Friday, May 29, 2009

Dennis Stock's Christmas in Wales

It is amazing how many great photographers have worked in Wales: Robert Capa, W. Eugene Smith, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka, Elliott Erwitt, Bruce Davidson, Bill Brandt and, more recently, Bruce Gilden and Martin Parr.

One of the most unlikely snappers to have ventured here is Dennis Stock. Stock is renowned for his shots of Hollywood stars such as Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, and in particular his 1955 James Dean series. A posterised version of his now-famous image of an overcoated Dean trudging through Times Square, New York, has adorned the walls of countless teenage bedrooms. It's one of the most iconic photos of the twentieth century.

In 1962 Stock completed a Welsh assignment for Magnum. I don't know if these pictures ever appeared in any magazine articles - certainly 'A Child's Christmas in Wales' was a popular feature with American editors in the '50s and '60s - but I've never seen them before. I don't know, either, where in Wales these shots were taken, as the captions are somewhat vague. The dearth of knowledge pertaining to Stock's fascinating Welsh images demonstrates, I suppose, just how sorely neglected Wales's photographic heritage is.

If you have any more information about the location of these photographs, or indeed if you happen to be featured in them yourself, get in touch.

*Both of the above images are © Dennis Stock/Magnum

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Panic on the Streets of Newport

When The Smiths played Newport Leisure Centre in 1986 it was a 2,000 sell-out. For about half-an-hour things went swimmingly until Morrissey approached the front row and decided to clasp the outstretched hands of his adoring acolytes. Whereupon, he was unceremoniously yanked from the stage and dragged into a teeming mob of adolescent miserablists. He didn't surface for about three minutes. In his absence the rest of the band played an instrumental. Eventually members of the road crew managed to haul him back up on to the stage but, clearly, all was not well with the flower-wielding star. He staggered around the stage for a bit holding his injured bonce but, unable to continue, he headed for the wings. The rest of the band followed suit.

The audience anxiously awaited the group's return - they'd forked out £6.50 per ticket and wanted their money's worth. After about 10 minutes it was announced that Morrissey was "catching his breath" and that The Smiths would return shortly. Meanwhile backstage Mozzer was being attended to by a doctor who advised him against continuing with the show. Apparently he had a black eye and was suffering from concussion. The Royal Gwent Hospital was alerted and told to expect a visit from the injured singer. When, after an hour, it was announced to an increasingly irate crowd that Morrissey was too injured to continue the scene turned ugly. A section of the mob started chanting obscenities and some of them climbed onstage and began fighting with the road crew. Attempts were made to smash up the band's equipment. Heaven knows they were miserable now.

I suspect that when police were informed that they had to break up a riot at a Smiths concert there must have been much guffawing in the back of the meat wagon. Fair play to Newport's sensitive young ruffians, though, they enthusiastically swapped punches with the cops but were eventually overpowered. 6 arrests were made for public order offences. The following day Newport Leisure Centre was inundated with calls from angry fans demanding their money back, but the venue denied all responsibility. Rough Trade, The Smith's record company, issued a statement. It said: "Morrissey is OK now and the rest of the tour will continue as planned. He was shaken up and although he wanted to continue in Newport he was advised not to. It was very unfortunate but just one of those things. I am afraid there will be no refunds."

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Maciej Dakowicz - Cardiff at Night

Great to see Maciej Dakowicz's Cardiff at Night series getting such massive newspaper coverage this morning. The Sun, The Daily Mail, and The Guardian all carried the Polish lensman's dramatic shots of Cardiff's somewhat alcohol-soaked nightlife. The snaps were being used to illustrate a story about Britain's binge-drinking culture.

I don't know who's in charge of promoting Cardiff's tourist profile but they must lose years off their life every time these images appear in public. They've already turned up on the BBC's website and in various Welsh newspapers. They even, recently, became the subject of a political row after Welsh Tory AM Jonathan Morgan linked to them on Twitter.

All of which is most amusing. I have to say that as a Cardiffian I feel nothing but pride whenever I view Maciej's Cardiff at Night series. Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of photography will realise that he is creating a world-class body of work here. And, as I've said before on this blog, his Cardiff shots will help to define this era in the capital's history. For me Maciej's Cardiff pictures are as significant to Wales as Robert Frank's photos of Caerau taken in the 1950s.

Check out his full portfolio here.

*Picture courtesy of Maciej Dakowicz

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Mary Jones and the Egryn Lights

The Welsh religious revival of 1904-5 is a fascinating episode in our history. Not in any kind of happy-clappy way you understand but as an example - in my opinion - of mass hysteria. The mania which swept across Wales, led by evangelist Evan Roberts, saw pubs and theatres emptying at an alarming rate. Chapels, on the other hand, were suddenly bursting at the seams. On a daily basis newspapers were filled with reports of mass conversions and widespread religious ecstasy. Wales, it seemed, had become intoxicated with religion.

Last year the Library of Wales re-published Rhys Davies's novel The Withered Root (1927), a fictionalised account of the Revival. Davies took a more Freudian view of events. Evangelists were like proto-rock stars, turning up in towns putting on a performance, bringing a bit of colour to otherwise rather drab lives. He understood, too, that Nonconformist Wales was sexually repressed and that this sudden orgasmic outpouring of religious enthusiasm, with its hot confessions and speaking in tongues, marked a reaction against an unhealthy puritanism. Davies, throughout his novel, also hinted at a dormant pagan need for magic and the miraculous in Wales.

Which is where Mary Jones comes in. Mary (see pic) was a preacher at a chapel at Egryn, Gwynedd. Whenever she preached, strange lights appeared nearby. Sometimes, too, mysterious stars could be seen in the vicinity of her chapel. The lights allegedly gave her divine guidance. It first happened in 1904 and reached its peak in 1905, coinciding with the Revival led by Evan Roberts. Numerous witnesses saw the lights. Such was the public interest in the story that a host of Fleet Street hacks were sent to investigate. Some of them even returned with credulous reports: a ball of fire was seen above the chapel roof while she preached, according to the Daily Mirror. Unsurprisingly articles on her began appearing regularly in the Occult Review.

Mary Jones was 35-years-old at the time - she was a farmer's wife. Her early years were spent at a bleak farmhouse at Islawrfordd. She suffered several bereavements - including the loss of her young son, her sister and her parents. For solace she turned to God. Later she started preaching and before long developed a mystical reputation. She soon became the leading figure of the Revival in North Wales. Whilst Evan Roberts, in south Wales, experienced visions, Mary actually inspired paranormal phenomenon to be visible to others. Which is much cooler. She also had apparitions in which Jesus appeared to her in bodily form. The devil, too, occasionally made an appearance in her world. Mary acquired the nickname of: the Merionethshire Seeress.

Naturally there has been a lot of retrospective speculation about Mary Jones and the Egryn lights. Possible rational explanations of the paranormal light shows that regularly accompanied her in Gwynedd have varied from: marsh gas, luminous insects, St Elmo’s Fire, the Aurora Borealis, the Fata Morgana, to the appearance of the planet Venus. As for Mary Jones her mission ended in 1906 when the Revival ran out of steam. Her fame quickly faded. She died in 1936 and is buried in Horeb cemetery at Dyffryn.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Jon Ronson Interview 2005

I've decided to transfer a few favourite bits and pieces from my now defunct Wolf Man Knew My Father website. This is an edited version of a 2005 interview with the lovely Jon Ronson, writer and documentary film-maker.

As a youth growing up in Cardiff, culturally what were your interests?

Chapter Arts Center. I remember seeing a double bill of Woody Allen's Zelig and Martin Scorsese's King of Comedy at Chapter. I remember that better than pretty much anything that actually happened to me. Yes, the things I remember most clearly from my childhood are things I watched and listened to rather than things I experienced. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Spillers Records, where I first heard Captain Beefheart. Listening to Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones at Bill Davies' house in Roath Park during the Cardiff High School lunch-breaks. Reading Kurt Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse 5. Sirens of Titan was heartbreaking to me, especially the plight of the jellyfish type animals that lived in the caves beneath Mercury. Seeing The Specials at Sophia Gardens before it fell down in the snow.

I used to go to the Sherman Theatre too. In fact when I was sixteen I somehow landed a part in Death of a Salesman at The Sherman. I played Henry, the next-door neighbour's son. The only line I remember is, "What happened in Boston, Willy?" I don't remember what happened in Boston, but I think it had something to do with shoes.

Other than that, I just hung around amusement arcades (on Caroline Street and Queen Street) with a boy called Dick Johns. I was a hoodie, although I had no hood. Dick and I were obsessed with David Bowie. We used to walk down Cyncoed Road singing Five Years and Rock & Roll Suicide. Non Sadler (who died when she was about 22) introduced me to Lou Reed's Transformer, also on Cyncoed Road. Dick and I and Bethan Morgan used to go busking. I learnt how to play the keyboards.

Did they force you to play rugby in school?

Oh God, yes. I was a prop. There was frost on the ground. Prop. Frost. As I answer these questions I am feeling waves of melancholic nostalgia, which I think is a sign of getting old.

How on earth did you end up in the Frank Sidebottom band?

Well, when I left Cardiff I went to study journalism at the Polytechnic of Central London. When I was 20 I became the entertainments manager for the Student's Union, and somehow I became friendly - over the phone - with Frank Sidebottom's manager, Mike Doherty. One day Mike phoned me up in a panic and said, "We're playing a gig in London tonight and Mark Radcliffe (who was the keyboard player at the time) has had to drop out. Do you know any keyboard players?"
I said, "I can play the keyboards."
He said, "Well, you're in!"
I said, "I don't know any of the songs."
He said, "Can you play C, F and G?"
I said, "Yes."
He said, "Well, you're in!"
So I turned up at the Cricketer's in The Oval, and I told Frank Sidebottom that I was slightly worried because I didn't know any of the songs. Frank said, "Do you know C,F and G?"
I said, "Yes."
Frank said, "Well, you'll be okay then."
They put me behind the speaker-stack and turned my keyboard right down, and when Frank introduced the band at the end, nobody cheered me because nobody knew I was there.

Anyway, for some reason they asked me to continue with the band, and I did, for about three years. In fact I dropped out of college to move to Manchester and become a member of the Frank Sidebottom Oh Blimey! Big Band. Life on the road was a more glamorous prospect than journalism studies. We supported Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers at the Town and Country Club. It is not easy to describe Frank Sidebottom to readers who are not familiar with his oeuvre. Could you provide a picture?

Chris Evans was our driver, briefly. We used to drive around in a transit van. One time we were playing in London and we pulled up on Edgware Road and the driver - I can't remember if it was Chris Evans - wound down the window and said, "Excuse, mate?"
"Yeah?" said a passer-by.
"Is this London?" said the driver.
"Yeah," said the passer-by.
"Well, where do you want this wood?" said the driver.

My favourite Sidebottom story was when he supported Gary Glitter at some Student Freshers' Ball. Gary Glitter's people were really rude. "You haven't got a dressing room. You can't drink any of our beer. You aren't allowed to use our lights. Whatever happens don't go anywhere near the hydraulic floor."

And so, as soon as Frank went on stage, he jumped onto the hydraulic floor and started singing: "Come On! Come On! Do you want to be in my gang...?" And the floor rose, setting off various fireworks and smoke bombs, and floated out towards the audience. After the show, Frank jumped off stage and ran down the corridor, chased by Gary Glitter's bouncers. Frank took off his head and costume - he had his own clothes underneath - just as the bouncers caught up.
"Did you see Frank Sidebottom?" they asked him.
"He went that way," said Frank.

How much of a grounding for your later books and documentaries was your Time Out column? (I seem to recall lots of new age madness and eccentric behaviour in those pieces).

There was indeed much madness in those columns, but I wouldn't say that they had any relation to the later books. When I was a Time Out columnist I was only 23 or 24, and really I hadn't found my voice. I was just copying Victor Lewis-Smith and PJ O'Rourke. I only really worked out how to write when I wrote Them: Adventures with Extremists.

I got the column, by the way, because when I was in Frank's band I started presenting a late night radio show on KFM in Stockport. I co-presented with Craig Cash, who went on to create and act in Early Doors and The Royle Family. Those were happy times. But then we got sacked, and there was a 'Reinstate Craig Cash and Jon Ronson' campaign in the Manchester media. This somehow got the attention of Time Out in London, and they offered me a column. I never got reinstated though.

Craig Cash still calls me from time to time. When The Royle Family was nominated for a BAFTA, Craig left a message on my answer-phone: "Ronno! It's Craig. Am I going to see you at the BAFTAs tonight? Oh no I'm not, am I, because you haven't been nominated again. Poor old Ronno with his face pressed up against the glass."

And when I became a father, Craig left another message on my answer-phone: "Ronno! I've heard you're a father. Congratulations. But you haven't got two BAFTAs on your shelf, have you?"

How did you get your first break in television?

It is a strange story. When I was writing my Time Out column, I got a call from my old journalism teacher from the Polytechnic of Central London.
He said, "You should do a TV series. Do you mind if I approach Janet Street Porter?"
I said, "Do you know her?"
He said, "No."
So he wrote to her - I had no idea what he said, I still don't - but the next thing I knew I was in her office at the BBC in White City.
She said, "I think it's a BRILLIANT idea for a series."
I just sat there, because I had no idea what the idea was. I just smiled and nodded.
And the next thing I knew I had been allocated £420,000 to make a six half-hour series for BBC 2.It was nuts. It is always a mistake to commission a series when one has no idea what the series is. So I made a series called The Ronson Mission. We basically made it up as we went along. Some of it was terrible. Actually, most of it was terrible. I was just in my mid-20s. I had had no ambition whatsoever to be on TV. It was all quite surreal. There were a few good ideas in there, but I must admit that the Guardian called The Ronson Mission one of the five worst series of Michael Jackson's tenure as controller of BBC2. I didn't enjoy making it, primarily because these were the days before DV cameras, and so there was a huge crew, a van full of us turning up at people's houses trying to replicate reality.

After The Ronson Mission I didn't make any more TV shows for at least three years. I was glad to have it behind me. But then I got a call from one of the series' only fans - a man called Peter Grimsdale who was a commissioning editor at Channel 4. He said he wanted to put me together with a director called Saul Dibb. By now hi-8 cameras had been invented so film-making was much more like writing. the camera was like a notebook. We made a film called New York to California, which was an epic journey from a little village called New York, just outside Norwich, to a caravan site down the road called California. And then we made Tottenham Ayatollah, which was our breakthrough. Tottenham Ayatollah documented our year with Omar Bakri Mohammed, an Islamic militant. That was the beginning of the story that ended with Them.

Which do you prefer - filming or writing?

Writing. I am a natural writer, and not a natural director. I have friends - like Adam Curtis, who made The Power of Nightmares, and Saul Dibb, who has gone on to direct Bullet Boy - who are natural directors. They love pictures and sound and pacing. They are aesthetes. I like words.

For Them: Adventures With Extremists you did actually put yourself in some genuinely scary situations - do you regard yourself as a courageous person?

Absolutely not. I am not fearless at all. I just felt I had to go where the story took me, and that included being chased by Bilderberg, and infiltrating Bohemian Grove, that strange secret club where the Bushes and the Cheneys go and have their ceremonies. These things were not fun for me at the time, although I'm now glad that I did it.

Why do you think people like David Icke and Ian Paisley allowed you to get reasonably close to them, given that you have a reputation as a journalist who allows his subjects to make themselves look foolish?

It isn't always me who makes the initial approaches. Ian Paisley was approached by a Northern Ireland television producer called David Malone, who secured the access before I was brought into it. I did approach David Icke myself. We'd had a bit of a sore past together, but he gave me the benefit of the doubt. Remember that - by and large, I would say - the people in my stories often come out of it very well. David Icke, Alex Jones, Lt Col. Jim Channon and General Stubblebine (from The Men Who Stare At Goats), even Omar Bakri, I would argue, come out of the stories as human beings, with character traits the reader can identify with. Some of the people I write about come out of it extremely well: The Weaver family, for instance, from Ruby Ridge. They have been demonized for years by the media. Them was really the first time that their story was told.

How did you first learn about the new age influence on the American military that eventually produced The Men Who Stare at Goats?

In 1995 the CIA declassified the fact that the Army had a team of psychic spies, and they'd been trying to be psychic for 23 years. They'd been based in a condemned clapboard building down a wooded track in Fort Meade, Maryland. They were Black-Op, nobody knew they existed. Anyway, when the CIA declassified them and closed them down it was such a colourful story nobody wondered whether it was the tip of an even weirder iceberg. In 2001 I met a psychologist called Ray Hyman. Ray had been employed by the CIA to evaluate the psychic program. They knew Ray was a sceptic and would say the program was nonsense. They wanted this conclusion so they could close the unit down. Ray indeed concluded it was nonsense. When I met Ray (in Las Vegas), I asked him if he'd heard of anything else going on, and he said he had some vague notion - he'd heard some rumours that they were trying to teach soldiers how to be invisible and walk through walls. He gave me a few half-remembered names: Channon. Stubblebine. So I clung onto that scant information and followed it, to Channon and Stubblebine, and then onto the War on Terror, where these ideas live on in mutated form.

How has The Men Who Stare at Goats been received outside of Britain, particularly in the States?

It has been received very well indeed in the States. Rave reviews in all the major papers.

You've used your family a lot as raw material for your Guardian column. Do they find it disconcerting that casual remarks might end up as part of a humorous anecdote in a national newspaper?

No. My wife feels the same way I do about the column - if it works, if it is funny, it is fine. If it isn't funny, it isn't fine. I wrote a short memoir called A Fantastic Life, about taking my son to Lapland to meet Santa, which I think is the best bit of writing I've ever done. It is not exploitative of my son. He is the straight-man in it. I am the idiot. I see the columns as additions to that story. One day they will all come together to form something else. Maybe a film script? Maybe a book?

Have any particular writers or humorists influenced your prose style or approach to writing in general?

Oh yes. Kurt Vonnegut. Raymond Carver. I learnt short sentences from them. And nowadays, Jonathan Coe's What A Carve Up! This influenced the kinds of subject matter I write about. I love Lynn Barber's journalism. And I am a great fan of an American radio show called This American Life. I contribute to it sometimes. It is full of people who do the kind of things I do - Sarah Vowell, David Sedaris, Ira Glass. William Leith has a brilliant new book coming out called The Hungry Years - a memoir of a compulsive eater.

Finally Jon, you have an excellent website with a lively forum but let's be honest, it's like having your own cult. Is there a danger you might turn into a crazed egomaniac - the kind of person who ends up in one of your own documentaries?

Things don't go to people's heads when they get to 37. By the time we get to 37 we are too bowed by the travails of life to become crazed egomaniacs.

Thanks Jon, for those very generous responses.

©Anthony Brockway/Jon Ronson 2005

Friday, May 08, 2009

Diane Arbus - Cardiff Exhibition

Yesterday evening at the National Museum of Wales a celebration took place to mark the opening of the blockbuster Diane Arbus exhibition. In attendance were the great and the good of the Welsh arts world. And, oddly enough, amidst the canapés, roll-neck sweaters and trendy eyewear, I was there too.

As a photographer of 'freaks' Arbus is something of a controversial figure in the history of twentieth century visual arts. To some she is no more than a voyeur, exploiting the physically unfortunate. Susan Sontag famously described her work as "suggesting a world in which everybody is alien, hopelessly isolated, immobilized in mechanical, crippled identities and relationships."

To others Arbus is an uncompromising artist who dared to poke her lens into the darker corners of American life. That she killed herself in 1971, using pills and a razor blade, has only added to her posthumously constructed cool outsider image. In fact, when Diane Arbus (1972) was published soon after her suicide, it became one of the best-selling photobooks of all time.

Looking through the 69 prints on show in Cardiff I was struck by how much the notion of what constitutes 'freak' has changed. Nudists, mixed-race couples, even drag queens have largely been normalised since Arbus's day. Not that this exhibition is entirely free of the whiff of the fairground, mind. You'll also discover pictures of dwarves, Siamese twins, and a jewish giant.

In many of her portraits the subjects stare unswervingly back at you. It's quite unnerving. These so-called freaks meet your gaze completely free of shame - the viewer and the viewed become equal and oddly democratised. Empathy, then, rather than exploitation underpins much of her work.

At the show I bumped into legendary Magnum photographer David Hurn. It was time to play devil's advocate: Arbus was a rich girl trawling through the gutter, exploiting the marginalised for the entertainment of the bourgeoisie, I suggested. David's response was succinct: "Bullshit. She spent hours and hours getting to know her subjects - they trusted her. Her work is humanist." I was curious to know whether he'd ever met her. "When the Sunday Times brought her to London in 1970 she slept on my floor in Bayswater. At night she'd go off and photograph the bikers who congregated near Westminster Bridge." How good a photographer was she? "As great as, say, Rembrandt was a painter."

I tend to agree with him but do go along and make up your own minds. The Diane Arbus exhibition runs at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, from 9 May - 31 August 2009.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Gwyn Evans

I don't know too much about Gwyn Evans other than that he wrote lots of lurid short stories for sensationalist magazines, like The Thriller, in the 1920s and 30s (see pic). He was also, I'm told, responsible for penning some of the better known Sexton Blake tales. In addition he authored a novel entitled The Homicide Club (1932) which was published in America. Apparently he lived in London where, having reacted against his strict Welsh Methodist upbringing, he became something of a booze-loving Bohemian. If you can fill in any more gaps in the life of Gwyn Evans please let me know.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Forgotten Career of EE Clive

EE Clive was a character actor from Blaenavon. After abandoning a fledgling career in medicine he decided instead to slap on the greasepaint and tread the boards. For 10 years he toured Britain in various theatrical productions before sailing to America. In Boston he set up his own acting company and by the 1920s he was operating in Hollywood. Inevitably he made the move into cinema. Although his movie career came relatively late in life the Welsh actor was always in demand. He specialised in playing officious bureaucrats, aristocrats, butlers, policemen, etc. Although his roles were often quite minor he turned up in some classic flicks such as The Invisible Man (1933), Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940). And along the way he rubbed shoulders with greats like Ginger Rogers, Jack Benny, Dorothy Lamour, Betty Grable, Tyrone Power, Al Jolson, Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, Bette Davis, Jean Harlow, Johnny Weissmuller, Humphrey Bogart, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy amongst many others. EE Clive died in Hollywood in 1940.

*In the above still from Bride of Frankenstein, Clive, as the Burgomaster, gets his comeuppance at the hands of Frankenstein's monster, played by Boris Karloff.