Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Swansea Terminal

If you've read Robert Lewis's excellent The Last Llanelli Train you'll be delighted to learn that his dipsomaniac PI Robin Llywelyn is back in Swansea Terminal.

That's the good news. The bad news is that Llywelyn is now a homeless wreck who knocks about with a heroin addict and a suspected child molester. He also has terminal cancer. If that's not bad enough he owes a favour to a violent local gangster involved in an import/export scam.

It may sound bleak but Swansea Terminal is a superb read with some terrific comic touches by the author. None better than giving your hopelessly alcoholic leading protagonist the Beckettian task of guarding a warehouse full of Harp lager.

For me the best crime fiction always has a strong sense of place and that's certainly true with this novel. How refreshing to see Swansea extensively mapped out and given real geographical substance without any kind of reference to a certain drunken bard.

Not that this book is short of references to the bottle mind. In fact there is an abundance of great observational writing on drinking culture in general; and the psychology of the alcoholic in particular.

Swansea Terminal is no whodunit - from the outset we know exactly who the criminals are. Instead the main interest for the reader is located in Llywelyn's own mental and physical disintegration. He is a detective in extremis imperilled from within. For this reason Swansea Terminal has more in common with the loser fictions of Bukowski and Fante than say, the archetypal detective novels of Raymond Chandler.

Swansea Terminal by Robert Lewis published by Serpent's Tail is on sale now. It's brilliant - you should buy it.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Franco's Welsh Pilot

Given Wales's proud record in fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War (1936), it's kind of ironic that the pilot who flew General Franco to Morocco to start the conflict was a bloke from Pontypridd.

In 1936 Cecil Bebb, from Church Village, was hired by a group of exiled Spanish monarchists to fly to the Canary Islands. There he was to pick up an arab leader, or at least, that's what he was told. In fact he would be picking up General Franco.

For the trip Bebb would be accompanied by a navigator; ultra right-wing Spanish journalist Luis Bolin; Hugh Pollard (an MI6 agent); his daughter Diana Pollard; and Dorothy Watson. The girls, both glamorous blondes who kept their cigarettes in the elastic of their knickers, were to be used as a distraction at the various stop off points on the journey. The plot was bankrolled by millionaire Juan March who hated the Republic.

In July Bebb and his passengers set off from Croydon airport in a luxury De Havilland Dragon Rapide aeroplane. The aircraft eventually arrived at Las Palmas in the Canaries via Bordeaux, Oporto, Lisbon, and Casablanca. Bebb must surely have guessed something was up when Franco, who had shaven off his moustache and was posing as a tourist, boarded his plane.

Nevertheless he continued his journey eventually arriving at Tetuan in Spanish Morocco via Agadir and Casablanca. Franco, reunited with the army who were garrisoned there, was now in a strong position to lead them against the Republic and the Spanish people. Luis Bolan (who would go on to become Franco's propaganda advisor) thanked Bebb for the part he had just played in world history. The bemused Welshman then flew back to Britain.

Bebb turned up on a Granada television series in the early Eighties called The Spanish Civil War where he recounted the part he had unwittingly played in starting the conflict. In 1986 a film was released in Spain called Dragon Rapide (see pic) which colourfully retold the story.

*For more information on this historical curiosity check out Rob Stradling's book Cardiff and the Spanish Civil War (1996).

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

It's My Club and I'll Play What I Want To

Some people like to think of Swansea as Dylan Thomas's town but for me it will always belong to Helen Love.

New album It's My Club and I'll Play What I Want To has all the correct components: obsessive references to The Ramones; numerous mentions of summer; and bubblegum; and transistor radios.

Helen Love were Wales' first postmodern band and this is their fourth album. And here the girls continue to construct their perfect punk-pop-disco universe. Just listing some of the song titles will give you a flavour of their oeuvre: Debbie Loves Joey; You Better Learn Karate; The 1910 Fruitgum Company; Honolulu Superstar; Queen of the Disco Beat; A New Squad Attacking Formation; Saturday....Nite!!!! and so on.

With this incessant rain now reaching biblical proportions you could do a lot worse than allow a chink of musical sunshine into your lives courtesy of Swansea's finest band, like, ever.

It's My Club and I'll Play What I Want To by the always excellent Helen Love is out soon on Elefant Records. The good news is that it is also available on pink vinyl (600 copies). Get in there!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Whales Forever

Has anyone seen a 92 foot white whale made out of plastic and rubber floating off the coast of Fishguard? Only, one went missing there back in 1954...

Gather round landlubbers and let me tell you the tale. It started when that great American film director John Huston came to west Wales to shoot scenes for his blubbery epic Moby Dick (1956). He was accompanied by Gregory Peck who had landed the role of Captain Ahab. Their intention was to film a few straightforward nautical scenes near Strumble Head. What could possibly go wrong?

For the film three white 92ft whales had been constructed, each weighing about 12 tons. One of these monsters was towed out to sea off Fishguard and Peck clambered onto its back in readiness for filming. But, as any salty old sea dog will tell you, squalls can blow up and fog roll in at any time in those treacherous waters. And that's exactly what happened.

To make matters worse the ropes linking the leviathan to the tug boat snapped, leaving Peck adrift on the back of a pretend whale, at the mercy of 15ft waves. Apparently he genuinely believed his screams weren't going to be heard; and that he was about to be taking direction from the great auteur in the sky.

Fortunately for all concerned a motor launch eventually appeared through the fog and a much relieved Peck scrambled onboard. The whale was lost but Peck didn't care - he was just glad to be alive.

Later a full-scale search for the white whale was launched. All vessels in the area had to be warned as the giant-sized prop was considered a danger to shipping. A cross channel ferry picked it up on its radar three miles north of Fishguard. But unfortunately the whale mysteriously disappeared again and after three days the search was abandoned. Locals speculated that it would drift up and down the Irish Sea for a while and eventually be washed up somewhere near Aberystwyth. But that never happened.

So, dear reader, if you should spy a giant white whale off the Welsh coast, possibly with a few harpoons sticking in its back, you know exactly what to do. That's right, stand on one leg and declaim: "Thar she blows! A hump like a snow hill! It is Moby Dick!"

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Rhys Davies and Anna Kavan

The relationship between Welsh novelist Rhys Davies and cult author Anna Kavan is a fascinating one. I guess what drew them together must have been their outsider status - Davies the closeted homosexual and Kavan the secret heroin addict.

Davies first met her in the 1930s when she was living in Bledlow with her second husband and her bulldogs. After the collapse of this disastrous marriage they remained good friends. In later life he, along with theatrical type Raymond Marriott, would become her literary executor. Davies even features as the character 'R' in her book Asylum Piece (1940).

Kavan was attracted to homosexual men (though not sexually) and Davies it seems was something of an emotional prop. He was certainly often on hand to foil her suicide attempts. On one occasion she drew up a will leaving half of her estate to Davies and the other half to Raymond Marriott. She then took a heroin overdose. Davies and Marriott, guessing something was up, broke down the door of her flat and rushed her off to hospital.

As she got older she became increasingly cantankerous. At one meal she even threw a roast chicken at the Welsh writer. By then though he was familiar with her mood swings and took it on the chin, so to speak. In the 1960s she became quite interested in pop culture and often asked Davies to accompany her to happenings and other pop events in the West End of London.

In 1968 Kavan was found dead at her Kensington home. Famously police said they discovered there "enough heroin to kill the whole street". Curiously though she died not of an overdose but of natural causes. She was, however, draped across her bed with her head resting on the Chinese lacquered box in which she kept her smack.

Also in her flat Rhys Davies and Raymond Marriott found over 40 varieties of lipstick; and her drawings of executions and people being disembowelled. They had them destroyed which, in retrospect, seems a bit of a shame.

After her death Davies penned the introduction to Kavan's collection of stories Julia and the Bazooka (1970). It was here that Davies first publically revealed her heroin addiction. Incidentally 'bazooka' was Kavan's term for a heroin-filled hypodermic. Davies also edited another collection My Soul in China (1975).

Surprisingly Rhys Davies declined an offer to write her biography. Despite being her friend for over 30 years he claimed not to know enough about her to perform such a task. Instead he wrote a thinly disguised fictionalised biography called Honeysuckle Girl (1975). This often overlooked contribution to drugs literature (I'm surprised it hasn't been reprinted and given the full cult makeover treatment) recounts her second marriage; her bouts in a Swiss sanatorium; and life at her Kensington flat. As well, of course, as describing in detail her addiction to heroin.

*For those keen to seek out more info on the Rhys Davies/Anna Kavan connection I would highly recommend Welsh writer David Callard's excellent biography The Case of Anna Kavan (1992).

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Welsh Grapevine

Think I've mentioned before my mild obsession for old Welsh music fanzines. This one, Welsh Grapevine (see pic), began its life in 1974 when it was all Man, Budgie and Badfinger. Its editor was John Perkins.

After disappearing for a few years the mag suddenly resurfaced again in 1980 to ride the Welsh new wave. It came out of Newport and despite being quite primitive in terms of production, carried the occasional interesting tidbit. Below are some samples from a 1980 edition: a Crass gig in Barry; a review of a Puritan Guitars single (author John Williams was in this band); and a feature on Foel Studios:

Crass/Poison Girls - Barry Memorial Hall, 30th June

This is one gig I could have done without. There was a body and bag search by six untamed gorillas on the door. Then the shock, horror came when I couldn't get 2 pints of lager and a packet of crisps please, because only soft drinks were on sale - well the young cult Crass worshippers were only 15-16. The attendance was around 300 and most of them were dressed in the Crass army colour black. 7.30pm was the starting time, droning sounds came from the PA which sounded like a one key organ. 8.45pm Poison Girls came on but they didn't do much 'til 9.10pm (and that was the best part of their set). I'd rather listen to a morris minor revving. Pigs were well in attendance which didn't help make a relaxed atmosphere. 9.30pm came and I went, pissed off with the whole hype of the Crass machine (Amen).

The Puritan Guitars - £100 in 15 Minutes (Riverside Records)

The Puritan Guitars live in Cardiff and this is their first single on their own label.

The song is about a party that the band attended, held by Rough Trade Records when a £100's worth of drink was consumed in fifteen minutes. It's rock'n'roll, rock'n'roll, rock'n'roll, hypothetically speaking.

More info can be obtained by writing to them at: 68 Neville Street, Riverside, Cardiff.

Inside Story: Foel Studios

Think of the Young Marble Giants album which came out a few weeks back to five star reviews from the rock weeklies. Add to that the recent highly acclaimed singles from The Pop Group, The Slits and The Modettes. Also the Delta 5 single currently topping the independent labels chart. They are part of a steady stream of high quality recordings coming out of the Foel Studios in the heart of mid-Wales.

The studios at Cefn Coch, Llanfair Caereinion, Powys, is owned and run by Dave Anderson a bass player who saw action with Amon Duul, appearing on the Phallus Dei and Yeti albums; and with Hawkwind, appearing on the In Search of Space LP. He also played with the quixotic Van Der Graaf Generator who were the first band to start working in the Foel Studios in the early 70s. Their first album there was The Long Hello and they went on to record four more in the studio. The band's vocalist Peter Hamill also did solo work there.

A mixed bag from jazz to punk has emerged from the studio between then and now. The Stranglers did their early tapes there, and others have included Ian Gomm, Alexis Korner, Here and Now, and the first of the Rough Trade label series done at the studio, a dynamic but sadly overlooked album from Essential Logic.

In addition to Rough Trade, the studio is also now getting a lot of work from Red Rhino records and the new Legless Records label.

Cardiff band Zipper were there recently recording and lined up are sessions with The Raincoats, a return from Delta 5 and a new solo project with Stuart from the Young Marble Giants.

At present the studio has 16 track facilities but plans to expand are in the pipeline. Building work is continuing to provide accomodation for visiting bands to save long trips to village hotels. There will also be a 17 foot extension to the studio including the doubling in size of the control rooms and the installation of a new 24 track desk.

For those with a technical turn of mind the control rooms includes MIC tape recorders, a John Bales desk, Neumann AKG and Senheiser mics, JBL monitoring, an AKG stereo echo plate and the full complement of extras and fancy fiddling bits.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Mates Boutique

This has to be one of the most surreal meetings on Welsh soil ever. Picture the scene: it's Cardiff in 1970, a new boutique called Mates has just opened at 14 Queen Street. To celebrate the happy event a party is held. Among the guests are two bands - the Beach Boys who were playing a gig at the Capitol that night; and naff comedy act the Barron Knights who were doing a week's residency at Club Double Diamond in Caerphilly. The two bands are summoned together for press shots - they have to pretend to be mates. That's Mike Love with the beard on the left and Al Jardine is, I think, in the fur hat. The bearded figure in profile is either Carl or Brian Wilson. Classic.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Love and Other Possibilities

Love and Other Possibilities by Lewis Davies is a cosmopolitan collection of short stories, varied in tone but consistently high in quality. Written in a wonderfully elegant and unhurried prose style Davies demonstrates throughout a percipient eye for detail - not just in the visual sense but on the emotional plane too.

Cultural difference is a recurring theme in this book. Opening story Mr Roopratna's Chocolate (which won the Rhys Davies short story award) is set in rural Sri Lanka. A vacationing artist attempts to connect with the chocolate-loving native who tends the garden of his holiday bungalow. The gardener's Sisyphusian task of sweeping away the fallen leaves proves to be an apt metaphor as death, it seems, is always at hand in that beautiful but precarious corner of the world.

The cultural divide is more starkly drawn in Feeding the House Crows where the narrator has to deal with a begging sadhu who won't take no for an answer. When his luggage is later stolen on a train you wonder if sparing the sadhu a few rupees might have averted his nightmarish situation.

In The Stars Above the City a gay Welsh tourist is left with a slapped face after his cynical sexual advances are misinterpreted as sincere affection by the arab boy whom he has just seduced. Here the depiction of Tangiers and other Moroccan locales is an absolute delight.

Not all of Lewis's stories unfold in exotic locations though - just as much interest can be found in the domestic arena. The Fare set in urban Cardiff has a Pakistani driver traversing the city while he frets over the health of his sick son. In This Time of Year a Welsh carpenter attempts to balance his home life with the overtly masculine sphere of his working world. And in the disturbing To the Centre of the Volcano a man has to take on the responsibility of caring for his young son after his partner is killed in Spain.

As well as tales that work on an emotional level there are more intellectually playful stories on offer too. A fellow obsesses over a faded film star in the McEwan-esque An Immediate Man. Once again the protagonists don't quite connect leaving a pervading sense of unfulfilled desire. In Dave Tillers fantasy and reality are blurred as the identity of a soap opera actor becomes increasingly enmeshed with the character he plays. And in Doris and Ethanol on City Road a forensic examination of a corpse is an effective way of dissecting a woman's past life and character. Here, as in much of this collection, death casts a long shadow.

The excellent Love and Other Possibilities by Lewis Davies is published by Parthian and is on sale... soon.