Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mr Shaky Hand Man

Every town and city has its colourful characters. Here in Cardiff we are blessed. Enlivening our streets are bin-bashing Ninjah, Toy Mic Trevor, and that lady who bothers buskers by positioning herself about a foot in front of them and dancing. Until his recent passing Mr Shaky Hand Man was another. He would approach complete strangers and shake their hand. Then he would ask for change, his palm upturned. Other “nutters” have come and gone: Nobby, with his pack of dogs, Arthur the Tourette dwarf, and that chap who used to step out into oncoming traffic on Newport Road and start throwing martial arts shapes. Sadly, he died after being hit by a car. You will have your own heroes. In this YouTube – one of my favourites of the year – the aforementioned Ninjah performs a fitting, if slightly disturbing, tribute to Mr Shaky Hand Man. During this festive season let us remember the freaks, weirdoes, outsiders, anarchists and non-conformists, for it is they who make our lives more interesting.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Uncharted by Jon Gower

My favourite Welsh novel in English of 2010 is Uncharted by Jon Gower. Wales doesn’t produce that much fantastical fiction so this is a bit of a treat. Uncharted is a kind of magical realist voyage that starts in Buenos Aires and ends in Wales. Ostensibly it is the story of tango enthusiast Flavia, whose undead body is set afloat in a papier-mache boat.

The novel begins with a superb description of the River Plate flowing through the teeming city of Buenos Aires. Gower uses this almost sexual coming together of river and city as a natural metaphor to signal the novel’s main theme: love.

Myth is another important element in Uncharted. Rather like the halcyon kingfishers who built their nest on the sea and thereafter becalmed it, Flavia’s benign presence appears to resolve personal conflict. A slum kid and his mother’s new boyfriend are reconciled; a childless middle-class Oakland couple adopt a troubled black schoolgirl and find peace.

And then there is the mythologizing of Flavia herself. She and her mysterious voyage become the subject of world attention. At first a cult figure, a whole religion and system of belief is eventually built up around her. Misapprehensions about her origins are incorporated into her legend. Squabbles about dogma occur. It is an amusing satire on how religions are formed and the often sketchy 'history' that underpins them.

When a novel's central character is comatose, possibly even dead, then the author had better be sure to make the world around her as interesting as possible. Gower enlivens his fictive world in a number of ways. By a piling up of facts in an accretion of fascinating detail, for instance. There are authorial pops at contemporary concerns – such as Cardiff’s drinking culture. He also employs numerous asides and anecdotes. The result is a narrative that positively fizzes with erudition and humour.

One of the hardest things for any author to do is write a convincing novel about goodness and love. Jon Gower has managed to achieve this with Uncharted.

*Uncharted is published by Gomer and is available now. It was originally published in Welsh as Dala’r Llanw.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Chalkie Davies

Chalkie Davies, from Penarth, is one of the people behind the Davies and Starr photographic agency in New York. Back in the Seventies and Eighties, however, he was one of Britain’s foremost rock lensmen.

Originally from Sully, he was schooled both there and in Penarth. His dad was a head of dept at the South Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education in Llandaff. At sixteen Davies dropped out of his grammar school and went to work for Cambrian Airways. This meant going to London to complete an apprenticeship. Davies had started taking photos as a kid; and going to see bands from the age of 12. After hitting London he got swept up in the music scene and decided to pursue a career in photography.

In 1973 he went to work for the NME after telling them that he could improve the photographic content of their music paper. He worked for them for 4 years. He also did stuff for The Face and other style magazines, before going freelance. Often working 20 hour days Davies came close to burning himself out and at one point had to take 6 months off work suffering from exhaustion.

In 1981 Davies published a book of rock photography called Pointed Portraits. Included were a couple of snatched shots: John Travolta at a London premiere of Grease; and Rod Stewart with Britt Ekland in a Hollywood restaurant – but most of the pics were posed. David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Adam Ant, the Buzzcocks, The Clash, Debbie Harry, Keith Richards, Dolly Parton, Mick Jagger, Sid and Nancy, and many others graced the pages of his tome.

Davies was particularly at home with new wave bands as he was of the same generation himself. He was a favoured snapper of Elvis Costello, for instance; and would later do the cover for The Specials’ debut album. He was even on friendly terms with Sid Vicious. Commenting on Sid’s relationship with Nancy Spungen, he said: “They were a really sweet couple. When they were away from everybody else, you couldn’t imagine anyone nicer. The trouble was when people encouraged them to do silly things.”

At the time Davies cut an enigmatic figure. He refused to be photographed himself. He apparently acquired the moniker ‘Chalkie’ after turning up at a football match wearing a white top. His real Christian name is “very Welsh” and so he stuck to the nickname just to avoid having the piss taken out of him in London. A cursory trawl of the internet will turn up many of his music pics including some nice shots of Tom Waits at Ronnie Scott’s. Davies eventually became disillusioned with rock photography and moved to New York.

I don't understand why this guy is not on our stamps. Or hosting a prog about photography on Welsh telly. At the very least it would be cool if Chalkie Davies’s rock’n’roll work was exhibited in Wales at some point.

RD Laing at the Poetry Olympics

This is an advert for a poetry bash at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, in 1981. The improbable line-up for an evening's entertainment includes anti-psychiatry guru RD Laing (along with his wife Jutta) and punk poet John Cooper Clarke. Also on the bill versifiers: Mike Horowitz, Ronnie Wather, Dmitri Savitski, Fran Landesman and Heathcote Williams. Laing was renowned for his highly influential book The Divided Self (1960), which challenged orthodox interpretations of so-called mental illness. However, it is often forgotten that this Sixties counter-culture icon also wrote poems. His collections include Knots (1970), Do You Love Me? (1976), and Sonnets (1976). I'm not entirely sure why his wife is on the bill - perhaps she read some of the stuff that was written in dialogue form? Whatever, they split up that year anyway. Did anyone go to the Poetry Olympics at the Sherman Theatre in '81 - only I’m quite curious as to how RD went down?


Poet John Gimblett attended the Poetry Olympics event at the Sherman Theatre in 1981. Here are his observations:

I was a huge R D Laing fan so went to it just to see him really. He read some of his work, but mostly he played boogie-woogie piano (yes, really!). His wife read a little and sang as well, while her husband played piano.

I remember Heathcote Williams was quite good, but went on a bit. I can just about remember Fran Landesman and Horowitz. However, I don't remember John Cooper Clarke being there - and I would have noticed as I'd heard him on the John Peel show many times then.

Everyone loved Laing though and he got huge applause for his playing and reading - he was certainly the star of the 'show'.

*John Gimblett’s latest book Monkey is published by Cinnamon Press and is on sale now.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Howard Marks - Two Dragons

This snapshot of amiable raconteur, Howard Marks, comes courtesy of Y Lolfa - publisher of his latest literary outing, Two Dragons. It was taken last week at the Swansea Grand where an impressive 800 devotees turned up to listen to the ex-narcotics smuggler. They probably won't get that many in for the Christmas panto. Marks regaled them with tales of his family history and his improbable links with American outlaw Billy the Kid. He also spoke at length about the making of recent biopic, Mr Nice.

*Two Dragons, published by Y Lolfa, is on sale now.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Marlene Dietrich in Wales

Even before she arrived in Wales in 1973 Marlene Dietrich was buttering up the locals. In a newspaper interview she gushed: "The men are the sexiest in the world, starting with Richard Burton. It must be a terrific country. I read works by Welsh poets and I've discovered the atmosphere of Wales; it's different, marvellous." She then went on to give my favourite quote ever about Welsh miners: "I feel for Welsh coal miners. I wish I could hug them all and bring them up out of the darkness. It is such a terrible life and I want to take them home and find something else for them to do. They are special people with a poetic soul."

Dietrich slipped into Cardiff virtually unnoticed. The ticket collectors at the train station paid little attention to the old lady in a denim suit and matching cap who scuttled past. Eyebrows were only raised when a chauffeur-driven limo turned up to whisk her off to a suite at the Angel Hotel. There she ignored the 4 bottles of champagne that awaited her, preferring instead a glass of vichy water and ice. Her personal maid began to unpack the 12 monogrammed suitcases which had been sent ahead.

The elderly glamour puss was in town to perform a week of shows at the New Theatre. At some point she'd let slip that she wanted to hear a Welsh male voice choir. Big mistake. When she arrived for the opening night she was greeted by no less than TWO male voice choirs who regaled her with Myfanwy. Poor woman. A man called Dai Francis presented her with a necklace on behalf of South Wales miners - it had a tiny miner's lamp on it. She would wear it on stage that night. Amazingly she wowed her audience with 18 numbers, including classics like Lili Marlene, Lola, and Falling in Love Again. Not bad for a 70 year-old. Afterwards an estimated 300 people met her at the stage door where they treated her to a rendition of We'll Keep a Welcome in the Hillside.

Her series of shows was a triumph and on her last night she really turned on the Teutonic charm: "This is a beautiful country and I love your appreciation of music and the arts. I am very unhappy to be leaving Wales." Tearfully she continued: "There is no country like Wales. You have more appreciation for artists than anywhere else in the world." By now she was really laying it on with a trowel: "Not only is this country beautiful but the people, too. I want to thank you with all my heart for your kindness and the love you have given me." A rose was tossed onto the stage; grown men burst into tears; more male voice choirs arrived.

As amusing and unlikely as this coming together of German melodrama and Welsh kitsch was, Dietrich was actually more sincere than one might imagine. Cynics will be surprised to learn that in various biographies her affection for Richard Burton and the bond she felt with Welsh miners is reiterated.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Dr Freud's Cabaret

Review of Dr Freud’s Cabaret, Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, December 1.

Sigmund Freud’s famous case studies relating to hysteria form the very foundation of psychoanalysis. In Dr Freud’s Cabaret, Charlotte Greig and Anthony Reynolds have set to music the neurotic lives of Anna O, the Wolf Man, Little Hans, Dora, the Rat Man et al, and in doing so liberated them from the dusty realms of academia. It’s an inspired idea. And the bizarre psychological worlds inhabited here are perfectly suited to the cabaret format.

This thought-provoking musical entertainment consists of ten songs performed by Greig (Anna O) and Reynolds (Freud). Linking the songs together is Freud’s Welsh biographer and propagandist-in-chief, Ernest Jones (played by Gerald Tyler). He is part huckster; part ringmaster to this cast of neurotic freaks. Also in attendance is Jasper the Illusionist whose mind-reading interludes add humour to proceedings, as well as a bit of audience participation.

The real stars of the show, however, are the songs themselves. Greig and Reynolds have done a fantastic job of dramatising, in miniature, the traumas of Freud’s patients. Six White Wolves relates the strange lupine dreams of the Wolf Man. Chimney Sweeping is a feminist nod to the crucial role played by Anna O in the history of psychoanalysis. And the Oedipal conflict of Little Hans is neatly outlined in The Crumpled Giraffe.

Songs such as Katharina are so beautiful it is easy to forget the darkness lurking beneath the surface. Katharina, you may remember, was a victim of sexual abuse. Vermin in the Trenches is just as disturbing. The Rat Man, plagued (if you’ll pardon the expression) by daydreams of anally intrusive rats died, ironically, in the vermin-infested trenches of WW1. Stepping out of the casebook for a moment Greig and Reynolds croon their way through A Gift from the Gods which amusingly recalls Freud’s medical dabblings in cocaine.

I’ve no idea if plans are afoot to release these marvellous songs on CD but it would be a shame if they weren’t made available to a wider audience. Both musically and cerebrally satisfying, Dr Freud’s Cabaret, proved to be an enthralling and memorable theatrical experience.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Richard Hughes in a Coracle

Here is Richard Hughes (see previous post) going native in Laugharne. The author of A High Wind in Jamaica can be seen participating in an annual coracle race. The picture is from 1936.