Saturday, February 23, 2013

Swansea Valley Picture Post


This tidy copy of Picture Post magazine from January 1, 1944, has on its front cover a steelworker at home with his family in the Swansea Valley. In fact the entire edition was devoted to the area. Features included: We Plan A Valley In South Wales, The Story Of Swansea Valley, Life in The Swansea Valley, What The Chapel Means, Education In The Valley, What It Means To Live In A Good House, What it Means To Live In A Not So Good House, These Pictures Stand For All The Hundreds We Had To Leave Out, The Valleys Health Service, The People Meet To Talk Over Their Own Ideas. It is replete with photographs of local people and ponders whether there is much of a future for their children. Note the rather heavy symbolism of the ‘prison bar’ railings on the front cover.

Summer Without Sun



Before going on to open Rockfield Studios at their family farm in Monmouthshire, Welsh brothers Charles and Kingsley Ward cut a fairly obscure single titled Summer Without Sun. This was in 1965. Released on the Columbia label under the moniker of the Charles Kingsley Creation this rather sweet platter is best known today for being produced by Joe Meek. Meek did the production work for the record at his now legendary studio located in a flat high above the Holloway Road, London. In 1967, in debt and suffering from depression, Meek shot dead his landlady and then himself. As is the way with these things, his violent demise has only served to enhance his posthumously created 'cool' reputation. A good condition copy of Summer Without Sun will cost you about £70.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Peter Singh and The Clash


"I don't smoke dope / I don't drink bourbon / All I want to do / Is shake my turban," so sang Peter Singh on Rocking With the Sikh. Other songs in the Swansea sikh's rock'n'roll repertoire include Who's Sari Now and Turbans Over Memphis. Perhaps the most affecting of all his ballads is Elvis, I'm on the Phone in which Singh receives a heavenly phonecall from the King himself. Elvis has a burning question for him: ''Peter, there's just one thing I wanna know. What's the weather like down there in Swansea?'' Singh, real name Narinder, is a legendary figure in downtown Swansea. He used to run a takeaway there from which he sold Love Me Tender burgers. Also on the menu was a set meal for one called Are You Lonesome Tonight? In the above photo Singh is pictured with The Clash. He's the one in the white, rhinestone-studded, Vegas-era Elvis jumpsuit.

*Thanks to Huw Williams for the tip.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Working For Ford


Don't know about you but I'm a self-service till refusenik. I loathe them. To me they represent the final triumph of capitalism. Not only are you expected to do unwaged labour but into the bargain you are robbing some poor old biddy or school-leaver of a job opportunity. Add up all that time you spend obligingly scanning items during your weekly supermarket splurge and you've put in a substantial shift for the retail giant of your choice. I will happily queue for an hour to be served by a human being rather than provide free labour for Tesco, Sainsbury, et al.

Dubious corporate strategies to maximise profits at the expense of labour are nothing new, of course. To improve production in the mass manufacture of cars Henry Ford introduced the moving assembly line into his factories. In the process Ford de-skilled labour, weakened unions, encouraged worker identification with the company brand, and empowered managers and planners. The classic text on Fordism is Huw Beynon's Working For Ford published by Penguin in 1973 (see pic).

As well as investigating the history of Fordism Beynon, an academic sociologist from Ebbw Vale, closely studied workers at the Ford plant in Halewood, Merseyside. The verbatim interviews printed in his book are replete with fruity language, sexism and a deep sense of alienation. The daily work the men and women carried out was tedious, boring, dehumanising. In contrast to this was the sense of solidarity and excitement the workforce felt during the great Ford strikes of 1969 and 1971. Beynon was keen to understand the structural dimensions that prevented Ford Man from becoming a fully fledged revolutionary.

The odd (and ironic) thing about reading Beynon's Working For Ford in these Post-Fordist and Post-industrial times is the vague sense of nostalgia one feels for the political certainties and familiar industrial landscapes of that particular era - however unpleasant they might actually have been. It's all call centres, short-term contracts, cup cake emporia and self-service tills now, isn't it?

*Coincidentally Huw Beynon is giving a talk in Cardiff on February 28. Details here.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Mountain Men of Gilfach Goch



The Mountain Men were a mid-sixties musical combo from Gilfach Goch who specialised in playing wild, hairy-arsed, Rhythm and Blues. To reinforce their Rousseauesque image they sported goatskin jackets and matching boots on stage. Their primitivism wasn't just confined to questionable sartorial tastes. These noble savages took the whole goat concept to its logical conclusion by adopting a real one as their mascot. Its name was Caradog and it lived at Barry Zoo (long-since shut down). In 1965 when the band went to London to record Cell 39 / Bald-Headed Woman they took the goat with them. I have a picture of them performing at an outdoor concert - on stage with the band is the goat. Later in 1965 the Mountain Men independently released Too Many People / Without You on the EOS label. So collectable is this vinyl rarity that it will cost you northwards of £250 (if you are lucky) to get hold of a copy. The Mountain Men were Huw Chappell, Michael Mogg, Michael Edwards, Dennis Langmead, and Gerald Dendle.

*Drummer from the band Mike Edwards (Aubrey) - now a successful Tom Jones tribute act - would like to hear from you if you have a copy of the demo disc Cell 39 / Bald-Headed Woman. There are one or two copies knocking about apparently. You can contact Mike here.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Wittgenstein in Swansea


In Wales Swansea is the locale most readily associated with philosophy. It’s fair to say that for a while it was Philosophy Central – the place where all the sharpest thinkers hung out. Based at the city’s University, the Swansea School, as they became known, were an inspirational group of academic philosophers hugely influenced by Austrian egg-head Ludwig Wittgenstein.

The main figure behind the Swansea School was Rush Rhees, an American philosopher, who taught at the University from 1940 – 1966. He had been a pupil of Ludwig Wittgenstein at Cambridge during the 1930s and later became his close friend and literary executor. Rees’s books included Without Answers (1969); Discussions of Wittgenstein (1970); and Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections (1981).

Wittgenstein himself, arguably the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, was a regular visitor to Swansea. Between 1942 -7 he used to holiday there every summer, visiting old chum Rush Rhees and spending precious time working on his manuscripts. Much of this holiday writing would turn up in his posthumously published and massively influential Philosophical Investigations (1953). According to Rhees Wittgenstein would arrive in Swansea from Cambridge (which he disliked) and exclaim: “Am I glad to be here!”

During his 1947 vacation in Swansea he brought with him his young lover Ben Richards. Under Wittgenstein’s instruction Richards took the remarkable photograph above which shows him against a heavily scratched and graffitied wall. By nature notoriously prickly and austere, this is a rare glimpse of a happy, relaxed and presumably in love Wittgenstein. The Swansea snapshot is probably one of the two most famous pictures of the philosopher in existence. The other being the school photograph in which he is shown in the same class, allegedly, as Adolf Hitler.

Other members of the Swansea School were Peter Winch, JR Jones, RF Holland, and DZ Phillips (they do like their initials in the world of philosophy). Of these D(ewi) Z(ephaniah) Phillips has come to be regarded by many as Wales’s foremost philosopher of the twentieth century. He specialised in the philosophy of morals and religion. One of his works was a study of RS Thomas. Phillips became head of the philosophy department in 1971 and under his stewardship it became an international centre for Wittgenstein studies. Scandalously the philosophy department at Swansea University was shut down in 2004.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Swedenborg's Skull in Swansea


Emanuel Swedenborg was a Swedish philosopher, scientist and Christian mystic of world repute. When he died in London in 1772 his corpse was put in a coffin at a Swedish Seaman’s Church in Shadwell. In 1790 this coffin was opened and it is thought that the skull was stolen and sold to a phrenological society. In its place was put a substitute. The tampered-with remains were transferred to Uppsala Cathedral, Sweden, in 1912, though the authenticity of the skull remained in doubt.

In 1958 the Swedish government agreed to open Swedenborg’s tomb so that it might be determined whether the enclosed skull was actually his. Scientific tests would be carried out. The investigation had been spurred by a claim that Swedenborg’s skull was actually in Swansea. A doctor there, Charlotte Brandt (nee Williams), claimed that her father had purchased it in a curiosity shop in London before WW1. It had been on display in a window. Attached helpfully to the skull was a note that had read: “The genuine skull of Swedenborg”. Aware of the story surrounding the human artefact Mr Williams bought it. When he died in 1957 the relic passed into the hands of his daughter.

After an extensive series of anatomical and chemical tests Swedish and British scientists concluded in 1961 that the skull in Uppsala did not belong to the rest of the skeleton. It was found to be of a younger age than the other bones. It also had traces of red hair even though Swedenborg was grey when he died. The Swansea skull was also thoroughly tested and proved to be the correct age. Furthermore it was known that during his lifetime Swedenborg had had an artificial tooth fitted. Such a tooth was found in the Swansea skull. In all probability, decided the boffins, the Swansea curio was “Swedenborg’s authentic cranium”.

When the news broke in Swansea Alfred Brandt, Charlotte’s husband, confirmed: “the skull does belong to us, but because it has been stolen in the past, it has been put in a place of complete safety with very good security arrangements.” Mr Brandt declined to say whether the skull would be returned to Sweden. In 1978 Swedenborg's skull turned up at Sotheby’s for auction. They did not divulge who the seller was. The Royal Academy of Science in Stockholm paid £1,500 for the relic. After the sale it was reunited with the rest of Swedenborg’s skeleton at Uppsala Cathedral.

*The incident, presumably, was the inspiration for Swansea poet Vernon Watkins' poem, Swedenborg's Skull.