Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cardiff to Cape Kennedy

Here's a nice advert from 1969. For £265 you could fly from Rhoose Airport to Cape Kennedy (as it was then called), in Florida, to see the launch of Apollo 11. An historic occasion as, of course, this was the rocket that would take mankind to the moon for the very first time. Anybody go?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Haile Selassie Goes Camping in Swansea

I always thought that the zenith of the Welsh rastafarian experience occurred when Bob Marley played Cardiff in 1976 on his Rastaman Vibration Tour. I couldn't have been more wrong. Turns out the true promised land for Welsh natty dreads is actually Swansea. For in 1939 Haile Selassie, himself, went on a two week camping holiday at the Penllergare Estate, Penllergaer.

Why Swansea? Well, the exiled Ethiopian leader was visiting the newly founded Bible College of Wales as special guest of the Rev. Rees Howells. Also camping in the grounds of the college were 60 students, including 2 nephews of the Emperor. Although he lived amongst them the 'Lion of Judah' had his own separate tent. As you can see from the above picture it had a sign on it which declared, somewhat grandly: HIS IMPERIAL MAJESTY THE EMPEROR OF ABYSSINIA.

Haile Selassie enjoyed his stay in Swansea. Penllergaer was certainly favourably compared to his previous camping expedition, which was back in his war-torn homeland. He told journalists: "We were in the war zone in Ethiopia, with the warplanes flying overhead and in immediate peril of the bombardment. At Penllergaer it is beautiful and quiet, and I hope to rest." His sojourn in Wales, though, wasn't quite as restful as he might have liked. During his Welsh camping holiday World War 2 broke out.

You can find out more about Haile Selassie's stay at the Bible College of Wales, here.

And you can still visit the grounds of the Estate today, though sadly, the College building itself was demolished in the 1960s.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Interview With Tom Anderson

In his first book, Riding the Magic Carpet, Tom Anderson went in search of the perfect wave. In his latest, Chasing Dean, his protagonists set out to ride hurricane surf along the eastern seaboard of the USA. And that means hitting the road in a beat up Ford Escort Estate. A thrilling mix of travelogue, fiction, meteorology and philosophy, Chasing Dean has been one of the literary highlights of the year, thus far. Here Tom answers a few questions on writing, surfing, and his brief career as a private investigator.

The popular perception of your average surfer is of a laid-back, empty-headed, nature boy. How close to the stereotype is Tom Anderson?

Not very, unfortunately. I try my best, and it's there in the background somewhere, but I've never been one for the really hard-core bumming around. A combination of not being selfish enough, and also being too lazy to subject myself to the hardships that the proper dropout has to deal with. I rarely camp, I keep my car clean, like eating out, often wear shoes and can't really claim empty-headedness either. I think nowadays though, for better or not, very few surfers at all actually live up to the stereotype. In a way it is a shame, because I certainly aspired to be like that when I was young - but then I like working and being busy so it hasn't really happened for me. Mind you, a reviewer once called my writing an 'exploration of the drifter and dreamer mentality' - which is without doubt the best comment anyone's ever made about my work. Sadly surfing's quite a yuppy sport now though, with property prices ensuring that only those who can afford to live near a beach can do it at all regularly. I'll never embrace that - because put simply, it sucks.

For the uninitiated, what's the Welsh surfing scene like and where are the best places in Wales to surf?

Well, I'm biased of course, but I do firmly believe Porthcawl - my home town - is the best surf-zone in Wales because of the range of surf spots available in such varied conditions. In two miles there are about ten spots which vary from deadly reef-breaks to playful beach-breaks. Elsewhere, Llantwit has great waves, along with the Gower and some parts of Pembroke. The Welsh surfing scene is a very dedicated one, with people from all sorts of walks of life united by this obsession with riding waves. I suppose that, compared to places like California, it's still a pretty hardcore scene too - fools aren't suffered lightly, and there's a real lack of bullshit when the surf's on (although when it's not, which is often, we do have a lot of talkers too).

In Chasing Dean you track hurricanes along the eastern seaboard of the US. How did the idea for the book come about?

Actually, it was when I was writing a chapter based in Sri Lanka for my other book, Riding the Magic Carpet. The narrator was exploring surfers' selfishness, and his own too, as peace-deals with the Tamils had led to the country getting safer for foreigners and a once deserted surf spots becoming crowded out. While we were philosophising over it all one afternoon, someone said to me 'there's no better example of the way surfers live in their own little world than on the US East Coast in hurricane season'. Immediately I knew there was a novel in that.

Yes, there is that moral dilemma in the book between hoping to ride hurricane surf whilst knowing that these natural phenomena can wreak havoc and even kill people. It's an interesting conflict. So Tom, is it OK for surfers to take hedonistic pleasure from an entity that, elsewhere, may have caused terrible destruction?

Er, I'm not sure actually. We can't change the storms or stop them from happening - at least not as an individual. Perhaps collectively we can tame storms slightly by keeping ocean temperatures down. Essentially though, as Marc says in the book, they're going to do what they're going to do, and if you don't ride those waves someone else will. Hmm, that sounds like a cop-out really, doesn't it? But I needed that moral conflict - that was the whole point of the project for me. I saw it as a metaphor for something bigger - for the way our 'comfortable' countries manage to view the world's events only in their own terms. It reflects the way we opt-out of worrying about others when it suits us. That part of the human condition was something I always wanted to write about. In Chasing Dean the characters don't know what to make of it - although they do at least recognise the problems it presents. But then when the waves of their dreams get dangled in front of them they struggle to keep perspective. I had to submit myself to that dilemma in order to write the book and it is hard, and still unresolved for me.

The meteorological stuff in Chasing Dean is genuinely fascinating. Did you have to do a lot of in-depth research on how hurricanes are formed, or is a fascination for the weather just a natural by-product of being a surfer?

I definitely had the prerequisite obsession from my surfing background, but it did still involve a lot of reading up. The trouble then was managing to thin out all the stuff I'd read so that I could reproduce it in a story. I had to use it all in a way that would be interesting for a reader who hadn't chosen to read science books about hurricanes and tropical storms - not to mention the amount of lit that exists about one storm in particular - Katrina, of course. When you have loads of geeky facts stored up you often feel you have to use them somehow - which can sometimes account for the stuff Marc keeps coming out with. But surfers are lay-weathermen for sure, especially up here in the windier reaches of the Atlantic.

There's a beat sensibility to Chasing Dean (it's as much a road trip as a book about surfing) - have writers like Kerouac been an influence? In fact, who are your literary influences?

I think some of those comments have been because of the jazz scenes in the New Orleans sections, although I did deliberately set out to write something that paid homage to Kerouac and other such American writers - particularly the 'lonely' narrator voices in the country's history. That's why my narrator had to hit Cape Cod in particular on his own, because it's part of the American condition - that absorbtion in your own world, and the Cape seemed to me to the be the place where the mindset of the American monomaniac could be at its strongest, or purest. The other reason I love the Beat writers is that they manage to mix travelogue, which in its modern form for some unknown reason is supposed to be non-fiction, with novel writing. I mean, what is On the Road? It's auto-biography, travelogue and novel, at least. I also love Magical Realists - Salman Rushdie, Gabo and those. Haruki Murakami is my favourite writer of all, while in travel writing I rate Jonathan Raban above all others. My favourite book is Moby-Dick. So I think wanderlust and isolation are big themes in anything I like reading.

Is it really true that you were once a private investigator? Tell us about that.

Yes, I did it for over three years. When I left uni the plan was to go into journalism, but then I had a call from a retired senior detective in the Met asking me if I fancied trying 'something else'. They were looking for journalists, paparazzi, retired policemen and other potential talent to induct into the world of the PI. It seemed interesting so I had a go at a few freelance jobs and then it all snowballed from there. They started me out with confiscating maxed-out cheque guarantee cards, investigating assets and serving legal papers, and then I graduated through the levels until, about a year in to the job, I was getting involved in covert surveillance, tracing people and even de-bugging places. Once or twice I also got to wear body-cameras, which apart from 'pretexting' (pretending to be someone else - going undercover effectively) is the most advanced stuff you can do. There's a hell of an underworld out there, and I loved getting to know it. It was what I lived for at one point. Working on rich people was the best - to finish a job and go surfing, knowing that some arrogant millionaire who thought they could do anything had been caught out and was going to get done because of your work! At the moment I haven't put any of it in to my writing, because I'm waiting for the best chance to use that stuff. But I've got some mental stories waiting to be told, I can assure you.

So far you've written two excellent surfing travelogues - what is your next literary project going to be? Another surfing book or a change of direction?

I've signed to do one more surf travel book, with Summersdale again, although there are actually two of them left in me. The one that's underway already will be a journey around the UK with the same narrator - for release next May. After that there is one more surf travelogue I could write with multiple-destinations, a bit like in Riding the Magic Carpet, but that one will go on the back-burner for as long as it takes to break in to other areas, because it is indeed time to change direction. I'm going to write a novel which at the moment will move through both the surf and punk-rock scenes of Wales and the US, although it could change and go anywhere else too. I'm also going to write a kids' book, because I love running workshops for youngsters and want to have something that they can access. I also have a short-story/novella idea set in the future, and want to write a play-script because I love dialogue, so things could change drastically. I like to think I'll get around to all of them in the end though!

So do we. Cheers Tom.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

David James - King of Porn

David James is arguably the most culturally influential Welsh person alive. He is co-founder of Vivid Entertainment Group, America's foremost producer of pornography. His company has been in the vanguard of the revolution that has seen porn move away from its semi-criminal past to become the respectable, multi-billion dollar industry that it is today.

Which is all a long way from Blaengarw where James was born and raised. Brought up by his mother (his father having left the family when David was 2), he did what generations of young men had done before him and went down the pit - in this case Ocean Garw Colliery. He was just 15. Seeking a more adventurous life he soon left the mining industry and joined the army where he stayed for 14 years.

After finally quitting the military he ended up in LA, en route for Australia, but found that he liked the place and decided to stay. As an illegal immigrant he earned a crust selling tickets at a blue movie theatre. In 1987, though, he co-founded Vivid with Steve Hirsch using his $27,000 army savings to get the operation up and running.

From videos to DVDs to online content Vivid has gone from strength to strength. By using slick marketing techniques and taking the lead in digital technology the company continues to stay ahead of its competitors. Vivid were the first porn producers to give consumers multiple angles to choose from; and multiple endings. They've even done 3-D porn. However, not every project has been a success. Their cyber sex suit (a wetsuit-like garment fitted with sensors that could stimulate sensitive parts of the body) had to be shelved because it was deemed to be potentially unsafe. Electricity and bodily secretions, apparently, not being a good mix.

I once contacted David in LA asking him if he'd like to do an interview. In the red dragon logo-ed email that I got back from him he declined my invitation saying that he was "too shy". He did, however, tell me that his real christian name was actually Dewi and that he'd changed it to David because Americans kept mispronouncing it.

*In the above photo David is the one with the moustache.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Jonathan Pryce in Brazil

Best ever cinematic performance by a Welsh actor? Hmm... well Ray Milland would certainly be up there for his Oscar-winning role as an alcoholic in The Lost Weekend (1945). Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (1991) would definitely fancy his chances. As would Catherine Zeta Jones for her vivacious turn in Chicago (2002). Then there is Hugh Griffith's celebrated cameo in Ben Hur (1959). And Rachel Roberts's Academy Award nomination for her role in This Sporting Life (1963). But hang on a second - what about Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)? Or Stanley Baker in The Criminal (1960)? All of them worthy candidates, I'm sure. However, my own nomination for this hypothetical award would go to Jonathan Pryce for his performance in Terry Gilliam's dystopian cult masterpiece Brazil (1985). Trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare and frustrated at every turn by failing and inefficient machinery, Pryce's character, Sam Lowry, is bewildered, paranoid and comic. If you've never seen the movie, check it out sometime. Meanwhile, enjoy the above still.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Fat Man on a Beach

Just noticed that Fat Man On A Beach (1973) has been put up on YouTube by David Quantick. Filmed on a beach in north Wales, it has cult English writer BS Johnson musing on life and generally arseing about. In the process, of course, he is also demonstrating the artifice of traditional narrative storytelling. It's probably the most avant garde programme HTV Wales has ever made. As well as being comical it is rather poignant as Johnson committed suicide just a few weeks after the programme was completed.

Johnson is famous for his innovative novels which undermine conventional notions of what fiction ought to be. In Albert Angelo (1964), for example, there are rectangular holes cut into selected pages; and a now legendary authorial intervention: "Oh, fuck all this LYING!". Another work, The Unfortunates (1969), had its various sections published in a box, thus enabling readers to reassemble it in whatever order they wished. If this all sounds a bit tricksy, don't be put off - his novels are extremely readable and often very funny.

Long before he made Fat Man On A Beach, Johnson had developed strong links with Wales. In the late '50s he had taken a holiday job at a country club near Abersoch on the Llyn peninisula. Episodes from this sojourn appeared in his debut novel Travelling People (1963). He also did a 6 month arts fellowship at Gregynog in 1970. As well as being a fairly regular visitor to Wales he contributed verse to Poetry Wales and Planet magazine. And he even wrote a couple of journalistic pieces for the Western Mail.

For a more comprehensive insight into BS Johnson's associations with Wales read Meic Stephens's fascinating article for Planet (Number 168, Dec 2004/Jan 2005), Everyone Knows Somebody Who Is Dead.

*The above video is just part 1 of Fat Man On A Beach - visit YouTube to see the other parts of the programme.

Saturday, August 01, 2009


In the above image an unclothed lady is brandishing a tafod logo. Tafod is the Welsh word for tongue. It is the symbol of Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society). The designer of the red tongue logo was writer and former nuclear scientist Owain Owain. He came up with the design in the 1960s. Quite why the lady is in a state of undress, I'm not sure - maybe it was just the zeitgeist. It's a good picture, though, and a fine example of radical naked Wales.

Plugged In Magazine

The latest edition of music magazine Plugged In is out now. Not only is it free but it is also comprehensively distributed throughout Wales (see website for your nearest stockist). This well turned-out Pontypridd-based journal is stuffed with features and reviews. In the current issue keep an eye out for a spread on the mighty Future of the Left; and an interview with Mayor, representing outstanding Welsh hip-hop label Associated Minds. You'll also find articles on the Manics; and Mike Peters, who is pictured standing on a mountain. Again. Is there a hilltop left in Wales upon which this man has not been photographed staring earnestly into the distance? I think not.

What's great about Plugged In is its upbeat, positive ethos and the fact that it is providing some kind of Wales-wide, music-lit, focus for local bands. Here are just a few of the up-and-comers given coverage in the latest issue: People in Planes, Futuretown, Cuba Cuba, Kadesha, Nothing New, Audiocalm, Supergene, Longknives, Bedford Falls, Mudjack, Weird Beard, Mr Duke & The Hoodlum Circus, The Low Lights, Last Partisan, The Dirty Youth, Jocanovic, Attack! Attack!, Save Your Breath, Frivolous Laura, Ice Cold in Alex, Henry's Funeral Shoe, I Am Hope, the Graveyard Johnnys, and more. Track a copy down.