Thursday, May 25, 2006

Bette Davis' Welsh Farewell

When Bette Davis swanned into Cardiff in 1975 she held a press conference, naturally. At the Angel Hotel local hacks were feeding out of her hand: "It's wonderful to be in Wales," she charmed, "I have been here twice before and I'm in love with it." Yes indeed, her ancestors were Welsh - they just dropped the 'e' from the surname in America was all. The hacks swooned, hotel staff fawned - a bona fide legend was in their midst.

Bette Davis was in town to perform her one woman show In Person and on Film (for 2 successive nights) at the New Theatre.

On the first night the crowd packed the auditorium ready to glimpse the 67 year old Hollywood goddess. Arriving on stage to rapturous applause she was quickly into her stride. Like some kind of uber-bitch film lecturer she showed clips of old movies, commenting on her roles and passing judgement on her fellow actors. All About Eve flickered onto screen; The Corn is Green; Now Voyager. She lit a cigarette.

The second part of the show consisted of a question and answer session with the audience. Somebody welcomed her in Welsh and told her how to pronounce nos da. Wales is a "beautiful, beautiful, country", she faux-gushed to her adoring and appreciative fans. The questions began. Her favourite director? William Wyler. Her favourite food? That was easy - potatoes!

And so it continued for 80 minutes until, after taking her last bow, she declared (ad libbing from Cabin in the Cotton): "I'd love to kiss you all but I've just washed my hair." And then finally, after effortlessly conquering the hearts of her new Welsh subjects, a queenly: "nos da!"

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Real Prince of Wales

In the 1970s the Prince of Wales was as much a part of Cardiff's cultural landscape as the Wales Millennium Centre is today. Like an architectural metaphor of the city's declining fortunes the once swanky theatre had mutated into an infamous cinema for dirty old men.

You didn't have to go inside and watch the non-stop screening of dirty movies either to be aware of its sleazy presence. The lurid display adverts outside were a constant reminder that Cardiff was a less than innocent place to live. Of course Cardiff has always had a sex industry but in the Prince of Wales - a majestic and prominent building - it seemed to have gone overground and was parading obscenely on St Mary Street.

All that remains of Cardiff's porn palace today (apart from the building itself - now a soulless theme pub) are John Williams' excellent novel The Prince of Wales featuring a fictionalized version of the cinema; and a few faded adverts in yellowing newspapers.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

John Jenkins - Welsh Terrorist

It's difficult to imagine explosive devices going off in the name of Welsh freedom but in the 1960s this was a common occurrence.

My favourite Welsh revolutionary bomber was John Barnard Jenkins, leader of MAC (Movement for the Defence of Wales) (1966-69), whose aim was to bring about a Welsh-speaking Socialist state. Until his arrest in 1969 he orchestrated a bombing campaign targeting amongst other things the Temple of Peace and the Tax Offices in Cardiff. These explosions were more symbolic than destructive but with Charles Windsor soon to be invested as Prince of Wales feelings were running high.

And with the flooding of Welsh valleys to slake the thirst of English industrial cities; and the failure of Labour politicians to secure financial compensation for the victims of the Aberfan disaster - there was a definite whiff of unrest in the air. Wales was now acutely tuned into the revolutionary zeitgeist of the Sixties.

But who was John Barnard Jenkins? Recently I managed to get hold of Prison Letters, a collection of correspondence written whilst he served 7 years of a 10 year sentence as a Category A prisoner at Albany maximum security prison on the Isle of Wight.

The foreword gives a useful biography: born in Cardiff (1933) of English-speaking parents. Brought up in Penybryn in the Rhymney Valley. Educated at Bargoed Grammar School. Joined the British Army in 1952. Stationed in Germany. Left army to work in a steelworks and coalmine. Hospitalised in motor-cycle accident. Rejoined army to be able to afford to get married. Stationed in Cyprus - witnessed the campaign for independence and the return of Archbishop Makarios. Stationed in Chester - lived in married quarters in Wrexham until his arrest in 1969.

The letters themselves provide an interesting insight into the life of a political prisoner as well as revealing some of his ideological and philosophical values. It turns out Jenkins was a model inmate - singing in the prison choir; learning Welsh; and creating Celto-Christian works of art. He also gained an Open University degree in Social Sciences.

His life after prison is less well documented. Special Branch kept him under surveillance particularly through the holiday-home arson campaign of the 1980s. The BBC banned a Welsh-language interview with him from being screened. And Swansea University prevented him from studying there. He remains an enigmatic figure.

Prison Letters was published by Y Lolfa in 1981. Along with other works notably The Welsh Extremist by Ned Thomas and To Dream of Freedom by Roy Clews it forms part of a small but highly interesting body of Welsh revolutionary literature.

*The above picture is the back cover of Prison Letters and features a striking photograph of John Barnard Jenkins at Capel Gwladys, taken by Robat Gruffudd.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Tom Jones - the Boy from Knitwear

Did it ever get any better than this for Tom? Cover boy for genteel crochet and embroidery magazine Pins and Needles in 1966. And just check out those Land of the Giants daffodils.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Toulouse-Lautrec and the Welsh Cyclist

This poster designed by Toulouse-Lautrec in 1896 forever links fin-de-siecle Paris with a forgotten Welsh sporting hero.

Jimmy Michael from Aberaman was a world champion cyclist who enjoyed a dazzling career - first on the continent then in the United States. A diminutive figure, his trademark was to chew on a toothpick as he whizzed around the track.

Michael was riding for the Simpson Chain Company when they commissioned a poster to advertise their new bicycle chain. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was the chosen artist. A keen fan of the sport he often frequented the Paris velodromes which were hugely popular at the time.

In 1896 Lautrec journeyed to London to make preparatory sketches of the Welshman before returning to Paris to complete his design. As it turned out Simpson rejected Lautrec's finished drawing unhappy with its technical detailing. Nevertheless 200 copies of the Jimmy Michael poster were printed up to cash-in on the popularity of the Welsh cyclist.

Michael's demise is rather a tragic one. After a 60mph crash in Berlin in 1903 he suffered a fractured skull which effectively ended his career. Reduced to exhibition rides he developed an increasing dependence on alcohol (a weakness he shared with Lautrec). In 1904 he died of the DTs on board a ship en route to America.

The National Museum of Wales purchased one of Lautrec's Jimmy Michael posters back in the 1960s. Sadly it hasn't been on public display for years. However now that Wales has once again fallen for the cult of the bicycle perhaps it is time to put it back on view.

©Anthony Brockway 2006

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Bob Dylan in Cardiff

Welsh Dylanologists rejoice! Exactly 40 years ago today your boy sailed into Wales armed with some big amplifiers and a new sound. He'd gone electric.

According to reports Dylan arrived on stage in Cardiff half-an-hour late looking somewhat different - the Huck Finn hat and denims of yesteryear had been replaced by a new suit - buttoned up. That was OK though because for the first hour he performed a solo acoustic set which went down well with his Welsh fans.

Then, with the immortal line: "It used to be like that... but now it goes like this," he launched into a plugged in, rocked-up version of I Don't Believe You. For the next hour confusion reigned as the assembled throng wondered what that din was coming from the stage - some disgruntled folkies headed straight for the exits. Those who stayed witnessed the metamorphosis of an idol.

Those interested in Dylan's performance at the Capitol in 1966 should get hold of the bootleg documentary Eat the Document. This film, shot by D A Pennebaker, shows Dylan backstage at the Cardiff venue performing a piano duet with none other than the late great Johnny Cash.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Send My Cold Bones Home - Tristan Hughes

Send My Cold Bones Home by Tristan Hughes is essentially a gothic novel. It begins in death with the funeral of Johnny Ifor; there is claustrophobia and decay; several Miss Havisham-style mausolea; ghosts; grotesques; imprisonment; and sudden violent eruptions. But whilst he might employ some of the imagery and conventions of the traditional gothic novel, Hughes avoids the stale melodrama of the form. Instead he has produced a work that is subtle, sophisticated and memorable.

Jonathon Hall (the narrator) is a back-packer, a traveller who has never been able to set down roots. Bequeathed a cottage on Ynys Mon he develops a fascination for his neighbour Johnny Ifor, a recluse, who has barely strayed from the place of his birth. Opposites attract and Hall spends much time listening to Johnny's exotic family stories. For Johnny has travelled too, from Valparaiso to the Indian territories - but only inside his head.

Throughout this novel Hughes contrasts stasis and movement, as well as internal and external realities. Johnny and such characters as the taciturn Bub and crash victim Tammy have internalized their worlds. Hall and the always mobile farmer, Nut, represent energy and outward activity. That this movement is often portrayed as futile is telling, as most characters in this book are seeking escape, usually from themselves and their pasts.

The influence of trauma on identity is a strong here - the notion that an unpleasant event can indelibly fix a person and disable their facility to 'move on'. Both Jonathon Hall and Johnny Ifor are stuck in patterns of behaviour from which they cannot escape. Hall's compulsion to wander has been passed onto him by a rootless father, whilst Johnny's stasis has been imposed by a grieving mother. This fixing is echoed in the number of 'mausolea' that are scattered throughout the book: an abandoned quarry; mementoes sealed away in boxes; even a storeroom full of Indian skulls.

Structurally the book ebbs and flows between past and present, interweaving Johnny's colourful digressions along the way. It's a complex process but not for the reader as Hughes always keeps a tight grip on the narrative. The story itself is drawn forward by the gradual revelation of how Johnny Ifor has become a recluse; and a sexual sub-plot involving Hall and the traumatized crash victim Tammy.

The progression of the seasons lends a sense of steady continuity to the book, as well as providing an enjoyable descriptive backdrop. In fact Hughes' use of the natural world for metaphor is very adroit throughout. I particularly liked his fusing of natural and anatomical images reminding us that as well as the stamp of heredity and experience, the landscape exerts its own insidious influence upon character.

I started by saying that this is a gothic novel but Hughes' gothic owes more to William Faulkner than to Monk Lewis. It is the past haunting the present and a fascination for place that you'll really find in these pages. There is also perhaps something here of the author's own engagement with stasis and movement. Externally Hughes has journeyed from Atikokan, Canada to Ynys Mon, Wales - but it is from the fixed point of his desk, via the interior realm of imagination, that he has conjured this thoroughly engrossing novel.

Send My Cold Bones Home is published by Parthian Books and is available at Amazon.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Welsh Advert

Allow me to indulge my obsession for old Welsh adverts. This one is taken from a magazine in 1969.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Dr Alfred Adler in Wales

For those of you who thought that juvenile delinquency was invented by Snoop Dogg or James Dean, think again. Exactly 70 years ago today the great psychoanalyst Alfred Adler delivered a lecture on The Problem of Juvenile Delinquency to a packed audience at University College, Cardiff.

Famed for his work on the inferiority complex, superiority complex and the concept of masculine protest, Dr Adler said what everybody else has been saying ever since and blamed the parents. Bad and over-indulgent parenting, he reckoned, were responsible for the revolt of youth.

According to Adler the delinquent lives in a dream world where he/she is the centre of admiration. Periods of idleness or feelings of inferiority can turn an otherwise normal adolescent into a delinquent with nothing better to look forward to than a life of crime.

The esteemed Viennese psychoanalyst arrived for the lecture in Cardiff by train, presumably to avoid the possibility of having his motor nicked by dysfunctional teenagers.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The First Ever Welsh Hairstyle

Nobody ever believes me when I say there once existed a group of people who invented Welsh hairstyles. Well here's the evidence! (see pic)

Club Artistic des Coiffeures (er, CAC) was a society of Welsh hair stylists and salon owners who formed circa 1968. Their aim was to create new hairstyles suitable for the women of Wales or as they put it themselves: "a style specially created for you and not just a copy of a London or Paris hairstyle".

So what exactly constituted a Welsh hairdo? Well these upstart hairdressing visionaries believed they were faced with one fundamental challenge - the Welsh weather. Our adverse climate (as they saw it) of blustery winds, salty sea air and incessant rain wreaked havoc with your average Welsh head.

In the autumn of 1968 they came up with an answer to this problem and christened it The Cariad. It was low at the front, with ringlets or kiss curls cascading down the sides. The low crown was brushed to give extra elevation. This, believed the eight founder members of Club Artistic des Coiffeures, would combat the severest of weather conditions. It was billed as: 'the first ever Welsh hairstyle'.

And it proved to be a modest success - so much so that our intrepid hairstylists decided to launch their second creation The Croeso. Like its predecessor it was principally designed to give body and hold and, most importantly of all, to retain its shape during inclement weather. Scope was given for individual taste of course and if required hair pieces could even be added.

How The Croeso faired, I confess, I have no idea. Nor sadly do I know what became of Club Artistic des Coiffeures. But their aim to create uniquely Welsh hairdos and make Cardiff the centre of fashionable new hair designs is one of the great forgotten stories of twentieth century Welsh popular culture.

©Anthony Brockway 2006

Monday, May 01, 2006

Euros Childs - Chops

Euros Childs' solo album is defiantly pastoral. There are donkeys and seagulls, harvests and beaches, islands and the sea. Chops also explores the lost landscape of childhood, of circuses, seaside holidays and... pigmies.

The album begins with Childs actually waking up and recording a song he dreamt-up in his sleep. There is no musical accompaniment just his groggy vocal telling of Billy the Seagull. From there it is straight into Donkey Island a blissful, up-tempo, infantilist ditty about living on an island with donkeys - naturally. Dawnsio Dros Y Mor continues the pastoral theme and Slip Slip Away with its nonsensical Lear-esque lyric introduces, musically anyway, the album's first elegaic moment.

Costa Rita is the stand-out track, a quite wonderful melding of South American rhythm with a queasy Welsh seaside aesthetic. It's the story of an ice-cream man who falls in love with a peanut seller but, like the summer itself, it is a romance doomed to end. Without doubt Costa Rita is one of the best songs Euros Childs has ever written and contains my new favourite word: shakamooka.

Stella is a Pigmy is in 3 separate parts, scattered throughout Chops. Each subsequent version acquires more lyrics and becomes increasingly sinister and weird. It lends the record a darker edge and it is the 3rd version of this song, telling of death and scavenging vultures, that ultimately ends the album.

My Country Girl, Circus Time and Cynhaeaf form the philosophical core of this record. In each there is an overt identification with the pastoral, to the extent of being openly anti-urban. "My mind's in the city but my heart's with my country girl" Childs opines in a country and western pastiche; "Had enough of the city" begins the gorgeous Circus Time; and in Cynhaeaf, which means harvest, he repeats that one word over and over until it becomes an incantatory celebration of nature.

Hi Mewn Socasau is a more upbeat Beach Boys type of sing-a-long that sets you up nicely for the solar plexus blow that is Surf Rage, an achingly beautiful sea-bound pastoral elegy. If you haven't already died and gone to melody heaven by now First Time I Saw You will finish you off completely. A stunning 8 minute love song that marries what is, in essence, a folk song with a strident synthesized backing. It shouldn't work, it ought to be horrible but turns out to be an inspired hybrid.

Many of the songs on Chops are about escape which is apt given that Childs has thrown off the shackles of being in a band he has fronted for over a decade. Gone are the schizoid shifts in tempo that define Gorky's Zygotic Mynci records; gone the abiding presence of the violin. What remains is Euros Childs' genius for melody, a gift we are all fortunate enough to share in, thanks to this inspirational solo album.

Chops is available on Wichita Records.