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Thursday, 30 August 2012

The Brand

 I gave my 1981 Rolling Stones T Shirt to my daughter, a wise thing to do – not because I am wise – but because it was blindingly right. Wander any street in Britain, and no doubt the United States, and you see the same thing: fat, middle-aged men in iconic T shirts advertising their youth - The Beatles, The Stones, Iron Maiden, Bowie, Lynyrd Skyrnyd, Black Sabbath, Led Zep. The list is endless and so are the idiots. I’m not saying middle-aged men should don cardigan and slippers. I wouldn’t wish that on an octogenarian, but equally why wear a tombstone to youth? Rock and Roll is a state of mind, not a T shirt. 

It’s part of a process, insidious, ubiquitous – expressing individuality through the corporative brand. Joining a herd. There is honesty in branding a cow, brutal though it is for the cow. Man is master of creation so we brand what is ours.

We brand what is ours.

 What does that tell you about those who willingly advertise Budweiser and Coors, Pepsi, Coke, Jack Daniels; those who market the various tourist board T shirts or ageing rock bands? Do we give a stuff that someone’s been to the Grand Canyon or Oxford? Are we going to have a meaningful conversation on the particular logo advertised? At least the old fashioned Sandwich-Board man got paid for his trouble, and returned the Board when his shift was done.

At least, too, you can give the T shirt away. The Stones may be corporative buccaneers but their music stands and a piece of antique ephemera should be worn by the young – until they, too, decide to give it away.
But what about Tattoos? Do I really want graffiti on my body – even a Banksie? And what about those weird people, who have the blue, esoteric squiggle just below their neck, that others can see but they can’t?
When I see tattoos, I think of steers newly branded, numbered people, the categorised, prisoners. 

And then there is Face Book, the ultimate Sorting Hat. Here we strut, preen and display, assuming falsely that we are in control – we display what we want to display - unaware of how in doing so we self-categorise ourselves for hidden algorithms and predatory marketers.  

The world will not end in a whimper. It will end in  one prolonged Moo.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Was there something in the water?

Evan Morgan’s mother, Lady Tredegar – the former Lady Katharine Carnegie - had her peculiarities. She believed herself a bird. Not a sparrow or starling, a woodpecker or wren, not an osprey or raven, not even an eagle. Lady Katharine believed herself to be... a Kingfisher. 

On arriving at Tredegar House, guests would be given a small gift: a handmade bird’s nest. She was practising. Before very long she had made a very large bird’s nest for herself – complete with eggs. There she sat brooding and communing with her avian sisters…perhaps dreaming of a male kingfisher. 

It perhaps explains the general demeanour of her son, along with his interest in parrots.
Virginia Woolf once described Evan as: ‘a little red absurdity, with a beak of a nose, no chin, and with the general likeness of a callow but student bantam cock that has run to legs and neck.’
Gore Vidal, too, described Evan as: ‘A birdlike sort of man. Possibly because of his mother; the dowager Lady Tredegar, built the biggest bird’s nest in all world. She apparently hatched nothing in it except – who knows – Evan?’ 

Despite her title, Lady Tredegar seemed to have little love for Tredegar House, preferring instead her refuge, Honeywood House in West Sussex. What it is to have choice.

Tredegar may have held bad memories; she may have found Courtney, her husband, a bore or may have just disliked the Welsh; whatever the case she died in 1949 (the same year as her son Evan) with the explicit instruction that her ashes were never to be taken to Wales.

Eccentricity has its charms but the Morgan family had one little secret it tried to manage and suppress. Evan Morgan had a sister: the honourable Gwyneth Ericka Morgan, a high spirited society beauty with a mutinous soul.

 Gwyneth craved adventure and lived a ‘bohemian’ life. She loved dangerous people, alcohol and drugs. Her family, concerned and appalled in varying degrees, tried desperately to rein her in – and at last succeeded.  Frail and in ill health her final years saw her a virtual prisoner, moving from one guarded house to another and receiving medical care from leading physicians. She vanished in December 1924, her body later pulled from the Thames in May the following year. 

 The official line is that she overdosed in a London opium den, her body dumped in the Thames. A turquoise amulet was found on her corpse, a present from her brother Evan, complete with wire from a ginger-beer bottle that held it together. 

Her father, Lord Tredegar tried all in his power to get an open verdict on her death, ‘Suicide’ being unthinkable, and she was quietly buried in London. Only after her brother succeeded to the title was her body (unlike her mother's ashes)  brought back to Wales and buried in Bassaleg churchyard. 

Mystery surrounds the death of Gwyneth Morgan, not least how one so frail could have so easily escaped and avoided recapture, and there have long been rumours of something more sinister It’s a mystery subtly explored in a  fine book  - ‘The Beautiful Nuisance’ by William Cross and Monty Dart. A rather less subtle explanation is provided by an anonymous 'shouty' comment in Paul Busby’s blog:


 Clearly eccentricity attracts…eccentricity. Then again, who knows? The whole thing is just begging for a Francis Cottam novel.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Blue Boy and the Black Monk

What do Queen Mary, Lloyd George, G K Chesterton, Popes PiusX1 and Benedict XV, Rudolf Hess, Herman Goering, the Black Magician - Alistair Crowley, and Mike Keyton have in common? We all have a connection, in some way or other, with Evan Morgan - an unassuming name but a most unusual man.

Evan Morgan, or to give him his full title the 2nd Viscount of Tredegar was born in 1893 and by the time of his death in 1949 had run a large and wealthy estate into the ground. Luckily he had no children to inherit the mess. That honour went to his elderly uncle Frederick who promptly sold the entire estate to avoid death duties.

So far, so dry, but if his friend, Alastair Crowley, was the ‘wickedest man’ in Europe, Evan must count as one of the weirdest. An ancestor, Godfrey Morgan had buried his Sir Briggs, a favourite horse, in his grounds. The honour was deserved.  Both Godfrey and Sir Briggs, named after one of Godrey’s servants, had survived the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade.’

But what was Evan Morgan’s excuse? Evan amassed a small private zoo, which included wild cats and monkeys, baboons, ‘Soames’ the boxing kangaroo, a honey bear called Alice and a foul-mouthed parrot aptly named ‘Blue Boy’.

It is clear from the picture that Blue Boy has just said something quite ripe, but the two ladies could have experienced something worse. So, too, could Evan had things gone wrong. One of his favourite tricks was to have his parrot crawl up the inside of his trouser legs and unexpectedly pop out from his half-opened flies. In the early 1930’s he dined with Ernest Rohm, Hess, and Herman Goering, but his relationship with the latter soured when, on a later occasion, his parrot bit Goering on the nose.

Catholics are broad minded, and Jesus dined with tax collectors and sinners. But even he might have thought twice about Evan Morgan, though I am sure he would have laughed at the parrot. Evan Morgan was a confirmed occultist, even creating a ‘Magik Room in his ancestral pile, Tredegar House. His interest in the dark arts had begun in his youth, when, as the thirteenth member of the Black Hand Society he was known as the ‘Black Monk’.

Despite, or because of this, Evans was converted to the Catholic Church by the Bishop of Algiers in 1914. Evan never did anything by halves. He went to Rome to study for the priesthood, driving round with a portable altar at the back of his limousine and sending his valet to the lectures he should have attended. For fifteen years he was Chamberlain to the Pope but never let that get in the way of his ‘Black Magic’.

During World War II, Evans served in MI8 – monitoring carrier pigeons - but narrowly escaped a full court martial  in 1943 after letting slip secrets to…two girl guides. Miffed and nursing his wounds, Evans retired to his ‘Magik Room’ and invited Crowley to help him bring down a dreadful curse on the commanding officer responsible for his dismissal. 

Details of the rite are sketchy but they were potent enough to scare Crowley and send him off running. Perhaps more significantly the offending officer was struck down by a serious illness only narrowly escaping death. Not bad for a Papal Chamberlain.

Not bad at all when you consider this Papal Chamberlain was also notoriously gay, entertaining male lovers in hotel bedrooms throughout Europe. The writer and aesthete Ronald Firbank rhapsodised on Evan, referring to him as ‘Heaven Organ’. Unfortunately neither of Evan Morgan’s two wives enjoyed much of Evan’s. ‘Heaven Organ’. His first marriage with the actress, Lois Sturt, ended in divorce. His second, to the stunningly beautiful Olga Dolgorouky, a Russian princess, ended, too, in amicable separation.

There is so much more. A second, shorter post to follow next week.  

Oh…and my connection? I taught a lesson once in Tredegar House. By then a Girls School run by nuns. 

 Many thanks to the links from where these photos originated.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Friends are where you find them

  You often hear that social networks are cold facsimiles of the real thing; that there are no real friendships in cyberspace. The reverse is true. It may be something peculiar to writers, but not necessarily. In my experience - whether you want it or not - who you are and who you’d like to be unavoidably comes through. Minds communicate with minds. Spirits with spirits. In real life attractive spirits sometimes remain undiscovered behind unattractive flesh.

I may never meet some of the friends I’ve made. In this respect the internet has replaced the Ouija Board or Planchette, and in this vein some of the friends I’ve made on the net have really died, and my grief has been as real as if I’d met them face to face. 

It wasn’t always so

Computer screens were once black with virulent green or white text. I grew up in an age of Acorns, Winchesters, and very small screens. School Departments were encouraged – no – exhorted to make use of them. Lesson plans were meticulously drawn whereby, in theory, a class of thirty might profitably use a single computer with a 14 inch screen. The students weren’t fooled, but humoured us.

We went on training courses, each one only marginally better than the last…And then at last came the Internet.

We went to a training course at Caerleon. Our instructor, a man called Roy, fizzed with excitement as he popped between terminals and occasionally glanced at a blank screen behind him.

At last he was ready, but we weren’t. We had to be talked to, the concept explained. He enthused on how this made the world smaller, how it brought people together. He foresaw international cooperation, friendliness, talked of courtesy and internet etiquette. In the mean time we stared at the screen still blank, but promising great things.

And then Roy smiled. His jaw dropped an inch - like a snake poised to swallow a small mouse or rabbit. His lips extended in a show of teeth before the jaw ascended, the smile disappeared. He swivelled, pressing a key in the process and the screen came to life.

An elderly American smiled back at us. His was a normal smile. We were entranced. There were books behind him, a window allowing us glimpses of…American trees. And he was talking, his voice brisk like a dry Savannah cricket.


We wanted to say ‘hello’ back to him but wondered whether he would hear us.

“Hello, “The American waved

Two ‘hellos’ – more than enough for Roy. His jaw dropped as if ready to snack and the teeth came and went. He lowered the sound; talked again of the brotherhood of man. Behind him the American waved, his voice occasionally breaking through when he shouted:

‘Can you hear me?’

Roy was oblivious. His was the only voice worth listening to. The American conjured up for our convenience was nothing more than that, a convenience. It was my first experience of the less attractive side of what was to come. Roy was a user. He incarnated the blind egoism found everywhere on the net today – and in real life, too.

You make friends where you find them, in cyberspace or on the street. One is not necessarily better than the other.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Where is Gore Vidal when you need him?

Once, village idiots threw clods of earth to show their displeasure. Now they have Twitter – a medium that allows a level playing field for all. It is causing all manner of confusion. One village idiot tweeted a thoroughly crass comment about the British Olympic diver, Tom Daley. 


The Dorset constabulary, with thousands of unsolved cases, and perpetrators of real serious crimes yet to face charge, found time to knock on the door of said village idiot in order to enforce The Malicious Communications Act 1988. Who knew such an Act existed, or its enforcement so inconsistent – in this case a sledgehammer against a very small nut. 

The Malicious Communications Act 1988 makes it illegal to send an electronic communication that conveys a grossly offensive message designed to hurt or induce anxiety. Since this particular tweet thousands of far more vicious tweets have been directed against the immature youth from Dorset. Should police forces be knocking on doors up and down the country in the name of consistency and justice? 

 They won’t, but it does highlight the stupidity of the state trying to enforce ‘acceptable’ behaviour through legislation.  It also highlights also a new and sinister force in the land - the techno-enhanced herd encouraged by media and state to enforce a collective outlook.

I didn’t enjoy every aspect of the Opening Ceremony, but I thought it a brilliant piece of theatre, and I was cheered that Danny Boyle stayed true to his vision. Well, one hapless Tory MP put his head over the parapet and said something different. He called it left-wing crap. You’d have thought he’d pissed on the Vatican altar, judging by the collective outrage this contrarian view aroused. Well why shouldn’t he say it? Is one man’s vision automatically right and another’s automatically wrong? Yes - but only in totalitarian states, theocracies or those cocooned in a ‘liberal consensus’. 

Gore Vidal experienced consensus condemnation in the late 1950’s when his book The City and the Pillar depicted homosexuality in a non-judgemental way. A conservative ‘consensus’ sat on him. Vidal's next seven novels were studiously ignored by Time magazine, Newsweek and the New York Times. In Vidal’s words:
 “I was carefully erased from the glittering history of American Literature. . . . Twenty years ago, there was an academic study of the five hundred — or was it five thousand? — truly great American novelists since the Second War. I was not of their company. I had slid down the page to a footnote.”

 In such a climate, people learn without thinking to keep quiet. It is is a benign intolerance compared to a gulag culture, but intolerance it is. Storm-troopers, Red guards, or mobs brandishing pitchforks and BlackBerries - all righteous in ‘group think’ – they have no place in a grown-up culture.
In Gore Vidal’s words:
 The corporate grip on opinion in the United States is one of the wonders of the Western World. No First World country has ever managed to eliminate so entirely from its media all objectivity — much less dissent. It is no less true in Britain today.