Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Young Marble Giants on Broadway

According to Mike Appelstein at his excellent Young Marble Giants resource, members of Wales's most cult band ever, used to reside at 48a Broadway, Cardiff. Doesn't look like the place has changed much since the late-Seventies judging by this photograph taken yesterday. I, too, once lived on Broadway, but further down the street above a caravanette shop. Living on Broadway was not as glamorous as it might sound. During my spell there (about 5 years later than the band) it was a cut-price, fairly dingy neighbourhood, with not a lot happening. There was Hank's garage where the bikers hung out; a couple of greasy spoons; a dodgy laundrette where my punk tee-shirts would go missing with monotonous regularity; and a clutch of takeaways. What little pavement action that did occur, was usually sparked by alcoholic residents from the homeless hostel; or by whizzed-up working girls from the massage parlour across the road (euphemistically called the Broadway Health Studio). What Broadway did have, though, was some great pubs: The Clifton, The Locomotive (now boarded up), The Bertram, The New Dock Tavern and the legendary Royal Oak. Solid working-class establishments that sold cheap beer where we punk/goth/weirdo types would occasionally venture, only to be stared at by the locals. But, to be honest, we kind of liked that.

Where this wholly unnecessary preamble is leading to, is the news that Young Marble Giants are to play a gig at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, as part of the upcoming Swn festival. Keep an eye on the Swn website for ticketing details.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Dig the Nu Breed

Are you a young writer under 30 years of age? Do you creep home every night, bolt yourself in your bedroom, and scribble brooding stories that Dostoyevsky would be proud of? Maybe you're the new Charles Bukowski? Or Julie Burchill? Is your God-given talent being overlooked by boring old farts who don't understand true literary genius when they see it!? Fear not, young person, because help is at hand.

Parthian books are currently putting together an anthology entitled Nu, which aims to foster and showcase undiscovered writing talent. This is a great opportunity for fresh-faced scribes to get their words into print and get themselves noticed. That means you, sunshine. Doesn't matter if it's a short story, poem, cultural essay, diatribe, whatever - it just has to be good and be brimming with youth and vitality.

A youthful Rachel Trezise began her writing career with a short story published by Parthian. Since then she has had three books published and won the inaugural Dylan Thomas Prize, worth a cool £60,000. She now lives in a golden palace at a secret location somewhere in the Valleys. That could be you - so get cracking. Who knows where it might all lead: "And the winner of this year's Nobel Prize For Literature is.... (insert your name here)."

For more information and submission details click here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Welsh Apocalypse

Lately I've been researching Wales's secret science-fiction history, trying to discover why the genre has, largely, been ignored by Welsh literary critics. During my survey I've turned up a surprising amount of material, not just in literature but in pop culture too. There have even been a few notable examples of Welsh-language science-fiction, including this apocalyptic work by ex-nuclear scientist Owain Owain, entitled Y Dydd Olaf (1976) (The Last Day). I absolutely love the cover (see pic) which was designed by the author himself.

Talking of the end of the world - wouldn't it be amusing if it was ushered in by that bloke from Aberdare. Anyone else been checking Revelations for oblique anti-Christ references pertaining to the south Wales valleys?

Friday, September 12, 2008

Tafod y Ddraig

I was flicking recently through a few old editions of Tafod Y Ddraig (The Dragon's Tongue), the magazine of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society). Some of the cover designs, and the quality of the political cartoons contained within, are excellent. My favourite examples come from 1969 - the year of Charles Windsor's investiture as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon castle. Anger at this colonial celebration of the subjugation of the Welsh, imbues every page. It's a shame these editions are not better known outside the Welsh-language community - even within Wales - if only as a reminder that there were some Welsh people in 1969 prepared to stand up and give a dissenting, two fingered salute, to the monarchy and the forces of colonialism.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lorna Morgan

Lorna Morgan, originally from the Valleys, but now resident in Cardiff is a leading exponent of, um, big boob modelling. In fact, she is a busty model of world repute. Over the years Lorna has appeared in numerous publications which celebrate the generous mammarian proportions of the voluptuous woman (see pic - Score Feb, 2006). Apparently it's quite a popular niche market. If this is your, er, double D cup of erotica then visit Lorna's website (remember you must be over 18 years of age), where you are able to purchase videos, magazines, and bits of her underwear. Seriously.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Michael X: A Life in Black and White

John Williams has resurrected one of Britain’s forgotten bogeymen - 1960s black power leader Michael X. In his entertaining biography Michael X: A Life in Black and White, Williams charts his subject’s journey from a Port of Spain childhood, to his eventual hanging for murder in Trinidad’s Royal Gaol. A circular trajectory that takes in Tiger Bay, Notting Hill, and the Holloway Rd.

During this picaresque tale, Michael X encounters many of the major players of the 1960s: Colin MacInnes, Lennon and Ono, Alexander Trocchi, Leonard Cohen, Muhammad Ali, William Burroughs, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Allen Ginsberg, and Mick Jagger, to name but a few. Just as interesting, though, are the sundry characters he meets on the fringes of society - the conmen, junkies, pimps, and chancers.

Michael X turns out to be a natural chameleon. There are the name changes: Michael de Freitas, Michael X, Michael Abdul Malik. His different personae: hustler, poet, revolutionary. He is variously black, white, red, brown and, in a tight spot, even a jew. Whether writing articles for Oz; sorting out Pink Floyd’s security; or addressing Black Power meetings, he was equally comfortable.

As well as possessing chameleon-like qualities Michael X is shown to be a born networker. His access to prominent figures in both the counterculture movement and the political underground, ensured his presence at many of the big events of the era: the Notting Hill riots; the Wholly Communion; the Dialectics of Liberation Conference; and the setting up of the London Free School. He was pretty much ubiquitous.

Michael X is far from being a hagiographic work. Williams isn’t seeking to retrospectively exonerate his man, or portray him as an out and out victim. It quickly becomes evident, however, that British newspapers in the 1960s - with an eye on events across the Atlantic - were keen to raise the spectre of race-war here. Michael X’s demonic public persona was, therefore, essentially a press construct. That said, shameless self-promoter that he was, de Freitas was more than happy to step up to the plate and become their black bogeyman.

As well as being a thoroughly researched book, its author has a sharp eye for the absurd, and it’s worth pointing out that there are many comic moments in this biography. A trip to Timbuktu by Michael X, Alexander Trocchi and Nigel Samuel, to find a fabled African university is cut short when they discover that it closed down sometime in the Sixteenth century. The sudden appearance of the black revolutionary’s mother in Britain, wearing a bright red quilted bathrobe, is also memorable.

From a Welsh point of view there are interesting episodes. Britain’s original multi-ethnic community, Cardiff’s Tiger Bay, is eulogised by its one-time resident. The Commonwealth Arts Festival of 1965, also in Cardiff, is portrayed as an hilarious Dionysian romp. And Michael X’s spell in Swansea prison, peering out over the lime pit where hanged prisoners were buried, eerily foreshadows his own fate.

By the time of his own demise at the end of a hangman’s rope, Michael X had become oddly emblematic of the Sixties. Having fled London to set up a commune in rural Trinidad, the idyll ends horribly with murder, in an atmosphere of drug-aided paranoia. Whilst never on the scale of Manson’s Spahn Ranch nightmare, or Jim Jones’s, later, Guyanese religious massacre, there is still an air of Utopia turned sour, and of a leader with ever diminishing power, unable to deliver on his promises.

It’s telling that while a band of Michael X’s white liberal celeb friends were trying to free him from the death penalty, the Trinidadian public were keen to see him swing. During his incarceration calypsos were composed with titles like One to Hang and Hang Him. Thus Michael X’s life ends with a characteristic air of carnival, like those he had attended as a child, and the one he had been instrumental in setting up in Notting Hill.

Michael X: A Life in Black and White is an absolute belter of a biography. It’s published by Century and is on sale now.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Robert Lewis Interview

Robert Lewis is currently writing some of the darkest noir in crime fiction. In his novels The Last Llanelli Train and Swansea Terminal he has brilliantly charted the physical and spiritual decline of his cancer-ridden, alcoholic PI, Robin Llywelyn. And somehow, in the process, managed to transform his loser 'tec's bleak travails into the blackest of black comedy. Here, Lewis steps away from the precipice for a moment to answer a few of my questions.

Rob, why have you chosen to write crime fiction over other types of fiction?

You know, I’m not sure it was even a conscious decision. I really didn’t have to think about it. I started writing and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to have a man sitting alone in an office, a woman walks in, offers him a job, the job is not what it seems. Just about every writer in the world uses form, even the Booker boys and girls: mine was the crime genre. The particular aspect of crime fiction I was pulled towards, the dark noir stuff, that’s probably got a lot more to do with the sort of person I am. Although writing is such a lonely and futile act, for which you would be mad to expect any reward, I am amazed noir isn’t more popular. There is a natural resonance between what my view of a writer is and the noir Weltanschauung.

As its title suggests Swansea Terminal has a strong sense of place - what research did you do in preparation for this novel?

Oh man. I have to refer you again to the stuff I’ve just said about the writer and the hard-boiled worldview. I moved to Swansea and lived in a bedsit halfway up Mount Pleasant, on the top floor of a big old house, and started the first page on the day I arrived. I spent about four months there, alone, walking around and writing and drinking and listening to people. That kind of immersion is how I like to write. It’s not terribly practical, but I think there’s a pay-off for it in terms of the finished product. It amuses me sometimes - lots of things about writers amuse me - when they talk about how much hard work they put in researching their novel, like a novel is some kind of academic project. With the historical stuff it makes sense, of course, but with everything else I think you either really engage and commit to it or you don’t. Apart from that, obsessively reading Raymond Chandler et al for much of my life, and especially my formative adolesence, was doubtless a critical kind on unconscious preparation. And sometimes overtly conscious - I reread each of the six big Chandler books every year.

How much of Rob Lewis's character is in the character of Robin Llywelyn?

More than I’d like. I created him initially because he was the man I was frightened I would become. Haven’t quite got there yet. He’s not a direct lift, though - I have a little bit of fun with him occasionally.

What is your writing routine?

It’s either full-on or non-existent. Sometimes I slide into the romantic drunken author cliché, typing away in the middle of the night with a drink by my side. I certainly don’t do it all of the time, but it does seem to sometimes help. Sometimes.

Which other writers have influenced you?

Raymond Chandler kicks arse. He really does. I appreciate I’m hardly rescuing him from obscurity here, but he is fucking divine. There is a gem on every page, and most of the time it doesn’t look like he’s even trying. He’s far more readable at the level of the sentence than people think he is. The plots contribute, but nowhere near as much. Genre be damned, he bloody rules. Philip Marlowe could never exist, of course, that’s the only fundamental problem. He’d be one fucked up guy - not sociopathic, not violently dysfunctional, like Ellroy’s characters, but one seriously sad lonely person, and far less effectively moral. There’s a terrific sense of place in those books too, and of the time. It’s one thing to write a historical novel and capture the spirit of the time, that after all is the point of the historical novel, but to write a contemporary, commercially successful novel and get it all in there for posterity while you do it, without overstating it too much, that’s a marvel.

Otherwise Joseph Conrad is good at the spectre of redemption, Greene is okay here and there for guilt and shame. There are plenty of other writers who I admire, but none that have so directly affected the Llywelyn novels. And yes, I do like dead white male authors. I’m going to be one.

Where and what next for your detective Robin Llywelyn? Are you finally going to give the guy a break and allow some happiness into his life?

In each Llywelyn novel he has to fall a little further and a little harder. It makes things more difficult but it means things stay faithful. So the third one kicks off in a cancer hospice, and gets worse from there on in. It’s kind of an inversion of the classic country house murder mystery - everyone’s dying, and everybody knows why. If some happiness does creep in - and I don’t want to give too much way - it will come at a cost. Most likely the final book will be the darkest one of all. Laughter from the darkness - it’s the only real laughter there is, right?

* Swansea Terminal and The Last Llanelli Train are both published by Serpent's Tail

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

New Welsh Review

The latest edition of New Welsh Review is out now, and contains an article I've written on blogging culture. In the piece I outline my own, ahem, blogging philosophy and examine the phenomenon both in Wales and the world at large. Incidentally, this blog entry which is about an article I've written about this blog, is an example of meta-blogging.

On a more thrilling note, the latest edition of NWR is significant because it is the last under the editorship of Francesca Rhydderch. She did a great job in broadening its base and turning it into a proper cultural magazine. It looks pretty cool now, too, which should never be underestimated. The new editor is Kathryn Gray.

I notice that she has started a New Welsh Review blog. Welcome to the Twenty First century NWR. If you want to keep up to date with what's going on in the life of the mag, click here. In the comments box you can leave your messages of support; ideas; news; bitchy remarks; or, under an assumed name, your vitriolic outbursts. Happy blogging.