American vernacular. Gibbons compiled an anglo-American glossary before commencing the work to aid authenticity. The result though is a heightened artificiality which ultimately works in the novel's favour. The cartoon-like backdrop of her utopian-American construct fits nicely with the hormonal drive of the teen narrative.

The main preoccupation of the book - as you might expect from a 17-year-old author - is sex. Preston has relationship problems. He is estranged from his cheerleader girlfriend Peggy; his best friend Ryan comes onto him; he loses his virginity to his teacher Mrs Rosenberg. Given that the twins had such a narrow range of experience you get the feeling teen magazine problem pages were a valuable reference source. To her credit Gibbons describes episodes of male masturbation, fellatio and sexual intercourse with commendable assurance.

Preston's curious addiction to Pepsi-Cola is never clearly explained. The novel starts with him bulk buying the stuff and fantasising about drinking 300 cans a day. He drinks it for comfort and for energy. Sometimes though he uses it as a substitute for living: At fourteen years old wherever he turned, he somehow failed to develop any sense of adventure and remained statically serene with the drink he called the "high life". You can't help feeling this sense of inertia is entirely biographical.

In fact the personal themes that directly link June Gibbons with Preston are numerous: confinement; introspection; boredom; a desire for escape; sexual frustration; the glamour of transgression. These also happen to be the universal concerns of adolescence.

Despite its warped My Guy sensibility this novel stands up as fiction in its own right. It doesn't, of course, have the complexity and polish of an Absolute Beginners or a Catcher in the Rye but as a glimpse into the psyche of a troubled teen it is pretty unique and more authentic than most. What surprises me is that The Pepsi-Cola Addict and other works by the Gibbons twins haven't been reprinted. Surely these genuine examples of cult fiction deserve a wider readership?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Hastings Banda in North Wales

It's not every day that an African dictator turns up in north Wales but in 1968 that's exactly what happened when Hastings Banda flew into Ynys Môn. The eccentric President of Malawi was in Britain for an official visit and Caernarvon Castle was on his schedule. First though he chilled out at the Bulkeley Arms Hotel in Beaumaris.

The following morning he arrived at Caernarvon Castle immaculately suited, waving a fly switch at local gnats before greeting a small crowd with the Welsh words: bore da (good morning). Banda was taken on an extensive tour of the castle. Afterwards he was presented with a Welsh doll; a Welsh wool blanket with a 2,000 year old Celtic design; and a guide to the ancient monuments of Wales bound in red morocco.

He then went on a mini-sightseeing tour of north Wales. He called in at the Penygwryd Hotel. He drove through Abergelert and Aberglaslyn. He had lunch in Portmeirion with the architect Clough Williams-Ellis. Fully refreshed he enjoyed a trip on the Ffestiniog narrow gauge railway from Minffordd to Tanybwlch. Finally he was regaled by a choir of primary school pupils who sang him Calon Lan and other traditional Welsh songs. Ardderchog (excellent) he said to delighted locals before flying back to London.

Although he declared himself President of Malawi for life in 1971 Banda was largely a benign dictator. He was certainly no Amin or Bokassa, his rule characterised by eccentricity rather than brutality. He did though encourage a personality cult. All buildings had to display a picture of him. In Malawian cinemas footage of Banda was shown before every film and the national anthem sung.

Censorship prevailed. Television was banned as was the song Cecilia by Simon and Garfunkel. Women had to adhere to a strict dress code - they weren't allowed to bare their thighs or wear trousers. Kissing in public was outlawed. Men were forbidden from growing beards. In the 1980s he banned hippies from entering Malawi altogether - long hair and flares being prohibited. Female tourists had to wear skirts that covered their knees.

Banda's bizarre dictatorship came to an end in 1993. He died in 1997. I don't know if the Red Dragon flew at half-mast that day or whether hippies in Wales rejoiced at his passing. The real question is why was the African dictator in north Wales at all in 1968? Retrospectively it appears as though the British establishment was using Banda's visit to Caernarvon Castle as a dry run for the investiture the following year. It is an amusing thought - Hastings Banda as a stand-in Prince of Wales.