Six of One – Philip Gwynne Jones

In this feature, we ask our Crime Cymru authors to name six things that influenced their life and shaped them as a writerThis week Philip Gwynne Jones, whose life story has taken him from Swansea to Venice gives us a fascinating insight into what makes him tick, raising memories of the 1982 World Cup and old Hammer Horrors on the way.

One experience

Preston North End 1 Swansea City 3. May 2nd 1981.

There weren’t many Swansea fans at my school. Unsurprisingly, perhaps. The 1970s were a golden age for Welsh rugby and – if football was your thing – you were more likely to choose Nottingham Forest or Liverpool than the team that had finished third from bottom of the football league in 1975. My dad started taking me along to matches the very next season. I guess he thought things couldn’t get any worse.

And then, of course, some bloke called John Toshack arrived and almost before we knew it we were back in the old second division. He’d brought in some old pals from Liverpool (Tommy Craig, Ian Callaghan), a few Welsh legends (Leighton James, John Mahoney) and the gifted Yugoslav international Dzemal ‘Jimmy’ Hadziabdic. There was no shortage of home-grown talent either, in Alan Curtis, Jeremy Charles and the legendary Robbie James. We were back, we thought, where we rightfully belonged. But that wasn’t enough for Tosh…

A draw against Luton in the penultimate game of 1981 wasn’t quite enough to secure promotion to the undreamed of heights of the old First Division. We’d need to win away at Preston North End, a team scrapping for every point at the other end of the table.

Preston, to a 15 year old boy in 1981, seemed like a hell of a long way from Swansea. It probably seemed a pretty fair distance to my dad. But there was no question about it. We were going to go. All four of us. Along with ten thousand others.

My mum had never been to a football match in her life and was not about to start now. She went shopping instead whilst me, dad, and my sister crammed ourselves into Deepdale along with what seemed like half the population of Swansea.

We’re a comfortable 2-0 up by half time, courtesy of goals from Leighton James and Tommy Craig. The second half, however, is another matter. Preston regroup and come out fighting as if their lives depend upon it. They pull one back with just over ten minutes remaining. And these are going to be ten long, long minutes. There’s a Preston shot into the side netting and for a moment we think the dream is over, but then…but then…

But then someone starts singing. Not football singing, mind you, but proper singing. And so we all join in. Cwm Rhondda and Land of my Fathers , and then Curt is on the wing and he crosses to Robbie who taps it into the path of Charlo and his first touch isn’t the best but that doesn’t matter because he’s leathered it into the back of the net and we’ve done it! We’ve bloody sung them over the line and into the First Division!

Every car on the M5 and back along the M4 seems to have a black and white scarf flying out of the window. Every service station is packed to the brim with Swansea Jacks, desperate to get back home to get to the pub, to see the match report in the Evening Post, to see the highlights on Match of the Day. I’m in tears now as I think about it. Seriously…

There were more Swansea fans in school next season. Liverpool badges were replaced – for two seasons at least – with Swansea ones. Plastic fans, who melted away as soon as the good times came to an end.

But I didn’t care. Not really. After all – I’d been at Preston…

One album

Hawkwind, Warrior on the Edge of Time

I bought my first Hawkwind album, “Hall of the Mountain Grill”, in Woolworths in 1985. A month later I saw them on “The Chronicle of the Black Sword” tour; their epic rock opera based on Michael Moorcock’s “Elric” books. And after that I bought album after album after album from a band that seemed to have been around forever but was, in fact, barely in its sixteenth year at the time. There has scarcely been a day in the last 37 years in which I haven’t listened to them. It’s no exaggeration to say that they’re part of my life.

I could have chosen a dozen albums for this slot, but I’ll go with “Warrior on the Edge of Time” which shows them at their proggiest and, perhaps, at their barmiest as well. Dave Brock quotes from Longfellow and Shelley on “Assault and Battery” and “Magnu”; whilst Michael Moorcock declaims like a demented Dalek on “Warriors”. The ‘drum empire’ of Alan Powell and Simon King anchors the album, never more evident than on the motorik rhythm that powers “Opa-Loka”, together with the unmistakable, menacing bass guitar of Lemmy. Nik Turner never played better sax/flute than he did here, but what really lifts this album onto another plane is the addition of Simon House on violin and keyboards, whether it be in the sublime segue from “Assault and Battery” into “The Golden Void” or the nifty, swirling instrumental of “Spiral Galaxy 28948”.

Dave Brock is now 81 years old. The band will celebrate its 53rd anniversary this year. There will come a day when – terrible as it may seem – there will be no more Hawkwind albums to look forward too. But there’ll always be that back catalogue and those memories…

Onward flies the bird!

One piece of music

Richard Wagner, Der Ring des Niebelungen

Cheating, perhaps, to choose a 15-hour, 4 opera cycle as “a piece of music” but, hey, it’s my blog this week and so I’m making the rules.

My first encounter with the music of Richard Wagner was via John Boorman’s film Excalibur. That was enough to suck me into watching BBC2’s screening of the complete Ring over ten Saturday evenings in 1990, followed by Channel 4’s broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s cycle at Christmas that same year. Bloody hell, telly was good in those days, wasn’t it?

A couple of years later, I moved to Germany for work. On my own, and without friends, I found myself alone at weekends, trying to find English speaking pubs and English language newspapers with which to while away the time.

I realised this wasn’t making me happy and, perhaps, I should be making more of the whole ‘living in a different country’ experience. And so I started to go to the opera. My first was Tristan und Isolde. I have to say I dozed off during Act II, but if you can make your way through Tristan as your first live opera then you’re probably hooked for life. I must have enjoyed it well enough, anyway, as I went back a few weeks later for Parsifal. This time, I stayed awake. I remember the theatre had an exhibition of costumes and stage designs by the great Wieland Wagner, and an elderly German gentleman smiling and murmuring “Schoene Sache, nicht wahr?” to me.

That was it. The beginning of a thirty year odyssey of collecting recordings (you do not have just one Ring cycle, after all), of concerts, and even – thanks to Caroline – of one memorable visit to Bayreuth.

There are other composers, I suppose. I’ve been fortunate enough to sing Bach’s great Masses and Passions, and Beethoven’s Choral Symphony. I love Monteverdi, and Bruckner and Mahler. But Wagner, for me at least, stands apart from the others not just as one of the greatest composers of all time but as one of the greatest dramatists of all time.

The great opening Eb chord that opens Das Rheingold is like stepping out on a great journey. Alberich appears to the Rhinemaidens like the serpent in Eden and terrible, world-shaking events are set in motion. Events that will play themselves out over four operas and fifteen hours of music.

It’s a journey that will change you.

One book

Piero Trellini, La Partita

Choosing a novel seemed far too difficult so I’ve gone for what might seem a rather odd choice, Trellini’s account of the Brazil – Italy game in the second round of the 1982 World Cup.

Only one team was going to win that tournament and it sure as hell wasn’t Italy. Nobody could see beyond a Brazilian team of such dazzling brilliance that they might well be considered the greatest team of all time. A team that didn’t need to defend because if you scored three, they could always score four.

Italy, by contrast, had staggered through the first round with a toothless forward line led by Paolo Rossi, recently returned after two years of suspension.

Only one team was ever going to win this game. Weren’t they?

La Partita examines forensically every aspect of this extraordinary match but – more than that – it works in the same way as a great thriller might, as the legendary Italian coach Enzo Bearzot pores over every player in the Brazilian side, analysing every last one for a sign – any sign – of weakness. Anything that might give his unfancied side an edge.

I should stress here that the book only covers the one game. Very little attention is paid to the preceding round and precious little to the semi final and final itself. What you get is 600 pages about a single football match. And it is an absolutely masterly piece of work.

Trellini brilliantly describes what might just be the greatest game of all time. Bearzot’s tactical brilliance, Rossi’s extraordinary redemption and the magnificence of a Brazilian side that, somehow, fell short of what they might have achieved.

Brazil have won two World Cups since 1982. Italy, one. Supporters of both sides, surely, would admit that neither came close to the class of 1982. Two extraordinary sides. One amazing game. And a book that does justice to both.

One film

Dracula (1958)

I often answer ‘Casablanca’ to this one, but Chris Lloyd bagged that one last week and besides, as those of you who follow my Twitter feed will know, classic horror films are something of an obsession with me. So I’ll go for Hammer’s Dracula.

It’s one of those happy films where almost everyone involved was at the top of their game. Hammer’s go-to (and Welsh!) screenwriter Jimmy Sangster cleverly condenses Stoker’s novel into 82 minutes, stripping away the excess characters that bog the novel down and the staginess that mars the 1931 version. Elsewhere, Bernard Robinson’s sets and Jack Asher’s cinematography make the whole thing look absolutely gorgeous, James Bernard contributes an iconic score and Terence Fisher – Hammer’s greatest director – conjures up moments of extraordinary beauty. His staging of the final battle between Dracula and van Helsing has yet to be matched.

But the film truly belongs to Peter Cushing and, of course, Christopher Lee in the role that deservedly made him a star. He has barely more than a dozen lines. He’s on screen for less than ten minutes. And yet he makes every second count (no pun intended). When he’s on screen you cannot take your eyes off him. And in a lesser film, that would be a problem – look at the way the Lugosi film feels a bit flat when he’s off-screen. But that isn’t a problem here because as soon as Dracula becomes a peripheral figure, Sangster moves Cushing’s van Helsing centre stage to compensate.

Cushing’s is a performance that couldn’t be further away from the character as written in Stoker’s novel. Instead of a little old man babbling away in (literal) double Dutch, Cushing portrays van Helsing as part-scientist, part-action hero; a portrayal that has now become the established image of the character. Moving from icy incisiveness to gentle warmth and compassion, sometimes within the same scene (the moment with the little girl in the graveyard, just seconds after branding Lucy with a crucifix, is utterly charming), it’s one of the defining performances from this most intelligent and thoughtful of actors.

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this now. I could probably recite much of the script from memory. It’s taut, exciting, full of iconic moments and it changed horror history forever. It’s a classic.

One person

No, it’s not Dave Brock of Hawkwind. It’s not John Toshack. It’s not even Peter Cushing. It is, of course, my wife Caroline.

There’s more about her, much more, in “To Venice with Love” but suffice to say that none of this would have happened without her. Not Venice. Not the books. None of it.

I’m a grumpy old bugger when writing and prone to horrible fits of impostor syndrome and “THIS BOOK IS GOING TO BE A DISASTER” outbreaks. And Caroline will remind me that I’ve done this before and, no, the book is not going to be a disaster and even if it is – which, of course, it won’t be – then there’s plenty of time left and she’ll read it through first and then we can put it right. Similarly, whenever I start getting grumpy about teaching (“I’m too OLD for this, dammit”), she’ll remind me that every day I come back buzzing with enthusiasm and stories about what’s gone on that morning.

She introduced me to the Negroni, bought me an opera cloak for my 40th birthday and tolerates my record collection. She moved to Venice because her hubby had a mad idea from a man he’d met in a pub. And…and…well, so much more. I just hope I’ve given enough back.

Quite simply, I’m a better person because of her. Thank you cariad.


Philip Gwynne Jones is the author of the best-selling Nathan Sutherland series, set in Venice. The sixth novel in the series, “The Angels of Venice”, will be published on July 14th.

You can find him at www.philipgwynnejones.com , on Twitter at @pgjonesvenice, and on Facebook at @philipgwynnejones

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s