Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Swastika Over Cardiff

Cardiff is hardly the most well-loved of capital cities. To the rest of Wales's aggrieved and embittered populace we are perceived as the Land of Milk and Subsidies. Personally I think we should erect huge signs at all entry points to the city saying 'WE GET EVERYTHING' just to confirm those prejudices. Unfortunately this photograph isn't going to do anything to improve our tarnished image or endear ourselves to anybody. Amazingly it shows a man raising a swastika above the City Hall in Cardiff in 1938.

The flag was hoisted along with those of Britain, France and Italy to celebrate the signing of the Munich Agreement which effectively carved up Czechoslovakia and appeased Hitler. This (the flag raising) was done on the initiative of Cardiff's Lord Mayor, O Cuthbert Purnell. Not at all happy with the sight of the swastika fluttering over the Cardiff skyline, Alderman CH McCale and Councillor Heginbottom took it upon themselves to remove the Nazi banner. They then hid it. The Lord Mayor responded by ordering a replacement swastika to be run up the flag pole (see pic). At a heated council meeting the Mayor was asked why the Czech flag was not awarded a place of honour over the civic buildings. He replied that the Czechoslovakian flag was unavailable.

Lord Mayor Purnell would later offer a more detailed explanation of his actions: "I am making no apology for what I did last week. On the morning the news came through that war had been averted I ordered the flags of the four nations to be flown. This was a gesture of goodwill to the nations concerned. It had no political or religious significance. Cardiff is a port and has to maintain friendly relationship with all nations trading with us, and it was on that ground alone that I flew the flags. Were Cardiff not a great port the necessity would not have arisen." Six months later the Nazis marched into Czechoslovakia.

*The above photograph is ©Getty Images.

UPDATE: Who was OC Purnell? Oliver Cuthbert Purnell was born in Cardiff and educated at a local Catholic school - St Illtyd’s. He was a businessman and at one point MD of a Funeral Directors. In politics he was a staunch Tory and would remain a member of the Conservative party until his death. He was first elected to Cardiff Council in 1921. Later, in 1932, he became a JP for the city; and in 1936 he was created an alderman. He served as Lord Mayor from 1937-38. During WW2 he was ARP (Air Raid Precaution) controller of Cardiff and for his services in this role was awarded a CBE in 1942. After the war he retained an interest in aeronautics becoming chairman of the Aerodrome Owners’ Association. In 1948 he was invested with the third highest honour of the Roman Catholic Church – the Order of the Knighthood of St Gregory (civilian class). He died at Llandough Hospital that same year, aged 60, having been ill for several months. He was married with three sons and one daughter. You can see a photograph of OC Purnell in his mayoral role here. He is pictured with fellow catholic - American ambassador Joseph Kennedy - who was, according to some, an admirer of Hitler.

Sadist in Sequins

Welsh grappler Adrian Street has been mentioned on this blog before but it's worth reminding ourselves that he has no less than four autobiographies available for purchase. They chart the various stages of his extraordinary life and career - from bareknuckle fist-fights with Welsh gypsies to encounters with London gangsters to appearing in a movie directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. With titles such as My Pink Gas Mask and Sadist in Sequins your coffee table can't fail but to be seriously pimped up by their presence. You can get hold of the books at Adrian's excellent wrestling website.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Red Flag Whisky

You've heard of champagne socialism, right? Well, drinkers on the political left of a more hardcore persuasion might prefer a snifter of Red Flag, the new, radical socialist, whisky from Penderyn. The Red Flag moniker has symbolic significance. It commemorates the Merthyr Riots of 1831 during which the red flag was for the first time raised as an emblem of social protest. Unfortunately it all ended badly for the rebels with imprisonment, transportation, and in the case of Dic Penderyn (real name: Richard Lewis), death by hanging.

Over at the Penderyn distillery blog, MD Stephen Davies explains the rationale behind Red Flag whisky: "Wales has an incredibly rich history, and some powerful stories that have yet to receive the recognition that they deserve. Not many people would associate the red flag of social protest with Wales, yet it's here that the international iconic symbol originated."

The company plans to issue 50 special bottlings in their new Icons of Wales series, each of which will celebrate a significant event or person from Welsh history and culture. One can only speculate on what or who this might involve. I'd love to be able to mourn the disappearance of Richey Edwards with a Generation Terrorists single malt, for instance; or how about a glass of Free Wales Army on the rocks; and wouldn't it be lovely to get completely shitfaced on a whole bottle of R S Thomas?

Red Flag is a strictly limited edition and is available for purchase at the Penderyn website and selected stores in Wales.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Idi Amin in Cardiff

A history teacher at my old comprehensive school used to boast that he was the man who taught Ugandan dictator Idi Amin how to box. Presumably this was while Mr Tim “bend over boy!” Harris was stationed in East Africa. Amin had joined the Kings African Rifles (part of the British Colonial Army) as a cook in 1946 and then worked his way through the ranks. In 1952 he helped the British colonists put down the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. Amin was a keen athlete and with a bit of pugilistic tuition from Mr Harris went on to become Ugandan light heavyweight boxing champion. He was also an excellent swimmer and an accomplished rugby player. In the 1950s he played for Nile RFC.

Amin staged a military coup in Uganda in 1971, seizing power from Milton Obote. Almost immediately he declared himself President. His dictatorship was characterised by the brutal repression of his own people (he was responsible for 300,000 deaths in the 1970s) and the bizarre, often comical, threats and demands he aimed at foreign powers. In 1974, for example, he sent a message to Queenie urging her to lend her support to the catholics in Northern Ireland, Welsh and Scottish nationalists, and the Palestinian Liberation Movement. Strangely enough, she did none of the above.

In 1975 Englishman Dennis Hills, a lecturer in Kampala, was arrested by Amin's henchmen on a trumped up espionage charge. Hills had referred to Amin as a "black Nero" and a "village tyrant" and therefore faced execution. The then British Foreign Secretary (and MP for Cardiff South) Jim Callaghan flew to Kampala to plead for clemency. Callaghan later revealed on a BBC radio show that he and Amin had quickly found something in common: 'Pretty much his first words to me were, "When I knew you came from Cardiff I decided to release Hills." I asked why. "Well," he said, "you have the olympic swimming pool in Cardiff and when I was training for the Olympics I used to come from London every weekend and swim there." And I thought, well that's as good a reason as any.' Hills was indeed released without harm soon afterwards.

The swimming pool Amin referred to was the Empire Pool in Cardiff which has since been demolished.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Ron Watkins

Ron Watkins began his literary career in the early '70s writing racy thrillers. Later he switched to westerns, penning such titles as Stagecoach to DamnationBounty Hunter's Revenge, and A Bullet for the Preacher. Watkins, who lived in Treorchy, admitted that he had never actually been further west than Pembrokeshire. Instead, he found inspiration for his cowboy books in the films of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, and admired the novels of Zane Grey. His own writing routine involved him getting up at dawn, putting in a couple of hard hours scribbling, before setting off for work at Rhondda Library. Each book took him about six weeks to complete. He never pre-planned or plotted his novels, preferring instead to let his muse guide him. Watkins never let his literary success go to his head, not even when he got buttonholed in the street by admiring neighbours who (according to him) would say things like: "Well, fancy you writing a book." When he asked their opinion of his novels they would mumble: "they haven't found the time to get to the local bookshop. They have been too busy writing to their cousin in Australia; or they have been helping to put the currants in their wife's Welsh cakes; or their time has been fully taken up moving a chair from the living-room into the sitting-room." In total Watkins wrote about 30 books, as well as poetry and plays. In later life he taught himself how to speak Welsh. He died in 2011 and is buried in Treorchy.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Bernard Toms

Here’s a nice photo of a rather louche looking Bernard Toms, Welsh author of a couple of trash fiction novels in the 1960s. Toms was born in Newport but later moved to London where he went on to join the Met. After nine years in the force he decided to become a private detective. After jacking that in he returned to Wales to become a writer. He lived at Orchard House in the village of Llandenny.

His first novel, George Arbuthnott Jarrett (1965), is a Freudian tale of a schizophrenic who veers from acts of Id-like dissipation, including attending kinky sex parties in Hampstead, to bouts of moral outrage as his finger-wagging Super-Ego takes hold. The battle rages until: “their relationship is finally resolved in a climax of hideous, almost intolerable force.” The book didn’t sell particularly well and is now a charity shop rarity.

His other novel The Strange Affair (1966) was much more successful. Evidently drawing on his experiences in the Met it recounts the story of an idealistic copper, PC Strange, who goes off the rails. Or as the Sun put it: “(a) scorchingly topical tale of gangster violence and police corruption.” Toms managed to sell the film rights to Paramount for £8K and received a further £2K when it was made. The film, released in 1968, starred Michael York and Susan George.

What became of Bernard Toms after that I’m none too sure.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Universal Mind

Not sure if horror magazine The Universal Mind ever made it beyond Issue 1. It was put together in Rhos, Wrexham, in 1997, by Carl Thomas. It included stories by Welsh writers such as Rhys Hughes (A Horse Called Man), and Tim Lebbon (Meat). From over the border there were contributions from Nicholas Royle, Paul Pinn, Simon Clark and Ramsey Campbell. And from across the pond work by S Darnbrook Colson, Edward Lee, and a previously published interview with Poppy Z Brite. The magazine also included reviews. It was A4 in size, ran to 52 pages and retailed at a very reasonable £2.50. The striking cover art was by Virgil Vinlay.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Black Skin, Blue Books

As its title suggests Black Skin, Blue Books employs a comparative approach to African American and Welsh cultural identities at various points over a hundred year period. Given the choice of subjects up for comparison (and the titular echo of Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks) there is inevitably a postcolonial context to this work. But author Daniel G Williams is wary of the pitfalls of such methodologies. He is keen to point out that this is no cheap attempt to appropriate or misrepresent black culture. Or to 'glamorize' by association. He is aware also of the limitations of overly simplistic binary arguments and consequently adopts a more nuanced approach.

For his comparative Transatlantic study Williams favours those moments where African American and Welsh culture have actually intersected. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass's visit to Wales during the Victorian era of the Blue Books, for example. And the pre-WW1 links between WEB Du Bois and Welsh feminist Frances Hoggan. He also deconstructs our cosy image of Paul Robeson and his cherished relationship to Wales. In addition he examines the significance of Ralph Ellison's stationing in Swansea during WW2. Other, sometimes unlikely, figures make an appearance. Joseph Goebbels, for instance; and James Baldwin, who noted that: "much of the tension in the Basque country and in Wales is due to the Basques and Welsh determination not to allow their languages to be destroyed."

The full list of themes and areas of debate that arise from these intersections are too numerous to mention but amongst the most salient are: racial uplift; the choice between assimilation and separation; canon building; the decline of the Welsh language; minstrelsy; abolitionism; double consciousness; Louis v Farr; the Harlem Renaissance; race and the Welsh industrial novel; Paul Robeson; and the presence of black American soldiers in Britain during WW2. This wide range of investigation is further enriched by the author's ability to speak Welsh, which gives him access to Welsh-language abolitionist newspapers of the day and the means to evaluate Welsh translations of such works as Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Revisiting the Blue Books controversy is a particularly jolting experience for the modern reader (well, this one anyway). The conflation of a supposedly barbarous tongue ("the language of slavery") with a supposedly dubious sexual morality seems an especially crude expression of cultural imperialism. Matthew Arnold further stuck the boot in by arguing for cultural homogeneity - just so long as it was of a distinctly English variety, of course. The Welsh response was interesting. Some folk became more nationalistic in outlook and even attempted to set up Welsh colonies abroad. Many Nonconformists suffered genuine agonies of religious conscience over whether they should ditch their native culture for the greater, universal good. Others, suffering post-Blue Books anxiety, went out of their way to show by example that they were as morally correct as their English neighbours and thus a particular self-righteous Welsh stereotype was born. Along with more comforting stereotypes such as the 'good collier' and the 'stoic mam'.

But let's be clear here, Black Skin, Blue Books is no indulgent wallow in a shared sense of victimhood. Williams' critical approach reveals conflicts and differences as well as correspondences. Frederick Douglass, for instance, thought that Welsh-speaking Wales lagged behind England in law and learning. And recalling his own upbringing on a Maryland plantation he noted that it was "situated on the Wye river - the river receiving its name doubtless, from Wales, where the Lloyds (his slave masters) originated." More controversially perhaps Williams problematises the love-in between Paul Robeson and the Welsh. The selective way in which he has been perceived in Wales suggests that the mythologising of the singer has been an agenda driven appropriation - one in which his internationalism has been favoured over his black cultural nationalism. And then there is the question of Robeson's "ethnic two-timing" evident in his affiliation with the Welsh... and Irish, and Scottish, and Russians, and Egyptians, and the Jews.

The section of this book which deals with Welsh and African American responses to modernism reveals some interesting parallels. The lectures and writings of WEB Du Bois famously encouraged the development of a black middle-class elite - 'the talented tenth'. Meanwhile in Wales Saunders Lewis was busy fostering the notion of a nationalist bourgeoisie. Both, it seems, had a certain disdain for the working-class. Lewis disliked mass culture because he viewed it as an anglicising force but also, one senses, because it was all a bit common. The modernism of poets Langston Hughes and Idris Davies took a more consciously proletarian and vernacular form. I have to admit that I've never really considered Davies to be a characteristically modernist writer but Williams lays stress on his use of the discourse of mass commercial culture, particularly with reference to music and sport. Yet another strain of literary modernism - one which valued primitivism - arose out of rural folk culture and is here represented in the writings of Zora Neale Hurston and Margiad Evans.

Readers might be surprised to learn that Ralph Ellison's seminal novel Invisible Man (1952) had its gestation in Swansea. It was while stationed there during WW2 that Ellison wrote his short story In a Strange Country. It is the tale of Parker an African American seaman ashore in Swansea who is assaulted by some white Americans. Rescued by a group of Welshmen they take the "Black Yank" to a club where they sing various anthems in his honour: the Welsh national anthem Hen Wlad fy Nhadau, a noticeably less enthusiastic rendition of God Save the King, followed by the Internationale. Parker then finds himself belting out, to his own surprise, the previously alien Stars and Stripes. Therefore the 'Strange Country' that he suddenly finds himself in, having stumbled upon an American identity of sorts, is actually the USA. Williams uses the story as a starting point from which to explore African American and Welsh cultural identities in the context of WW2.

Although primarily an academic study and one expressed in the relevant language and terminology that such an undertaking demands there is much here to engage the general reader. The sheer breadth of topics covered in Black Skin, Blue Books and the uncovering of new and pertinent material ensures that it is a fascinating read. Those who are interested in the history and culture of Wales and African America during this period will find it indispensible. Meticulously researched and lucidly written, Williams navigates his subject matter skilfully and without ever straying into polemic - in the process he has with this volume made a significant contribution to cultural studies in Wales. I was left wondering how the subject would pan out post-1945. Hopefully the comparative Transatlantic critical approach will be further explored over the coming years.

*Black Skin, Blue Books: African Americans and Wales, 1845-1945 is published by the University of Wales Press.