Monday, February 27, 2012

Valentina Tereshkova in Cardiff

In 1984 former Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova visited Cardiff. She had famously become the first woman in space in 1963 when she orbited the earth 48 times in Vostok-VI. She was in London at the invitation of the Royal Aeronautical Society but, for some mysterious reason, expressed a desire to see Cardiff. Whilst here she took in the delights of Cardiff Castle and Penarth. She also met members of the Wales/USSR Friendship Society for a special luncheon at the Royal Hotel. Via an interpreter she said: “The people in Cardiff and Wales are among the most hospitable in the world. I have heard so much about your city and I wanted to get to know it better. That’s why I decided to see Cardiff with my own eyes and meet the people.” The Soviet space heroine was then presented with a prize-winning poem penned by a Barry schoolboy entitled The Sub. It was about a submarine commander who is ordered to fire off his nuclear missiles. After wrestling with his conscience he carries out the order only to discover moments later that it was a false alarm. Valentina Tereshkova is still alive and even today is a huge name in Russia. She has 2 Orders of Lenin, an Order of Merit for the Fatherland and is a Hero of the Soviet Union.

Annie Powell - Communist Mayor

In the same year (1979) that Margaret Thatcher was elected as Britain's first ever female PM, the Red Rhondda upheld its radical tradition by appointing Annie Powell as Britain's first ever female communist mayor. Powell held office for a year - Thatcher, unfortunately, lasted a lot longer than that. My favourite fact about Annie Powell is that while attending a conference in Moscow as a delegate of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1960, she impressed Soviet leader, Nikita Kruschev, with her rendition of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau.

Powell was born at Ystrad, Rhondda, and grew up in a Welsh-speaking, Nonconformist home. She attended Pentre Grammar where the school motto was Hog Dyd Fwyel (Wet the Battle-Axe) - an old Chartist rallying cry. She first became interested in politics while completing a teacher training course in Barry. During the General Strike of 1926 she became radicalised, initially joining the Labour Party and then later, in 1938, the CPGB. Before becoming mayor in 1979 she had served as a communist councillor in the Rhondda for twenty years. She died in 1986.

For another Welsh communist first, go here.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The King Who Lived on Jelly

I am currently digging The King Who Lived on Jelly by Cledwyn Hughes. It is a collection of short stories that was first published in 1961. Although the book was intended originally for children it also functions as a fine collection of adult-friendly fantasy tales. Characters include a king who can only eat jelly; a controller of rainbows; and a mouse that can’t say the letter ‘s’ without sneezing. The book had a paperback reprint in psychedelic 1969 which doesn’t surprise me at all as there is a trippy, lysergic quality to several of these stories. Hughes was originally from rural Llansanffraid, Powys, but went on to become a pharmacist in Liverpool. He returned to Wales in 1947 to launch his career as a full-time writer. I’ve checked out a couple of his novels from the ‘40s but to be honest they weren’t really my cup of literature. The King Who Lived on Jelly, though, is a corker. A pristine copy of the first edition will set you back a cool £100. The book was illustrated by Michael Foreman – one of his earliest commissions – which, no doubt, adds to its value as a collectible.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Quentin Crisp in Cardiff

Here’s an advert from 1979 for Quentin Crisp’s show at Cardiff’s New Theatre. In 1975 Crisp became an overnight gay celebrity following the airing of a television adaptation of his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant. He cashed-in on his new-found celebrity status by devising a one man show which he took on tour. It consisted of an hour-long monologue followed by a Q & A session with the audience. By the time Crisp arrived in post-punk era Cardiff he wasn’t just a gay icon but an outsider hero to hipsters of whatever sexual persuasion. After all he had been dyeing his hair and wearing make-up decades before any of us were doing it. In the same year that Quentin Crisp was in Cardiff German group Gina X released their fine single No GDM in homage to him. The title refers to Crisp’s concept of the Great Dark Man – his perfect yet unobtainable heterosexual male. During the early eighties the song effortlessly crossed over from gay clubs to the post-punk nightspots of Cardiff and became a guaranteed floor-filler. For some reason the song is omitted from most musical histories of the era but it was certainly an underground smash in south Wales. In fact nothing reminds me of post-punk, weird haircut, amyl nitrate, pointy suede boots with buckles down the sides, Cardiff, quite like this tune – have a listen.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Gnome Pixie Flex

It may not have been the most sophisticated piece of machinery ever constructed but the Gnome Pixie Flex was that rarest of optical beasts: a Welsh camera. Manufactured in Cardiff circa 1951 it was a pseudo TLR camera with fixed focus and fixed aperture. It had a crinkled black enamelled metallic body with chromed front edges. Variants included the Gnome Pixie and the Baby Pixie. But who exactly were Gnome?

The Welsh company actually had its roots in pre-war Stuttgart. It was there that Heinrich Loebstein set up a small factory that produced photographic equipment. His enlargers, viewers and projectors were of fine quality and exported to various parts of the world, including Cardiff.

The rise of the Nazi regime in Germany meant that Loebstein, a jew, was subject to punitive anti-semitic measures and faced the prospect of life in a concentration camp. In 1938 he fled, bringing his family to south Wales where he had previously established strong business contacts.

His arrival in Wales coincided with the setting up of Britain's first industrial estate at Treforest. The Treforest complex was meant to encourage new types of industries to south Wales which was still suffering the harsh economic blight of Depression. Gnome was one of the very first companies to establish itself there.

Eighteen months after the outbreak of WW2 the Ministry of Aircraft Production took over his new factory at Treforest and Gnome relocated to Cardiff. There they produced enlargers for the Admiralty for use in aerial reconnaissance. It must have been satisfying for Loebstein to contribute to the fight against fascism in such a positive way, using technology he had begun to develop in Germany.

After the war Gnome moved into new premises on Caerphilly Road, Cardiff, which became their home for many years to come. They continued to manufacture enlargers and projectors, taking out various patents along the way. In fact Loebstein helped to popularise photography in the UK. Hitherto enlargers had been expensive but in 1948 he revolutionised the industry by introducing large batch production. This brought the unit price down from an average of £40 to £11 – well within the financial grasp of the amateur.

By 1960 80% of enlargers sold in the UK were produced by Gnome. They exported their goods to 72 different countries. Also in 1960 they became a public company issuing 400,000 shares. By this time Loebstein had repossessed his old factory in Stuttgart but nothing was produced there – it was used instead as warehouse for Gnome’s exports to Germany. Heinrich Loebstein lived in Cyncoed.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Clash in Swansea Poster

This is the poster that was pasted up around the streets of Swansea when The Clash hit town in May, 1977. If you were one of those obsessive fans that went around painstakingly peeling tour posters from buildings before relocating them to your bedroom wall, (or even if you just bought one at the gig) you might be quids in. In 2010 an original of this very poster was sold at auction at Bonhams for the bouffant-raising sum of £900. Joe Strummer must be rotating at a considerable velocity in his punk rock grave. For all things punk and Swansea related go here. For all things Joe Strummer and Newport related go here.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Mark Phillips

In this stylish YouTube witness Mark “Sparky” Phillips of Demented Are Go, guest vocalising on My Love Forever More, by Zurich-based band Hillbilly Moon Explosion. The murder ballad was released as a single last year with a rockabilly version of Enola Gay on the flipside. Hillbilly Moon Explosion’s oeuvre is broad – ranging from dark Americana to full-on psychobilly. Legend has it that they once turned down an invitation to represent Switzerland at the Eurovision Song Contest. In the above clip Penarth product Phillips, looking somewhat weathered these days, turns in a typically gnarly performance. You’d expect nothing less from the front man of Demented Are Go. I once got booted in the head at a Demented Are Go gig…. but I digress. Italian director of the vid, the fruitily monikered Giuseppe Valentino, was so taken with the bequiffed Welshman that he now wants to shoot a Cassavetes-style movie with Phillips in the lead role. If you fancy yourself as a budding producer and have a few grand to spare; or if you happen to sit on a Welsh arts/film quango, then Giuseppe Valentino would like to hear from you. You can read his pitch for the flick, The Bloodsong, here.

Incidentally, adding further Welsh spice to My Love Forever More is veteran rock’n’roll keyboardist Geraint Watkins who plays a mean organ on the recording.

Strange Fish

Here’s an amusing photograph of Welsh New Romantic supremo, Steve Strange, and a man with a fish. It was taken in the early ‘80s after a Spandau Ballet concert in Cardiff Docks. Judging by the BRAINS windows I would hazard a guess that the boozer he is ensconced in is The Packet on Bute Street. I’ve no idea who the guy with the fish is but it’s great to see Steve Strange mixing with the locals in true ‘man of the people’ fashion.