Thursday, December 19, 2013

The End

Here endeth the blog. Thanks for your interest - particularly to those of you who have taken the trouble to contact me over the past few years. What better way to put Babylon Wales to permanent rest than with a traditional Welsh lullaby...

Jurgen Schadeberg at Hensol

This photograph shows patients at Hensol Castle hospital in the Vale of Glamorgan. The building, a castellated mansion in the gothic style, was converted into a hospital for "mental defectives" in 1930. The original colony of 100 male patients consisted of people who suffered with Downs Syndrome, Hydrocephalus and what today would be considered learning difficulties. Villas and outbuildings were added to the complex in the 1930s to accommodate women and children. By the 1950s the patient population at Hensol had reached over 800. As attitudes to mental health began to change in the 1960s more emphasis was put on community-based treatments and the learning of new skills. Over time the population began to decline as patients were reintegrated into the wider community. In 2004 Hensol Castle hospital was closed. Today it is a health resort and conference centre and, inevitably, has been used as a location in the shooting of Doctor Who.

The picture above was taken by esteemed German snapper Jurgen Schadeberg in 1967. Schadeberg is probably best-known today for his work on Drum magazine in South Africa during the '50s and '60s. In fact, for his documentation of the apartheid struggles he has been dubbed: 'The Father of South African Photography'. When he left that country in 1964 Schadeberg freelanced in Europe and the US for various prestigious magazines. It must have been during this period that he turned up at Hensol, though I've no idea what his assignment actually was, or whether the pictures were ever published. Schadeberg's photographic career continues to flourish. His 1994 shot of Nelson Mandela peering through the bars of his former Robben Island prison cell was voted one of the 50 most memorable images of the twentieth century. These days, together with his wife Claudia, he also makes documentary films.

*Photograph ©Jurgen Schadeberg/Getty Images.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

I'r Gad

I'r Gad is a splendid collection of photographic images that records in book form half-a-century's worth of Welsh-language protest. There's all kinds of confrontation here from the Welsh Language Society's first demo on Trefechan bridge, Aberystwyth, in 1963 to court cases, prison releases, graffiti attacks, occupations, and the smashing up of English-language road signs. Some of the images are quite familiar - particularly those taken by snapper Raymond Daniel - but also included are previously unseen shots from collections at the National Library of Wales and Bangor University. One entirely frivolous aspect of the book that I enjoyed was its sartorial dimension. Spot the duffle coats and jazzy beards at early '60s sit-ins; watch out for placard waving hippies; there are people in tank tops being hauled off by the cops in the '70s; and post-punk badge wearers looking like human message boards. If, like me, you enjoy seeing the Welsh in full-on cultural revolt then you will love I'r Gad.

*I'r Gad is published by Y Lolfa at £19.95.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Teen Anthems

It's the parenthetical addition that makes it a contender for best song title ever. I Hate Oasis (And I Hate The Beatles) remains an amusing assault on an insular and unadventurous British music scene. The single, which was put out by Swansea's Teen Anthems (aka John William Davies) in 1996, sticks an iconoclastic boot into the groin area of a host of supposed musical national treasures. And does so with a feckless, DIY, plinky plonk charm. All together now: "I hate The Beatles and I hate The Who/ And I hate The Kinks and Small Faces too/ And I hate Oasis, oh I really hate Cast/ 'Cos I loathe those bands stuck in the past." Other John William Davies gems worth checking out are Paul Weller=Anti-Christ (1996), Welsh Bands Suck (1997) and Swansea City (1997) (probably the most unprescient football song of all time). A handy round-up of his work can be found on his We Heart Rock CD compilation, self-released on the Sonic Art Union label in 2005.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Iris Murdoch in Cardiff

In 1980 writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch was in Cardiff in preparation for the debut performance of The Servants. This was a three act opera by Welsh composer William Mathias for which Murdoch had written the libretto. It was based upon her own play The Servants and the Snow. The opera was staged at the New Theatre with Welsh National Opera doing the honours. At the time the opera divided critical opinion but was enthusiastically received by audiences. It has, however, rarely been performed since. Collectors of operatic memorabilia will be aware that during her stay in Cardiff Murdoch and Mathias signed copies of the score which could then be purchased for £50. Keep an eye out for those.

Coincidentally, a few years later when I was doing my English Literature degree, Iris Murdoch turned up at our college to be interviewed on stage. Afterwards there was a Q&A session. It's perhaps a measure of my narcissism that I have a clearer recollection of the question that I posed to Murdoch than the answer she actually gave. If I remember correctly I asked her how she reconciled her antipathy to ego (“the anxious avaricious tentacles of the self”) with the process of writing itself - so much of which arises from within. Her reply was totally incomprehensible to me - entirely down to my own ignorance I hasten to add - and involved Tolstoy and nuns. Murdoch died in 1999 having suffered for several years from the effects of Alzheimer's disease.

*The above picture shows Iris Murdoch outside the New Theatre, Cardiff.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Coming Out

Coming Out (1977) was one of the key gay texts of the 1970s. In his book leftist author Jeffrey Weeks charted the emergence of a modern homosexual consciousness as not just a personal process but an historic one. Thus the history of homosexual politics in Britain from the nineteenth century to the present day is thoroughly examined. Topics range from the trial of Oscar Wilde to homosexual slang to the Gay Liberation Front and so much more. Although an academic text Coming Out is a very accessible read and of interest whether you are gay or not. Obviously the gay political landscape has changed dramatically since HIV/AIDS was first clinically detected in 1981 but Weeks's book remains a valuable historical source. The author was born and educated in the Rhondda. His other works include: Sex, Politics and Society (1981), Sexuality and its Discontents (1985) and Invented Moralities (1995).

Monday, December 09, 2013

Hot Lips Pub in Merthyr

There are theme pubs and then there are theme pubs. You can keep your faux oirish bars, give me a drinking-hole based upon '70s television show M*A*S*H any day of the week. As I'm sure you'll recall that programme featured the exploits of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the carnage of the Korean war. Where better, then, to situate the Hot Lips public house than in Merthyr Tydfil? The pub in Swan Street was, of course, named after one of the show's central characters, Major Margaret 'Hot Lips' Houlihan. Murals of Hot Lips and other leading characters from M*A*S*H such as Hawkeye Pierce, Klinger and Trapper John adorned the walls. The pub also contained lots of M*A*S*H-related paraphernalia. Some of the male locals, though, weren't keen on the name - they thought it was a bit effeminate. When a new landlord took over the establishment in 1985 he was in agreement. He'd already gotten fed up of answering the phone and having to say: "Hello, Hot Lips here" - so, the brewery was called in to paint over the murals and remove the M*A*S*H memorabilia. The Hot Lips pub sign outside was taken down. The locals were much happier with the crushingly dull new name - The Log Cabin.

*Anyone got any pictures of the Hot Lips public-house in Merthyr Tydfil in its pomp?

Friday, December 06, 2013

William Vandivert in Pant-Y-Waun

These two great portraits were taken by American photographer William Vandivert in April, 1940. According to captions they were part of a series taken in and around the village of Pant-Y-Waun. You can see the rest of what is a brilliant set at the online Life magazine archive. Is this the same Pant-Y-Waun that would later be demolished circa 1962 to make way for open-cast mining? You know, the place where Philip Jones Griffiths took that classic photograph of a small boy smashing up a piano in 1961? Maybe someone could confirm this detail for me. Anyway, William Vandivert is perhaps best known today for his shots of Hitler's Bunker and his haunting images of the fall of Berlin. Like a lot of snappers of that era he originally studied chemistry before then switching to photography at the Art Institute of Chicago. He worked for Life and Fortune magazines and after the war he became a founder member of the Magnum photo agency. He died in 1989.

Photographs are ©Time Inc