Friday, September 29, 2006

From Barry Dock to Galactic North

Watch out for Galactic North the upcoming new book by Welsh sci-fi author Alastair Reynolds. It's a collection of stories set in the Revelation Space universe - that noirish and gothic place featured in his excellent and highly successful novels Revelation Space, Chasm City, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap.

Stories in this collection include: Galactic North, Great Wall of Mars, Glacial, A Spy in Europa, Dilation Sleep, Grafenwalder's Bestiary, Weather and Nightingale. The icing on this mouthwatering slice of space cake is an afterword by the author himself in which he discusses his influences and approach to writing.

Alastair, originally from Barry, is the most successful sci-fi writer to come out of Wales, ever. Although he now lives in Holland the industrial landscapes of South Wales (particularly Barry Docks; the steam train graveyard at Barry; and Port Talbot steelworks) have seeped into his writing and contribute to the dark aesthetic of his novels.

Galactic North is published by Orion.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Dirty Sanchez: The Movie

Masochism is a pervasive presence in Welsh popular culture. There's the famously self-destructive boozing of Dylan Thomas and Richard Burton. The sheer self-loathing evident in a poem like Welsh Landscape by RS Thomas. There are the nihilistic suicides of Dorothy Edwards and Jon Lee. And who could forget Richey Edwards of Manic Street Preachers cutting '4 Real' into his arm for the benefit of a music journalist?

You could intellectualize this phenomenon as the defeated and colonized Welsh turning their frustration and anger inwards. Or you might choose to regard it as merely symptomatic of a Welsh taste for melodrama.

Dirty Sanchez on the other hand do masochism for a laugh. Dirty Sanchez: The Movie hits our cinemas this weekend with the boys on a mission to gross us out. With a plot based loosely around the seven deadly sins we'll see pain junkies Pritch, Dainton, Pancho and Joycey slicing off parts of their fingers, having liposuction without an anaesthetic and then drinking the human fat.

Is it just me or does masochistic agony sound funnier with a Welsh accent?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Clift and Swanson on Queen St, Cardiff

It was billed as the biggest event in the entertainment history of Wales. In 1950 a replica of the Royal Film Performance was to take place at the Empire Theatre, Cardiff. Amongst the stars expected to attend were hearthrob Montgomery Clift and Hollywood legend Gloria Swanson.

The film being screened was The Mudlark with tickets for the charitable event costing £5 5 shillings; £1 1 shilling; and 7 shillings and sixpence for the cheap seats.

A crowd of over 2,000 awaited inside, while another 4,000 gathered outside on Queen Street in the drizzle hoping to catch a glimpse of the celebs. Just before 8 o'clock the stars arrived in a fleet of taxis. Montgomery Clift was one of the first to emerge. He was interviewed on the steps of the floodlit Empire by a newsreel man. Girls screamed as he fiddled with his soft green tie. The interview lasted 2 minutes.

Gloria Swanson was, of course, the last to arrive. This was the year of Sunset Boulevard and the crowd went bananas, surging forward breaking through the police cordon. 12 people were injured. Gloria being the trouper that she was carried on regardless as if this sort of thing happened all the time (which it probably did). She blew kisses to her fans as they cheered. Fashionistas will be delighted to learn she wore black tulle over a plum coloured gown.

The show lasted a full 4 hours. Most of the rain-soaked punters outside got bored and went home apart from a hardcore of 500 teenage girls, who chanted: "We want Monty! We want Monty!" completely oblivious to the fact that he was gay.

After the film Clift, Swanson and the rest of the stars decamped to the nearby Park Hotel for a celebratory dance. The hotel is still there today but sadly the Empire Theatre was demolished in 1962.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Ely Psychedelia

Sanctity: or, There's No Such Thing as a Naked Sailor was published in the United States in 1969. With its oddball mixture of psychedelia and explicit homosexuality it has become something of a cult work in the canon of gay American fiction. Its author Dennis Selby came from Ely (Phyllis Crescent to be exact) - one of Cardiff's more robust districts.

A former pupil of Canton High School Dennis became interested in American culture after holidaying with an aunt on Long Island. After completing his national service he relocated to America.

Here's how Publishers Weekly summed up his debut novel:

"From the central figure, Shelley Skull .... and his quest for a mysterious hustler named Rocco Sabine, through assorted homosexuals, hopheads, transvestites and youthful hippies, everyone has a collection of hang-ups. There are sex and drug orgies, tales of Sabine's fantastic adventures, abductions and attempted abductions, a murder or two, a curious Pepsi heiress called Miss B, who's set her failing sights on securing the uncooperative Shelley's eyes for a transplant.

The sex is explicit and varied and often very funny; the plot sufficiently far out to get even the turned-on generation zapped! Under it all, Shelley is looking for his identity (sort of) and eventually finds it... and Rocco too."

Sounds like an average afternoon in Ely. Far out man.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Nicholas Evans - The Welsh Van Gogh

No painter created claustrophobia quite like Nicholas Evans. His overcrowded canvases depict peasant folk (usually miners) imprisoned by the dimensions of his paintings. Typically the fore, middle and background of his works are concertina-ed, squeezing yet more space from his scenes. His use of monochrome - usually black or blue - accentuates still further a lack of breathing space.

Remarkably Evans, from Aberdare, only started painting seriously when he was 70-years-old. Completely self-taught he used bare fingers and a rag to work oil into canvas. Critics saw similarities in his art to early Van Gogh - the media in the late '70s predictably dubbing him 'the Welsh Van Gogh'.

A strong religious sense pervades his art. Evans became an Evangelist with the Pentecostal movement when he was just 16-years-old after the traumatic death of his father in a mining accident. He is said to have prayed before painting and described the creative process itself as an act of worship.

The Sin Eater (see b/w pic) is one of his more overtly religious paintings although the subject itself comes from folklore. Sin Eaters were social outcasts summoned to the house of the dead to perform a morbid but valued custom. Bread would be placed on the chest of the deceased so that the Sin Eater could consume the meal and thereby symbolically absorb their sins. For this service the Sin Eater would be handsomely paid.

Evans' Sin Eater is a clever and rather perverse painting. He has taken the Adoration of the Magi as his basic model and made it pagan and Welsh. Thus the Sin Eater (he's the one holding a staff on which is perched a raven) and his two associates (one carries a bell to summon the people to the ceremony; the other a lamp to light their way) replace the traditional 3 kings and their gifts. The corpse in the coffin is a rather sinister Jesus in his manger. Shepherds are substituted by peasants in traditional Welsh stove hats. If you look closely you can see that it is Welsh cakes and not bread that the Sin Eater partakes of.

His protagonists are more or less uniform in appearance, sharing the same suffering faces and skeletal bodies. The only sign of beauty in this bleak work is a tiny flower placed inside the coffin by a child.

Most of Evans' other paintings depict the miserable lot of miners. Although he viewed the Welsh miner as a heroic figure he never romaticized the worker as for example Social Realists do. More often than not they are dehumanised by industry and the mine itself becomes a kind of hell. Visual echoes of the Aberfan disaster and Nazi concentration camps manifest themselves too.

Critics have cited Van Gogh and William Blake as Evans' artistic antecedents but to my eyes his work has more in common with the German Expressionists, particularly the apocalyptic paintings of Meidner. In terms of twentieth century Welsh popular culture Evans' art is yet another example of the gothic - that most varied but dominant strain in our culture.

Evans died in 2004. For a good insight into his art track down Symphonies in Black (1987) published by Y Lolfa which features examples of his work and text by his daughter.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Big O in Caerphilly

In 1975 Roy Orbison's career was in the doldrums. The legendary singer who'd enjoyed worldwide hits with songs like Only the Lonely, Blue Angel and Crying was doing a week of shows at the infamous Double Diamond Club in Caerphilly (think Phoenix Nights with a Valleys accent). It was the Welsh leg of an exhausting tour that consisted of 55 performances in 56 days.

The Big O's week-long stint at the DD was sandwiched between The Grumbleweeds and a vocalist called Bryn Phillips. Orbison's stock had fallen so low the local press didn't bother interviewing him or reviewing any of his shows.

In 1986 Orbison's career would be re-ignited by David Lynch's cult film Blue Velvet which featured his song In Dreams. He went on to have further hit records before joining the egregious Travelling Wilburys... but we won't talk about that. He died in 1988.

So with his legendary status once more fully restored the Caerphilly gigs have acquired cult significance. And the general dearth of information about them has only fuelled their mystique. Where did he stay? A hotel in Cardiff or a bed and breakfast in Caerphilly? Did he sing the same songs every night? Could he get his Texan tongue around the word "Caerphilly"? We need to know these things. If you were there do please enlighten me.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Nice Day for a Welsh Wedding

Why did Alfred Sisley get married in Cardiff in 1897? Don't get me wrong the capital city is as good a place as any to get spliced. But why after having lived with his mistress Eugenie Lescouezec for 30 years did the 57-year-old French Impressionist suddenly decide to make an honest woman of her? And whilst on a trip to Wales...

Alfred and Eugenie lodged at 4 Clive Place, Penarth, during July and August of 1897. Maybe there was something in the air there that demanded bourgeois respectability. It just wasn't the kind of place where people lived in sin. His landlady was a Mrs Thomas, a coal merchant's wife, whose cooking he found deplorable.

He admired the local views though and was fascinated by the Bristol Channel's huge tidal shifts. Each day he would pitch his easel on the cliffs and attempt to capture the scene. Sisley's Welsh paintings (approximately 19 of them) are unique in his catalogue as they are his only marine works. Another peculiar departure.

After their nuptials at Cardiff City Hall on August 5 the newlyweds made their way down the coast to Langland Bay for their honeymoon. They stayed at the Osborne Hotel where the great artist had trouble sleeping because of the chain-mail beds. Once again he was impressed by the superb coastline and abandoned his bride to paint the sea.

During his stay he produced a remarkable series of paintings depicting Storr's rock - a strange boulder at Lady's Cove (now called Rotherslade Bay) that appears to have fallen straight out of the sky. He painted 5 versions of it at different times of the day. They are amongst his best works.

Perhaps there's a clue to his sudden marriage in this artistic obsession. The pictures contrast the stillness and solidity of the rock with the ever-shifting light and movement of the sea beyond. Who knows, maybe he was just going through a process of consolidation during the autumn of his life.

Almost exactly a year after leaving Wales Eugenie died of cancer. Within three months Sisley was also dead having suffered from cancer of the throat.

One of Sisley's Storr's rock paintings can be seen at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, along with other examples of his work.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Wales Window for Alabama

In 1963 the Ku Klux Klan dynamited the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four young girls attending Sunday school were killed and 23 others injured. The church, reduced to a smouldering wreck, had been targeted because of its links with the black civil rights movement. Such luminaries as Martin Luther King had regularly spoken there.

In Llansteffan, Wales, artist John Petts was listening to the radio when news of the atrocity came through. Appalled by the events in Alabama he wanted to do something to help. As an artist he knew that light is composed of all colours and saw the symbolic significance of this. He would create a new stained glass window for the church.

Prompted by his wife Kusha he contacted the Western Mail newspaper suggesting a campaign to raise money for the project. The paper enthusiastically took up his idea and it was agreed individual donations should not exceed the amount of 2 shillings and sixpence. This would enable all strata of society to contribute.

Money began flooding in from every corner of Wales, from churches and chapels but mostly from schoolchildren. Within days the required target of £500 was reached and by the end of the month the fund closed having raised £900.

Petts flew to Bimingham to consult with church architects and to take measurements for what would become known as The Wales Window for Alabama. He then returned to Llansteffan where he began working on the design. His first effort proved to be a false start - he felt it to be too passive and beatific. His next attempt though was more satisfactory.

Petts' black crucified Christ (see b/w detail) is a powerful image that conveys both suffering and protest. Dramatically spreadeagled, Christ appears as though he has been hit by police water cannon and thus the artist captured perfectly the zeitgeist of the American South at that time. Beneath the image are the defiant words YOU DO IT TO ME the theme of the lesson being taught when the explosion occurred.

When the church reopened in 1965 The Wales Window for Alabama became one of its main focal points. The impressive artwork remains there to this day, bathing the congregation in a serene light which has first passed through the body of a negro Christ.

At the dedication service pastor John Cross said of the window: "it might serve as a constant reminder that there are persons in the world whose hearts are filled with love and brotherly kindness."

Amen to that.