Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Funny Joanna from Poland

Back in the late 1950s gentlemen in our Radnorshire village would retire to a private lounge in the local pub to watch one of the first television sets in the district, its aerial directed towards, I believe, far-off Wenvoe.  A favourite programme was Grandstand, which in the very early 60s would transmit Fight of the Week supplied by America’s NBC channel.  Here Radnorians came face to face with the likes of Hurricane Carter and Davey Moore - both later subjects of Bob Dylan songs - and numerous other black fighters of varying degrees of formidableness.

The viewers would also talk of how in their younger days they’d set up a boxing ring in the village’s old mill.  Did Rocky Marciano - allegedly stationed with the American troops on Penybont common - really spar with Glyn Evans?  Another favourite story was how a sparring partner of the well-known Merthyr boxer Cuthbert Taylor had once visited, only to have his face cut to ribbons by the cracked-leather blood-caked gloves of his opponent.  Perhaps this would have been around the time in April 1937 when Taylor headlined a boxing card at Llandrindod’s Grand Pavilion.

Every now and again I would sneak into this all-male club room, my uncle being the pub’s landlord, to devour the various reading matter available; not just Parade but especially the US fight magazines Boxing Illustrated and Ring.  These provided one with a social, historical and geographical education not available in the local schools.

Ring magazine, especially, was a revelation.  The publisher stroke editor Nat Fleischer was a legendary journalist who had seen every great fighter since before the war - the First World War.  When he compared the likes of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and Cassius Clay, he’d actually seen them fight in the flesh. Ring was a magazine that covered the past as much as the present, so old Welsh fighters were often featured.  Fleischer produced an annual list of the greatest ever boxers in the eight traditional weight categories - none of this junior or super nonsense.  High in these lists were the famous Welsh pugilists of the early 20C: Jimmy Wilde at flyweight, Freddie Welsh at lightweight and Jem - it was never Jim - Driscoll at featherweight.  It all added to my sense of patriotism; so that within a few years Ring, Boxing News and Welsh Nation were finding their way through my letterbox along with (another obsession) Motor Sport and Motoring News.  

Working in London in the early 70s I discovered that television gave no sense of the explosive power of a live fight.  The boxers often came across as witty, intelligent and decent, which was more than could be said for some in the crowd or the press seats.  Gradually I took less and less of an interest in the fight game, even feeling somewhat repulsed by the lack of respect for its practioners on the part of the gate.

Nowadays even the women fight, with Nicola Adams proving one of the more interesting characters to emerge from the last Olympic Games.  Women’s professional boxing is largely moribund with the real interest being focused on the cage-fighting practioners of mixed martial arts.  A November card in Melbourne headlined by two female title bouts is expected to draw a crowd of 70000, with millions tuning-in worldwide on pay-per-view.

Should women even fight? Well if that’s what they want, who is to stop them.  If women’s fighting is a brutal spectacle so too is that involving the men; redeemed to an extent by the heart exhibited by both sexes.  All you can hope for is that the new business is governed by rules that offer some protection to the fighters.  This seems to be the case, although there should be more female weight categories to prevent the dangers of ridiculous weight loss.  This aside I would be more worried about rugby than cage fighting.

In the old days boxers often ended-up punch drunk.  Cuthbert Taylor’s online record shows he competed in at least 250 professional contests.  In the six months leading up to his Llandrindod bout he fought 9 times, losing on 6 occasions.  Nowadays it is the professional rugby player who receives far too many hits to the head.  We are already seeing the results of the long-term damage received in a professional sport which needs some serious rule changes in order to limit the number of head-on tackles that players are expected to make week in week out - 13-a-side might help.

One of the champions involved in the Melbourne card is the Pole Joanna Jedrzejczyk whose outstanding skills and infectious bravado remind me of the young Ali.  Another is a former Olympic judo medallist Ronda Rousey and here is a problem that the MMA world will have to solve.  If the undefeated Rousey can grapple her opponents to the floor she will apply an armbar and win the contest by submission.  The fighter best equipped to defeat Rousey will likely be a fellow judoka and how many people would actually pay to watch a judo bout?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Tale of Two Days

It seems that yesterday was Battle of Britain Day, an occasion to celebrate the Few - that happy crew of public school boys, Tories to a man - who saved Britain from Hitler's tyranny.  The new Labour leader, it's widely reported, committed sacrilege by attending the cathedral service in a scruffy shirt collar and by failing to sing God Save the Queen, sacrilege in cathedrals only being permissible if carried out in Moscow by feminist punks attacking Putin.

I suppose I should be more supportive of Battle of Britain Day since the 15th of September 1940 would have found my late mother, a few days past her 20th birthday and already a one year veteran in the WAAF.  Faced, as a regular, with signing on for a further seven years, she left the airforce in 1942 to work in a factory at Cox's Corner near Watford.  Who is to say which service was the more valuable, the mythologised Few - the majority of whom were not public schoolboys by the way - or the Many, including the millions of factory workers who actually won the war.  As one expert claims, more people were killed building Spitfires than flying them, although the uniforms were certainly much smarter in the WAAF.

What started out as Civil Defence Day in 1942 was soon hijacked by the RAF and the Beaverbrook press and abandoned in favour of a day that celebrated the elitist Few rather than the proletarian Many:

Which brings us to Owain Glyndwr Day, again not an occasion that is going to get me pumped up with national pride, it being increasingly doubtful if the Welsh will ever get to celebrate a success rather than a glorious failure.  Perhaps it would be useful though to mention some Radnorshire connections with the great prince.

Foremost among them was the battle of Bryn Glas when the men of Maelienydd switched sides to win a  victory for the Welsh.  Our last?

Less well known is the fact that Owain's daughter Gwenllian was the wife of Philip ap Rhys of Cenarth, St Harmon.   The couple were the subject of many praise poems by the likes of Lewis Glyn Cothi (some of his finest), Llawdden and one by Ieuan Gyfannedd, which Ffransis Payne considered the best of those composed to the family.

I think it's beyond argument that, Owain's general, Rhys Gethin was from Buellt - a cantref that fits a lot better with those of Radnorshire than half-French Brycheiniog - but less accepted is the claim that his kinsman Philip ap Rhys of Cenarth continued the fight after Owain's son Maredudd called it a day and begged forgiveness from the English king.  This reminds me that I should attempt a translation of Llawdden's poem to Philip requesting a sword on behalf of Siancyn y Glyn, another of Owain's sons.

Just the Ticket

I thought that the Celts had been abolished by order of the archaeologists and geneticists, but seemingly not, since next week sees the opening of a great exhibition at the British Museum, see here.

The exhibition promises to dwell not only on the iron age past but also to cover the Celts up to the present day.  I wonder if it will be as bold as to reference the claims to Celtic kinship by pro-Confederacy supporters in the US and the use of Celtic crosses by Neo-Nazis in Eastern Europe? Was I wrong to think that the Slavonic interest in Irish music was purely innocent?

I'm also wondering if the exhibition will make as much use of the Welsh language as a similar exhibition in Austria in 1980? There the exhibition catalogue had a Welsh foreword and even the ticket had some Cymraeg, yes really.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

A Radnorshire Pageant

I've seen pictures of the Builth Pageant before and not taken much notice of this Edwardian extravaganza (1909) performed by a cast of 1000.  An album covering the event is available online, see here, and it seems I was wrong to dismiss the event as an example of Breconian eccentricity.  Actually it seems to have been more of a Radnorshire effort, performed at Llanelwedd Hall with the local vicar as pageant director and the Reverend and Mrs J L Herbert of Diserth receiving second billing in the pageant programme.  It says something that when I was a young lad Jimmy Herbert was still spoken of with fondness by the older residents of Howey village.

It seems that pageants were all the rage in the 1900s, there's even a website covering their history and a recent article on the four nations history site outlines Welsh and Scottish variations on the theme.

The Builth pageant tells us little we didn't already know about Edwardian views of Welsh history - Ancient Britons in animal skins, Romans, Normans etc etc.  There were certainly plenty of Welsh references and songs - Druids, Saint Cewydd, Lord and Lady Llechryd (an interesting recognition of a barely recognized local  historical site - perhaps it was included since it was said to be the original home of the local Vaughan clans and the Chairman of the Finance Committee was a Vaughan)

Like old copies of the Encyclopedia Britannica Welsh history seems to have ended in 1282 but the real ommision were the common folk, just a couple of labourers in agricultural smocks who naturally ended up in the stocks. 

One highlight was a recreation of the old Diserth feast with dancing, a Mari Llwyd and Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau.  No wonder Jimmy Herbert was still remembered fondly in the parish some sixty years later and, of course, we were hardly past the era when the Society for the Suppression of Parish Feasts and Wakes rooted out such human excesses.

Friday, September 04, 2015

A World Apart

I recently watched the excellent 1988 film A World Apart, the directing debut of Radnorshire based cinematographer Chris Menges.  The film covers a few months in the life of a character, based on the South African Communist Ruth First, as seen through the eyes of her 12 year old daughter played by Jodhi May.  As I say a fine film and readily available to view from the usual sites.

Could such a film be made today, given the total victory of neoliberalism and its neoconservative twin in the mainstream Western media?  I remember how shocked some commentators were at the sight of communist flags at Mandela's funeral - the younger ones being perhaps unaware of the West's support for the most reactionary regimes in South Africa and Latin America in the late 20C.  A time when, for all its internal sclerosis, the Soviet world did support progressive forces from Chile to Afghanistan.

The fall of the Soviet Union now means that we are expected to regard heroes like Ruth First as no better, or even worse, than Nazis.  The most ridiculous Cold War propaganda, which would have been laughed at in the 1980s, is nowadays treated as fact by readers who have been exposed to nothing else; opposing viewpoints going unanswered and exiled to the obscurer corners of the net.