Thursday, March 28, 2013


Over the past few weeks I have been enjoying Trwbador’s debut album, Trwbador, which I picked up at their gig in Cardiff’s Buffalo Bar (an establishment in which I always approach the overpriced bar with a deep sense of trepidation). Having followed their career via Adam Walton’s excellent Saturday night radio show I have become a confirmed Trwbador fan. I love the combination of Angharad’s Van Rijswijk’s naïve-sounding vocal and the experimental beats, loops and guitar work of Owain Gwilym. In addition I find myself swooning at their xylophonic tendencies and wonderful sense of melody. The album is officially set for release on April 1 and gets a double thumbs-up from me.

*The above YouTube features their current single Safe. Also check out some of their earlier work including Deffro Ar Y Llawr and Shapes. And borderline novelty tune Google It which contains lines like: "Is the queen a lizard?" and "Dog pisses in man's mouth".

Angus McBean Sale

If you’ve got a spare few quid why not buy some Angus McBean memorabilia? Lacy Scott & Knight are auctioning off not only photographs by the great Welsh surrealist snapper but props and Christmas cards. Also for sale is his studio visitor book containing the signatures of stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn and the Beatles. Laurence Olivier comments in the book that McBean’s “rice puddings are excellent”. The lot has been offered up for auction by David Ball who was McBean’s partner and studio assistant. The sale will be taking place on Friday, April 12, 2013, at 12PM.

*The above picture is an Angus McBean self-portrait Christmas card from 1946.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Yes Sir, I Will

In 1983 anarcho-punk band Crass released their final LP Yes Sir, I Will. The title was taken from an item in The Sun newspaper. The photograph that illustrated the piece showed Prince Charles greeting Simon Weston, a Welsh Guard, whose face had been badly disfigured during the Falklands conflict. Beneath the picture the caption read: "Get well soon" the Prince said. And the heroic soldier replied "Yes Sir, I will". Crass turned the picture into a poster which they gave away free with the record (see pic). It's a powerful image. For those who were pro-the Falklands campaign it might have represented duty, bravery and loyalty. For those against, it would be seen as a somewhat grotesque depiction of the horrors of war - a laughing, privileged, Prince decked out in his ceremonial military costume face to face with an ordinary soldier who had suffered 49% burns in a real air strike. From a Welsh point of view there is added hegemonic and colonial significance. For Crass themselves Yes Sir, I Will was intended as an attack on the Thatcher government and its cynical use of armed conflict to both promote patriotism and deflect attention from unpopular domestic policies.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Intermission by Owen Martell

In 1961 Bill Evans of the Bill Evans Trio dropped out of the New York jazz scene. His disappearance was provoked by the tragic death in an auto accident of double bass player Scott LaFaro. Grief-stricken, Evans retreated into the bosom of his family, staying first with his brother Harry in New York and then his parents Harry Snr and Mary in Florida. Owen Martell's Intermission is an attempt to fictionalise this grim career pause.

Those hoping for a lowlife trawl through a jazz underworld of smoky joints and late-night dives will be disappointed. None of the cliches that we associate with that milieu are in evidence here. Although Evans was a heroin and cocaine user his addiction is not a central theme. Aside from a spectral journey to score some drugs most of the 'action' takes place within the domestic sphere. This novel is as much about familial relationships as it is about jazz per se.

Despite their good intentions brother, mother and father struggle to connect with the distraught pianist as they tip-toe around his grief. Everywhere there is distance and lacunae. His brother trails him but doesn't intervene as he slips out to score heroin. His mother watches him sleep, wanting but not daring to touch. As a consequence there is almost no dialogue in this novel. The only character who manages to bridge the divide is infant niece Debby whose direct approach yields, at least, a tactile squeeze on the nose from uncle Bill.

Martell employs interior monologues to build up a picture of Evans and outline the complex ties that bind him to individual family members. Harry, Harry Snr and Mary all reach back to childhood in an attempt to make some sense of their relationship with him. What we find is sibling rivalry and unresolved Oedipal impulses. We witness, for instance, Harry Snr turning into Competitive Dad as soon as he steps onto the golf course with Bill. Martell's interiorizing approach also heightens the sense of alterity - the sheer otherness of other people.

Evans' isolation takes on almost symbolic form in his reluctance to play the piano. After the fluid communication and musical interplay of life in a jazz trio he now barely troubles the keyboards. Yet there is still music in these pages. We learn that his (Russian) mother is a devotee off Stravinsky and that his (Welsh) father enjoys bar-room sing-a-longs. Jazzier touches can be found in the chapter headings; and in Martell's occasional tendency toward introspective abstraction. It takes its most obvious form in the way that family members interpret and riff on their memories of Bill - like members of a jazz combo passing a musical theme from player to player.

Despite providing the coda for this book Bill Evans remains an enigmatic figure throughout. For the most part he is viewed at a remove - even the interior monologues are conveyed in the third and not the first person. Often he is a shadowy, nocturnal presence, variously portrayed as a ghost, vampire and deathbed occupant. And in the many images of stillness, a man trapped in trauma-induced purgatory. The death theme, of course, arises from the LaFaro tragedy but also points forward to the suicide of his brother and his own drug-addled demise.

You don't have to be a jazzer to enjoy Intermission. The writing is sharp, as are the psychological insights. An engagement with death and grief might suggest a gloomy read but Evans emerges from his hiatus ready to reengage with the creative process and resume what would still become a legendary career in the history of jazz. As for Owen Martell he has succeeded in the tricky task of fictionalising an absence and fulfilling the instruction set down in his chosen Miles Davis epigraph: Don't play what's there, play what's not there.

*Intermission by Owen Martell is published by William Heinemann and is on sale now. Martell's other novels are Cadw dy Fydd, Brawd and Dyn yr Eiliad.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Sexual Variations

In 1973 Dr John Randell had a book published entitled Sexual Variations. Topics discussed in the work include transvestism, transsexualism, homosexuality, fetishism, masturbation, sadism, masochism, rape, incest, satyriasis, nymphomania, exhibitionism, frotteurism, group sex and voyeurism. Randell was an expert on transgenderism. He worked at Charing Cross Hospital's famous Gender Clinic where he addressed the psychological issues faced by people seeking gender reassignment operations. As one of the world's leading experts in the field he regularly turned up on television and in newspapers to air his views. The News of the World once claimed that he contributed to making London the "sex-change capital of the world".

Randell was born in Penarth. He was educated at The College, Penarth, and later the Welsh National School of Medicine. During WW2 he briefly worked at Cefn-Coed and Sully Hospitals. He then joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a Surgeon Lieutenant. Later he worked as a psychotherapist and psychiatrist at various hospitals in London. His MD thesis, Cross Dressing and the Desire to Change Sex, submitted to the University of Wales in 1960 was the first higher degree thesis to be written on transsexuality anywhere in the known universe. Although his views on what had hitherto been regarded as a perversion were liberal he wasn't always regarded as a sympathetic character. Apparently he often referred to his post-op patients by their original gender.

His hobbies included photography, cooking and gardening. He died of a heart attack in 1982.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The Ruts on Anglesey

Talking of Neil Crud he has got a great interview with ex-NME photographer Paul Mattock on his link2wales blog which sheds light on the unlikely hippie roots of The Ruts. Apparently Malcolm Owen and Paul Fox once lived in a commune on Anglesey and performed in a band called Aslan. It could all have been so very different – Staring at the Unicorns, anyone? Avalon's Burning?

Welsh Cultural Subversion

This picture from 1977 shows Elwyn Ioan and Robat Gruffydd of Welsh-language satirical magazine LOL. A kind of Cymric Private Eye the publication gained much notoriety for ridiculing members of the Welsh Establishment. Including the people who could potentially have funded them. LOL also holds the dubious honour of being the first magazine in Wales to have shown full-frontal nudity. I have previously mentioned the magazine here.

LOL could be viewed as being part of a wider tradition of Welsh cultural subversion. This might include Neil Crud’s Crud fanzine which dispensed advice on committing arson and shoplifting; Datakill and Hoax! which encouraged office-based sabotage and came out of Brecon; and Fierce Records who bootlegged Charles Manson albums and sent out goody bags that contained hypodermic needles. And you could also include the people behind that fake tape of Jimi Hendrix playing the Welsh national anthem a couple of years back. And Ian Bone in Swansea...

Friday, March 01, 2013

Charles de Gaulle in Wales

Trawling through the Corbis picture archive recently I came across this photograph of General Charles de Gaulle. The leader of the Free French is shown greeting a group of French boy scouts who were on a camping trip somewhere in Wales. The snap was taken in 1940 just before his ill fated attempt to capture the French West African port of Dakar. De Gaulle who was exiled in Britain sailed from Liverpool so I’m guessing that the picture must have been taken somewhere in north Wales. Any more information on de Gaulle's Welsh visit would be greatly appreciated.

Another little known fact concerning de Gaulle is that his uncle – also called Charles de Gaulle – was a Welsh-speaker. He was a poet who promoted the idea of Pan-Celticism. From his flat in Paris he taught himself how to speak Welsh, Breton and Gaelic. You can read more about him here.

*The above photograph is © Bettmann/CORBIS