Thursday, August 25, 2011

Pooh Sticks - Last Ever Welsh Gig

Indie legends The Pooh Sticks, who originally hail from Swansea, will be performing their last ever gig (in Wales) at the Globe, Cardiff, on Saturday, September 3. Famed for such ironic gems as IndiePop Ain't Noise Pollution and I Know Someone Who Knows Someone Who Knows Alan McGee Quite Well, The Pooh Sticks have been both indie darlings and arch subverters of the genre. Also on the bill are Tender Trap and Cardiff’s finest exponents of Sixties influenced girly pop, The School. The gig starts at 7.30pm sharp, thus enabling you to catch the last bus/train home. Don’t miss out!

Evan Walters

Talking of Joe Dunthorne he is one of a number of contributors to a new art volume, Moments of Vision, in which contemporary writers and artists respond to the work of Llangyfelach painter, Evan Walters (1893-1951). Other contributors include Rowan Williams, Jan Morris, Peter Finch and Iwan Bala.

Flicking through the book I was struck by just how varied Walters’s output actually was. I’ve always associated him with portraits of colliers and his striking political painting, The Communist (1932) (see pic). It was these industrial-themed works that earned him an early reputation. But there are many surprises here. The Blind Pianist (1920) and Portrait of a Young Woman (1920) (which ought really to have been titled Portrait of a Young Woman with Extraordinary Hair) are both fine pieces.

And then there are his ‘double vision’ paintings in which he experimented with optical affects. They appear fascinating now but at the time they were a critical and commercial flop. A New Bond Street exhibition of these works held in 1936 bombed – the critics preferring his earlier pictures of miners. The best of his double vision oeuvre is the vividly coloured, The Stout Man With A Jug (1936).

One of the most interesting paintings featured in this book is Blackened Face With Reclining Nude (1945). The viewer sees a close-up of a collier, his mask-like face dusted with coal, and in the background a nude woman with orange hair. The miner’s voluptuous red mouth and the sexualised nature of the female completely overturn our usual expectations of what industrial art is meant to be. An excellent analysis of the transgressive qualities of this piece is provided by artist Peter Finnemore.

Evan Walters: Moments of Vision, published by Seren, is out now. Apparently all profits from this book go to a children’s charity which probably explains the otherwise strange choice of a foreword by Charlotte Church.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Wild Abandon by Joe Dunthorne

In Wild Abandon author, Joe Dunthorne, doesn’t stray too far from the themes and concerns of his hugely successful debut novel, Submarine. Relationships in peril, growing pains, and the idiosyncrasies of the middle-classes are once again explored. But this time using a shifting third-person narrative.

Most of the novel’s action takes place at a commune, Blaen-y-Llyn, which is peopled by a group of English idealists. At the heart of the community is the Riley family: patriarch Don, his long-suffering wife Freya, and their children Kate, 17, and precocious Albert who is 11. Although they have elected to opt out of mainstream society Don and Freya (they met at uni) could be any suburban middle-class couple going through a marital crisis.

It’s not just Don and Freya’s relationship that is disintegrating. Ageing stoner, Patrick, has fallen out with Don over TV adverts. Pat wants the commune's 2 kids to understand how ads are constructed and thus render them (the ads) powerless. Don, by contrast, would prefer to draw a veil across them. Literally. His Ad-guard invention – a converted shower rail – blanks out offending materialistic temptations whenever they appear onscreen.

Dunthorne chooses not to make too much of Welsh/English cultural difference. Which is a relief. The borders that really interest him are those that separate the realms of childhood and the adult world. Albert, for instance, is looking forward to the onset of puberty by regularly smelling himself for signs of development. In his portrayal of Albert, Dunthorne captures perfectly the sometimes odd logic of children, their inventive use of language and their strange preoccupation with violence and death.

Not only is Albert a brilliant comic creation but with his conviction that the world is soon to end (picked up from esoteric Marina) he moves the novel forward toward an apocalyptic conclusion. The apocalypse in question taking symbolic form in a rave organised by Don to reinvigorate the commune and win back the admiration of his estranged wife. It is worth imparting that the choreographing of the rave denouement is expertly handled by the author.

Although there are undoubtedly many satirical moments in the novel Dunthorne doesn’t appear to have a polemical axe to grind with regard to communal living. He is neither discernibly for or against such a lifestyle. However, with Kate, Freya and Patrick all making escape bids we can conclude that Blaen-y-Llyn is a failed project. In Wild Abandon it is ordinary human weaknesses that comically undermine ideology - notably Don’s gargantuan ego and his will to lead.

As well as being a novelist Joe Dunthorne is an accomplished poet. When poets turn their hand to prose it can sometimes go a bit purple. Not so, here. Dunthorne’s poetic eye lends to his writing a crisp precision. His choice of words is often toothsome. An abundance of foodie diction suggests a frustrated chef at work. Wild Abandon is certainly a novel that is well worth getting your teeth into.

*Wild Abandon by Joe Dunthorne is out now and it’s v funny.

Friday, August 19, 2011

New Welsh Review

Wales’s leading literary magazine the New Welsh Review has a new editor, Gwen Davies. It’s always interesting to observe subtle shifts in emphases and direction whenever a new hand takes the helm of an established journal. Having just read the latest issue of NWR I have to say I’m vibed.

In the past I think NWR has been overly preoccupied with being seen to be ‘intelligent’ whilst quite often forgetting to be ‘entertaining’. This attitude was probably born out of a perfectly understandable editorial desire for Welsh literature to be taken seriously. All too often, however, pomposity has prevailed.

There’s certainly nothing pompous about the current issue of NWR, nor is there any skimping on intellect. I detect, though, a more relaxed tone along with a broader and more adventurous interpretation of what constitutes Welsh literary culture.

The magazine opens with an interesting article by Tyler Keevil on soundtracks in coming-of-age films; and is immediately followed by Liz Jones’s analysis of Richard Ayoade’s debut flick, Submarine. There are short stories by Cynan Jones; Richard Gwyn’s piece on Michel de Montaigne is compelling; and there are high quality book reviews.

There’s poetry, too, if that’s your bag. I find most contemporary Welsh poetry to be as relevant to modern life as, say, bell-ringing, so I just tend to read the bits where they have their epiphanies. You, however, might be a poetry connoisseur in which case fill your boots.

Gwen Davies has also upped the digital ante. The NWR website now carries additional content that doesn’t appear in the magazine. This includes interviews, reviews, and contributions from guest bloggers. So, if you fancy yourself as a bit of a culture vulture, why not give the revamped NWR a blast.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Peter Harvey

Whatever happened to Peter Harvey? He was a vocalist from Splott, Cardiff, who released a handful of singles between 1962-64 on the Columbia record label. Harvey's is an unusual story. At the age of 3 he fell off a milk cart and broke a hip. Due to complications he would be hospitalised for 9 years. His left leg was shorter than his right and later in life he would have to wear a built up shoe. In hospital he learned to play the harmonica.

Harvey grew up to be a genial fellow and had a fine singing voice. By day he was a draughtsman for Glamorgan County Council but at night he was a singer in a nightclub. He was spotted by musical entrepreneur Norrie Paramour who in 1962 invited him to London to cut a disc. At the time Harvey said that he didn't want any sympathy or to make capital from having a damaged leg.

Retrospectively it seems likely, though, that he was being exploited precisely for being lame. He was a singer with a limp and it was used as a kind of gimmick. His record company/management made him sing melancholy songs. His singles were: Rainin' In My Heart / Please Don't Tell Joe (1962); Wishing You The Best Of Luck My Friend / Lovin' Can Be Lonesome (1963); Heart Of Ice / Trace Of A Heartache (1964); Big Man In A Big House / Date With Heartache (1964).

I've not heard any of these tunes but apparently he had a Pat Boone-like voice and the numbers had orchestral backing. Unfortunately, none of his singles would go on to become hits though Trace Of A Heartache did sell over 5,000 copies. Any further info on Peter Harvey would be much appreciated.

A member of Peter Harvey’s family was kind enough to contact me to update the story. Peter, I’m pleased to say, is alive and well and still living in south Wales. His career came to an end when he made the decision to focus all of his attention on bringing up his young family – touring and parenthood not being particularly compatible. It must be stated that although he suffered from a minor disability Peter Harvey resisted all unscrupulous attempts at exploitation, even to the extent of turning down an offer of work in America. I’d very much like to thank Debra Harvey for providing this additional information.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

South Wales Chip Crisis

And while we’re on the subject of Gwyn Thomas here he is being interviewed by Alan Whicker about the South Wales Chip Crisis. This short TV item from the 1960s examines the consequences of a potato shortage on the chip-loving Welsh. With tongue planted firmly in cheek Thomas explains that, amongst other things, the Welsh picked up their knowledge of culture and politics from reading the newspapers which enveloped their chips. I think it is quite an amusing piece but you could argue that Thomas is playing the professional Welshman (something he was occasionally accused of) and perpetuating stereotypes for the amusement of a largely English audience. What do you think?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Gwyn Thomas in New York

I like the crisp black and white aesthetic of this YouTube, its sharp angularity, its jazzy score, its dark suits and skinny ties, its raincoats and thick spectacles. It comes from those innocent days - 1964 - when you didn’t have to look like a model to present TV shows. You just had to have something interesting to say. Valleys product Gwyn Thomas, broadcaster and novelist, wordsmiths his way around New York like your favourite schoolmaster gone AWOL. As a wit and raconteur he was an absolute natural for television. Pity it’s such a short clip – I would love to see the entire programme. As well as Fifth Avenue he was also filmed at the top of the Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, Grand Central Station, Central Park, the UN building, Harlem, ‘Skid Row’, Greenwich Village, the White Horse Tavern and, for the finale, Broadway. Gwyn Thomas in New York was made by TWW which was a precursor to ITV Wales. There are lots of other Gwyn Thomas clips on YouTube which are worthy of investigation. Listen to him, for instance, vibing on Cardiff Docks, Barry Island, the Vale of Neath and Llanwonno.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Richey Edwards - Japanese Interview

For no other reason that it’s an interesting interview and that it’s always good to remind oneself of just how cool and articulate Richey Edwards was (and perhaps still is). And I didn’t realise that he could actually understand Japanese. I jest, of course.

Was The Holy Bible by the Manic Street Preachers the most outstanding piece of culture to emerge from Wales during the twentieth century? Discuss. Whenever I sit around compiling my 10 Greatest Welsh Cultural Artefacts of the Twentieth Century list (which is quite often) it always gets in my top 3.