Jimi Hendrix and Ludwig Wittgenstein in Swansea

January 18, 2015 8 Comments

Jimi Hendrix

That Jimi Hendrix came to Swansea was news to me until yesterday. It seemed almost as unlikely as the fact that Ludwig Wittgenstein used to stay here on his holidays.

Gary Gregor, in his excellent South Wales Evening Post column ‘Hidden History’, says in his latest contribution that Hendrix visited the city in the 1960s. Gary’s starting point is the sign ‘No. 10 Ye Olde Wine Shoppe’ still to be seen in Union Street, above what is now a health food shop. It used to be a pub, mentioned ‘frequently’ in letters by Dylan Thomas, and it featured an eight-foot high stuffed Bavarian dancing bear called Boris. Boris was said to have died while on a tour of Swansea at the end of the nineteenth century. He was more famous stuffed than alive, and was apparently a favourite local to be photographed with: Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers were both snapped in his hairy company.

Olde Wine Shoppe

The Queen’s Hotel in Gloucester Place also had a stuffed bear, next to the main entrance, but Gary seems sceptical about the theory that this was none other than Boris, who was ejected from Ye Olde Wine Shoppe when it closed in 1988. A different type of bear, it seems. I’ve not seen the Queens bear for some time. Perhaps he’s being refurbished.

Gary mentions in passing that Jim too was photographed with Boris, an arm draped round the ursine waist, but he gives no more details. My Hendrix library reveals nothing about a Swansea visit. I can’t find any trace of the Hendrix-Boris photo. An earlier Evening Post article, from 2003, suggests Hendrix was on the trail of Swansea bands such as The Bystanders (later Man), but maybe that’s just a post hoc rationalisation. A former habitué of No. 10 is quoted as saying, ‘The photograph, which showed Jimi Hendrix smoking a dubious cigarette with his arm around Boris, appeared in a number of magazines at the time’ – again, the ‘dubious cigarette’ sounds like a retrospective invention.

Jimi Hendrix Cardiff

The web yields little more. In 1967 The Jimi Hendrix Experience played twice in Cardiff, in the Capital Theatre on 26 April (with the Walker Brothers and Cat Stevens) and in Sophia Gardens Pavilion on 23 November 1967 (with Pink Floyd and Amen Corner), and it’s just conceivable that Hendrix travelled on to Swansea after one of these occasions. There are also mysterious claims that after the November concert he visited Borth on the way to Belfast – which sounds like a line from a G.K. Chesterton poem.

Hendrix myths are legion. One hoax had him composing an electric version of Hen Wlad fy Nhadau, usurping the rightful claim of the late Tich Gwilym. Until firm evidence emerges the cautious historian must remain sceptical about the Swansea visit and Jimi’s encounter with the dancing bear of No.10. (Maybe Swansea Museum’s forthcoming exhibition on Man, ‘The evolution of Man, 1965-2014: acid rock in Wales’, will shed light on the mystery.)


Ludwig Wittgenstein’s stays in Swansea, on the other hand, are much better attested. Between 1942 and 1947 he came here every summer to stay at the invitation of his friend Rush Rhees of the Department of Philosophy in Swansea University. In 1944 he lodged with Mrs Mann at 10 Langland Road, Mumbles (Ray Monk, Wittgenstein’s biographer, wrongly says ‘Langland Bay’). In 1945 in a letter to his friend Norman Malcolm he wrote, interestingly,

I know quite a number of people here whom I like. I seem to find it more easy to get along with them here than in England. I feel much more often like smiling, e.g. when I walk in the street, or when I see children, etc.

In 1947, again in Swansea, Ben Richards, with whom Wittgenstein was hopelessly in love, took probably the most famous photograph of the philosopher. He stands in front of a blackboard, presumably in the University, covered with chalk inscriptions wiped to illegibility with rough strokes in several directions [not so: see comments below]. He stands motionless, confronting the lens with a steady stare that mixes vulnerability with a fierce look of challenge.

The Swansea Council scheme could do worse than fix a blue plaque to the outside of 10 Langland Road or one of the other temporary homes Wittgenstein had in the city between 1942 and 1947. Alas, until more evidence comes to light, Jimi will have to wait.

Comments (8)

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  1. Alun Burge says:

    Ummm – not sure about this one. Man were formed in 1968.

    I can’t imagine Jimi, who released Hey Joe, Purple Haze and The Wind Cries Mary in 1967 wanting to listen to Man’s predecessors The Bystanders with their 1967 pop hit 98.6…

    But there again who knows – after all Stalin is rumoured to have visited Merthyr…

  2. Julia edwards says:

    A great read. Hendrix and Handel have blue plaques side by side in Mayfair, where they both lived. Maybe both Wittgenstein & Hendrix will be similarly honoured in Swansea one day – although possibly not side by side!

  3. Martin Hayman says:

    But was Wittgenstein ever introduced to the up-and-coming man of letters, Kingsley Amis, then a member of the Communist Party? And if so, did Amis personate him in any of the early novels?

  4. Jean-Marie Clarke says:

    With some surprise, I read here that Ben Richards’ famous 1947 photograph of Wittgenstein shows him in front of a “blackboard”, because there’s no black to be seen anywhere. I always took the background to be a plastered wall somewhere outdoors, possibly in a passageway because of the unilateral lighting (without light falling from above). The scratches would be graffiti and the like. On the internet I found a photo of Richards standing in profile against the same wall, but at a different spot. The photo of W. is usually cropped, but can also be found in full. It’s a trivial point, I know, but not to a photographer.

    • Andrew Green says:

      You’re quite right, Jean-Marie, it’s not a blackboard. More recent research by Alan Sandry claims that the photo was taken in September 1947 in the shelter of a station on the Mumbles Railway, at the bottom of Brynmill Lane (long ago demolished).

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