Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Hermann Goering's Bullet-Proof Car

This is an interesting newspaper advert from 1947. On show in Cardiff, only a few months after his suicide, was Nazi bigwig Hermann Goering’s bullet-proof Mercedes Benz. The former commander of the Luftwaffe, you might remember, had ingested cyanide the night before he was due to be hanged, having been found guilty of crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg Trials.

Apparently his Mercedes Benz was not only bullet-proof but bomb-resistant too. And the driver’s compartment was especially enlarged to accommodate Goering’s ever expanding waistline. It was painted his favourite aviation blue – a kind of metallic sky blue.

I’ve actually seen a photograph of this unusual automobile on display outside the Castle Garage. A man is standing with his foot on the fender posing rather like a safari hunter might at the corpse of a recently shot elephant. The photo was clearly for the benefit of the press but for the most part the car was parked inside the garage and members of the public paid a fee (6 pennies) to go and view it. Money raised went to the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen’s Families Association.

If you know Cardiff at all the Castle Garage was situated where Black’s the camping shop is today (corner of Castle Street and Womanby Street). Feel free to pop along and soak up the Totalitarian vibes. But listen, don’t go turning that upstanding establishment into a Nazi shrine or anything.

Friday, April 16, 2010

At the Mermaid Parade by Katell Keineg

Right now if you shake the nearest music tree at least 15 female singer-songwriters will come tumbling down. From sarky bedsit divas to nouvelles-Kate Bushes they are ubiquitous. Walk into any shop on your local High Street and I guarantee Lily Allen will be warbling away on the sound system. Female angst is very much in musical fashion but, like menstruation, these things go in cycles.

Sometime last year in the back room of the Vulcan hotel, Cardiff, through yet another drunken fog, I saw something curious: a woman singing in Breton. It was Katell Keineg. So struck was I by her performance that I made a point of checking out her back catalogue and was left wondering why this woman's work isn't better known.

She has been doing the singer-songwriter bit with some distinction for the best part of twenty years. Born in Brittany, brought up in Wales, she’s followed a peripatetic musical path that has taken her all over the world. Most notably she was an integral part of the Sin-é scene in New York, where she performed and hung out with Jeff Buckley. She’s also worked with Iggy Pop, and Allen Ginsberg.

Her new release At The Mermaid Parade is the best thing I've heard so far this year. Quite simply - it's superb. Being a sucker for a sad song it is the album’s more melancholic moments that resonate most. The eponymous opening track sets the tone with its sense of sadness and loss. St Martin is a dark, brooding ballad with shades (I think) of The Handsome Family. The elegiac mood continues with Old Friend which is haunting and beautiful and will make you weep. Whilst her reinterpretation of Big Star’s Thirteen is breathtaking.

But, hey, it’s not all doom and gloom. Summer Loving Song is a joyous (and increasingly woozy) celebration of hot days and female friendship. Sisters continue to do it for themselves on the amusing The Arsehole Song which focuses on the many shortcomings of men. We need to up our game, apparently. This album’s most curious track is World of Sex, the meaning of which is probably best left between Katell Keineg and her therapist. The record concludes with the dreamy Calenture (it’s a tropical delirium) and a return once more to the elegiac.

Essentially At The Mermaid Parade is a Romantic (that’s with a capital R) offering in that emotions here, whether happy or otherwise, are expressed with a real intensity. One song on the album is even entitled I Fell in Love With the World. Beyond her cityscapes nature and myth are lurking, too, which only adds to the sense of Sturm und Drang. This is a mature, intelligent work that reveals the well-travelled Katell Keineg to be at the top of her game.

At the Mermaid Parade by Katell Keineg, issued by Honest Jon's records, is on sale now. Check it out.

Interview with Tristan Hughes 2006

Here's an interview I did with writer Tristan Hughes from back in 2006.

Tristan, you were born in Atikokan, Canada, before moving to Wales - what influence has a split-heritage had on your writing?

I'm sure it's had quite a big influence on my writing, in all sorts of different ways. To begin with it tends to give you a slight feeling of detachment - a sense that being from two different places means you don't entirely belong to either of them, that you're always looking at them from the outside and the inside at the same time. A lot of my writing seems to shift between insider and outsider points of view.

On a more concrete level, there's also the question of the different influences you're exposed to. In Wales I grew up in a small rural community and spent a lot of time listening to local tales and legends, genealogies, ghost stories, a whole body of oral history (and fiction too, I suspect) relating to the place, and this helped me perceive the landscapes around me as layered, historically textured - profoundly 'storied', so to speak. And yet at the same time the written stories I was reading tended to be Canadian and American (my mother brought a lot of her books over with her from Canada).

I detected a strong gothic element in your latest novel Send My Cold Bones Home - do you acknowledge this presence? If so, is the gothicism instinctive or planned?

Yes, there is a strong gothic strain running through SMCBH, and some of it was planned. It's a particular type of the gothic I think. William Faulkner is a very important writer for me, as are other writers in the tradition of Southern literature, like Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor. Southern gothic grew out of a perception of how the past doesn't just inform the present, it deforms it, and that's an insight I'm slightly obsessed by. The gothic is a kind of border genre (if that makes sense); a fictional space where things get mixed and muddled, where they merge and overlap - the past and the present, the natural and the supernatural, the real and the fictional - and that's extremely appealing to me as a writer. I'm also interested in haunting, in the invisible presences and absences that linger around the edges of our lives, and the gothic is a good vehicle for exploring that.

In SMCBH a restless traveller develops a fascination for a Welsh recluse. It strikes me that all the characters in the book are determined by either stasis or movement - what were you getting at with this idea?

The relationship (and tension) between stasis and movement is a major theme in both my books. In one sense it's very place specific - it's an island thing. Islands represent a paradoxical mix of isolation, detachment, and connection; the sea that cuts you off also links you more promiscuously with the wider world. On Ynys Môn this used to be ingrained into our economy: you were either a farmer or a sailor; a stay-at-home, tied to particular patch of land, or a sea-farer, intimate with all the far-flung ports of the globe. You only have to go to one of the island's graveyards and take a peek at the inscriptions to see this: half the people buried there probably didn't stray much further than their village pub, while the other half probably travelled the world. And that creates certain psychological legacies: a habit of being simultaneously outward and inward looking, the frictions that arise between those points of view, the persistent need for one special place you can call your own and a restless craving to get over the horizon and see what's out there.

On the other hand, and without meaning to sound too grandiose, I think these frictions and tensions are increasingly characteristic of the modern world. Cheap travel, the internet, advanced communications systems - all of them bring the world much closer to us and give us what I suppose you'd call a global perspective. And yet far from erasing a consciousness of locality they seem to have sharpened it: independence movements appear to be proliferating, regional identities are being re-asserted, minority cultures re-invigorated. We seem torn more than ever by the simultaneous desire for a home and an elsewhere, staying still and lighting out for the territories.

Trauma plays a significant part on character in SMCBH - the notion that people who have suffered get stuck into patterns of behaviour from which they struggle to escape. Why does this interest you?

I'm interested in the effect of trauma on character because of the way it warps time and experience. It can make the past coterminous with the present, and trap us in a way of seeing the world that refers endlessly back to one particular event, one degree zero moment that we can't get out of and so are doomed to repeat.

Amongst the more exotic meanderings in SMCBH are episodes concerning the Valparaiso earthquake of 1906 and the search for the Mandan Indians. What attracted you to those historical incidents?

I've been fascinated with the Madoc legend for many years. I also studied early American travel literature, so the Mandan section of SMCBH was an opportunity for me to bring those two interests together. I also wanted to suggest something about the fragility of cultures and communities, that behind what we call progress there's a terrible history of extinction and despoliation. Mobility has its darker consequences.

Valparaiso was more a piece of serendipity. I was reading an old sailing memoir when I came across a Valparaiso Jones, whose name intrigued me and eventually set that section of the book into motion.

One of SMCBH's strengths is its structure which ebbs and flows between past and present rather than having a straightforward linear plot. How difficult was this to handle from a writing point of view?

Pretty difficult, if I'm being honest. I wanted to create a structure that would allow me to make temporal shifts and leaps without it becoming too confusing, distracting, or just plain irritating, for readers. I tried to build up echoes - through shared images and motifs - between the contemporary and historical sections of the book, in order that they mirrored each other - at least obliquely. As a result SMCBH has quite a complex and intricate structure, although hopefully, if I succeeded, it shouldn't seem that way.

The main setting for your two books has been Ynys Môn - do you intend building up a body of work set on that island or can you foresee yourself writing out of other geographical areas?

Even after two books I don't think I've even begun to scratch the surface of Ynys Môn as a fictional subject. And I could easily spend the rest of my life writing about it and still make nothing more than a faint indentation. I'll probably (hopefully) use the island as a setting for a lot more of my books, although that doesn't preclude my using other geographical settings too. I've always had a Canadian book floating around in my head, so one day I'd like to get that written.

I'm always interested in how novelists set about their work - can you tell us about your writing routine?

My writing routine is fairly boring I'm afraid. I can probably sum it up in a sentence. Wake up, write for three or four hours in the morning, spend the afternoon full of doubt and self-loathing about my skills as a writer, come back in the evening feeling a little better and revise what I wrote in the morning.

You recently sparked a bit of an urban v pastoral literary debate in Wales with an article you wrote for the New Welsh Review. Why did you feel it was necessary to draw people's attention to this divide - perceived or otherwise?

The NWR piece was born directly out of my annoyance with the Rhys Davies Competition being themed. That the theme they chose was 'Urban Fiction' was in a sense incidental, although obviously it was going to irritate (and exclude) those writers who set their work in rural locales and exacerbate regional divisions (from a North Walian perspective 'Urban Fiction' sounds pretty much like South Walian fiction). It seemed like a particularly crass and ill-judged piece of marketing - an idea that urban was somehow synonymous with cool and edgy - had taken precedence over the real object of the competition: to encourage, and offer an outlet for, Welsh writing in English. The point I was trying to make was that it doesn't matter what or where you write about, everything and everywhere is the provenance of fiction, and writing competitions should celebrate that fact, not inhibit it.

Finally, what are you currently working on?

At the moment I'm working on a new novel, which is set - surprise, surprise - in a small sea-side town on Ynys Môn. I'm about half way through it. I'd let you know the title but it'll probably change by the time I've finished it, so perhaps it's best I keep it under wraps for now.

*Since this interview was completed Tristan has had his novel, Revenant, published by Picador and it's a corker.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Tony Bennett's Lovespoon

It's Cardiff, 1973, and no wonder uber-crooner Tony Bennett is smiling. Two Welsh ladies have just presented him with a lovespoon. Happy days.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Cindy Williams

Cindy Williams was a Swansea chanteuse active in the 1960s. Like Welsh contemporaries Mia Lewis and Tawny Reed she released a couple of records with limited success before fading into obscurity. Both of her singles were released by Parlophone in '67 when she was just 19-years-old: Eyes of a Man/My Love And I and They Talk About Us/Did He Call Today Mama?

They Talk About Us is the opening track on Dream Babes: Am I Dreaming, a recent-ish compilation of songs by Sixties girl singers chosen by Bob Stanley of St Etienne fame. Williams's 45 is a nice piece of girly melodrama as you can hear from this sample.

Cindy came from Dyfatty, Swansea, where she lived with her mother, father and three brothers. Apparently, in 1965, she appeared as a contestant on a TV show (Groucho) starring Groucho Marx. He asked her to sing - she obliged with a rendition of Sospan Fach. Soon afterwards she took singing lessons and was quickly signed up by Parlophone.

I don't know much else about Cindy Williams, so if you happen to know what became of her please get in touch.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Moving Zen

Have recently read and enjoyed CW Nicol’s Moving Zen: Karate as a Way to Gentleness (1975). It’s an autobiographical account of Nicol’s journey from novice to karate black belt. Originally from Neath Nicol moved to Tokyo in the early 1960s where he enrolled at a dojo and set about learning the secrets of karate from Shotokan masters.

Not only does he become proficient at his chosen martial art but he gets married to a local woman and learns to speak Japanese in the process. He also strives to overcome his hot-headedness and street-fighting temperament – a legacy of his western upbringing and being bullied in high school (in England) for having a Welsh accent.

The pupil who finds peace and strength through the discipline of a martial art has become something of a cliché in western culture (particularly after the popularisation of karate and kung-fu in the 1970s) but Nicol’s book steers clear of any lazy stereotyping. Moving Zen has been reprinted several times and remains highly regarded in martial arts literature. CW Nicol has since become a famous environmentalist.

Jimi Hendrix in Cardiff

If you were a Welsh Jimi Hendrix fan in 1967 then Cardiff was definitely the place to be. American guitar God Hendrix performed twice in the Welsh capital that year. His first visit came in April at the Capitol Theatre where he was low down on a bill that included The Walker Brothers, Cat Stevens and, er, Engelbert Humperdinck. However, post-Monterey Pop Festival, his stock had risen so dramatically that when he hit south Wales again in November he now topped the bill (see pic). Also on the menu of this grade 1 psychedelic package was Pink Floyd fronted by a still (relatively) compos mentis Syd Barrett. And lest we forget our own Andy Fairweather Low - head honcho of Welsh band Amen Corner - graced the stage that night, too.

In the audience at the Sophia Gardens Pavilion (now a car park) was a certain Nick Kent who would go on to become a renowned rock critic but who was then just a youthful resident of Llandaff. In his excellent new memoir Apathy for the Devil (2010) he talks about this gig as being a formative experience. The sight of Hendrix performing onstage whilst clearly out of his head had a big impact on the impressionable scribe. So too did the vision of young female fans (and fellow attendees of Llandaff Cathedral) attempting to grope the legendary axeman’s genitalia. Oh those Howells sixth-formers.

*Apathy for the Devil is published by Faber & Faber and is on sale now. Nick Kent will be appearing at the Laugharne Weekend 2010.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Hywel Bennett in Twisted Nerve

The above YouTube shows Hywel Bennett in Twisted Nerve (1968) whistling Bernard Herrmann's eerie musical theme. The film was panned on its release for making an entirely spurious link between Down's Syndrome and psychopathic behaviour. Bad taste aside the Welsh actor did a fine job playing Martin the mentally disturbed central character. Such was the controversy engendered by the film that it was virtually impossible to see until it was given a DVD re-release in 2007. Twisted Nerve's cult status was assured when Quentin Tarantino referenced Bernard Herrmann's creepy score in Kill Bill (2003). Check out his version of the whistling scene here.