Friday, July 24, 2009

The Boy Wizards of Snowdonia

When S G Soal published The Mind Readers in 1959 it caused a sensation. His academic study came to the startling conclusion that Welsh schoolboys Glyn and Ieuan Jones were telepathic. Between 1955-57, in Wales and London, Soal had overseen the testing of the Welsh cousins for ESP. The results flabbergasted scientists and observers. So high were the boys' test scores that the odds of them having occurred by chance were astronomical.

The Welsh-speaking lads lived in a remote village in Snowdonia. It had occurred to Soal that unsophisticated children from remote rural communities would make better subjects for testing than streetwise urban kids or university students. He chose Snowdonia to do his research, as the area was already familiar to him from having taken regular climbing holidays there.

The tests undertaken by the boys were varied. At their simplest they consisted of predicting which animal would appear next from a deck of cards. Other tests took place outdoors where the boys were placed 160ft apart with a screen between them. In another test they had to wear only their bathing costumes to ensure that no hidden radio devices were present.

It's obvious from their remarkable test scores that the Jones boys were either telepathic or cheating. Was Soal the victim of a schoolboy hoax? He was convinced that the results had not been achieved through the use of mirrors or reflections. No covert help from parents or relatives had been received either. He was certain that the boys hadn't been using a code, either audible or visual. Nor did he attribute their remarkable success rate to secret radio devices or "conjuring".

In fact, he called in Jack Salvin - professional magician, sceptic, and expert on bogus telepathy - to test the boys. Salvin was also chairman of the Occult Committee of the Magic Circle. This was his conclusion: "I am completely satisfied, after making all the observations I desired and having permission to do what I wished that no code or trickery took place either on the part of the boys or on the part of anybody else (including the fathers of the 2 boys); and, in fact, that code or trickery in the experimental conditions I witnessed was impossible."

So Glyn and Ieuan Jones had genuine telepathic powers then? Not according to C E M Hansel, Professor of Psychology at University College, Swansea. In 1966 he published a book entitled ESP: A Scientific Evaluation, in which he criticised Soal for a lack of rigour in his testing procedures. He suggested that the boys had probably cheated (with the possible collusion of their parents) using either silent dog whistles; Galton whistles, which are inaudible to adults; or by simply whistling through their teeth. Such methods would have been commonplace in the area of Wales where they lived. Furthermore whenever the boys had achieved a high score in their tests they had been given a financial reward. Over 2 years they would have earned about £200. Hansel also noted that when the testing (and the payments) stopped in 1957 the boys mysteriously lost their telepathic powers. Maybe these Welsh kids from the sticks hadn't been quite so unsophisticated after all.

Soal himself was a controversial figure. A member of the Society of Psychical Research he had employed mediums to attempt to contact his brother who had died during the war. He also practised automatic writing, even scribbling a paper under the 'authorship' of the deceased Oscar Wilde. And he wrote a survey on Spiritualism for the Dictionary of the Occult. After publishing The Mind Readers in 1959 he moved to Wales, settling in Caernarvonshire, where he stayed until his death in 1975.

The story of the Welsh boy wizards from Snowdonia is an intriguing one and two questions remain unanswered: are Glyn and Ieuan Jones still alive and, if so, are they prepared to spill the beans after all these years?

*In the above picture Ieuan Jones is on the left and his cousin, Glyn, is on the right.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Barry Island Rock

Barry Island Rock (1985) was Wales's first rockumentary. Or so it says here. It is certainly a fascinating document of musical life in small town Wales. If the participants seem, at times, a tad miserable just remember that this was made in the 1980s when there were only about 11 jobs in the whole of Wales. Keeping yourself in cosmetics and Boots firm-hold hairspray was a difficult business for any young blade on the dole. I speak from bitter personal experience. I don't actually remember any of the 4 bands featured in this documentary but they do have a generic mid-eighties familiarity. Have a look - it's good.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Viva Porthcawl!

There aren't many things that can out-kitsch Jeff Koons's mantlepiece but the annual Porthcawl Elvis Festival is one of them. Europe's biggest homage to The King will take place this September. Tickets are already on sale. Against the bleak backdrop of an out-of-season Welsh seaside resort you'll find be-wigged and portly versions of young Elvis, Blue Hawaii Elvis, Vegas Elvis and all the other Elvii that you can think of. Competition is fierce and inter-Elvis rivalry can sometimes descend into bitchiness and even threats of violence. For an hilarious insight into the annual Porthcawl bash read the relevant chapter in Charlie Connelly's In Search of Elvis: A Journey to Find the Man Beneath the Jumpsuit. For more information on the Porthcawl Elvis Festival itself, click here.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Jason Evans

I was thumbing, recently, through a volume entitled How We Are: Photographing Britain (2007) and noted that it included work by Jason Evans from Holyhead. One of his pictures even made the front cover (see pic). The photos come from a shoot he did in 1991 for i-D magazine called Strictly. I can remember seeing those very pictures back in the day and marvelling at how striking they looked. They show young black men dressed like dandies against mundane suburban backdrops. At the time they challenged traditional notions of class and identity in modern Britain.

Since then Evans has continued to produce interesting and varied work including shooting bands like Franz Ferdinand and Radiohead. His photographs have been exhibited at Tate Britain, Tate Modern, the V&A, and in various locations in Europe and the US. It would be really good to see an exhibition of his work in Wales at some point. You can check out Jason's excellent website here.

The Table

If you are one of those types who buy punk anthologies then you’ll be familiar with Do the Standing Still by The Table, which is now regarded as something of a classic of the genre. The above photograph shows them in early 1977 when their debut single was released.

The Table hailed from Cardiff. The driving force behind the band were Russell Young and Tony Barnes who’d met at Cathays High School where they’d messed around making demos. Later, recruiting Len Lewis and Irishman Mick O’Connor, they formed what they termed: “an avant garde pop band”.

When Do the Standing Still was released in 1977 it was championed by John Peel and given rave reviews in the music press. It was Single of the Week in the NME. Although they were on Virgin Records the band didn’t actually own any equipment. “We hope the single will earn us enough so we can buy gear,” explained Barnes.

At the time Barnes was a freelance film animator doing graphics and cartoons for BBC Wales. He’d also worked on a film which was shown on the Pink Floyd tour (which is not very punk rock, is it?). Young was at Cardiff Art College doing a foundation course. On the rare occasions when the band did play live they incorporated cartoon graphics into their stage set.

After splitting from Richard Branson’s Virgin label The Table signed to Chiswick and released a single called Sex Cells (1978). With a jaunty refrain that went: “I’m obsessed with a mad desire for sex with schoolgirls,” the record was guaranteed zero airplay. To make matters worse the band were slaughtered in an article in Sounds. The single sank without trace. After numerous line-up changes the band followed suit.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Robert Capa in the Rhondda

This portrait of a Rhondda miner by Robert Capa was taken in 1942. What was the war photographer doing in the Valleys? Well, the previous year How Green Was My Valley had won a best film Oscar (rather disturbingly, it beat Citizen Kane) and Capa wanted to check the area out for himself.

So, did he capture the true essence of the people, or was he merely seeking to recreate the spirit of John Ford’s rather sentimental movie? For me it is the latter, the portrait has a jaunty, sort of, er, Irish feel to it, which is very much in keeping with Ford’s cinematic vision. The upward angle of the shot puts the noble miner on a pedestal so that the image also functions as classic social realism. It is, essentially, a propaganda photo.

The above photograph is ©Robert Capa/Magnum

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Robbie Rae - Welsh King of Disco

You've probably never heard of him but he was the Welsh King of Disco. Robbie Rae (real name: Robert Bevan) was originally from Resolven. As a child he released a Welsh-language version of the Lord's Prayer which was deemed blasphemous by the BBC and banned. Later he formed his own pop band called Roundabout and hosted a TV show.

One of the guests on this show was Canadian singer Cherill Yates. The pair fell in lurve and decamped to Canada. There they formed singing duo The Raes and began releasing singles. Their first Canadian hit was a disco-inflected version of Doris Day standard Que Sera Sera. The pair also hosted a successful TV show entitled: The Raes Variety Hour.

Things really got interesting in 1979 when their second album Dancing Up a Storm was released by A&M in the States. A single taken from the LP, A Little Lovin' (Keeps the Doctor Away), went top 5 on the Billboard Dance Chart. Receiving healthy airplay - particularly on the east coast - it entered the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 61. To capitalise on this success The Raes embarked on a US tour and even made appearances on prestigious TV shows like Soul Train and American Bandstand. The duo rubbed shoulders with the likes of Diana Ross, Grace Jones, Roberta Flack, Boney M, Gloria Gaynor and Abba. They also hung out in super clubs like Studio 54 and the Limelight.

Unfortunately, their follow-up single (I Only Wanna) Get Up And Dance only made it to number 47 in the US Dance chart. With their popularity on the wane the strain on the Raes' marriage increased and the couple divorced circa 1980. As a musical act The Raes were now finished. Robbie quickly launched a solo career before joining an outfit called GNP who actually released one LP, Safety Zone, on Virgin Records. After the demise of this project Robbie became a cabaret/club singer, eventually re-locating to Thailand where he ran a bar. He died in Phuket in 2006.

In disco-fan circles (such circles do exist, honest) The Raes are still held in high esteem, especially their two US dance hits. Check them out on YouTube.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Inside Out - Real Life Stories From Parc Prison

Inside Out is a collection of 11 accounts of life inside Parc Prison, Bridgend. More interestingly, these young narrators attempt to explain how they strayed from the straight and narrow and ended up over-the-wall. Nathan from Tiger Bay, for example, wrestles with his past life: "But somewhere along the line something went wrong. Me."

Their journeys are varied. Aron is an ex-Welsh Guard who served in Iraq; Shuhel used to run a take-way; Bobby Singh is a wayward sikh. None of the storytellers are bad to the bone exactly - rather they have made (without wishing to sound like a social worker) some poor decisions in their lives. Bad parenting, peer pressure, and the corrosive influence of narcotics form the backdrop to many of these real-life tales.

All the stories are fascinating but my particular favourite is Inside Times by Arif. He recounts how an arranged gang fight between Asian and Somali youths behind Lo-Cost on Crwys Rd, Cathays, Cardiff, ended up in the stabbing of a white skinhead: "There were forty to fifty Somali boys there with baseball bats, and lots of girls were there to watch what happened." And then the aftermath: "That night everyone was arrested, in armed raids. Doors were forced open all over Cardiff. At the police stations, parents were beating their children up in front of the police."

Inside Out is part of Accent Press's Quick Read series. At 90 pages long you can read it in an hour and, trust me, it will leave you wanting more. Note to radio producers: these first person narratives would make great radio monologues.