Saturday, June 30, 2007

Louis in Newport, Marciano in Swansea

Exactly 63 years ago today, in 1944, the great Joe Louis fought an exhibition bout in Newport. The event took place at the Newport Athletic Club ground (Rodney Parade). Basically the Brown Bomber did a bit of sparring with a Golden Gloves winner called Keen Simmons. Refereeing the bout was Corporal Jackie Wilson, himself a former welter-weight world champion.

At the time Louis was serving in the US army. Most of his stint in the military was spent travelling around Europe taking part in morale boosting exhibition fights and meeting the troops. Although he was a sporting superstar at the time purses for his shows (including the Newport one) were handed straight over to the US government.

Whilst Louis was putting on an exhibition in Newport further down the coast in Swansea was stationed a young Rocky Marciano. Marciano had yet to embark upon his equally glorious pugilistic career. Legend has it that after getting into a scrap in Swansea's Wind Street Marciano was given a choice by military police of going to prison or stepping into the ring. He wisely chose the latter.

So in 1944 for a brief spell two of the greatest boxers in history were on Welsh soil at the same time. A nice coincidence. Joe Louis, of course, knew nothing of Marciano's existence back then. However their paths would eventually cross. In 1951 when Louis was well past his prime he fought the up-and-coming Italian-American. Marciano destroyed him in 8 rounds and Louis quit the ring immediately afterwards.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Welsh Triangle

To most people 1977 is synonymous with punk rock but in West Wales it is more closely associated with UFOs and aliens in silver suits. You see this was the year when the Pembrokeshire coastline became the world focal point for extraterrestrial activity.

It started in February 1977 when 15 schoolkids at Broad Haven Primary School claimed to have witnessed a metallic cigar-shaped craft land in a field near their school. Some of them were adamant that they saw a silver alien with pointed ears emerge from the UFO. Teachers and parents were sceptical but the kids were so convinced of what they saw they handed in a petition to police urging them to investigate. When asked by their headmaster to sketch the UFO the schoolchildren all produced remarkably similar pictures.

The story gained national headlines and the media flocked to the West Wales coast. Consequently the number of UFO incidents in the area increased dramatically. Was it all mass hysteria? Was somebody mischief-making? Was it the work of the military? Or had aliens actually arrived in Pembrokeshire?

One family in the area seemed particularly plagued by alien activity. Dairyman Billy Coombs and his wife Pauline from Ripperston Farm talked of exploding televisions and being pursued in a car by a fiery object shaped like a rugby ball. They also claimed that a herd of cows had been teleported from a locked field into a nearby farmyard. Matters reached their climax one night in April 1977 when a figure 7ft tall in a silver spacesuit appeared at their window. The policeman who responded to their 999 call was in no doubt that their terror was absolutely genuine.

The strange events in West Wales caused a slew of books to be written (see pic). The Welsh Triangle (1979) by Peter Paget came to the conclusion that aliens had set up a base beneath the Stack Rock in St Bride's Bay. The Dyfed Enigma (1979) by Randall Jones Pugh and Ted Holliday tapped into Welsh folklore and ley-line theory. Whilst Clive Harold in The Uninvited (1979) focused on the peculiar goings on at Ripperston Farm.

There were numerous further sightings. In April 1977 at 2am hotelier Rosa Granville saw an illuminated UFO and two figures in plasticated suits at St Bride's Bay. Cynics will no doubt claim that the appearance of aliens at her hotel would have been great for business but Granville was disturbed enough to demand an official inquiry from the MoD. A discreet investigation was indeed undertaken and although no results have ever been published a local hoaxer was suspected.

Many years later two members of a round table club in the area came forward and confessed their part in a practical joke that had gotten out of hand. Apparently they had been parading around in borrowed silver-lined asbestos suits worn by oil refinery workers which had built-in helmets and made them look 7ft tall.

But does this really explain the West Wales flap? After all, the incidents were numerous and took place over a period of several months. To this day the children (now middle-aged) at Broad Haven Primary School remain convinced that what they saw back in 1977 was more serious than a mere prank and has its real roots in outer space.

You can read a more detailed account of the Welsh Triangle story here.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Lloyd Robson and Robert Mitchum

In recent months Lloyd Robson has been beavering away on a new book about Hollywood tough guy Robert Mitchum. The project has involved him travelling around the United States in the footsteps of his favourite cinematic anti-hero.

From what I can gather the forthcoming book interweaves elements of biography with travelogue and examines notions of masculinity. Lloyd will also be investigating a much neglected aspect of Mitchum's career - his secret life as a poet.

This Sunday on BBC Radio 4 we get a sneak preview of what Lloyd has been up to in a programme entitled: Oh Dad! The Search for Robert Mitchum. Apparently during his American travels he meets up with, amongst others, Mitchum's grandson Bentley and film producer Stanley Rubin. Sounds excellent - so don't miss it!

Oh Dad! The Search for Robert Mitchum will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 24 June at 4.30pm. It will also be available online for one week afterwards at:

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Rachel Trezise at Cardiff Barfly

Book launches are conservative affairs. They take place in bookshops, libraries and arts centres. Passages are read, polite applause follows. There is usually some small talk with the author afterwards and a glass of cheap plonk. If you're lucky.

Dial M for Merthyr - Rachel Trezise's latest work was launched in an altogether more rock'n'roll spirit. For a start the event was held at the Barfly - Cardiff's premier indie-rock venue. And on the bill were Midasuno the Merthyr band who are ostensibly the subject of her latest tome.

First up though was the author herself who took to the stage in a long black dress, her dyed hair turning blood red under the Parcan lights. In one hand she clasped a copy of her new book, in the other a pint glass (half-full) which dangled louchely against her thigh. People who write books aren't meant to look this cool.

Trezise read a section from Dial M. She emanated confidence at the microphone, or maybe she was just a little bit drunk. Anyway her words were ironic and funny and the crowd laughed. Photographers snapped. Down the front the literati rubbed shoulders with heavily made-up teenagers who were clearly no strangers to Boots firm hold hairspray.

Following Trezise's departure her muses Midasuno arrived on stage for their acoustic set. Acoustic sets are usually quieter than this and with fewer swear words. But I guess you can't come on all Simon and Garfunkel when your forthcoming album is due to be called: Songs in the Key of Fuck.

As the sound of Young Merthyr bounced around the walls of the Barfly Trezise looked on intently from the front. Hers might seem like an odd fixation but she and Midasuno do share a common working-class Valleys heritage and an urgent desire to have their marginalised voices heard. But let's not get all sociological here. The launch of Dial M for Merthyr was first and foremost a great night out - a triumph for Rachel Trezise and the liberating power of rock'n'roll.

Dial M for Merthyr is published by Parthian and is on sale now.

*The above photograph is used with kind permission of Maciej Dakowicz.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Ronald Reagan in Cardiff

You're probably wondering what Ronald Reagan was doing in Cardiff in 1948. OK - here's the scoop.

Reagan was over in Britain shooting a new film The Hasty Heart (1949) directed by Vincent Sherman. Along with co-star Patricia Neal he turned up at the Odeon Theatre on Queen Street, Cardiff, to promote the picture and attend a cinema ball.

The above photo shows the head usherette at the Odeon presenting a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of champers to Ms Neal. The man in the dickie bow is the cinema manager Mr Ian B Craig from the Heath area of Cardiff.

1948 was a significant year for Reagan - he got divorced for starters. Until then he and Jane Wyman had been regarded as Hollywood's perfect couple but she had finally gotten fed up with his increasing obsession with politics.

During this period Reagan was President of the Screen Actors Guild, the union that represented Hollywood thesps. In 1947 he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee on suspected communist influence in the motion picture industry. He claimed that the Screen Actors Guild was being infiltrated by communists.

Given his reds-under-the-bed paranoia it's probably just as well the cinema ball wasn't being held in the Rhondda Valley.

One interesting aside - five years after her visit to Cardiff American actress Patricia Neal would marry one of the city's most famous sons - Roald Dahl.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Strange Coincidence

Wales's leading porn star the lovely Isabel Ice dropped me an email the other day drawing my attention to an interesting coincidence.

Apparently Isabel went to the same South Wales Catholic school as Ionie Luvcoxxx (see blog entry for May 28th). Although Ionie is a couple of years senior to Isabel they did vaguely know each other at school.

Imagine then their mutual shock when, all these years later, they bumped into each other on the set of a porn film! Neither was aware of the other's career in the adult entertainment industry. After hurriedly catching up on old times they shot the film: I Only Love S***k (2005).

Heaven only knows what they'd make of all this at their Alma Mater. Their careers guidance officer would I'm sure have a coronary. Tickets for their next school reunion though are selling like hot cakes.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Los Campesinos! The Point, Cardiff

Last Monday night in a deconsecrated church in Cardiff's docklands Los Campesinos! officially launched their infectious new single You! Me! Dancing! No need for evangelism here though - a quick glance at the smiley faced multitude indicated they were already preaching to the converted.

The Cathays-based septet fairly breezed through their short but perfectly formed set. Highlights included: Don't Tell Me To Do The Math; We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives; and the aforementioned You! Me! Dancing! All concise, sharp, indie pop gems delivered with the band's trademark energy and wit.

Gareth Campesinos in particular seems to have star quality in abundance. Sporting a glitter-stripe across one cheek he came on like a low-rent Ziggy Stardust. His jerky dance moves and camp posturing forming a perfect visual counterpoint to the heads down intent of the rest of the band.

These are interesting times for Los Campesinos! Currently in the middle of their finals they are preparing to leave the comfort of the campus to take on the professional slog of touring and recording. A clutch of American dates have already been lined up and their debut album is scheduled for release in early 2008.

Pioneer exploiters of the myspace network the big question for them now is whether they can make the transition from cyberspace to the real world. The time has arrived for Los Campesinos to stand up and prove that they are more than just smart kids with media savvy.

The early signs are good. Their Cardiff gig climaxed with a raucous rendition of crowd favourite Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks which saw sticksman Ollie charging to the front of the stage to lead a blissful sing-a-long. If they can keep churning out songs of this quality then they've certainly got a chance.

So, are the band worldly enough to make it in the harsh, unforgiving arena of popular music? Outside the venue I tested Gareth's rock'n'roll credentials by inviting him to come and meet some drag queens midweek. "Can't - got an exam," he pined. He looked thoughtful. "Would I have to dress up?" The glitter on his cheek sparkled in the moonlight. "I'm free next week..." That's the spirit son.

You! Me! Dancing! is released this week on Wichita records.

* The photograph of Gareth Campesinos live at The Point, Cardiff, is used with kind permission of ace snapper Maciej Dakowicz.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Arthur Machen: Master of Holy Terrors

The good news is that a statue is being created to commemorate Welsh horror/fantasy writer Arthur Machen. The Friends of Arthur Machen have organised the project to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Machen's death. The statue will be located in his birthplace Caerleon.

It has always amazed me that Machen's work is so undervalued in Wales. After all here is a Welsh writer who has influenced such luminaries as HP Lovecraft and Stephen King. In short, a cult Welsh writer with an international reputation and, perhaps more crucially, one whose books are appreciated in America. There aren't too many of those around. If only from a heritage point of view Machen remains an untapped source.

Welsh literary critics have largely ignored him or unfairly Uncle Tom-ed him (see Stephen Knight's jaw-dropping sidestep of Machen's work in A Hundred Years of Fiction). Rather than being a literary Uncle Tom you could quite easily - if you chose to do such a thing - make a case for Machen being a highly subversive Welsh writer. In many of his stories the English/rational/scientific is undermined by the Welsh/magical/primitive. And it is the latter grouping that Machen most certainly identified with.

The problem with Machen for Welsh critics is that he doesn't fit comfortably into the realism-dominated, Welsh writing (in English) canon. He is a one-off, an outsider. Add to this a snooty attitude from academia towards genre fiction in general (horror stories aren't real writing are they?) and you begin to understand why Machen's work has slipped into the margins in Wales.

It's a shame because he has written some of the best short stories in the English language. Track down his astonishing The White People for proof of this.

A celebration of Arthur Machen: Master of Holy Terrors is being held at the University of Wales Caerleon, Newport, on July 5th, 2007, as part of the Caerleon Arts Festival. Why not check it out? More details here.