A real-time review by Marni Scofidio
‘Two men. Two Quests. Two Centuries Apart.’
AMERICAN INTERIOR by Gruff Rhys
Hardcover edition, published by Hamish Hamilton, publication date 2014. Purchased online.
Being the account of the attempt of a co-founder of the Super Furry Animals to retrace the quixotic journey of his ancestor, Ieuan ab Ifan, slave name John Thomas Evans, of Waunfawr, near Caernarfon, to find Prince Madoc’s Welsh-speaking Native Americans, accidentally annexing a third of North America in the process. In three acts and an epilogue, with dramatis personae.
‘In the summer of 2012 Gruff Rhys – himself a distant relative of Evans – retraced the explorer’s route through the heart of the continent by means of an Investigative Concert TourTM – a series of solo gigs accompanied by little more than an acoustic guitar, a PowerPoint presentation, and a three-foot-high felt avatar of John Evans.’ – from dust jacket blurb
Madoc, who is said to have sailed for the Americas ca. 1170 from the beach I can see from my studio window, is probably one of the best known of the legendary princes of North Wales. AMERICAN INTERIOR encompasses Welsh and American eccentrics, old and new; eccentricity is a dying trait and needs both cultivation and celebration lest we drown in an tsunami of bland televisual homogeneity. We need our crackpots, kooks, and divine lunatics, aka enthusiasts. (My other favourite source of information for Evans is the wonderfully titled Great British Nutters website.)
AMERICAN INTERIOR also addresses culture, language, and attempts on both sides of the pond by the unenlightened to eradicate both. Finally, it’s one of those towering adventures, ‘fuelled by booze and fantasy’, that appeal to intrepid travellers of body, mind and/or spirit. In the end I chose this book to celebrate the achievements of this website’s owner, an intrepid explorer of fantastical land- and seascapes himself.
Gruff (pronounced ‘Griff’) Rhys produced not only a book but a film and an album, so I can, if I wish, commence my real-time book review submerged in multi-media. I’ll start once the weather calms down a bit, i.e. gets cooler, 15-17° Celsius being the preferred heat setting of mud-dwellers like me.
Also, in the words of DFL, as I real-time review this book, my thoughts will appear in the comments stream below or, if I’ve done it right, fingers crossed, by clicking on this post’s title above.
Thoughts on American Interior by Gruff Rhys
(Or, How I Get Houdini, Tony ac Aloma, and Hotel Shampoo into the Same Paragraph)
A Brief Welsh Glossary
Means ‘Eagles’ Nest’. Refers to Snowdonia, the range of mountains in North Wales
A Welsh word that doesn’t translate into English. It can mean a deep longing for home, or homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed. It is a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness, or an earnest desire for the Wales of the past. Compare with the Portuguese concept of saudade, Galician morriña and Romanian dor.
The language of Wales; Welsh
‘Footnotes: a fantastical, musical quest in search of the remains of Don Juan Evans.
‘In the nineteenth century the Welsh colonised the impossible: the barren lands of Patagonia… At the same time, the heroic Chartist revolutionaries of 1839 imagined a better, fairer society for their children and were given free tickets to Australia . As a Welsh pop musician I have been given a ticket to a lifestyle once afforded only to soldiers, Miss Universe contestants, and long distance truck drivers. Back in the eighteenth century, John Evans, however, went further into the beyond than was thought possible by even the wildest of Welsh dreamers.’
Just starting with the Preface and Introduction of AMERICAN INTERIOR. I often skip the boring ‘he begat-she begat’ childhood section of biographies; though this book is non-fiction I can’t yet be sure where fantasy or opinion leave off and fact begins, though Gruff has a certain authority and I believe his account. One already feels that one has read for longer than six pages. But not in a bad way.
No great idea springs fully-formed, plug and play, from nothingness. Our host, Gruff, explains the journey’s genesis, generously not hogging the credit for what appears at first a wild goose-chase of epic proportions. This particular seed was sewn in part by Hadyn, a Cymro, or Welshman, come to America to play European football at Rio Grande University, Ohio. Hadyn would gather together his Welsh mates and drive up to six hours to attend a Gruff concert, bathing in y Gymraeg and hiraeth, fuelled by the same sort of longing that enabled the inventor of bottled Welsh air to become a millionaire.
The kind of concert, really an event, Gruff puts on would most definitely suit the eccentric venue, above a bowling alley next door to another venue where Houdini played his last trick before his untimely death. You can see for yourself on his Hotel Shampoo album website, inspired by his fondness for nicking shampoo from hotels. The songs are represented by different bottles of shampoo; as each song plays, the shampoo level lowers in the bottle. A recent gig was played at the Blackpool hotel owned by Tony ac Aloma, a 1970s Welsh MOR act, where attendees were encouraged to steal the shampoo from their rooms.
Hadyn is only the first of a cavalcade of characters, pricking the reader’s curiosity by pleading with Gruff, ‘You have to visit the Rio Grande; you won’t believe it!’ Whatever ‘it’ might be, and I’m looking forward discovering, Gruff now believes. He’s going to make the reader keep reading to find out what.
Gruff then takes us on a potted family history, minus the dull childhood, that begins with the arrival of Lassie’s granddog at Dolgellau station, purchased by Gruff’s father Ioan Bowen Rees, revolutionary, mountain-climber, and a ‘White Robe Druid of the Gorsedd of Bards’ [Wikipedia]. Rees was once the subject of an MI6 file, as can happen to people in the United Kingdom who compare the treatment of their country to genocide, and later in life taught himself to speak German with a Swiss accent. He believed, and I agree, that ‘the spaces between mountains, the passes and gaps where people and cultures meet, were more important and more interesting than the summits, the supposed pinnacles ‘ [AI, hardback edition, p. 5].
Though there appear no women in the Dramatis Personae, it’s early yet, and Gruff’s sensibilities were mightily influenced by his paternal grandmother, a golf aficionado who once came last in The Open, as well as aunts and cousins such as Mary Fôn who took up the John Evans torch, unsuccessfully searching for his American grave.
Gruff calls Wales ‘an almost island’, noting the seafaring Welsh have had ‘an aptness for travel’, then points out for the most part they’ve been short on resources. This will become apparent to anyone who’s ever visited museums in Wales that feature inventive Welsh methods of transport such as the motorcycle whose handlebars go under the knees, or seen a coracle, the Welsh fishing-boat, operation of which needed specialised skills. Perhaps this is why the Welsh imagination is so powerful: it was needed in past times to eat.
I am looking forward to exploring from the comfort of my couch and bed the trails trod by Evans, then Gruff, who has a way of connecting the most disparate of dots and introducing us to people whose acquaintance not only educates and informs us, but makes our spirits that much richer and bolder. So find your wolf or Davy Crockett hat, or feather headdress – I saw some neat ones during the Paloma Faith concert at T in the Park on t.v. – and come along with Gruff, a cast of tens, and me, under the wide open spaces of imagination, madness, and rampant, irrepressible creativity.
JOHN EVANS (IEUAN AB IFAN)
A humble orphaned farmhand from Eryri , Wales. At 21, with dreams larger than his pockets and wider than the Atlantic Ocean, he leaves his mountain dwelling to go and track down the lost tribe of the Madogwys.
Legendary superhero Welsh prince who, it has been told, discovered America in 1170 . His descendants are thought to be the tribe of Welsh-speaking Native American Madogwys who (possibly) still roam the Great Plains of America.
DAFYDD DDU ERYRI
(Black David of Snowdonia) Great poet, and mentor and teacher to the young John Evans, he introduces Evans to the tale of Madog and to Iolo Morganwg.
A literary prankster, revolutionary and Druid. His magnetism pulls Evans into the fast circle of the London Welsh diaspora, from which he is launched to North America to find the lost grail of the Welsh empire.
PETE FOWLER AND THE FELT MISTRESS
A double-act who dare to pluck Evans from the quicksand of time and rebuild him for a new age.
Present-day travel operator and concert promoter at the arts and entertainment booking agency WheredoUwannago.com in New York.
GWYN ‘ALF’ WILLIAMS
Popular historian and scholar of Madog and Evans, he once lived on the same street as your host:
A songwriter and musician, descended from John Evans’ maternal uncle, I am searching for the remains of my distant cousin by following his trail through Wales and North America, using the subterfuge of investigative concert tour. I hope you enjoy the presentation, and thank you for choosing AMERICAN INTERIOR.
Multitasking! Watch/listen to the AMERICN INTERIOR video on YouTube Worldwide to get you in the mood:
Can I just note here that gestalt real-time reviewing is not as easy as it looks? Hats off to DFL for this invention, which for me is the equivalent of an inkstick and inkstone:
‘Good ink cannot be the quick kind, ready to pour out of a bottle. You can never be an artist if your work comes without effort. That is the problem with modern ink from a bottle. You do not have to think. You simply write what is swimming on the top of your brain. And the top is nothing but pond scum, dead leaves, and mosquito spawn. But when you push an inkstick along an inkstone, you take the first step to cleansing your mind and your heart. You push and you ask yourself, “What are my intentions? What is in my heart that matches my mind?”’
—Amy Tan, The Bonesetter’s Daughter
Act One: The Year of the Tiger
Sometimes in how-to-write books or blogs, advice tends to be more like drills, akin to a benevolent sort of fascism. Show, don’t tell. If you’re going to reveal a gun in the first act, make sure it goes off in the third. And a writer must bite off more than he can chew as he progresses, in experience and skill; he must feel as if he’s attempting to ingest an elephant. Without catsup. I feel I may have bitten off the proverbial Bob’s Big Boy Triple Bacon Cheeseburger on Posh Spice’s digestive system in attempting to review AMERICAN INTERIOR.
Already via the medium of words in Chapter One: Of the Improbability That I Would Ever Encounter a First National American Sagebrush Ritual in the Canton District of Cardiff (and in which I become a feature of said ritual) and Chapter Two: The Life of a Musician and the Cosmic Omnipresence of Gwyn A. Williams, I have been to the Canton and Strangetown districts of Cardiff, my favourite city outside of Paris and San Francisco. I’ve experienced:
— an audition encompassing Welsh and Native American actors and a feather that may have once belonged to Crazy Horse;
— a collection of 1970s Italian and Greek 7” disco singles; Now That’s Not Music!;
— a working knowledge of Mexican mescal production;
— Japanese toilet fittings;
— the most potent languages heard on Cardiff Frenchtown quarter streets: English, Welsh, Urdu, Cantonese (I once met a Chinese lad who claimed to speak Welsh with a Mandarin accent), Punjabi, Thai, Malay, Romanian, Arabic and Somali. Along with Gruff I wonder, fascinated, ‘How did this happen?’
I’ve also now learned about the colourful, multilingual historian Gwyn ‘Alf’ Williams, popular because of his ability to spin a good yarn and broadcast it ‘behelmeted, from a coal-shaft’, and Wil Aron, who sounds most intriguing:
‘Aron was better known for shooting Welsh-language horror films such as GWAED AR A SÊR (Blood on the Stars, 1976), in which leading Welsh celebrities were murdered in a variety of crude fashions by an evil kids’ choir' — ‘and O’R DDAER HEN (Out of the Ancient Earth, 1981), in which an ancient sacrificial stone turns up in the potato patch of an Anglesey council house, to devastating effect.
‘Not being taken up by any major cinema distributors… GWAED AR A SÊR was screened in villages and church halls the length and breadth of the mountainous country. When my mother took me to watch it as a six-year-old, I had to be carried out, screaming, after Barry John, Wales’ most celebrated sporting hero, was torn to shreds by an exploding football.’
Hemingway this ain’t. I’m pleased to see not every writer follows the other popular bit of advice: keep your sentences short and use the simplest words possible. Already my head is buzzing with gerunds and adverbs and images and situations and we haven’t even left Manchester Airport. Also, I want to see Aron’s films, they sound a good laugh.
What has all this to do with Prince Madog and John Evans’ search for Welsh-speaking Indians? Damned if I have the foggiest, but I’m going to do my best to find out.
Oh, and if you can’t afford to go to New York City in the spring, the next best answer could very well be Cardiff.
‘Facts are fluids that occasionally overspill the vessel of truth. They leave a particular stain on the carpet that can take generations to fade away, and if the carpet is woven from the absorbent wool of the Welsh imagination, they may never disappear entirely.’ – AI, p. 16
1 Sounds *brilliant*, very jolly, I’d give anything to see Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones offed, fictionally, of course, by Boys Aloud
Have just hurt myself laughing whilst reading Chapter Three: The History of Imperial Wales:
‘Dr. John Dee, a mystic of Welsh descent (…from a republican standpoint, the Goebbels to Elizabeth I’s Hitler)’
Are We There Yet?
‘Welsh people reaching Alabama? In a coracle? Well, if you insist…’ – AI, p. 20
Gruff provides a potted history of Imperial Wales that might prove Prince Madoc was a fiction devised by John Dee for political, land-grabbing aims. And I’m afraid we still haven’t left Manchester Airport. Never mind, who likes sitting around a giant shopping mall when one could be reading about history?
1282: Prince Llewellyn killed in an ambush by that bastard Edward I’s army. (Ed is responsible for tourist season in the form of the many atmospheric castles he built in north Wales that draw visitors like a chip bag draws seagulls. Every summer like clockwork, at least one QE2-sized Winnebago fails the shape test of Conwy Castle’s arch leading into the town’s main drag, providing the unlikely entertainment of watching the traffic build as the caravan tries, unsuccessfully, to extricate itself.)
On Welsh declaration that the Welsh people would never accept an English-speaking ruler, Ed declared his mute baby son the Prince of Wales, instigating a title theft that continues into modern day. Some locals do not recognise Chuck Windsor as the true Prince of Wales, yours truly among them.
14something-and-something: Owain Glyndŵr wades in, crowns himself prince, sets up the first Welsh parliament (Rhuddlan or Machynlleth, depending on whether you live in the north or south). His reign is short-lived and Wales falls to the invaders again, becoming the first colony of the English empire.
1536: The Act of Union places Wales under the direct rule of London. Bummer.
According to Gruff it was out of this slough of despond that the Madoc legend emerged: ‘From a cynical perspective, Madog (sic) was a most useful invention, based on a 13th century romantic saga… concerning a Welsh seafarer of Viking blood, from the pen of the Flemish bard Willem, best known for “Reynard the Fox”.’
Dr. Dee is said to have presented Madoc as a historical figure as part of a plot to give Elizabeth, a ‘Brythonic' monarch, a ‘moral’ claim to the Americas which the Spanish were gobbling up quicker than you can say ‘Barthelona’.
The Madoc Timeline
Act One: Madoc is said to be not only one of the sons of the Welsh ruler Owain Gwynedd but a Viking as well. Up Helly Aberystwyth, anybody? ‘There is no historical evidence that Gwynedd ever had a son called Madoc. But hey, let’s be flexible here.’ – AI, p. 19
Act Two: Madoc leaves Gwynedd via Conwy Bay or even Abergele Beach and sails to the Americas, then returns to Wales and brings back to the new continent thirteen boatloads of Welshmen. This is a far cry from the legend as I heard it, that Madoc saw America was already inhabited so left. Doesn’t sound right, though it’s a nice idea but would put paid to the other legend of Welsh-speaking Amerindians.
Act Three: It’s believed Madoc touched terra firma in modern-day Alabama, according to Dr. Dee. Qv. quote at beginning of this post.
Act Four: Madoc trundles up the Mississippi basin with ‘his tribe of Welsh warriors’, destination the upper Missouri River, where his tribe remained, roaming the plains for centuries as a nation of pale-skinned, Welsh-speaking nomads called ‘y Madogwys’, identified by the 1700s as the Mandan nation.
‘(Welsh) imaginations danced to the fantastical prose of one man, a noble savage from the Vale of Glamorgan, a man who dared rescue Wales from a dire Puritan death and who spun its people into a Druidic frenzy. This man was Iolo Morganwg. He promised to travel to the New World to find the Madogwys and bring forth a new age of Welsh empire, and soon the poor farmhand John Evans would be plucked from obscurity to fulfil this impossible task.’ – AI, p. 21
EAST INDIA SWEETS
Uncontaminated by Human Gore
– Iolo Morganwg window notice
1 Brythonic refers to a people who once ‘occupied the British island as far north as Dunbarton in Scotland. The Welsh, Breton and Cornish languages are for the most part descendants of the Brythonic language.’ – AI, p. 17
Still on the approach to Manchester Airport. No excuses save this is one big, rich, windy (not as in blowing wind but winding streets) sentence-crammed book, a tsunami of characters and ideas, and I can’t find my coracle…
A sort of fictional cross-reference discovered accidently whilst perusing Ramsey Campbell’s DARK TERRORS 1 (another fine anthology which though 35 years old still packs a punch; if only I could clone myself to do more than I’m capable of at the moment), specifically, Dr Wagner’s short story ‘*222 Swift’:
‘The Indians weren’t the first people here. When the Cherokees migrated into the Tellico region not far from here, they encountered a race of white giants – fought them and drove the survivors off, so their legends say.’
‘You going to claim the Vikings were here?’ Kenlaw snorted.
‘The Vikings, **the Welsh**, the Phoenicians, the Jews – there’s good evidence that on several occasions men from the Old World reached North America long before Columbus set out. Doubtless there were any number of pre-Columbian contacts of which we have no record, only legends.’
— Karl Edward Wagner, 1980
(emphasis shown using the characters ** is mine)
Insofar as what we’re taught via history books in school, all history is political, as opposed to *accurate*.
Just trundling into MAN rwan, nwar as the damned southies say, or now, for you English-speakers still reading this waffle.