Saturday, 2 October 2010

The Hemingway Look-a-Like Contest Winner

Every year at Sloppy Joe’s Bar, down in Key West, they run an Ernest Hemingway lookalike contest. Unlike the Elvis lookalike show at Porthcawl where contestants at least try to sound like the King Hemingway doubles don’t need to write. Looking is the deal. Safari suits, fisherman’s white-wool turtle-neck sweaters, round faces, Richard Attenborough white beards. Hats need to be doffed. Animals and birds are not allowed on stage. Bring your own cheering team. On the contest’s website are photos of winners going back to 1983. Does all this increase the great novelist’s sales? The jury is out.

In Wales the nearest we’ve ever had to a Hemingway doppelganger was Jack Jones. His writing style was certainly different but with his latter-day white beard and pugilist stature he did bear a vague physical resemblance. I imagined that when Jack passed in 1970 so too did the Hemingway look. No longer fashionable. Not really. That was until I came across a photo of the ex-pat Cardiff author Jon Manchip White. Put a beard on that man and he’d be contest winner for sure.

Manchip White now lives in the Appalachian foothills of Tennessee, a place as distant from Key West as it is from Wales. Not that this has slowed Manchip White as an author. His list of literary achievements goes back to the early 1950s and is as long as your arm. Novels, poetry, short fiction, works on ancient Egypt, the Aztec Empire, Diego Velázquez, France, the great American deserts, north American Indians and, not unexpectedly, Wales. His splendid The Journeying Boy: Scenes from a Welsh Childhood published in the States by the Iris Press is a great introduction to old Cardiff.

He’s descended on the one side from the Manchips, west country seamen, ship owners, merchantmen and on the other the very Welsh Whites. That line goes right back to Cardiff’s own centre-stage martyr, Rawlins White.

This White was an illiterate sixteenth century fisherman who stood up against the return of Catholicism under Bloody Queen Mary. For his faith (or, rather, because he chose to protest it) he was imprisoned in a squalid cell at the foot of Cardiff’s Cock’s Tower (now lost somewhere under the new St David’s shopping centre). He was subsequently burned at the stake near the end of Church Street. There’s a memorial plaque. This once adorned Bethany Chapel in Wharton Street, a building now subsumed by Howell’s menswear department. The plaque is still there. You can check it, it’s on the ground floor just behind the trouser rail.

Jon Manchip White has celebrated his illustrious ancestor in a TV play produced originally by Emyr Humphreys the tapes of which now seem to be lost. Undeterred he is now working on a version of the tale as a novel. Watch this column for news.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail #165

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