Friday, 25 September 2009
So I went about 100 yards in the wrong direction, found the tube had long since stopped for the night, slewed around and careered back towards Kentish Town, from where I could still get an overground train home.
The streets were by then deserted apart from minicabs ferrying clubbers from the West End to North London bedsits for a few hours kip before work, so the group of 20 to 30 women in front of me was incongruous, even to an inebriate.
They weren’t behaving like a hen party. They didn’t appear to be drunk, they weren’t throwing up, flashing their thong elastic, falling over in the gutter or mauling coppers, as they would be if this were St Mary’s Street or Wind Street at that time of the morning. They all faced the same way, meek, standing stock still with rapt expressions, apparently venerating someone of relatively small stature whose face I therefore couldn’t see.
Through gaps in the crowd, I recognised a T-shirt and so I knew who it was.
“Hey, Javier!” I yelled.
“Hey, Martin!” yelled back Javier Weyler, the Stereophonics’ drummer, from the far side of the crowd.
The bodies suddenly parted so it seemed appropriate to greet each other like the dearest of long lost friends, even though we’d wished each other goodnight at the party not 5 minutes earlier.
I am 6’ 6” and Javier is, well, a lot shorter than that, so I had to stoop low to slap him on the back. The women all leaned forward, hanging on every word that passed between us. They were respectful, not in the least bit pushy or threatening, but they gave off a vibe I found unsettling.
“This is weird, Javier,” I said, loud enough for everyone to hear.
“No, no,” he replied. “It’s cool.” He didn’t seem at all perturbed.
I scanned their faces. They had the same intense look of... love; you’d have to name it that, adoration, verging on obsession maybe, not directed towards me, obviously, but to the little Argentinean man in front of me. I’ve never seen anything like it. I must have looked confused.
“We’re his stalkers,” offered a tall blond, just like that, taking her eyes off Javier for the briefest moment.
“All of you?”
“Ohhhhhh,” I said. “Hello stalkers, I’m Martin.” I gave them a fluttery little wave.
“Hello,” they chorused, most of them giving a fluttery wave back.
“This is weird, Javier,” I whispered.
“But it is cool,” he replied firmly. “Don’t worry.”
“Okay. Well... I’ll leave you to it then.”
“Okay, Martin. Thanks for coming down. Good to see you.”
"You'll be alright then."
"Yes. Don't worry."
Conscious of the maxim that to burn a thousand matches only takes one match, I removed myself from the space between Javier and his stalkers and slouched off. I felt like a man ought to feel when he’s just found a baby bear abandoned in the forest and I was a bit spooked by it to be honest with you.
So I resumed my unsteady trudge northward to the station. Looking back over my shoulder, I felt relieved to see that they showed no interest in my departure whatsoever. Rather him than me, I thought.
Friday, 4 September 2009
I can recall my father stopping the car during a holiday in Dorset when I was about 10 years old to point out the spot where T. E. Lawrence died in a motorcycle accident. An extraordinarily complex man, Lawrence was lauded as a hero for his leadership of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire but was condemned by some as a charlatan and a sadist. Having blazed his way to glory in the Arabian Desert, he sought anonymity in the RAF under a succession of assumed names. I wouldn’t have known he was born in Tremadog were it not for Welsh Icons.
Peter O’Toole’s performance in Lawrence of Arabia, my favourite film, was the best of an exceptional career. But if I were forced to remake it, I’d cast Rhys Ifans in the part without a moment’s hesitation. He may have been involved in a few stinkers, such as Rancid Aluminium, The 51st State (Formula 51 in the USA) and the Boat That Rocked (Pirate Radio in the USA) but given a character with as complex a personality as his own, such as Peter Cook in Not Only But Also, or Bernard in A Number, or Jed in Enduring Love and Rhys is revealed to be one of the finest actors of his generation.
For some reason, Welsh Icons makes a point of “not condoning the actions of the Free Wales Army” before giving the ‘Byddin’ a detailed listing in the Welsh Info section. Yet the Famous Welsh section is incomplete without an entry for its Commandant, Julian Cayo Evans.
You don’t have to be a nationalist – I’m a ‘rationalist’ myself - to appreciate that the legend surrounding Cayo almost matches that of Owain Glyndwr, another Welsh rebel who was brought down by the English establishment.
The F.W.A. was not a terrorist organisation; its handful of volunteers openly wore paramilitary uniform and rather than terrorise the populace, with the exception of the policemen and politicians it made look inept, it simply exploited the media’s propensity to sensationalism to try to subvert the establishment. No matter how outlandish an F.W.A. claim - from the thousands of trained volunteers waiting in the hills for the signal to attack to the arms cache supplied by the I.R.A. to the pack of kamikaze dogs trained to let off bombs under tanks – Fleet Street journalists gleefully reported it all as if it were fact. Lazy journalists – let’s accept that many don’t have time to check the facts - repeat the same stuff today.
The F.W.A. lost, obviously, at great personal cost to Cayo, his co-commandant, Dennis Coslett, co-conspirator Keith Griffiths and their families. The Labour government of the day used the Public Order Act, the equivalent of today’s anti-terrorism laws, to get them out of the way so that the establishment could bolster its dominion over the Welsh people by Investing Charles as Prince of Wales in Caernarfon. The same journalists who had courted the F.W.A. to boost their own careers and sell their newspapers were the key witnesses for the Crown.
Cayo was educated at Millfield public school where Robert Bolt, the great English playwright who wrote the screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia, taught him English and History. A complex character, not unlike Lawrence, Cayo was more comfortable in the company of gypsy horse traders and working men than with people of his own socio-economic class. And whilst many of his contemporaries were strumming guitars in rock bands, Cayo preferred to play Irish rebel songs on the accordion.
Rhys Ifans would tell you I’m talking bollocks. We recently had a beery debate about the place the F.W.A. occupies in Welsh history and the role it played in Plaid Cymru becoming part of the establishment, which Rhys concluded by pointing a grubby fingernail at Rhys Mwyn across the table shouting, “He’s done more for Wales than the Free Wales Army ever did.
The extraordinary contribution Rhys Mwyn has made to Welsh music ought to be more widely acknowledged. During the 1980s and early 1990s, he played bass with Anhrefn, the seminal Welsh language punk band championed by the late great John Peel. The band toured Europe constantly with a manifesto to take Welsh language rock music as far as it would go.
During the 1980s, Rhys also ran Recordiau Anhrefn, releasing early recordings by Cyrff, Datblygu, Llwybr Llaethog (the band name I most like to say out loud, repeatedly, to the point of being annoying), Fflaps, Tynal Tywyll and others. He worked freelance with Dafydd Iwan at Crai, where he signed Catatonia, a band he also managed for a while.
Rhys eventually settled into management and making records through the resurrected Recordiau Anhrefn, mentoring and releasing a raft of outstanding artists from his Caernarfon stronghold. His ‘Outstanding Contribution to Welsh Music Award’ was recognised in the Radio Cymru Awards in 2002 and the Welsh Music Awards in 2003. I’m told his autobiography, Cam o’r Tywyllwch, published by Y Lolfa, is worth a read.
One of Recordiau Anhrefn’s more esoteric offerings is an album of accordion music and speech (in English) entitled The Marching Songs of The Free Wales Army by Julian Cayo Evans. It’s a fascinating record and worth a listen.
My writing partner, Paul Durden, is something of a Welsh Icon, having penned Twin Town, the biggest-grossing Welsh movie of all time especially on DVD (from which format he receives no royalties). Paul was the inspiration for Alexei Sayle’s Welsh former miner and aspiring scriptwriter character in The Strike, The Comic Strip’s satire of a Hollywood studio creating a warped, sensationalist account of a real British historical event, in this case the miner’s strike, in which Peter Richardson plays Al Pacino playing Arthur Scargill and Jennifer Saunders plays Meryl Streep playing Mrs Scargill.
Thing is, does Paul qualify as a Welsh Icon? He’s lived most of his life in Wales, fair enough, but he’s actually from Salford. So far as I know, he doesn’t have so much as a Welsh grandparent. We’re currently working on a movie about the Free Wales Army.
From the Welsh Products section I’d choose Welsh water. Yes, I know it rains a lot, but in the longer term I think that might prove to be of great economic benefit to Wales in a way that it isn’t today.
The drowning of the Tryweryn valley in the 1960s to supply Welsh water to Liverpool displaced an entire community and provided the spark that led to the formation of the F.W.A. and to Plaid Cymru gaining its first toehold at Westminster with the election of Gwynfor Evans as MP for Carmarthen.
Liverpool decided to go for an Act of Parliament to build its dam so that it could compulsorily purchase the land and evict the inhabitants without having to consult anyone in Wales. Every Welsh MP either voted against the Act or abstained from voting – probably the only time in history when they all agreed on something - but the overwhelming majority of English MPs carried it.
The Red Dragonhood grew out of the anger I felt when I tried to understand who I was and where I came from. The history of Wales since Owain Glyndwr is less than glorious, the landscape being one of the few consolations. My T-shirt designs make use of Welsh iconography to make statements about what it means to me to be Welsh. But most of the traditional icons prove to be based on myth or English political propaganda.
A couple of years ago, to make a point about how such myths are created, I concocted a hoax suggesting Jimi Hendrix might have recorded a version of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau in the week before he died. The media bought it. The story went around the world like wildfire. Within a week, Google searches were returning 190,000 pages on the subject and a friend called me from Nepal to tell me the story was on the back page of the Himalayan Times.
On St. David’s Day that year, the BBC Newsnight invited me onto Newsnight to reveal the fact that my mate John Ellis, the guitarist with The Vibrators and The Stranglers, a London by – I wrote the guitar chords down for him and he did the rest - had really recorded it. I never said it was Hendrix. People wanted it to be Hendrix.
I knew the BBC would reduce my eloquent speech about Welsh iconography to a matter of moments so I wore a T-shirt with a very large Prince of Wales’ Feathers on the front on which I had replaced the German motto ‘Ich Dien’ with the well known Welsh phrase ‘Twll Dîn Pob Sais’ (down with the English). 250 Welsh speakers complained! Paxo had to apologise the following evening, even though he clearly thought it was funny.
A few weeks later, an Essex sign writer who had a commission to produce a new sign for The Feathers pub in Westminster, did a Google image search for ‘Three Feathers’ and found my design. My version is clearer and easier to reproduce than Charles’s so he used mine. The sign was up for three days before a passing Welshman told them what it really said. Which supports the point I was originally trying to make.
Above all poets there is John Donne. I like the work of Dylan Thomas but, given the way I feel about Wales and my Welshness, my favourite Welsh poet is R. S. Thomas. He was frequently hard on his countrymen but his poetry expresses the Welsh condition brutally and beautifully with true compassion and understanding.
Much of Thomas’s work raises a question that is fundamental to the human condition: What is life for? Is it simply to consume more and more, diverting our consciousness with ever more elaborate entertainments and gadgetry, or is there a greater purpose?
I may have spent most of my life away from Wales but my heart belongs to the land of song. I can barely hold a note but I can belt out Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau with the best of them. There can be no national anthem that is more beautiful. It always makes me cry.
On a related subject, I like the Stereophonics song As Long As We Beat the English, not because I think it’s a battle him as many seem to believe, but because it sums up the lack of ambition in Wales, something I am pledged to rectify with my commitment to Newid. I urge everyone who reads this to do the same.
Welsh food? I love Gower salt marsh lamb and laverbread with cockles and bacon. I love samphire from Ashton’s in Cardiff Market and Joe’s ice cream from Swansea and Gorwydd cheese from Llanddewi Brefi. My nain used to make wonderful Bara Brieth but I like Welsh Cakes better. Mind you, I’ve never found Welsh Cakes in Wales that are the equal of those I get at home, cooked by my half-Finnish, half-Pakistani, London-girl other half.
Thursday, 12 June 2008
“By the way”, I said after the ‘well-dones’ had done their stuff, “what did you get it for?”
“Literacy”, she said confidently and precisely.
“You’re a chip off the old block”, I told her, brimming with fatherly pride. She clambered up on my chair for a congratulatory hug. The sash momentarily seemed like an affirmation of my own meagre talent and it was the perfect salve for the anxiety I’d been feeling about a new project.
“..and for sitting on the mat good”, she then added for extra measure, having had time to consider the sum of her achievements.
“For sitting on the mat good, eh? That’s my girl.”
Thursday, 24 May 2007
Although it’s now more than a week after the event, the hoo-hah over alleged block voting in the Eurovision Song Contest refuses to die down. The Guardian just published a poll carried out amongst its readers showing that 53% of those who expressed an opinion believe the UK should withdraw from the contest. We’re talking about the Guardian here, not the News of the World.Intent on showing just how hip they are to the zeitgeist (or rather how much credence they give to the opinions of rabid, opportunistic, self-righteous tabloid editors) some of the Westminster politicians who didn’t make it through the undignified scrum to have their pictures taken with the family of Madeleine McCann, tried instead to show how much they felt the electorate’s pain by venting indignation at the unfairness of the Eurovision voting system.Four MPs – I’m not going to draw attention to these parliamentary nonentities by naming them - even tabled an early day motion calling on the House to recognise that the Eurovision Song Contest is “a joke, as countries vote largely on narrow nationalistic grounds for neighbour countries rather than on the quality of the song; and that such narrow voting is harmful to the relationship between the peoples of Europe”. They went on to demand that the BBC “insist on changes or quit”.This begs any number of questions, but prominent among them must be whether these people ought not to have something better to do and what moral authority gives them the right to accuse anyone else of ‘narrow voting’? I’ll deal with the ‘quality of the song’ issue shortly.Even our own fluent Estonian speaker, Lembit Öpik, the Montgomeryshire MP who should know better given his personal interest in Eastern European pop (through a relationship with the Romanian pop-person – I choose my words carefully - Gabriella Irimia of The Cheeky Girls), added fuel to the fire by pontificating on the subject on Have I Got News For You.It’s extraordinary how politicians can reduce an item of lightweight entertainment - more lightweight even than Deal or No Deal – to the depths of baseness by trumpeting the simplistic, cynical conclusion that ‘Johnny Foreigner’ must somehow be cheating when all the evidence is actually to the contrary.You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to grasp what went on with the voting but, fortunately for my premise, Dr Alan Howard of Reading University has been studying Eurovision voting patterns for the last 10 years. His pre-contest survey of 1,000 Eurovision fans in 34 countries correctly predicted that the Serbian entry would win, not for political reasons but because respondents simply preferred the song. His analysis of voting patterns showed that, “The results do indicate some neighbourly voting between countries in Scandinavia, the Baltic, the Balkans, and (of course) Greece and Cyprus, but nowhere nearly enough to significantly skew the outcome of annual contests.”To confirm Dr Howard’s findings, Derek Gatherer, a man who for no good reason has spent years studying Eurovision voting patterns, maintained that, “less than a third of the total votes for the winning entry were ones which seemed to have been influenced by block voting. It does make it rather harder for [the UK] to win, but that's not to suggest that all the votes are necessarily given out according to these local alliances.”On the night, the winning song from Serbia received votes from 37 of the 42 voting countries, including votes from every Western European participant except the UK. It should be remembered that Serbia is effectively a pariah state in Europe because of its role in the Yugoslav wars and the fact that it still shelters alleged war criminals. Likewise, Russia in third place gained votes from 39 countries despite the animosity still felt by its former Soviet satellites. Yet it is apparent that each of these countries did receive proportionately higher votes from their neighbours. Why?Let’s explore ‘neighbourly voting’ in simple terms for the benefit of the politicians and newspaper editors who plainly don’t have much of a grasp of European geography or recent history. What is it that the former Yugoslav republics, the so-called ‘Balkan bloc’, including Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Slovenia still have in common, given that their inhabitants were brutally slaughtering each other over their differences not so long ago? Do you imagine they’ve forgiven and forgotten the ethnic cleansing already? No, it’s that they all either speak Serbo-Croatian or, in the cases of Macedonia and Slovenia, they understand it reasonably well.What connects Greece and Cyprus? What do Russia and Estonia have in common considering they are virtually at war over the removal by Estonia of a Red Army war memorial? The answer is language.Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s leading daily newspaper, under a headline that read, “The Cold War is dead, long live the Eurovision culture-wars”, had the following to say about British attitudes: “What tends to be forgotten in all this griping is that the UK (five previous trophies, but 23rd in 2007) and Ireland (seven trophies and last this year) are guilty of a reverse variant of the football fans’ cardinal sin of ‘only singing when you are winning’”.“[The British] were never heard complaining very loudly about the perceived injustice of the years when everyone had to perform in their own language, when someone trying to peddle a song in Portuguese or Finnish or Serbo-Croat had a tough fight on his or her hands against the might of Bad English, the lingua franca of the European continent. It is no great surprise that Portugal has never won Eurovision, or that it took Finland 45 years, a song in English, and a lot of latex and fireworks to pull the trick off.”“In those halcyon language-restricted days from 1966-1973 and from 1977-1999, the UK and Ireland racked up most of the dozen wins they have between them, and it is a moot point whether the songs were so great - Boom Bang-a-Bang, anyone? - or whether instead they were simply ‘more accessible’ by virtue of the familiar language in which they were delivered.”Helsingin Sanomat also had the following to say about British television coverage of this year’s event, which was hosted by Finland: “That old curmudgeon Sir Terry Wogan, beloved of British Eurovision cynics for his annual sarky remarks about the individual competitors and the contest on the BBC, weighed in even more heavily than usual with the ‘It's all fixed anyway’, ‘Baltic blocks, Balkan blocks, and Russian blocks’, and ‘They hate us, you know’ routine. Is it any wonder the British always seem to send the most rank and vile acts these days - nobody with any talent would stick their neck out to be ritually executed by Wogan?”The Finns were particularly perplexed by Wogan’s accusation of a Finnish-Icelandic block. What do Finland and Iceland have in common? Language? No. Geography? No. In fact, Helsinki is in the East while Reykjavik is in the West, three time zones apart. The only thing Finland and Iceland have in common, according to Transparency International, is that they are equally the least corrupt countries in the world. Could it be that Wogan is just an ignorant, arrogant bigot who has been corrupted by years of trading in acerbic cynicism? And what does the fact that he’s popular say about us?Another BBC DJ, Paul Gambaccini, told Radio 4's Today programme he thought about half of the voting was for political reasons. He said, "Britain's votes plummeted with the invasion of Iraq and have stayed in the basement with the occupation”.Oh really? It has nothing to do with the UK entries being shit then? I admit I’m expressing my personal taste here and that other peoples’ will be different – that’s one of the lovely things about music and, indeed, about people - but by any acknowledged musical and lyrical standard, Flying the Flag was risible.Actually, the song was so far removed from being amusing that the only appropriate responses were to vomit and make absolutely certain it didn’t get a single point. I was very disappointed when Malta and Ireland (both former British colonies) refused to play the game because it meant the message from the rest of Europe was not delivered strongly enough. Flying the Flag deserved the humiliation of null-points.Personally, I would have felt embarrassed had it not been for the Finnish presenter referring to Scooch as the ‘English’ entry. Thereafter, I felt smug in the knowledge that millions of Europeans would understand the truth of it.Who in their right minds would enter a musical pastiche of Euro-pap from 20 years ago and then lace it with camp sexual innuendo unless they were totally taking the piss? I wonder what the line, “Would you like something to suck on for landing sir?” delivered by an over-the-top caricature of a guy flight attendant, might mean to the average Byelorussian.Have Britons really sunk to such low depths of despondency that they’re determined to show the rest of Europe two fingers, or has the outcome more to do with the BNP marshalling its members so that their prejudices now dominate any BBC phone-in, poll or chat room?It should be easy to win the Eurovision Song Contest. All you need is a less than half-decent song, delivered with absolute sincerity. That simple formula was what won last year for Lordi, a Finnish heavy metal monster band, and this year for Marija Serifovic, a low-key Serbian singer of worthy ballads. (I must confess that I didn’t watch the contest before it became controversial.)The Finnish and Serbian winning entries couldn’t be more like chalk and cheese stylistically, which proves my point because 90% of the entries seem to be attempts to guess the prevailing musical taste of the Continent (and a big chunk of the next continent). This approach is doomed to failure when you consider the differences in taste just between Britain and its neighbours, France, Belgium and Holland.Rather than lobby for a change in the voting system, why not lobby for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to enter separately from England? Then we’d have a British block. Judging by the quality of the entries for Can i Gymru this year and the fact that we’d be released from the hostility many Europeans feel towards England, the Land of Song ought to have a chance of winning.I’ll leave the final point to Dr Howard of Reading University. “Eurovision is a fun contest and those who politicise it are missing the point." Quite.
Click here to visit The Red Dragonhood
Friday, 18 May 2007
La femme de le nouvelle Premier ministre de la France est Gallois. Merde alors!From the tiny Welsh village of Llanover near Abergavenny to the Palais Matignon (which is a lot more swish than No 10 Downing Street, I can tell you, and the 7ème arrondisement is handy for getting to the Musée d’Orsay and le Tour Eiffel before the queues start, which I never managed to do when I lived in the 15ème). Hasn't Penny Clarke done well for herself, butt?The rest of us’ll just have to keep buying the lottery tickets.Click here to visit The Red Dragonhood
Monday, 30 April 2007
I'm in a greasy yellow cab in New York with Jeremy McWilliams, the Grand Prix motorcycle racer, on our way to see Sean Lennon, whose gig will shortly prove to be worse than crap.From Sean’s demeanour, I imagine his mother might have brought him up to believe that by merely addressing a microphone, magic would somehow tumble forth. It doesn’t, of course, and it didn’t, obviously. Although when he asked me at the after-show what I thought, I told him, as you might imagine, that it was great.Genius, it seems, is not transmitted through the genes. When Marilyn Munro was introduced to Einstein she is reputed to have said, "Just think, with my looks and your brain, what a wonderful child we might produce." To which Einstein is reputed to have answered, " My dear, it would be just as likely to have my looks and your brain."Anyway, the cab driver, his eyes addressing mine via the rear view mirror, says, "You in the music business?" to which I answer, "Yeah, kind of," although McWilliams contradicts me by blurting, "No, we're in motorcycle racing," which makes him feel more important than me (he being the star and me being just an oiler-of-wheels) but his response is going to mean less than nothing to a cab driver from Queens.McWilliams yelps with pain as I put a powerful 'horse bite' on the muscle on the underside of his thigh. Unbelievably, he will blame his poor performance at the Japanese Grand Prix a few days hence on that, as he sees it, unprovoked attack.To be honest, Jeremy’s answer is the true one at that moment, but I spent a lot of time in New York during an earlier career in the music business and I know to tell a yellow cab driver only what he expects to hear.To prove the rule, the driver ignores McWilliams and persists with, “I know you, don’t I? You got a lovely voice. I’m sure I heard it in the movies.”
I think, “Oh really, a minute ago I was in the fucking music business.”
“Oh, thanks,” I say, hoping to end it there.
“Yeah, you sound just like that actor.”
“That Irish actor.”
“But I’m Welsh. Which Irish actor?”
“Hell, I don’t know his name. The Irish actor.”
“Albert Finney.” (He’s not Irish. I’m getting desperate.)
“No! No! No! You know, James Bond. 0-0-7.”
“Ah-ha, Pierce Brosnan!”
“NO! The original James Bond.”
“Er, Roger Moore?” (I’m guessing. Isn’t Moore an Irish name?)
“Yeah! That’s the guy.”
“But he’s Scottish!”The driver doesn’t hear my last pronouncement. He’s just delighted to put the wrong name to his wrong perception. Wales would mean less to him even than motorcycle racing.McWilliams, meanwhile, is pissing himself laughing. He is Irish.Click here to visit The Red Dragonhood
Wednesday, 25 April 2007
The brilliant news is that I’ve made the Welsh Space Agency’s shortlist to become a Cymrunaut! How cool is that?Unlike Dennis Tito, Mark Shuttleworth, Greg Olsen, Anousheh Ansari and Charles Simonyi, the five intrepid 'space tourists' who have boldly been up before me, I don’t have to pay $20 million for the privilege of being fired into space and I don’t have to wait until Soyuz TMA-13 blasts off in 2008 either. Oh no, it’s only going to cost me a box of Chocolate Limes and two sticks of Lambert and Butler King Size.Click here to dock with the Welsh Space Agency
Click here to check out The Red Dragonhood