Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Revenant by Tristan Hughes

Revenant really spooked me. I was unsettled by Tristan Hughes's modern-day ghost story, haunted by its imagery and the awful, binding secret at its heart. The plot is straightforward enough. A trio of childhood compatriots - Neil, Ricky and Steph - meet as adults to honour Del, their tomboy leader, who died when they were young. A death that they witnessed. They have returned to Ynys Mon to exorcise their ghosts and to find closure, but it isn't that simple.

This dark tale is told in three interwoven narratives which alternate between adulthood and childhood. As in any good ghost story suspense is built. We know that Del, bold and vivacious, will at some point perish and that her death will probably involve water. The clues are all there. But, until the novel's end, the exact circumstances of her demise remain - rather like her character - elusive and just out of reach.

Fans of Hughes will be familiar with the strong gothic undercurrent to his writing. The way that he makes the ordinary sinister. Old people, here, are shuffling zombies; seagulls with bloodied beaks, Hitchcockian; hands and fingers - a creepy leitmotif. There are mausolea: Steph's bedroom preserved exactly as it was when she fled the family home; and the gatehouse with its stuffed dead dog, clamping a stuffed dead pheasant in its jaws.

Hughes is sly - he makes you care for these misfit children, this motley collection of outsiders. Each is marked with the indelible print of trauma. Neil's mother died young and left him a diffident stutterer unable to act; Ricky, stigmatised and belittled for being a "pikey", is an insecure wanderer; and poor Steph will suffer at the salacious hands of the Candyman.

Hughes is good, too, on the dynamics of the group: the subtly shifting alliances, small treacheries, and rivalries. The relationship between the two girls, Del and Steph, is particularly fascinating. Steph, pretty and posh, is aware that in the adult world, she will usurp her plain tomboyish friend. And maybe Del knows it too - after all, it is she who abandons Steph to the clutches of the Candyman.

The landscape is a mixture of the natural, and the magical world of folk and fairytale. Here is a forest of monkey puzzle trees, an abandoned mansion, and the Candyman's house - pitched somewhere between Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood. Their realm is inhabited by a dancing bear, a dragon, and ghosts. The adult Neil sees the sprightly image of Del everywhere. And, of course, these grown-ups are ghosts to each other - never quite sure if they are of corporeal form or not.

Violence lurks just beneath the taut surface of the narrative ready to erupt. Another classic gothic trait. And erupt it does: in a fire; the destruction of a classroom; a slapped face. And then there is the death of Del herself - as heartbreaking and quietly shocking a moment as you'll find. But I won't reveal any more on that front - it would be a shame to spoil the ending of a very fine ghost story.

Revenant by Tristan Hughes is published by Picador and is my book of the year. It would make an eerie but satisfying stocking filler.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Spencer McGarry Season

Spencer McGarry Season’s fine debut CD, Episode 1, kicks off with a couple of tone-setting tracks: Oh Leonard and Tell Me What’s Shaking (Except this Building). That tone being a pared-down, crisp, beat sound that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Scene Club circa 1965.

The mod momentum is continued through The Heat Was Hot (a number that helps fill the ‘good songs about wrestling’ void); and, To the Liars Take Me, which goes straight into my anthology of decent tunes about magazines that contain jaunty whistling.

Leader of the Chain Gang is an enjoyable sing-a-long that takes the traditional theme of work and applies to it the anxieties of modern office life. One of this CD’s many highlights. A Title Sparks Would Have Used, lyrically at least, goes all postmodern and seems to be about the creative process. It contains the memorable line: “fictional rain beats down about Swansea town”.

Things take a more metaphysical turn with The Reason Not the Meaning and Futsure which deal with ideas of ontology and predestination. I shit you not.

Recent single A Paler Shade of Wit is an absolute belter and more infectious than a severe dose of chicken pox. The same can be said for the XTC-esque The Un-Filmable Life and Life of Terry Gilliam. An homage to the left-field film director, which references several of his movies.

The CD ends strongly in upbeat toe-tapping mode. When Stupids Come to Town exudes the kind of hard-edged white boy funk that the Gang of Four would have been proud of. Whilst final track, We’re Going to Dance the Night Away, does exactly what it says on the tin.

Mentioned in despatches are Stephen Black (Sweet Baboo) and Avvon Chambers who provide a pulsating rhythm section that underpins McGarry’s sharp, inventive guitar work and idiosyncratic vocals. You can get hold of Episode 1 from Businessman Records or Spillers Records right now, or wait until after Xmas when it will arrive, as if by magic, in your local chain record store.

Highly recommended.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Patrick Jones: 2 Poetry Readings

The Christians were gathered opposite the Senedd in Cardiff Bay. About 200, I reckon. They sang O Come all Ye Faithful, Once in Royal David's City, Calon Lan. "Potty-mouthed poet" Patrick Jones and his supporters were condemned. Speeches denouncing blasphemy were made. People shouted out "hallelujah". A man waved a gold flag, another blew a horn. One fellow, bursting with religious zeal, declared that he used to be a drug addict. Now God was his fix.

Television camera crews rolled up. Like flies on a dungheap politicians materialised and provided the soundbites. Strategically positioned coppers looked like they'd rather be at Ninian Park. Office workers peered out of their windows. I bumped into poet Peter Finch - we were both taking snaps. He went inside to watch Patrick Jones; I remained outside and observed the Christians praying.

At 8pm I was having my bag searched at Borders bookshop. This was Patrick Jones's second poetry reading of the day. Security were afraid that fundamentalists might attempt to infiltrate the gathering. It was strictly invitation only. I assured them of my atheism and they allowed me to enter. Outside, Stephen Green, of Christian Voice was still going on about blasphemy. And homosexuality. And ASBOs. His 200 supporters from the Senedd had dwindled to a mere handful. Perhaps the others had gone Christmas shopping.

There's a certain frisson to being in an empty chain bookstore at night, especially at this time of year. I suppressed an urge to shoplift. We made our way upstairs to the instore Starbucks where the poetry reading was set to take place. The irony of one of Wales's most politicised writers doing his stuff in a Starbucks was not lost on any of us. Needs must, I suppose. We helped ourselves to free wine and nibbles. I said hello to Rachel Trezise.

Burly security guards scrutinised us - the audience - as Patrick Jones read aloud his work. It was surreal. But, to the disappointment of those hoping for a bit of conflict, nobody broke ranks and attempted to disrupt the event. Not even when he read from Hymn, the poem which had caused most of the 'blasphemy' controversy. Instead, we clapped politely at the end of each reading. Between poems Jones apologised for all the fuss. He didn't usually have this level of security, he said, not even when he read in Aberdare.

Afterwards I grabbed a quick word with Patrick. I told him that the Christians protesting at the Senedd had been concerned about his soul. He shrugged and signed my book. 'Create dangerously' it said.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Mandy Rice-Davies in Penarth

This photo, from 1965, is of Mandy Rice-Davies paddling in Penarth. She was appearing in cabaret at the Marina Club, there. To drum up a bit of publicity she put on her bathing costume and took to the waters.

This was just a couple of years after the Profumo affair. Trading on her notoriety she had taken up a singing career and even released a couple of records. Trouble was a moral minority were still upset at her role in the scandal. In fact, her Christmas tour in 1964 had to be cancelled because of protests by housewives and church leaders.

By the time she arrived in Penarth, however, things had cooled down considerably. She told reporters: "I do hope I'm not going to encounter good old Welsh hypocrisy this time." Well, she would know all about that - after all, Mandy was born into a Welsh family herself. The gig went ahead as planned and there was no trouble whatsoever from the liberal-minded folk of Penarth.

Friday, December 05, 2008

New Welsh Review: The Last Word

The latest edition of New Welsh Review is out now. It is the first under the stewardship of Kathryn Gray. You can read Kathryn's debut editorial here. The mag contains a couple of brand new features, including an opinion piece, The Last Word. Yours truly was given the dubious honour of writing the inaugural one.

An opinion piece should, I think, be a bit provocative, so I decided to have a little dig at Welsh literary criticism. In particular, I questioned why Welsh science-fiction, fantasy and horror are so often ignored by critics in favour of more 'authentic' authors like Dylan Thomas, RS Thomas etc. In my view putting authors into an officially-sanctioned top 10 and then writing about them ad nauseam is about a 100 years out of date. Anyway, I look forward to getting slaughtered in the next issue.

But listen, it's not all about me. There's plenty of other good stuff in the mag too. Welsh film director Justin Kerrigan talks about the making of his new film I Know You Know; Lloyd Robson raps about gonzo and Robert Mitchum; Terry Eagleton discusses Raymond Williams; there's a photo essay by John Briggs; new poetry by the sickeningly talented Joe Dunthorne, and much more.

You can get hold of New Welsh Review from your local bookshop or purchase a copy online, here. And remember, a magazine subscription makes a great Xmas present that lasts the whole year.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Mia Lewis

Another forgotten Welsh pop singer from the mid-Sixties. A petite 5ft 1" tall, Mia Lewis had huge grey-green eyes. Between 1965-67 she cut five discs: Wish I Didn't Love Him (Decca); It's Goodbye Now (Decca); Nothing Lasts Forever (Parlophone); No Time For Lovin' (Parlophone); and Woman's Love (Parlophone).

Mia hailed from Abercraf, deep in the upper-Swansea valley. She came from a large family and was one of 8 siblings. Before becoming a professional singer, aged 18, she had worked as a telephonist at a local clock factory. Her wage was £6 per week. To supplement her income she sang regularly at the Embassy theatre in Swansea.

When Mia turned professional she left Wales to live in London. She lodged in South Hornsey with her uncle, Viv Morgan. She made many appearances on TV and toured the UK. She even had plans to visit the States where her debut single was getting decent reviews. Unfortunately, despite possessing dreamy looks and a strong voice, her records never made much of an impact on the charts, and her pop career sank without trace.

If you know what became of Mia, get in touch.

Sleeveface - the Book

In which section of my local bookstore, I wondered, would I find Sleeveface? Music? Photography? Art?

Sleevefacing, in case you didn't know, is the practice of placing a record sleeve in front of your face to create an optical illusion. Sleeveface, the book, is a compilation of the best examples sent to Cardiffians Carl Morris and John Rostron - originators of the craze. Here you'll find wannabe Elvises, Madonnas and even a couple of Kenny Rogers'.

But this phenomenon goes way beyond mere celebrity worship. It's more subtle than that. Flick through the pages of Sleeveface and you'll soon discover a host of ironic, even iconoclastic, images. There's Elvis Costello doing a spot of vacuuming; John Travolta wearing fishnet tights; Gil Scott-Heron sporting a fetching pair of pink socks. Before your very eyes pop stars change gender, even skin colour - Barbra Streisand mutates into a dog. Untouchable icons are comically dragged into the domestic: you'll find them in your humble bedsitting room, in the bathroom, on the loo. Context is everything to the serious sleevefacer.

Be warned, though, sleevefacing can seriously alter your record buying habits. No longer do vinyl vultures ransack charity shops seeking out overlooked musical masterpieces, but they are buying records for their sleevefacing potential too. Cool kids of otherwise impeccable taste are snapping up albums by Demis Roussos, Richard Clayderman and, gulp, Huey Lewis and the News.

No doubt the proliferation of the digital camera in recent years has boosted the phenomenon. Here is a perfect marriage of affordable new techology with that old school, lo-fi format: vinyl. And judging from the cosmopolitan variety of backgrounds on show, sleevefacing has become a global activity.

It's worth noting that this book is excellently produced. The quality and layout of the images, throughout, is first class. And weighing in at 192 pages, with well over 200 examples - at a pocket-fondling £8.99 - it represents great value for money.

Sleeveface by Carl Morris and John Rostron is a celebration of vinyl, pop culture, and being a bit cheeky. It's also great fun. Which is why my local bookstore classifies it under: humour. The book is published by Artisan and would make a perfect Xmas present. If you want a sneak preview have a peek at the official Sleeveface website.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Tawny Reed

In 1965 17-year-old Tawny Reed was signed up by Pye records. She was from Diamond Street, Adamsdown, Cardiff. She had been snapped up by songwriting and management team M/B (Myron and Byron) Enterprises. M/B had already discovered Tom Jones and firmly believed that Tawny, with her "aggressive" singing style, would be just as successful as The Boy From Nowhere.

Tawny had gigged extensively in local south Wales dance halls and clubs with her backing band the Flower Pot Men. However, when she went into a London studio to cut her first disc, session musicians were employed instead. Tony Hatch had already visited Cardiff and drawn up a list of possible material for her debut single. The song they eventually chose was Needle in a Haystack, a cover of a hit by Motown group the Velvelettes.

Despite falling off her stool during the recording session, her actual 45 turned out to be pretty impressive. She sounds like a Welsh Lulu rather than another Sandie Shaw which is, apparently, how Tony Hatch envisaged her. The single was also released in the States on the legendary Red Bird label (home of the Shangri-Las) - Tawny being the only girl from the UK to ever achieve this distinction.

Unfortunately the single didn't chart. Nor did her follow up, You Can't Take it Away, released the following year. She was dropped by Pye and, sadly, disappeared altogether from the '60s musical map. Here she is performing Needle in a Haystack on TV and throwing a few interesting shapes in the process.