Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Rage Against the Machines

The Air Loom Gang: The Strange and True Story of James Tilly Matthews and his Visionary Madness (2003) by Mike Jay is a fascinating book that I recently picked up from a charity shop in downtown Canton. As the title suggests it concerns one James Tilly Matthews, a Welshman, who suffered from what we would today describe as paranoid schizophrenia. Basically, Matthews believed that he was at the centre of a Europe-wide political conspiracy and that he was being tormented by a gang who operated "influencing machines" called air looms.

Matthews left Wales when he was a teenager and moved to London where he began a career as a tea merchant. In 1793 he went to Paris with his friend, Welsh philosopher David Williams, to participate (in a minor way) in the drafting of the new-born Republic's constitution. However, when the Girondists were replaced by the Jacobins, he was thrown into prison. He would remain incarcerated for 3 years.

The French at first believed he was a double agent but released him when they decided he was just mad. In 1796 he returned to London. Convinced that a Revolutionary plot was afoot to overthrow the government he began writing to contacts at the House of Commons. They ignored him. Matthews responded by turning up at the public gallery of the Commons where he shouted accusations of treason at Home Secretary, Lord Liverpool. Soon afterwards he was detained indefinitely at the Royal Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam).

It transpired that Matthews believed that French agents lurked in the cellars of the Palace of Westminster armed with air looms. These machines could aim beams of "animal magnetism" at politicians and turn them into easily manipulated puppets. The beams of the air looms were generated, he believed, by gases which originated from dog shit and horses farts.

Because he was aware of the plot Matthews was particulary vulnerable to torments. He reckoned that a gang of Air Loom operators with names like the Glove Woman and Bill the King were subjecting him to weird tortures that included the introduction of fluids to his skull. While in Bedlam Matthews also declared himself to be Emperor of the Whole World and penned a long and intricate set of laws and decrees.

Despite efforts by his family to get him released Matthews would remain incarcerated for the rest of his days. In 1814, due to illness, he was transferred to a private lunatic asylum in Hackney run by a Dr Fox. He died there in 1815 from TB which he had contracted in Bedlam. Apothecary to the Royal Bethlehem Hospital, John Haslam, published an account of James Tilley Matthew's condition, Illustrations of Madness, in 1810. It was the first full-length study of a single psychiatric patient in medical history. It is also probably the first fully documented case study of paranoid schizophrenia.

Furthermore the Matthews case is significant because his mental illness was absolutely linked with technology. Hitherto people had believed in possession by spirits, fairies and goblins but this was a new, modern kind of delusional paranoia that involved machines. Matthews can, in addition, be regarded as an early poster boy for conspiracy theorists everywhere - after all, nobody has ever disproved that interesting air loom theory.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Ann Clwyd Fashionista

One normally associates Ann Clwyd with political issues – after all she has been a Labour MP for the Cynon Valley since the ‘80s. My usual mental image of her is one in which she is emerging from some imperilled pit or other accompanied by a group of burly miners. Invariably she is wearing a helmet and has a decorative dusting of anthracite on her cheek. Before embarking on a political career, however, she was a dedicated follower of fashion. In the mid-sixties she even opened her own boutique in Cardiff. This was no ordinary boutique as approximately 60% of its stock was either made in Wales or produced by Welsh designers. These purveyors of Welsh chic included Laura Ashley, Beryl James of Aberaeron, Pearl Jenkins from the Rhondda, Catrin Lloyd Rowlands from Trawsfynydd, and London-based dress designer Emrys Davies. Ann also hooked up with students at Newport and Cardiff art colleges as she sought out more modernist designs. Her clothing outlet was a conscious, patriotic attempt to promote Welsh couture in an era when London was the fashion epicentre of the known universe.

*In the above picture Ann is modelling a crochet jumper by Catrin Lloyd Rowlands. Other Welsh Labour MPs noted for their fashion sense were the dandified Leo Abse; and Aneurin Bevan who used to take a bit of stick for being a well turned-out Marxist.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mac Adams

This diptych, Port Authority (1975), is from a highly influential collection entitled Mysteries by Welsh artist/sculptor/photographer Mac Adams. As you can see there is a narrative dimension to the pictures which is essentially noir in tone. A woman in a dress is offered a cigarette from an unidentified male who is wearing a distinctive wristband and ring. You then see a man wearing the same wristband and ring stuffing a dress into a bag. The dress is identifiably the one worn by the woman in the previous photo. Has a crime been committed? Artists such as Cindy Sherman would later adopt a similar strategy - staging photographic scenarios which invite a narrative interpretation.

Mac Adams is originally from Brynmawr and studied at Cardiff School of Art and Design. He moved to America in the late ‘60s. His best known public artworks are the Korean War Memorial in New York and a piece called Meditation which is in Strasbourg. In 1999 he was commissioned to produce some public art for Penarth. He came up with the idea of a Solar Pavilion entitled The Belvedere. The pavilion is designed so that the sun projects an inscription in Welsh, Y Tiroedd Oll Yw Fy Nghorff, on to a large footprint on the floor. It means: All Lands Are My Body. Check it out next time you are in the area.

*You can see a YouTube of Mac Adams discussing his work here.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Sophie Dee and Ricky Longdick

Llanelli porn star Sophie Dee - the most successful Welsh porn star ever - here demonstrates a genuine talent for comedy. The clip is taken from Ricky Longdick & the Golden Error of Porn, a parody of the '70s adult entertainment industry. We observe Sophie participating in an intense script reading session for Ricky’s new movie, Space Mermaids and the Pirate Pizza Delivery Men who Love Them 5. It is also evidently a bit of a piss-take of the orgasm-faking scene in hit RomCom, When Harry Met Sally.

*Note: this is not an actual porn film so it is safe for viewing, though you may wish to turn the sound down for reasons which will soon become apparent.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Twll Tin i'r Cwin

To mark Elizabeth Windsor’s diamond jubilee the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, is hosting an exhibition which features sixty “striking and resonant images” of the anglo-german monarch. Should one go inside? was the ideological quandary I found myself in as I stood on the museum steps this afternoon. Casting aside my natural republican instincts and class hatreds I decided to investigate. What I found was quite a diverse selection of artworks. Amongst the genuflecting snappers (Beaton, Lichfield, Snowdon) and suck-up artists (whose names escape me) there are some genuinely interesting pieces. There’s a rare chance for us Welshies to see images by Andy Warhol and Gilbert & George, for instance. And I liked Korean artist Kim Dong-Yoo’s provocative, Elizabeth v Diana, which is a portrait of Queenie made up of 1,106 smaller pictures of Princess Diana. Also on view is an original of Jamie Reid’s punk God Save the Queen poster from 1977. The most subversive piece in the collection, though, is, I’m pleased to say, Welsh. It’s a tee-shirt which shows an upside down postage stamp of the Queen, emblazoned with a postmark which bears the legend TWLL TIN I’R CWIN (see pic). This is Welsh for UP YOURS QUEEN. The garment was printed in 1996 in Aberystwyth as a protest against a royal visit. I left the exhibition with one burning question: where can I get my hands on one of those tee-shirts?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Jane Arden Sleepwalking

These are the opening credits of Jane Arden (and Jack Bond’s) 1979 avant-garde flick Anti-Clock. The person singing the rather eerie song entitled Sleepwalking is Arden herself. Someone should do a cover version. Someone should also write a biography of this woman. Without doubt she is the hippest person to ever come from Pontypool. Anti-Clock and her other feminist films Separation (with Jack Bond) and The Other Side of the Underneath were reissued by the BFI in 2009. The Other Side of the Underneath was the only British film in the 1970s to be solely directed by a woman. It was filmed near Abertillery and Cwmtillery and in some sequences features actresses going through disturbing psychiatric routines while under the influence of LSD. It’s a real mind-fuck and definitely the weirdest film ever to have been shot in the Ebbw Fach valley. All of her work is worth checking out including her documentary Dali in New York (with Jack Bond) and her play Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Ghost Milk by Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair’s latest book, Ghost Milk, is an erudite polemic against that rapacious monster the London Olympiad, and its unfortunate siting on his own East London doorstep. It’s an Angry of Hackney extended literary blast against what he calls “Grand Projects” – those overblown, architectural schemes that, once their brief moment in the spotlight has passed, rapidly degenerate into hulking white elephants. The author’s sympathy for the modest and local over imposed grandiosity is evident in Ghost Milk’s humble dedication: “In memory of the huts of the Manor Garden Allotments.”

Sinclair’s ambulations take him far beyond his usual Hackney stomping ground. Manchester, Berlin, and Athens are amongst the territories that get the ‘psychogeographic’ treatment, as he sniffs out failed Olympic projects and the resultant architectural follies that now blot the landscape. He finds theme-less theme parks, off the peg 'iconic' artworks and meaningless museums that appear in retrospect to have been little more than subsidy-guzzling property development scams. Any anxiety that Sinclair might fail to do justice to these unfamiliar (to him) terrains is quickly dispelled. He has a happy knack for spotting pertinent detail and deploying idiosyncratic phrases no matter where the locale.

Not that ‘correct writing’ is ever on Sinclair’s agenda. If he signed up to a creative writing course he’d be drummed out within minutes. In Ghost Milk his highly unconventional prose style remains as mesmerising as ever. Lists are built; details accreted. He possesses the poet’s skill of packing a lot into his sentences (syntactical maximisation). Other passages have the narrative drive of a lung-busting walk, interwoven, as ever, with memoir, arcane geographical knowledge, and a profusion of cultural references. The accumulation of interesting factual nuggets means that you can open this book at any point and become instantly hooked.

His cast of characters – alive, dead and fictional - is enormous and multifarious: Hitchcock, Dr Dee, Joan Littlewood, Clyde Best. The most significant and abiding presence in Ghost Milk’s pages is the late JG Ballard. Sinclair is especially fascinated by Ballard’s prophetic mid-‘70s works: Crash, Concrete Island, and High Rise. In those novels the Shepperton author nailed our peculiar, often perverse, relationship with modern monumental architecture (motorways, tower blocks) and captured the gut-churning eeriness of such alien spaces. For Sinclair nothing could be more Ballardian than the Millennium Dome, the new Wembley Stadium, or a giant Australian shopping mall going up in East London.

Cards on the table, I’m a Sinclair fan so for me Ghost Milk is an absolute treat. For the uninitiated I would suggest that this is an ideal book with which to begin an engagement with his work. Ghost Milk, with its polemical thrust, is one of his easier books to digest. As for Sinclair’s diatribe against the London Olympics, only time will tell if his criticisms are valid or whether he is just an old NIMBY railing against change. Here in Wales we too have felt the dubious heat of the Olympic flame: a visit by Lord Coe; Team GB; a promised boost to the local economy overestimated; the servile eagerness of our so-called arts community to take the proffered subsidy bribe. I suspect that history will prove Iain Sinclair’s Olympian scepticism to be entirely justified.

*Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project is out now and is published by Hamish Hamilton. If you want to explore Sinclair’s fiction try Landor’s Tower. It’s his most 'Welsh' work and contains intriguing biographical passages relating to his upbringing in Maesteg.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Hollywood Film Star Shoes

Nothing banishes the blues quite like purchasing a new pair of shoes – Carl Perkins understood this, as indeed did Imelda Marcos and those scary ladies in Sex and the City. In troubled times, especially, something chic on your feet can make you feel 10 ft tall. Take a look at this advert from 1939. With Europe on the brink of another catastrophic war it must have been reassuring to know that in uptown Cardiff you could still step out in the same style of footwear as your favourite Hollywood film star. That is, if you shared the same sized feet as them. Think I would have plumped for a pair of whatever Humphrey Bogart was rocking back then. Two-tone Balmorals with wingtips, most probably. Ladies - on the other, er, foot - could have presumably slipped their toes inside the finest Bette Davis and Joan Crawford-style slingbacks. Fabulous.