Thursday, March 25, 2010

Jack Webber

Jack Webber (1907-40) was an ex-miner from Loughor, Swansea, who became a renowned medium. Demonstrations of his amazing ‘gift’ became well-known in Spiritualist circles throughout the 1930s. During his séances objects (particularly trumpets) were levitated and spirits of the dead conjured up. Sometimes ‘astral heads’ were manifested. On other occasions electrical appliances went a bit faulty in his presence. Sceptical journalists would regularly turn up at his Spiritualist events ready to expose his fraudulent activities but none ever succeeded in doing so. In fact they often went away credulous. There are several startling photographs of Jack Webber circulating on the internet. In the above picture you can see ectoplasm seeping from his mouth during one of his intense deep trance sessions. To my untrained eye it merely looks like he has a piece of diaphanous material clamped between his teeth. But what do I know about the paranormal?

If you want to discover more about the intriguing Swansea Spiritualist you need to get hold of The Mediumship of Jack Webber (1940) by Harry Edwards. Also check out this interesting website.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Cher - The Bells of Rhymney

As we know in 1957 Pete Seeger adapted a lyric from Gwalia Deserta (1938) by Welsh poet Idris Davies and turned it into folk song, The Bells of Rhymney. The poem, set during the Depression, was loosely based on the Oranges and Lemons nursery rhyme (a device copied by The Clash on Clash City Rockers, fact fans). The most famous version of The Bells of Rhymney was that recorded by the The Byrds in 1965. In the above YouTube you can hear Cher’s version. Yes, Cher. It turned up on her All I Really Want to Do album in 1965. Thrill to the sound of her (mis)pronouncing various industrial towns of south Wales such as Rhymney, Merthyr, Rhondda, Blaina and Swansea.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Twins Would Like to Say

Of all the posts I’ve written on this blog the one which has generated the most interest (particularly from America) is this one about the Gibbons sisters from west Wales. I regularly get asked to photocopy The Pepsi-Cola Addict even though I don’t actually own a copy. There is a snippet of info floating around the internet saying that this cult book has been reprinted several times. As far as I’m aware this is completely untrue. But The Pepsi-Cola Addict and other works by the Gibbons twins really ought to be resurrected.

Currently running in Chicago is a dramatised version of their childhood, The Twins Would Like to Say. It is being staged at the Steppenwolf Theatre by the Dog & Pony Theatre Company. You can see a video preview of it here and a television review here and written reviews here. It looks pretty interesting. Would be great if this particular production was staged in Wales at some point in the future. How about some kind of Wales-Chicago theatrical exchange?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Interview with Philip Jones Griffiths 2004

Here's an interview, from 2004, I did with Welsh photojournalist Philip Jones Griffiths (now sadly deceased) . As far as I'm aware his photographic archive has still yet to find a permanent home. If this world class body of work doesn't end up in Wales it would be a genuine shame and a great cultural loss.

Can you remember the first photograph you ever took?

We were in a rowboat off Holyhead and I snapped my friend with the family box-brownie.

How has being Welsh (indeed a Welsh-speaker) influenced your outlook with regards your photographic career?

Speaking Welsh has often come in handy - the secret policemen of the world become confused and hesitant when I explain, "O'r delegation Cymraeg dwi'n dod."As for the broader issue, coming from a country being swallowed up by its neighbour gave me a natural sympathy for the Davids over the Goliaths of this world.

Your book Vietnam Inc. (1971) is now regarded as a classic of photojournalism. How difficult was it at the time though trying to sell essentially anti-war images in a patriotic pro-war market?

Very difficult indeed. Although when Vietnam Inc. was published there was already growing doubt. For many, the book confirmed their fears.

In light of the recent 'torture' pictures coming out of Iraq how well, in your view, did American troops treat the civilian population in Vietnam?

When Lt. Calley was questioned during his trail for the My Lai massacre he was asked, "You threw babies in the air and shot them on the way down?" The reply was, "Yes sir, in the air." Iraq is only different because every soldier seems to have a digital camera.

In a war situation how do you conquer a basic sense of fear?

Good question and I don't have a convincing answer. For sure, I'm not someone who "gets off" on violence - I hate it. Certainly a journalist needs a sense of perspective. In war situations you need to keep a cool head and distinguish between reality and fear. If you don't you're much more likely to die. In Vietnam I discovered that when a lot of shit was flying about I was able to keep my cool. I've had a hood put over my head and been taken out to be shot. When my executioners cocked their rifles and fired, they missed. Obviously I was scared, but kept thinking this was a more dignified way to go than dying in a car crash. I didn't piss my pants and I'm very proud of that.

Noam Chomsky wrote the introduction to the 2001 reprint of Vietnam Inc. How did that come about?

He's an old friend. When Vietnam Inc. was first published he asked if he could use one of my captions: 'The Backroom Boys' (The scientists at Dow Chemical making napalm more effective) as the title of a book he was preparing.

In your recent book Agent Orange: "Collateral Damage" in Viet Nam (2003) you examine the devastating long-term effects of chemical weapons usage by the US in the Vietnam conflict. Do you view the widespread use of herbicide as a war crime for which the US should now be punished?

America is never punished for anything - they've always disregarded the Geneva Conventions. Realistically, and if they had the slightest interest in receiving world approval, America would at least compensate the victims.

Your pictures, although often horrific in subject matter, have a kind of sombre beauty. As a photojournalist you have to make aesthetic judgements as well as moral ones - how do you balance this equation?

They are intertwined. Form and content have to be present, preferably in equal amounts. One without the other simply does not make it as a great photograph.

Leafing through Dark Odyssey (1997) again it is noticeable that the 'human' almost always undermines the 'military' in your work - how deliberate is this approach?

Very deliberate! All wars depend on de-humanising the 'enemy' the foreign 'other'. I've tried to concentrate on showing the human face of conflict.

What did you make of the practice of 'embedding' journalists in the Iraq war? Do you think it brought them closer to the conflict or ended up making them cheerleaders for their own army?

Both. It's not always clear-cut. Many media became cheerleaders, but perhaps they were beforehand. Certainly they got close to the action (although many saw none at all.) I've spent lots of time with soldiers and my attitude, to quote a pulpitism, was to: 'Love the sinner, hate the sin'. I never underestimated their capacity for violence but by being honest I was always treated fairly. Sometimes I had to work at winning them over and some became friends. My objective was not to allow my positive feelings towards them as individuals to cloud the fact that they were prosecuting a genocidal war.

Which photographers have exerted the greatest influence upon you?

Henri Cartier-Bresson. The first picture of his I ever saw was during a lecture at the Rhyl camera club. I was 16 and the speaker was Emrys Jones. He projected the picture upside down. Deliberately, to disregard the subject matter to reveal the composition. It's a lesson I've never forgotten.

What cameras and lenses do you use?

I've got one of everything and five of most. There is no perfect camera. Some have great bodies but lousy lenses and vice-versa. All my life I've had this recurrent dream of discovering the perfect camera in some back street shop in Bangkok. Poets can scribble with charcoal on bits of paper we, alas, are forced to fret over the deficiencies of our equipment.

In 1980 you became president of Magnum photo agency, a post you held for five years. Did you enjoy the experience?

My presidency gave me great satisfaction. I dragged Magnum kicking and screaming into the 20th Century. I introduced computers, email (even in 1980), print making, duping and catalogued the library. And at the same time the agency's output flourished it was a period when many great stories were produced.

After covering so many conflicts have you become inured to war?

Not at all. Each new one disgusts me and at the same time provides a challenge to examine the causes.

Finally, you've lived an incredibly nomadic existence, travelling all over the globe in pursuit of stories and pictures. Have you found time in between all the wars, the fighting, the politics, to fall in love, get married, and enjoy some of the good things in life?

I've enjoyed all the good things in life. While never signing any pieces of paper (I will never allow bourgeois society to dictate my emotions!) I've had two significant relationships that resulted in two wonderful daughters. As for falling in love, this happens on a daily basis...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Peter Lorre in Cardiff

In the summer of 1949 Hollywood great Peter Lorre did a week of performances at the New Theatre, Cardiff. He took Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Tell-Tale Heart and turned it into a dramatic monologue. It’s the story of a killer who is overwhelmed by his own guilty conscience. Each night Lorre, it is said, managed to convey a scene of “terrifying emotion”.

His New Theatre shows were, apparently, his first ever on the British stage. But this was no theatrical triumph. Post-WW2, Lorre’s career was already in steady decline. In Cardiff, for instance, he topped a variety bill that included a cartoonist, acrobats, and a ventriloquist. A far cry from his classic roles in films like M and The Maltese Falcon.

Lorre played down the celebrity angle of his Welsh shows. He told reporters: “I don’t want my stage appearances to be construed as mere personal appearances.“ Rather unconvincingly he asserted that this tour was an experiment to prove that variety audiences can appreciate classics of world fiction.

Lorre was accompanied on tour by his wife, the actress Kaaren Verne (they divorced the following year). At the press showing they were photographed together with the deputy Lord Mayor of Cardiff and his wife. In the picture published in the Western Mail (12/7/49) Lorre stands on the periphery of the group wearing that nervous, put-upon expression so familiar to fans of his films. It was almost as if he didn’t want to be there.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Gaga for Icons of Filth

I'm mildly shocked to discover that there are only two degrees of separation (well, sort of) between myself and Lady Gaga. One: In the early '80s I used to frequent the same Cardiff nightclub (Nero's) as Stig (RIP), lead singer of Welsh crusties Icons of Filth. As I recall he used to sport a very impressive 'twiglet' hairdo. Two: For her latest video Lady Gaga dresses up as an anarcho-punk and wears a studded leather jacket with an Icons of Filth patch on the right arm (see pic)! Small world innit.

*I'm indebted to David Cocks for this quality information. Well spotted Dave.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Maggie Griffiths - the Model who Snubbed Dior

In 1962 Denbighshire model, Maggie Griffiths, caused a big stir when, after only a few weeks of work, she broke her contract with French fashion giants House of Dior. She’d had no trouble at all in passing the initial audition in Paris. Despite arriving 90 minutes late for her interview she was selected by designer Marc Bohan from 60 glamorous applicants. Becoming a Dior girl was meant to be every model’s dream job but Maggie Griffiths turned her perfectly-formed nose up at it. Poor pay (£15 per week) and the attitude of the other models were the main problems. Said the 23-year-old Welsh mannequin arriving back at Heathrow airport: “The girls were bitchy – some of them did not speak to me for the first two weeks. In London I can get £25 per day. It is great prestige to work for Dior. But I am fed up with prestige. You can't bank it.” Such was the kerfuffle at the time that this seemingly innocuous fashion story was reported everywhere from the UK tabloids to Time magazine.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Pocket Notebook by Mike Thomas

Jacob Smith’s life is unravelling fast. We watch in mirthful horror as the tactical firearms officer repeatedly pushes the button marked: ‘self-destruct’. Professional suicide and personal alienation swiftly follow as his troubled psyche goes into meltdown. The steroids don’t help. Nor does his obsession for violent computer games, militaristic films, and women’s feet.

Smith’s spectacular fall from grace and the familial trauma behind it shape the novel. But it is the verve of the first-person narration that really gives Pocket Notebook its drive and sparkle. Adding extra spice to the text are the increasingly subversive and paranoid entries in his police notebook – his notes from underground:

“Five tiny clone plods who couldn’t handle a lone sixty-odd-year-old scabies-ridden weakling tramp when he started cutting up rough outside the bookies (NB can I call him a tramp? What’s the wanky PC term for them now? ‘Homeless person’? ‘Outdoor Outcast’? ‘Stinky Fucker’? I must check.).”

Political correctness and increasing bureaucracy are the bane of his working life. Mock acronyms and abbreviations pepper the prose: ESSO (Every Saturday and Sunday Off); FNG (Fucking New Guy); UDI (Unexplained Drunken Injury). Colleagues, too, are more often than not reduced to nicknames: “we all know him as Thrombo because he’s a slow-moving clot.”

Although Smith is a macho, right-wing, "grunt" (Daily Mail readers will thrill at his attacks on Britain’s underclass), you can’t help but like him. In part this is down to Mike Thomas’s skill at making you see the world through the eyes of a man having a breakdown. But it is also because Jacob Smith is funny. His humour lends him humanity and reminds us that he is essentially a person who is suffering greatly. And despite his mental disintegration he never loses that innate urge to save and rescue, whether it’s the dismembered girl in the Clio or the redemptive prostitute Lowri.

Keen-eyed south Walians will recognise the capital and the Valleys as Pocket Notebook’s disguised setting. This is because the author is a serving police officer in Glamorgan. Thomas’s knowledge of coppering provides the reader with authentic insight and accuracy of detail rather than crime fictional cliché. But first and foremost this is a comic novel and a very good one, too.

Pocket Notebook by Mike Thomas is on sale now and is published by William Heinemann.