Saturday, December 26, 2009


So much great music has come out of Wales this year. In particular there have been some top quality albums: Sibrydion's Campfire Classics; A Balloon Called Moaning by the Joy Formidable; 9Bach by 9Bach; Travels With Myself And Another by the mighty Future of the Left; and Me Oh My by Cate le Bon, to name but several. My absolute favourite track of the year is Chwyrlio, the Joy Formidable's slowed down, Cocteau Twins-esque, Welsh-language version of their single Whirring. Have a listen.

*For a handy guide to the current state of Welsh alternative music (in all its varieties) check out Adam Walton's radio show. In a three hour special he has selected his musical highlights of 2009. And there is some absolutely cracking stuff to enjoy - from Yr Ods to The Irascibles. Click here for the full playlist.

Interview with Niall Griffiths 2004

Today I was trying to decide which is the best Welsh novel (in English) of the last decade. It's tough because after years in the doldrums the Welsh novel has, of late, experienced something of a renaissance. I managed to narrow my list down to 5: Cardiff Dead (2000) by John Williams, mainly because Williams is the writer who kick-started so-called Welsh noir and in the process gave Welsh writing (in English) its credibility back. Sheepshagger (2001) by Niall Griffiths, with its supercharged prose style. Chasm City (2001) by Alastair Reynolds, which won the British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel. More recently we have had the pleasure of Tristan Hughes's eerie Ynys Mon gothic in Revenant (2008); and Joe Dunthorne's uber-cool Submarine (2008). If I had to choose just one, though, as the Welsh Novel of the Decade (in English) I'd probably plump for Sheepshagger. Here's an old interview I did with Niall Griffiths back in 2004:

What is your writing routine?

I get out of bed and go to my desk and pick up my pen and write until I think I should stop. This could be at any point between 2 and 10 hours.

You started writing fiction as a child - what kind of stuff were you producing and what was motivating you to pick up a pen at such a tender age?

I wrote horror novels, alien invasion stuff, mutated rampaging animals, the kind of thing an excitable child from a non-bookish household is likely to write. Why? I don't know; probably as a way of coping with my sense of self emerging into a violent and confusing world. There were no books in my family but there were lots of stories; it was very much an oral culture.

Your debut novel Grits is set in perennially unfashionable west Wales - how did you manage to get a London publisher interested in it?

I think the time was right; London's eyes were looking at the Celtic fringe, as they do from time to time. It's not always about marketability or fashion; if you're lucky, and you find the right editor (or s/he finds you), then it can just be about the writing.

I think of Grits as your drugs and geology novel. Its depiction of drug culture is obviously based upon personal experience - what about the geology?

Difficult to give this a pithy answer; I mean, I wrote a 500 page novel in an attempt to work this question out. But I will say that I'm fascinated in the ways landscapes work on a people, on their social and linguistic habits etc. We are an ancient people in an ancient landscape of lakes and of mountains; a liminal race in a liminal place, and mad, fascinating and seemingly irrational things happen in these breaches between worlds. This question is central to my writing and I'll continue to address it until I die.

How do you approach dialect writing - do you get the story out then go back and translate it into demotic English; or do you have to put the accent directly on the page as you think it, so to speak?

I translate the accents straight onto the page. It's easier that way. Some re-writing is involved, of course, but I just chip away at it until it looks and sounds right.

Sheepshagger is a milestone book in that you have given Welsh writing (in English) its first genuine youthful outsider figure - Ianto. Do you think Welsh literature has suffered in the past from not having its own Holden Caulfield or Alex to appeal to a younger audience?

Well, this assumes that novels can have a huge social impact, and I'm not sure if they can, although I'll go on believing that they can . . . But there are flesh counterparts: Dylan Thomas, of course, Richey Edwards, Robbie Savage, Robbie Earnshaw. We live in a weakened print-conscious age. Could Catcher in the Rye or A Clockwork Orange have the same cultural impact now? I doubt it. The literary establishment appropriates these things anyway and defuses them through monopolisation. I get a wide variety of people at my readings, and I prefer to sign books for people with facial tattoos than cravats. So that readership is there, maybe. . . although I don't want anyone to emulate Ianto. Don't really want him to be a role model. If he, as a character, helps in any way to combat confusion or exacerbate pain then I'm happy.

Invasion neurosis (usually displaced) is a strong theme in Welsh popular culture - rarely though does anyone actually mention the English coming over the border. In Sheepshagger you broke this taboo - why?

'Displaced' is right; 'misguided' could be used too. It's more class-based than nation-based, I feel, and I don't want to augment anyone's sense of indignant victimology (nor, indeed, dissolve it; we all need crutches, don't we?), but I do despair at the Playground Wales mentality that a lot of wealthy English people have. I despair at the smug and soul-less attitude that assumes that everything can be bought, that everyone has a price (these last four words were whispered in my girlfriend's ear by a fat rich southern English businessman in a plush Cardiff hotel. She was wearing a cropped top and it was assumed that she was a hotel whore. When she denied that, the self-satisfied fat fucker hissed those four words into her ear). Why should we shy away from naming these people? They won't be shamed, because they genuinely don't care who they hurt or offend, but let's put a tag on them and point at them in public anyway. There's no respect in them, so let's arraign them, because in doing so we declare our opposition to them and their values. They stink. And what puzzles me is this; why does their privilege only bring them bitterness? Look at their elders; they're not happy - they hate themselves, each other, and the world. So let's declare that we're not like them. One other point; second home ownership in Wales is despicable, but those homes have to have sellers, don't they? If you need the money, fair enough, but don't then start complaining about the holiday-home Sais. Just bank the cheque and shut up.

Your fiction often contains passages of highly charged poetic prose - this goes against prevailing notions that spare, pared down writing is somehow superior. How did you arrive at your prose style?

It fell on me, one wasted morning on Constitution Hill in Aberystwyth. I'd spent a few days in the mountains and at a lakeside rave and my blood and brains were bubbling, and words suited to expressing the madness came out of the sky. I was sick of minimalism; it can work very well, sometimes, but I felt then that the world was supercharged and that it needed a new expressive language. That kinda thing.

Who is Kelly and Victor actually based upon - are there any autobiographical elements in that obsessional relationship?

Not telling yer.

Why is there so much violence in your fiction?

Well, I'm not a violent man, and I think it's incumbent on non-violent people to study on and write about violence. That's the sacrifice we have to make; it's what justifies our place in the world. Like all ages, ours is characterised by violence, and I think it's vital that we try to work out why. It makes for a sometimes pretty unhappy existence, but why should it be otherwise? People of violence aren't happy either. The darkness in our hearts needs to be explored. Fighting violence doesn't really alleviate the situation; I've recently accepted that suffering will come to you whatever you do, and that violence will always be here, as it always has; but we must deal with it, mustn't we? A social conscience isn't solely the preserve of writers. All of us need to stare at the world.

Is it fair to say that your books are essentially anti-pastoral returns to the primitive?

In some ways, yes, they're anti-pastoral. Pastoralism is a middle-class concept; the Enlightenment Humanists painted it all rosy, and it's not like that. It's essentially reductive, a reality-denier. There is blood and pain in cottagey valleys just as there is in city alleys.

You often use dialogue as dialectic - characters argue and philosophise about everything from colonialism to sex. Are you working out your own position on various ideas when you do this?

Yes, of course. All writers do, I think. The best ones, anyway.

It's also in the dialogue that your books' humour is usually located. How important to you is the comedic aspect of your novels?

Absolutely crucial. It's basically an absurdist view of the world in which laughter and tears are equally valid responses. I find human life as hilarous as it is heartbreaking; I don't want people to come away from my books depressed, I want them to be exhilirated at the spinning extremes of existence.

Stump won the Welsh Book of the Year Award - what did that mean to you?

I don't write for awards, of course, but they're an added bonus. Plus I was pleased that my first major award bore the name of the country that called me back to it, that beckoned my blood and inspired me, helped me to find my voice. And the money was nice, too. I went on a two-week drinking spree in Spain and Croatia.

Music has been a big influence on your writing - give us a few of the records which have inspired you.

The Clash, Nick Cave, early Pogues, Schubert, techno/trance, football chants, birdsong, Tom Waits, blues. . . a huge list, really. I've recently been listening to a lot of bluegrass/hillbilly stuff and this is beginning to seep into my work. And the best band of recent times is The Libertines; they're playing now, in fact.

Finally, in a recent Channel 4 documentary about yourself Iain Sinclair suggested that success and the avenues it opens up might distract you from your literary vision - do you agree with him?

Too early to say, really. But I'll fight like a lion against it happening, although I do have a sense of its insidiousness, its invisible-enemyness. We'll see, I guess. But it's going to be a great adventure.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Date With Elvis

November 1962. At midnight in the Davies household in Canton, Cardiff, the telephone rang. Mrs Davies picked up. The operator said: "Can your daughter take a telephone call from the USA?" Somewhat puzzled she handed the receiver to her daughter, Elizabeth. At the other end a voice said: "This is Elvis Presley speaking from Tennessee, USA. Who have I the pleasure of speaking to?"

Elizabeth could do little more than mumble "hello" before The King went on to explain that he was phoning six people in Britain and recording their conversations for an NBC broadcast the following week. Still in a state of shock Elizabeth passed the phone to her sister Ann who was similarly tongue-tied. Finally Mrs Davies herself took control of the situation and informed Elvis that they were all fans of his music. She went on to tell him all about their family life.

In turn Elvis told them that he intended coming to Britain to perform at the Albert Hall and that he would send them complimentary tickets. Of course, this never happened. But he also said that he would send Elizabeth free copies of all his new record releases, and indeed, shortly afterwards, the Davies family did receive Elvis material through the post.

At the time Elvis Presley was promoting his latest album Pot Luck.

Three Hours of Isabel Ice

Just noticed this 3 hour Isabel Ice DVD for sale... if anyone fancies buying me a late Christmas present? No? OK. Last I heard Isabel was on a sabbatical from the adult entertainment industry, so not sure if this is a compilation of old stuff or brand new material. Either way it would make a sizzling stocking filler.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Bus Spotting in Swansea

Only Two Can Play (1962), the story of a sex-obsessed librarian in fictional Aberdarcy, was the first ever X-certificate film set in Wales. Some - by today's standards - mild sex scenes and a bit of nudity the cause of the censor's anxiety. As is well-known the film was shot in and around sunny Swansea (Briton Ferry, Neath and Llanelli were also utilised).

There is an ambivalence towards the film in Wales. On the one hand it is undoubtedly very funny with Peter Sellers outstanding as concupiscent John Lewis, bogged down in the committee dominated world of small town Wales. Social climbers, sycophants, and artistic poseurs all get the satirical kicking they deserve. However, as well as being an attack on the crachach and croneyism, the film is quite disdainful towards the Welsh language and Cymric cultural life in general. The script was adapted from That Uncertain Feeling, a novel by Kingsley Amis (and there's a whole can of postcolonial worms, right there!).

But, if you can take the dodgy Welsh accents and the fact that - in terms of authorship - this is very much an anglocentric view of Wales, there is still much to enjoy in Only Two Can Play - not least the buses. I recently came across a fascinating website called Buses on Screen which is dedicated to bus spotting in films and television programmes. The internet was invented for such obsessives. Evidently there is a lot of bus action in Only Two Can Play with such exotic sightings as the South Wales Transport 467 (NCY476) a 1956 AEC Regent V/Weymann double decker, and a West Wales Motors Guy double decker. In the above still you can glimpse a Park Royal-bodied 804 (MCY423), apparently.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Charlton Heston in Cardiff

Charlton Heston's trip to Cardiff in 1952 has been well documented. He and his actress wife, Lydia Clarke, arrived from London in heavy fog and stayed at the Angel Hotel. Their less than thrilling itinerary included a visit to the Brocklehurst Yarns nylon factory in Llanishen; and a personal appearance at Phillips furniture store on Queen Street, where they handed out autographed photos. They also found time to visit South Wales Caravan Distributors Ltd in Ely (see advert), which must surely have been the highlight of their Welsh tour. In the evening they attended a premiere of Heston's latest flick at the Capitol Theatre - The Greatest Show on Earth.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Johnny De Little

Between 1961-5 Johnny De Little was a singing protege of John Barry. Five singles were released (on Columbia and CBS) all of which were given the official John Barry stamp of approval: Not Guilty/They; Lover/You Made Me Love You; Days Of Wine And Roses/Ride On; The Wind And The Rain/Unchained Melody; The Knack/What To Do With Laurie.

You're probably thinking - who the hell is Johnny De Little? Well, I'll tell you. He was actually Brian King from Penrhiwceiber, in the Aberdare valley. At Cwmdare School he had sung in the boys' choir. When he left, aged 16, he became a van boy. During this period he took his first step on the showbiz ladder by joining the Bright Lights Concert Party. They performed regularly at workingmen's clubs around south Wales.

12 months later he signed up with the Royal Army Service Corps for a 3 year stint. He wanted to see the world but spent most of his time stationed in York. However, as luck would have it, York also happened to be the place where John Barry lived.

Upon returning to civvy street King remained in York and became a bus conductor. Harbouring ambitions of becoming a professional singer he plucked up the courage to knock on John Barry's front door. He wasn't in. However, Barry's dad was, and he arranged for King to have an audition at the Rialto Cinema. During the audition John Barry, himself, walked into the auditorium. He was impressed by King's vocal style and technique and promised to find him some decent material. True to his word several singles followed - a couple of them from film soundtracks. None of them really did anything chart-wise and their collaborations ended in the mid-Sixties.

The fantastic YouTube, above, is an excerpt from a Tommy Steele cinematic vehicle called It's All Happening (1963). In it, Johnny De Little (as he had by then become), cameos with the fabulous John Barry Orchestra. He plays the gauche singer who finds his rhythm and, consequently, his mojo. It's a great piece of footage and the song's not at all bad either.

I think Johnny De Little is still alive and living in the north east of England, somewhere. If you want to hear more of his recordings check out the relevant John Barry collections that have been released down the years.

Big in Poland

Polish literary magazine, Literatura na Swiecie, has just put out a special Welsh edition. Included are works by Peter Finch, and Robert Minhinnick, amongst others. They've also featured an interview I did with author Niall Griffiths, which is very nice of them.

Selecting a group of writers to represent Wales must have been an interesting task. Perusing the contents list I'd say that their chosen collection of Welsh lit has a kind of 'official' look about it. That's to say it is a tad on the conservative side.

Still, nothing wrong with a bit of cultural exchange. We get cool Polski skleps and Maciej Dakowicz - they get the dubious delights of Welsh poetry.