Monday, August 28, 2006

Ralph Ellison in Swansea

One of the key texts in African-American culture is Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952). It articulates the alienation of being a black male in post-war America. What might surprise some people is the part the author's stay in Swansea had on the novel's genesis.

Stationed in Swansea during WW2 Ellison was a cook in the merchant marine. Like a lot of black soldiers he had difficulty coming to terms with his American identity. Treated as a second-class citizen back home he was nevertheless expected to go out and die for his country.

Ellison wrote three Swansea-set stories - In a Strange Country (1944), A Storm of Blizzard Proportions (1944), and The Red Cross At Morriston, S.W. (1944).

In In a Strange Country Parker, a negro soldier, is assaulted by fellow Americans - a group of white GIs. Rescued by locals he is taken to a club where a male-voice choir are practicing. They sing him Land of My Fathers; God Save the King (with noticeably less gusto); the Internationale; and finally, in his honour, the Star Spangled Banner. Put simply the anthems represent ethnicity, colonisation, Communism and the tricky question of his own Americanism.

Already defined by the locals as a "black Yank" Parker, for the first time, discovers a nascent American identity when he suddenly finds himself singing the Star Spangled Banner. It's not surprising that Parker's epiphany is a musical one - Ellison himself was a more than competent musician and a brilliant jazz critic.

If you want to read In a Strange Country for yourself then you need to get hold of Flying Home and Other Stories (1998), a collection of his shorter works. The other two Swansea-set pieces remain (as far as I'm aware) unpublished which is a great pity. It would be wonderful if either the New Welsh Review or Planet magazine could get permission to print these forgotten tales so that we might further examine the link between Swansea and Ellison's Invisible Man.

*For further reading on Ellison's Welsh stories see Daniel Williams' excellent essay Emlyn Williams and Ralph Ellison published in Beyond the Difference: Welsh Literature in Comparative Contexts (2004).

Monday, August 21, 2006

Stellar Street

OK, what's the most culturally significant street in Wales? Cwmdonkin Drive? Pah! Cwmderi High Street? Don't be ridiculous! No, the bricks and mortar epicentre of twentieth century Welsh popular culture is Newfoundland Road, Gabalfa, Cardiff.

As has been mentioned in previous posts it was here that B movie actress, and former Mrs Marlon Brando, Anna Kashfi once lived. But it is also the road in which poet RS Thomas was born. Kashfi lived at number 100, Thomas at number 5. There you have it - cultural polar opposites but geographically at least, practically neighbours.

Today I fought my way through a sea of demented genealogists at Cardiff Register Office to purchase a copy of Thomas' birth certificate (see pic detail). What immediately struck me was the missing "s". I'd always been under the impression his full name was Ronald Stuart Thomas but "Stuart" is noticeably absent from the certificate. I legged it into Waterstones to consult the latest Thomas biography for an explanation. Apparently he adopted the name Stuart at university to differentiate himself from other students called Thomas. Of course!

So despite being, on the surface at least, such disparate characters - Kashfi and Thomas do have something important in common: both altered their names and in doing so set out on a path of self-reinvention. Joanna O'Callaghan became Anna Kashfi who became Mrs Brando; and mundane Ron Thomas eventually mutated into esteemed priest-poet RS Thomas.

Anyway, for more psychogeographic thrills take a detour down Newfoundland Road next time you're in the Gabalfa area of Cardiff. And if you actually live there how about putting up a couple of plaques?

*Special thanks to poet Grahame Davies for alerting me to the RS Thomas/Newfoundland Road connection and for indulging my weird obsessions. Nice one.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Cardiff Trilogy

In case you haven't already read Five Pubs, Two Bars and a Nightclub, Cardiff Dead and The Prince of Wales by John Williams, Bloomsbury have published a handy omnibus edition just for you. Entitled The Cardiff Trilogy it weighs in at a doorstopping 736 pages!

If you've got the necessary muscle required to lift it up you will find inside plenty of lowlife shenanigans, interesting pop cultural references, and a healthy dose of streetwise humour.

Williams almost single-handedly made Welsh fiction (in English) credible again back in the late-nineties and has had a continuing influence on writers of an Urban persuasion. So check it out.

Available from a quality bookstore near you or online via Bloomsbury.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Bach Goes to Town

You think Goldie Lookin' Chain are Wales' first musical parodists? Wrong! Back in the Thirties and Forties blind pianist Alec Templeton was wowing American audiences with his jazz skits on classical pieces. His Mr Bach Goes to Town; Mozart Matriculates; Haydn Takes a Ridin'; and Mendelssohn Mows 'em Down were so popular that in a poll conducted in 1939 he was voted the outstanding star in US broadcasting.

Templeton, blind from birth, was born in Cardiff and grew up at Llwyn-yr-Eos, St Fagans. Almost immediately the boy displayed a prodigious talent for music, picking out tunes on the piano at the ripe old age of 2 and composing his own melodies before he was 4. Blessed with perfect pitch and a phenomenal memory he had mastered the styles of Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, Chopin and numerous other composers by the time he was 16 - a feat all the more remarkable as he did it by ear rather than through musical training. Subsequently though Templeton studied at the Royal Academy of Music and at the Royal College of Music.

By the early 1930s he was appearing with various symphony orchestras and in 1932 an orchestral suite he'd composed was performed at the Paris Opera House. In order to earn a living he toured Gaumont-British cinemas as a featured artist. To what degree his blindness was exploited for its 'novelty' value during this period is open to conjecture but what is clear is that Templeton excelled in the live arena.

His career really took off in 1935 when he went to America accompanied by his parents who also acted as his management team. Practically an overnight sensation in the States his comical jazz parodies of any composers of any historical period delighted audiences. After successful guest appearances on Bing Crosby's radio programme he was offered his own show. In New York in 1937 he reputedly signed a contract worth £20,000 per year. At the millionaires' club (the Rainbow Room in New York) he took up a residency playing both jazz and classical works which proved highly popular.

With his star very much in the ascendancy Templeton married singer Juliette Vaiani in 1940. The wedding in Los Angeles was something of a showbiz event with a 100 guests from the worlds of music, film and radio attending. The following year he became an American citizen. Templeton never lost his affinity for Wales though and on a concert tour of Britain in 1949 he was delighted to meet up again with his first music teacher, a Mrs Margaret Humphrey of Christchurch Road, Newport.

Alec Templeton died at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut, in 1963. He once said that he'd only learned of his blindness as a child, after a visitor let slip the prohibited term in the family home in St Fagans. Until that moment he believed every person lived in darkness and recognized one another by the key and tone of each other's voices.

A posthumous collection of some of his 'jazz satires' entitled Bach Goes to Town was released in 1995.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Helter Skelter

Susan Atkins (see pic) was once a leading member of the Charles Manson Family - an infamous cult responsible for the slaying of actress Sharon Tate.

Whilst on trial in 1969 she confided to a cell-mate that The Family had drawn up a celebrity death list. On that list were Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen, Liz Taylor, Richard Burton and Tom Jones.

Atkins went on to explain that she intended using a heated knife to carve the words Helter Skelter into Liz Taylor's forehead before gouging out her eyeballs. She would also castrate Richard Burton placing his penis, along with Taylor's eyes, into a bottle which she would then mail to Eddie Fisher (Taylor's former husband).

Tom Jones' fate was to be just as grotesque. At knifepoint she would force him to have sex with her until, at the moment of his climax, she would slit his throat.

Atkins was eventually convicted of murder and sentenced to death. A change in Californian penal law however meant the death penalty was quashed and Atkins given a life sentence instead. She remains in prison to this day.

She does though have her own website run by her lawyer husband. There's even a contact address. I wanted to ask her what she had against two of Wales' most esteemed showbiz personalities. But alas, now that she has become a born-again-Christian, she refuses to answer any questions pertaining to her past crimes. Pity.

How reassuring Atkins' conversion to Christianity (that's another cult isn't it?) is to Tom Jones I'm not quite sure. If I were him I'd have half an eye on her next parole hearing and be careful who I slept with in future.

Then again, God might just be on his side anyway...

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Anna Kashfi's House

This house in Newfoundland Road, Gabalfa, Cardiff, is where Anna Kashfi (see previous post) once lived, when she was just plain Joanna O'Callaghan.

Although in Hollywood she pretended to be a Hindu, Kashfi was actually a Catholic who attended nearby St Joseph's Convent School. According to her headmistress she was a quiet and attentive pupil.

Later on she worked as an assistant at Dale's Butcher's shop. When news broke that she'd married Marlon Brando they put a sign in their window saying: "Mrs Brando used to sell sausages here!"

Kashfi also worked as a waitress in the Kardomah Cafe and started but didn't complete a foundation course at Cardiff College of Art.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Brando and the Cardiff Shop Assistant

In 1957 tinsel town's hottest property, Marlon Brando, got hitched. His bride originated from India, the daughter of wealthy Calcutta parents. So exotic was his new wife she'd been trained in all the classical dances of Asia. Or at least that's the story she fed the Hollywood icon. In truth she was Joanna O'Callaghan, an ex-butcher's shop assistant from Cardiff. When Brando discovered the deception he was furious and the marriage became doomed. It would last less than a year.

The couple first met in 1955 after Kashfi moved to Hollywood. A desultory courtship began which might have remained little more than a passionate fling except that Kashfi became pregnant. In a bid to legitimise the birth, they married. Cynics have asserted that this was all part of her grand plan to ensnare the heart-throb. If true, then Kashfi goes down in history as the ultimate Cardiff girl on the make.

Their son Christian was born in May 1958; in September of that same year Brando and Kashfi separated. What followed was a bitter custody battle that would last years (see pic). During this epic struggle Kashfi would accuse Brando of being a wife-beater; in turn, he pointed out her over-fondness for drugs and booze. Neither of them were ideal parental role models.

The struggle took its bizarrest turn in 1972 when Kashfi effectively had her son kidnapped from school and taken to Mexico, for which she was later arrested. This episode prompted the courts to grant Brando sole custody of Christian.

No doubt the protracted custody battle had a profoundly negative effect on their unhappy son, who in 1991 was convicted of the manslaughter of his step-sister's boyfriend. Kashfi blamed Brando for the whole unsavoury tragedy. She was still blaming him even after his death in 2004.

Biographers have been unkind to Kashfi, portraying her as a manipulative gold digger and unfit parent. I'm not so sure myself. After their divorce she was awarded a then world record financial settlement - she now lives alone in a trailer park. Where did all the money go? On booze, drugs and a decadent lifestyle? No - on lawyers as she desperately tried to retain custody of her child.

Kashfi had the guts to take on Brando and his powerful PR machine. Unfortunately for her the sheer volume of mud they threw has stuck. It's about time her side of the story was told.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Executioner's Last Songs

Mekons legend Jon Langford is putting on an unmissable multi-media show at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, on August 5 (8pm). Titled The Executioner's Last Songs the performance will include live music, spoken word (ie witty autobiographical ramblings), his own excellent artworks, and recordings of American roots music - all on the theme of the death penalty!

Formerly of Newport but now a citizen of Chicago, Langford is a fervent campaigner against capital punishment. This multi-media extravaganza is a development of his 2002 anti-death penalty record of the same name, made with the likes of Steve Earle, Brett Sparks and Johnny Dowd.

Fellow collaborator Sally Timms will also be taking part and the whole spine-tingling experience will cost you £10 (or £8 concessions). Don't miss out!


In recent months a new literary magazine has sprung up in downtown Cardiff glorying in the name of CFUK. Its editor Dylan Moore has international aspirations for his litzine and declares that it will go as far as its writers and readers want to take it.

Initially intended as a bimonthly journal CFUK has now sensibly settled into a quarterly. So far it has included interviews with Richard Gwyn; John Williams; Niall Griffiths; Topher Mills; Lloyd Robson; Rachel Trezise; and Peter Finch amongst others.

CFUK's cut'n'paste aesthetic and iconoclastic spirit owe something to punk and there is also a retrospective nod toward Peter Finch's avant-gardist late Sixties/early Seventies poetry magazine second aeon.

Is it any good? Yes. CFUK has youthful swagger, bags of energy and provides a much needed showcase for aspiring writers. You'll also find book reviews and regular columns by the likes of Hayley Long and Gary Raymond. Welsh language readers might wonder how genuinely Welsh CFUK actually is and I'd certainly argue the toss with some of Dylan Moore's views - so hey, it's contentious as well. And in the soporific world of Welsh magazine publishing that has got to be a good thing.

It will be interesting to see how CFUK develops in the coming months. So far the emphasis has been mainly (though not exclusively) on Urban fiction. I'm hoping it finds space for features on maverick writers like Rhys Hughes and Alastair Reynolds and interesting authors from the Welsh language scene like Mihangel Morgan and Grahame Davies. We'll see.

Currently retailing at a mere £2 (!) CFUK is certainly great value - so check it out. Subscription details etc can be found at the CFUK website.