Thursday, November 23, 2006

Augustus John's Portrait of Tallulah Bankhead

What a meeting it must have been when Augustus John painted Tallulah Bankhead in 1929. The Welsh artist, famous for his scandalous behaviour and voracious sexual appetite, in the same room as Bankhead the American actress, famous for her scandalous behaviour and voracious sexual appetite.

Unfortunately there is little documentary evidence to tell us what actually happened at the sittings other than Bankhead apparently turned cartwheels in the hall of his house.

And what of the artistic result of this union? "My most valuable possession is my Augustus John portrait," Bankhead wrote in Tallulah, My Autobiography (1954). In fact she liked it so much she insisted on paying £1,000 for it.

Despite Bankhead's admiration for the painting it received mixed reviews when first shown publicly at the Royal Academy's summer show in 1930. Some of her friends felt it didn't quite capture her ravishing beauty. Curiously, as she got older, Bankhead actually grew to look more and more like the portrait.

In 1931 she took it back across the Atlantic with her and hung it in the boudoir of her lavish Manhattan apartment. If all the legends are to be believed it must have stood witness to numerous sexual conquests (mostly lesbian), habitual cocaine-snorting sessions, and drinking on a grand scale. Let's hope so anyway.

The painting now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Tallulah Bankhead in Cardiff

In 1929 notorious actress Tallulah Bankhead arrived in Cardiff for a week of performances. She was touring the play Her Cardboard Lover at the Empire Theatre on Queen Street.

Ms Bankhead was delighted to be in Cardiff which she said was a beautiful city with little parks everywhere. In particular she thought the castle was wonderful.

Her car, with its distinctive mascot featuring her pekinese dog Napoleon, could often be spotted around town.

Although in 1929 theatre audiences were generally on the decline the Welsh public flocked to see her. It was her celebrity status and notoriety which attracted them rather than the light romantic comedy in which she starred. An artistic disrobing scene also helped.

And what did Tallulah think of her Cardiff fans? "They were simply marvellous," she said.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Fuck Off

In January 1982 Ian Bone published Fuck Off, his 'fanatical magazine for Wales'. Aimed at 'Welsh arsonists, anarchists, mutants, republicans, punks, prostitutes, rioters, hippies,' it was a conscious attempt to draw together some of Wales' more exotic non-conformist elements.

This is how Ian described it to me in an email:

"I have a residual affection for Fuck Off among the glittering pantheon of mags I've produced. At the time I was in touch with the hippie Mutants from west Wales, the Welsh Republicans, and a lot of the Class Whores who were originally from Swansea... so a mag bringing them all together seemed natural. Issue 2 - never produced - was to have a big feature on the Silent Twins (June and Jennifer Gibbons) who petrol-bombed their way around Haverfordwest.

It was also great reading Fuck Off on the Tube where you could be reading the back page and hold a big 'fuck off' up to the person opposite."

*Special thanks to Ian for the additional background information on Fuck Off and for allowing me to use the above magazine cover. Cheers!

Friday, November 17, 2006

Swansea Anarchists are Revolting

Ian Bone is co-founder of anarchist newspaper Class War. His new book Bash the Rich is that rare beast a political tome which isn't cardboard-chewingly dull. In fact, as well as being highly informative, these true-life confessions of an anarchist in the UK are often very funny indeed.

Bone offers us an insider's view of some of the major disorders of recent times from Grosvenor Square to the Miners' Strike. Basically, if there was a riot going on in Britain he was there.

From a Welsh prespective this is a compelling book. For 17 years Bone lived in Swansea where he served a kind of anarchist apprenticeship. Almost by default Bash the Rich provides a fascinating and previously untold account of the political underground in Wales during the Sixties, Seventies and early Eighties.

Bone first arrived in Wales in 1965 to study at Swansea University. He quickly became involved in student politics producing leaflets like Swansea Anarchists are Revolting and Sex, Drugs and Vietnam. During the heady days of 1968 he was amongst a group of students who occupied the University registry for four weeks and who proceeded to hoist the anarchist flag. In 1969 he fought hand to hand with police when the Springboks rugby tour arrived in Swansea.

Things got even more interesting in 1972 when Angry Brigadists Hilary Creek and Anna Mendelson moved to the Gower. As these bonafide revolutionaries prepared for their trial they would often secretly meet at Bone's house in Windsor Street which was a kind of open house for radicals. Amongst the people who passed through his doors were the women who flour bombed the Miss World Contest!

Inevitably Bone forged links with Welsh radicals. He gives us his take on the Free Wales Army (including the Swansea show trial of 1969); Welsh bomber John Barnard Jenkins whom he interviewed; and the Heddlu Cudd - the Welsh secret police.

One interesting aspect of Bash the Rich is the background it provides on the author's production of anarchist literature. Whilst in Wales he published Class War antecedents like Dole Express; a pamphlet called The Swansea Mafia which exposed political corruption in the city; and Alarm which at one point had a weekly readership of 5,000. Other publications included Fuck Off and The Scorcher.

Bone also occupied his time in Swansea selling badges, flour-bombing council meetings, and forming anarcho-punk groups. The Living Legends achieved some (very) moderate chart success while "porno rockers" Page 3 were notorious for their live performances which included actual strippers on stage.

The first edition of Class War itself was put together in Swansea in 1983 and printed at Fingerprints in Cardiff. Bone's account of the hectic creation of a radical publication in just 48 hours should be an inspiration to anyone wanting to get a fanzine or lo-fi magazine off the ground.

Bone then moved on to London where he continued to annoy the British establishment and the media, and where in 1984 he earned himself the moniker: 'the most dangerous man in Britain'. All of which is related with self-deprecating honesty and a comic awareness of the often absurd situations he frequently found himself in.

Bash the Rich is available from all major bookshops and is published by Tangent Books.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Prog Rock in Newport

Long before it became the "new Seattle" or TJs burned a defiant punk flame, Newport was the Welsh epicentre of Progressive Rock.

If you were living in Gwent in the early '70s and knew your King Crimson from your Van Der Graaf Generator, chances are you frequented the In Place for its regular (now legendary) Prog Rock nights.

This newspaper advert is from 1970.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Still Life with Apples and Teapot

Next time you're admiring Cézanne's Nature Morte avec Pommes et Théière (Still Life with Apples and Teapot) at the National Museum, Cardiff, consider its colourful history.

By this I don't mean Cézanne's artistic struggle with the work or even its bequeathment to the museum by Gwendoline Davies of Gregynog in 1952 - I'm referring of course to its getting nicked.

In 1961 the painting was loaned out to the Vendôme Museum at Aix-en-Provence (Cézanne's hometown) for an exhibition. However, in the dead of night a gang of daring art thieves slipped past two gun-toting police guards and pinched it, along with seven other Cézanne masterpieces. It was like something out of the Thomas Crown Affair.

The crime was the latest in an unprecedented wave of art thefts on the French Riviera carried out by a mysterious gang. It was assumed the canvasses were being stolen to order for a private collector.

Back in Cardiff staff at the museum were mortified. Although a Viennese insurance company immediately forked out £60k it was no consolation - the painting was considered irreplaceable.

Several months later police were checking out a suspicious vehicle abandoned in the middle of Marseille. A fake number plate revealed the car to have been stolen. When the French cops searched inside they discovered eight Cézanne paintings including Still Life with Apples and Teapot.

Mercifully all the artworks were undamaged, only their frames were missing. After being authenticated by experts the paintings were returned to their galleries and Still Life with Apples and Teapot came safely back home to Cardiff.

I do like a glamorous art theft story with a happy ending.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Meet Jon Ronson

Here's one for your diary - Jon Ronson will be signing copies of his new book Out of the Ordinary: True Tales of Everyday Craziness at Waterstones (Cardiff) on Monday 27th November at 7.30pm. There will also be a discussion about the book beforehand which should be a laugh.

The new work is a collection of Ronson's journalism which unlike previous publications (Them: Adventures with Extremists and The Men Who Stare at Goats) focuses on the weirdness found in domestic and ordinary situations as opposed to on the lunatic fringe.

Word to the wise though - you've got to buy a ticket (£3) in advance which is then redeemable against the purchase of the book at the event.

Although there is more than a touch of Ronsonian madness in buying a ticket to see a bloke from Roath reading a book in Cardiff, trust me, it'll be worth it in the end. And an autographed copy of Out of the Ordinary: True Tales of Everyday Craziness will make a cool Xmas pressie, so grab a ticket now before those pesky students get 'em all.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

At the Molehills of Madness

Just finished chuckling my way through Rhys Hughes' At the Molehills of Madness - a collection of short stories which veers towards the unconventional, swerves perilously close to the bizarre, before hurtling over the precipice into the downright weird.

Pendragon Press have gathered together some of Hughes' darker pieces previously published in obscure magazines covering the period 1993-2003. An interesting exercise.

Sometimes these tales are parodies of horror as in The Fury Machine; sometimes horrible things just happen - I'm thinking in particular of the grotesque amputations, weird deaths and sexual perversions that abound. Mostly though his stories are just VERY funny.

How could anyone not laugh at Uncle Dylan's inept suicide attempts in A Length of Rope; or chortle at the carnage that ensues at Safebury's in Crash with Shopping Trolleys? Hughes' dark humour has many targets but the biggest kicking seems to be reserved for religion especially in Necessity is the Mother, Madonna Park, and The Decay of the Pilgrim.

Throughout ATMOM Hughes mixes up contemporary cultural references with a kind of mock-Victorian style; makes puns that are so terrible they are hilarious ("like students of cunnilingus cramming for their orals"); and employs some rather inspired story constructions. All of which will keep your average smarty-pants po-mo literary enthusiast very happy indeed.

From a Welsh point of view it is heartening that a writer like Rhys Hughes is out there. Someone who is prepared to embrace experimentation, absorb foreign influences and pursue an alternative to the social-realism that has dominated Welsh fiction (in English) for a century.

Although untypical of Hughes' work as a whole At the Molehills of Madness is a terrific piece of cult-fiction that will raise your eyebrows in horror and at the same time make you laugh your socks off.