Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Martha Gellhorn in Gwent

American writer/war correspondent Martha Gellhorn is probably best known for her collection of writings Travels With Myself and Another (1978) (the "Another" being her ex-hubby Ernest Hemingway). In the book she recounts her travels through some of the world's worst hell-holes. Two countries she particularly loathed - China and the Soviet Union - she vowed never to set foot in again. But one locale that Gellhorn evidently did like was Wales.

She moved here in 1980 to a cottage in the Gwent hills overlooking the Severn estuary. The country retreat cost her £25,000. She spent a further £10,000 on improvements. She named the cottage Catscradle after the children's game in which patterns are weaved with string. Of the local climate she said, "(it) leads to neurosis, melancholia, probably schizophrenia." She referred to her new abode as, "this tiny insane cottage in Wales."

She was much more positive about the Welsh. Sounding a bit like an anthropologist she said of the natives: "I am entranced by the Welsh... I find them wonderful. I like them better than I have ever liked anybody in this half of the world. The Welsh are just nice, I can't get over it. I feel grateful astonishment, I am enamoured of them. They are so forthcoming and I find them wonderfully helpful and friendly and kind and tolerant and it is extraordinarily easy to live among them. They make up for the climate. Perhaps you have to choose between the people and the climate."

Whilst living at the cottage she developed a passion for gardening and cooking. She took regular exercise in her small, indoor heated swimming pool. And she wrote every day - firing off letters to people like George Plimpton and Betsy Drake (writer and wife of Cary Grant). In a letter to her friend Valerie Forman, she said: "I am as happy now as I have ever been in my life."

But the weather got to her in the end. After living here for 14 years she regretfully left for London in 1994, aged 84. She said at the time: "I'm just too old to keep up with a country place. I want to but my machinery just won't let me. I love the place, but I can't haul dustbins up the drive forever. I've loved my time in Wales; the people are the friendliest in the world but the weather is generally filthy. I want to spend more time where it is warmer."

Four years later in 1998, ill and almost completely blind, Martha Gellhorn committed suicide in London.

*Gellhorn wrote a good piece on the wives of striking Welsh miners in which she contrasted their warmth and community spirit to the froideur of Thatcher. It was collected - I think - in her book of peacetime journalism, The View From the Ground (1988).

Monday, November 25, 2013

School's Out For Anthrax

They obviously do things differently in the high schools of Caerphilly (see previous post). In this 1989 photograph pupils from St Cennydd Comprehensive meet members of Anthrax! In my old school the occasional superannuated rugby player would turn up to give us a pep talk - we certainly didn't get to meet American thrash metal bands. In the '80s Anthrax were one of the big four of that particular musical genre along with Metallica, Megadeath and Slayer. In the same year that this photograph was taken MTV held a contest in which the winning prize was a visit from Anthrax... who would then trash your house. The competition which was won by a female fan was later parodied in American comedy show Married With Children. I'm not a fan of thrash metal myself but Anthrax did do an interesting collaboration with Public Enemy circa 1991 which is worth checking out.
*The above photograph was, I think, taken at St David's Hall, Cardiff, where the band was doing a show.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Buchenwald Lampshade

In 1945 Ness Edwards, MP for Caerphilly, was part of a parliamentary delegation that visited Buchenwald concentration camp. Many people in Britain were sceptical about the nature and scale of the horrors being reported from such places. Surely the "atrocity mongering" newspapers were exaggerating the crimes? It was the job of the 10 volunteer MPs to verify what actually took place at Buchenwald.

What they found at the camp was evidence of large-scale murder, disease and human degradation. At one point Edwards briefly fainted after being overpowered by the stench of death. There are in existence photographs of Edwards and his colleagues inspecting huge piles of naked, decomposing corpses. Unfortunately the pictures are just too gruesome to use here.

When Edwards left the concentration camp he took with him a grim souvenir - a lampshade made from human skin. It was intended to remind him of man's inhumanity to man. The visit had been traumatic and for many years he continued to have nightmares about Buchenwald. It is said - though I don't know for sure if this is true - that when he attended election meetings he would sometimes take the Nazi lampshade with him and claim that such atrocities would happen again if the Welsh nationalists gained power.

Ness (Onesimus) Edwards was a former miner who first went down the pit aged 13. A conscientious objector during WW1 he spent time in Wormwood Scrubs prison for his beliefs. After the Munich Agreement in 1938 he helped anti-Nazi Czech miners escape from the Sudetenland. In 1939 he became MP for Caerphilly. In 1945 he represented British miners at the memorial to the murdered at Lidice. He remained the MP for Caerphilly until his death in 1968.

Amazingly the Buchenwald lampshade was kept at St Martin's Comprehensive School in Caerphilly. It may even still be there.

*If you want to discover more about Ness Edwards there is a good biography on him written by Wayne David called Remaining True.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Howells Fur Advert 1973

Check out this abomination - it's a Howells real fur advert from 1973. Cardiffians will note that the fashion shoot took place at the Hayes Island Snack Bar - a cheap open-air cafe in the city centre where you can drink industrial strength coffee out of styrofoam cups. The appropriation of a working-class space to flaunt and flog luxury goods just makes the ad that little bit more stomach churning. Such advertisements were more socially acceptable back then but public opinion about the wearing of real fur was beginning to change. In 1987 Howells and other Cardiff department stores who sold non-synthetic fur coats were targeted by the Animal Liberation Front.

Swansea Jazz

Here'a nice interior shot from 1955 of an establishment called FW Haines of Portland Street, Swansea. Not sure if it was a jazz record shop per se or a department within a larger store. Eagle-eyed jazzers might be able to identify the records and posters on view. Click on the picture to see a much larger version.

*UPDATE: Some additional information courtesy of John who worked there back in the day: "Haines main business was as a photographer and photographic retailer, they started in Swansea just after WW2 in Western Street. Two brothers ran it - Frank and Leslie Haines. They moved to Portland St in the early 1950s, and Frank being a hi-fi man added such gear to the shop's stock. Then he expanded into records and opened a separate department, which was downstairs, as I recall. They sold mostly the 'pops', but a selection of all genres were stocked. All the expansion into records and hi-fi led to some financial problems, so the business was sold off just before it would have gone under. Frank and Les then stuck to their core photographic business with great success in a new large shop in Christina Street, and later moved to Oxford Street where they traded under the 'Photomarket' franchise."

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Andrew Mackenzie

Here’s an arty YouTube featuring exuberant Welsh fashion designer Andrew Mackenzie. It’s titled The Living Dead and was made in 2011 by Leonardo Del Paggio. In the video Mackenzie goes on about being a Welsh guy in Italy quite a lot. This is appropriate because he is from Llanelli and he lives in Milan. According to his facebook page: “His work is a provocative vision of decadence, depravity, attitude, uninhibited sexuality and dark beauty.” He is probably best known for his jeanswear. Also well worth investigating is Mackenzie’s 2007 ‘fashion road movie’ Bible Black.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Aneurin Bevan and Doris Lessing

Bit of a curio: Welsh Marxist political heavyweight Aneurin Bevan deep in conversation with literary heavyweight Doris Lessing in October, 1957. Not sure what the function was but Bevan had always been an avid devourer of literature. From an early age he was a precocious reader, borrowing books from the library of the Tredegar Workmen's Institute. His literary influences included HG Wells, Jack London and Thorstein Veblen.

Photo ©Evening Standard/Getty Images

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Dorothy Squires

A picture of Welsh diva Dorothy Squires bidding a fond farewell to her pet poodle, Jason, before speeding off to perform at the London Palladium (where else?) in 1971. Unlucky in love she was almost as famous for being dumped by ambitious hubby Roger Moore as for her actual singing career. A cursory glance at the headlines in her cuttings file provides an insight into her chaotic private life: The Spy Who Left Me!; She Once Had A Mansion Now A Debtor's Cell Looms; Sad Dorothy Out On The Streets. Squires, who always seemed to be in the process of suing somebody, was eventually banned from the High Court for her litigiousness. Virtually penniless after squandering her fortune on legal fees, she ended her days living in a house in Trebanog, Rhondda. Her accommodation provided by a fish and chip shop owner who took pity on her. She died of lung cancer in 1998. *Photo ©Chris Ware/Getty Images.