Sunday, August 31, 2008

RIP John Summers

Sadly Welsh writer John Summers died recently, aged 80. Back in 2004 he was kind enough to complete an interview with me for my website. Since then, we have corresponded occasionally via the post. John's letters were always welcome - they railed against various injustices in the world, but also contained wonderful anecdotes from his literary career. During his lifetime he had met the likes of Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, and interviewed such luminaries as Anthony Powell, Robert Shaw, Ian Fleming, Angus Wilson, Evelyn Waugh and Rocky Marciano.

As well as being a journalist, he also wrote four works of fiction and three travel books. His best known novel, The Disaster, dramatised the Aberfan catastrophe and the subsequent battle for compensation. This was a fight which John had personally been involved in. In fact, it was he who had issued the High Court writ that eventually resulted in the restoration of missing money to the fund.

With The Disaster, Summers had to overcome a difficult challenge. He had to turn a still very raw tragedy into art - entertainment even, in order to draw attention to the compensation fiasco. This, for me, makes it a unique and culturally interesting piece of work. It was a novel written with a purpose way beyond its own aesthetic dimensions. John was more than happy for the populist New English Library to publish his book because it meant greater numbers of people would be made aware of a terrible injustice.

It was sad then, and ironic, to read that John spent his last years embroiled in a bitter battle with his local council over housing. Nevertheless, it is heartening to see that he was continuing his fight against unfeeling authority, and raging against the dying of the light. The good news is that Alwyn Turner, author of the excellent Trash Fiction enterprise, has set up an online tribute website dedicated to preserving John's name and promoting his work. Although only in the early stages of its development, you'll find information there on the Welsh author, examples of his writings, photographs, and other miscellany. So be sure to check it out.

You can read a Telegraph obituary of John Summers here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dylan Thomas and Tom Waits

Today I was idly thumbing my way through Uncut magazine when I happened upon this advert for HMV. It brings together three components that are meant to denote coolness: singer Tom Waits; photographer Anton Corbijn; and Welsh writer Dylan Thomas.

Although the information that Tom Waits (of whom I'm a big fan) has been inspired by the writings of Dylan Thomas is interesting, at the end of the proverbial, HMV are just trying to flog me their products aren't they. Thus, the advert itself, is fundamentally uncool.

Much has been written in recent times concerning notions of coolness, and its co-option by corporate business. Rebel Sell by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter is a notable example. Adbusters, the culture jamming magazine, has also been pondering whether cool can be reconquered and reconstituted after years of being hijacked by big business.

In Wales we recently had to contend with the completely alien, and rather patronising, concept of 'Cool Cymru'. Of course, as any sane Welsh person will tell you, we are an heroically uncool nation. You will, however, always find the odd exception that proves the rule.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Titbits May 1973

This is an advert for Titbits magazine which appeared in May 1973. Apparently they did a special on teenage prostitution in Cardiff. Quite interested to see how sleazy, lowlife, Cardiff, is presented in an early-Seventies, tabloid, aesthetic. So, if anyone has this particular edition, I'd love to have a gander at a copy.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Jerry Lewis's Flag Day

In 1975 there was much excitement in Usk at the prospect of a visit by zany Hollywood star Jerry Lewis, famed for his comedies with Dean Martin. Lewis was in London doing some cabaret shows and had agreed to perform for a week at the Helmaen International in Usk (see pic). Although the star was well past the peak of his fame, it was still quite a coup for the Gwent nightclub.

In early July Lewis's people contacted City Hall, Cardiff. They thought it would be good for Jerry to visit the city on Independence Day (July 4) for a bit of pre-publicity. What they had in mind was a flag-raising ceremony. Jerry would turn up, meet the Lord Mayor, and the stars and stripes would be run up a flag-pole above City Hall. A nice photo-op for the local press.

One problem - Cardiff's Lord Mayor at the time was staunch Tory, Sir Charles Stuart Hallinan. He refused, point-blank, to celebrate the anniversary of America's two-fingered salute to its then colonial master, Britain. Hallinan would, however, consent to allowing Lewis a courtesy visit to his parlour.

How did the Hollywood legend, and proud American, react? Not only did he decline the Lord Mayor's snooty offer but he instantly cancelled his week of shows in Usk too. If the Welsh weren't prepared to fly the American flag, then he wasn't going to come to Wales. And he didn't.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Henry Rollins in Spillers Records

Wow, what a wonderful photograph taken by Llinos Griffiths. It's a portrait of the great Henry Rollins inside Spillers Records in downtown Cardiff. The former Black Flag frontman and raconteur par excellence, is clasping an iconic Spillers tee-shirt to his bosom. Trust Henry to choose one of the black ones.

You can see more of Llinos Griffiths' excellent photographic work at her myspace site or over at flickr. Check it out.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Submarine by Joe Dunthorne

Submarine is an impressive debut novel by Joe Dunthorne from Swansea. Reviewers have been falling over themselves to label it the new Catcher in the Rye. True, Submarine is a coming-of-age tale featuring a smart-ass 15-year-old kid but - to my mind - it is more like an ultra-funny, teenage Notes from Underground.

Central character, Oliver Tate, lives in Swansea but exists mostly inside his own head. He is a spy covertly analysing his parents' faltering marriage. He is also on a mission to lose his virginity before reaching the legal age of consent. To his decent, liberal, parents and the world at large he is just a mildly troublesome adolescent, but through his interior narrative and occasional diary-keeping we glimpse his true, warped, character.

Tate is inquisitive, intelligent, self-assured, casually malicious, but also naive. Early on we learn that he is a narrator not to be trusted. The neighbours he spies on with a telescope turn out to be somewhat different from what he has led us to believe: the pansexual (that's somebody who is sexually attracted to everything) is actually a physiotherapist; the knacker is a painter-decorator; and the Zoroastrians are just a normal muslim family.

Although the plot and setting might appear mundane, Submarine's brilliance is in its defamiliarisation. (Viktor Shklovsky would have loved this book). Seeing the world through Tate's eyes we discover, not just that adolesence is a peculiar state of mind, but that suburban, middle-class life, can be even weirder. The novel is full of great observations on the ordinary: just why is it the responsibility of the person whose birthday it is to take the cake into work?

Viewing the world from an alien perspective is a constant source of humour in Submarine, but there is a darker edge to the comedy. When Oliver learns that his girlfriend's mother has a life-threatening tumour, he decides to accustom her to grief by assassinating her pet dog. Emotional ignorance rather than evil motivates his actions - Dunthorne demonstrating that innocence doesn't necessarily equate to being angelic.

Submarine is about the getting of knowledge, both experiential and intellectual. With the help of a dictionary and the internet, Tate strives to make sense of his world. As well as being a novelist, Dunthorne is a poet, and his relish and fascination for language has, clearly, been transferred to his leading protagonist. Thus, such delicious and strange words as triskaidekaphobia, flagitious, autarky and napthene are given an airing and, thankfully, their meanings explained.

From a Welsh point of view it is refreshing to read a Swansea-set novel that doesn't mention Dylan Thomas. The city, and surrounding areas, are given proper topographical substance: "There are wild horses on the scrags of grass on Mayhill. Some young men use them as public transport." Port Talbot steelworks is like: "Mrs Griffiths contrusting the world's ugliest simultaneous equation on the blackboard - all numbers, dashes, scraping and chalk dust." Marvellous.

Submarine by Joe Dunthorne is intelligent, extremely funny, and it's on sale now.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Helen Morgan on a Rocking Horse

Look! It's Helen Morgan wearing traditional Welsh costume whilst riding on a rocking horse. The rocking horse had been manufactured at Tri-ang's Merthyr factory and was being promoted at the 1974 Welsh Toy Fair in Cardiff. This picture was taken just a few months before the Barry beauty was crowned Miss World. Sadly, as we all know, Helen was forced to abdicate a few days after her triumph when organisers discovered she was an unmarried mother. Surely alarm bells ought to have been ringing when they heard she was from Barry? Helen may have had the Miss World title cruelly snatched from her grasp, but she became an instant icon for single mothers across the land.

Little-known Miss World fact: keep it under your hat but one of the judges at the 1974 competition was Wales's own Shirley Bassey.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Thing With Two Heads

You might have thought that a role in The Thing With Two Heads (1972) would have been beneath Ray Milland’s dignity. But fair dos to the man, he was always prepared to put in a shift. In this flick, Milland plays a racist bigot whose head has been grafted onto the body of a soul brother. The heavy handed liberal message and extremely poor production values have ensured that it regularly makes it onto those '50 worst movies ever made' lists.

The downward trajectory of Milland’s career is quite interesting. At his peak he was playing suave romantic leads opposite the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Lana Turner. His popularity reached its zenith in 1945 when he won a best actor Oscar for his memorable performance as an alcoholic writer in The Lost Weekend. However, as he got older and his looks began to fade, he switched to b-movies and horror films, appearing in such cult classics as: Dial M For Murder (1954); Premature Burial (1962); and The Man With X-Ray Eyes (1963).

Clearly, he was scraping the barrel by appearing in The Thing with Two Heads, but nevertheless this YouTube trailer is absolutely hilarious, and will spare you the agony of having to watch the whole film. Enjoy.