Our writers choose their cultural highlights of the year.
I was at Glastonbury the day after the EU referendum results were in and I totally lost my shit. I couldn’t deal with the combination of steady rain, hangover, and spike in race-related hate crimes. Sam Lee was playing at midday but every time we left the caravan, the children fell in the mud. I really wanted to see Sam Lee so I ran ahead, sobbing and gulping from a bottle of wine. I sat on a plastic bag near the stage, in a Glastonbury bubble of self-indulgent depression (I work there, setting up toilets).
Sam Lee started singing, and no one moved because they just wanted to get as much of his voice into their ears as they could. He sang a folk song, ‘The Jew’s Garden’. Before he sang it he said it could be seen historically as anti-Jewish propaganda. In the song, ‘Little Hugh’ is murdered by The Jew’s Daughter. In real life, a Christian boy was murdered just after Henry III declared that if any Jews were convicted of crimes their money would go to the king. Subsequently, ninety Jews were arrested in connection with Hugh’s death, and charged with murder.
Sam Lee said he himself was of Jewish heritage. He wanted to show us how times change, otherwise he wouldn’t be on stage singing this particular song. As a society we go round and round, but we also progress.
The song’s message is transitory. By singing it, Sam Lee robbed it of its original meaning and turned it into something beautiful. I don’t know what that means in terms of politics at the moment, and it might not directly help anyone who is getting their head kicked in, but at that moment I swore to myself that I would harden the fuck up.
Prologue / Epilogue:
In 1955, a plaque was placed at the site of Little Hugh’s shrine at Lincoln Cathedral. It says:
Trumped up stories of “ritual murders” of Christian boys by Jewish communities were common throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and even much later. These fictions cost many innocent Jews their lives. Lincoln had its own legend and the alleged victim was buried in the Cathedral in the year 1255.
Such stories do not redound to the credit of Christendom, and so we pray:
Lord, forgive what we have been,
amend what we are,
and direct what we shall be.
Nicky Arscott is a writer, artist and cartoonist and is one of Wales Arts Review’s Artists in Residence 2017.
I was introduced to Arlene Heyman at the Cork International Short Story Festival this year. Heyman has accumulated accolades for her writing – fellowships including a Fulbright and a Rockefeller, an honorary listing in Best American Short Stories – but it has taken until now, when she is in her seventies, for her début collection of short fiction to be published. She is a New York-based psychiatrist who also qualified as a medical doctor – no surprise then that the workings of the human body and mind, in all their messy glory, do not make her flinch.
Heyman gave a fantastic reading in Cork and was honest and thoughtful in interview. She talked about rejection and seemed at peace with the fact it has taken so long for her to have a book accepted. She also said: ‘As a writer, you have to see straight. You need to know the world as it is.’ And, therefore, she recommended that writers ‘carpet-bomb’ journals with their stories, rather than wait for rejections.
The seven stories in Scary Old Sex are frank, funny and forthright in a way that is not often seen in contemporary fiction. The bodies featured are not those of the young and taut, but rather of the often collapsing older man and woman. But there is middle-aged illness and decay as well. In one of the finest, most moving stories, ‘Dancing’, we see leukemia-wracked Matt, his loving wife Ann, and their teenage son Solly try to negotiate the vagaries of Matt’s illness, against a backdrop of the 9/11 attacks.
Other stories feature the sex lives of elderly couples, often those in second marriages, and all the fleshly hiccups and joys that they share. Heyman is unusually upfront: body-parts and functions are named, examined, and found worthy and/or wanting. The characters have rich internal lives and they self-examine, and criticise each other, forensically. On matters Jewish and medical, as well as in her concentration on relationships between older characters, Heyman is similar to her accomplished American contemporaries Valerie Trueblood and Edith Pearlman. But Heyman takes things a step further, perhaps, with her candour. Her major gift is her ability to weave sexual frankness, medical knowledge, love, frustration, and gorgeous, arresting minor detail into one very pleasing whole.
Nuala O’Connor is an Irish novelist and short story writer. Her third novel, Miss Emily, about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid, was published in 2015. Nuala’s fourth novel Becoming Belle is forthcoming. www.nualanoconnor.com
My highlight of 2016 (aside from my involvement in Music Theatre Wales’ Make An Aria project) has to be the re-emergence of Michael Kiwanuka. In a year in which we suffered the crushing losses of both Prince and Bowie, it seems fitting to celebrate a young artist who similarly delights in confounding simplistic genre expectations.
His first album, Home Again, was much lauded on its release in 2012, its take on 1970s-style country soul (with lashings of jazz flute) earning him comparisons with Bill Withers, Ray Charles and Terry Callier. It was generally deemed to have under-performed commercially, though, and despite winning the BBC’s Sound Of 2102 poll, he failed to achieve Adele-style ubiquity.
From an outside perspective, however, it looked as though he was living the dream – touring the world, recording with Jack White and Kanye West etc. Interview evidence suggests, however, that he was having something of a hard time not only in his personal life, but also in terms of his musical identity; in the perennially market-segmented (to put it diplomatically) music industry, a guitar-strumming, denim-wearing black Londoner is apparently something of a tough sell.
Nevertheless, the new album, Love And Hate, unapologetically kicks off with a long instrumental intro, intentionally evocative of Pink Floyd, and the lyrical mood throughout is positively Morrissey-esque (“I’m a man who belongs alone” etc.) The production is smooth but not syrupy, the robust string arrangements and earthy choral harmonies subtly framing rather than swamping his now-raspier voice. It’s an emotional listen; but the songs are pleasingly amenable to being transformed into psych-rock wig-outs in a live setting, as I recently discovered at Cardiff’s Tramshed.
Apparently, things are rosier now in his personal life. The album did well too, topping the charts (in the UK at least), and being shortlisted for the Mercury Prize.
The lead single, Black Man In A White World, is not a protest song – rather, it is a celebration of outsider-dom, and was gleefully received by an overwhelmingly Caucasian audience at the packed-out Cardiff gig.
A moment of optimism in a difficult year.
Othniel Smith is a writer for stage, radio and television.
I’ve heard some beautiful music this year, but for me a highlight has to be more than beautiful. My choice brought me joy and pain, anxiety and hope, all bound together by the energy of youth. My sorrow about WNO Youth Opera’s production of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Kommilitonen! was that Max did not live to see it. But in the year of his death there was surely no finer tribute to his work and to his commitment to the good of the earth and social responsibility.
At a time when political systems around the world are in such turmoil, the student protests portrayed in this opera are more relevant than ever. I had the privilege of spending a day at rehearsals and talking to some of the young performers. The energy which they put into their performance was surely enhanced by all they had learnt about the historical events they were portraying. To me this is how we make sense of our sometimes confusing lives – by telling stories about them. To which, through an emotional connection, music adds a deepening.
Director Polly Graham’s staging made us, the audience, part of the action. We were not corralled and if we found ourselves in amongst the singers, no matter. We were forced to choose as much as the students in the interwoven stories of China’s Cultural Revolution, the American Civil Rights Movement and the White Rose resistance group in Nazi Germany – to be involved in politics or to stand back. That is the challenge which faces young people across Europe and beyond, now more than ever.
Kommilitonen! is my cultural highlight of 2016, not just because of everything it gave me, but because of how all the young people who took part in it will have been enriched by their experience and, I think and hope, will continue to be socially engaged as a consequence.
Cath Barton is a short story writer and performing arts critic.
In Saturday night full-swing, miners and their women in celebration of another hard-worked weekending, dance themselves breathless in any (and probably every) social club a stone’s throw from a pit wheel. It’s May 1979 and the music fades to a stop in Gary Clarke’s COAL, a work of dance recalling the mining communities of his Doncaster youth. Nineteen seventy-nine and the once-revellers part for the aggrandised Margaret Thatcher to make her vainglorious way to front of stage and country. With egregious grace and overbearing bile, Eleanor Perry as Thatcher flaunts her matronly power over the future of these communities. In blue suit and recognisably coiffured hair, she dances as a speech giver (voiced by Steve Nallon), folding randomly into extreme shapes, the embodiment of her extreme plans.
The strike happens, families suffer, hungry, worn out communities must choose to end, or continue a now lost cause.
The Prime Minister traverses the stage, dragging behind her with purpose a thick, nautical rope that she lays on the ground. Soon, one miner crawls over the rope of surrender, collapsing to the floor in defeat. A scab, a scab! Anyone else?
One couple begin a violent dance tussle of love and failing. The defiant struggle whitens knuckles but eventually for this family, the game is up. Watched by his wife on the side-lines, the miner removes his working-man work boots and offers them up to blue victor. THIS is my 2016 arts moment; the capitulation as all the strikers one by one follow suit and I can hardly contain my emotions. The irrefutable forcing of modernity on communities denied a constructive blueprint to work towards. Instead, a careless sweep of the hand and lives and livelihoods were supposed to just disappear.
But disappear they did. Congratulations Gary Clarke Company for the bright, burning torch.
Jane Oriel is an arts journalist.
The highlight of my year was Pride Cymru, and this year I had a partner to take with me. My newly-out-girlfriend and I looked sparkly and colourful as our smiles shone through the crowds. No glitter needed. We were our own source of glamour.
As a freebie-whore, I loved to hop around all the stalls trying to get an extra free pen or free mug. But this time, girlfriend glued to my hand, the stalls seemed more political. The topic of Orlando and America’s terrible shootings of transgender people in general, was buzzing along with the music and alcohol.
The police force and politicians made the crowds shush and humble as they talked about how they are on our side. Their speeches ended by reminding us that the LGBT community is inside the Police Force and the Political Parties. As the Welsh Assembly said they ‘know exactly where you’re coming from’ because they have to fight for these rights too.
Pride is usually seen as a massive party for the LGBT community, but people forget that the history of Pride started with a fight against police. A fight for freedom and recognition. One brick into one building decades later turned into a glitter bomb and rainbow balloons.
This year, history and horror joined our partying. We couldn’t ignore the fight our people shared. But this was a good thing. Together we saw our strength. Most people in the crowds were straight, but that was also a good thing. They were on our side.
This year pride was no longer just a party of colour, this year pride was not just a chance to find a date, this year pride was realising we were a political statement. But we were surrounded by safety, because Pride was home.
My wife’s great-uncle was shot dead by a sniper in the First World War. There was a report of his death in the local Westmorland newspaper, along with too many others during those years of unprecedented carnage. In the church, a memorial to him and a few others from his village was once hidden away; or, at least, not prominently displayed. It was a fault now rectified.
I’ve always considered it an affront that for many the war is exclusively synonymous with poets and poetry. On the one hand, poetry was a way of understanding that war; on the other, it deflects interest in the legions of practically anonymous soldiers who never returned from Flanders and may not have read a poem in their life.
This year is the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, that paradigm of horror and waste, and specifically the bloody engagement at Mametz, which was marked by a fascinating if uneven exhibition at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, entitled ‘War’s Hell! The Battle of Mametz Wood in Art’. Uneven or not, it’s my cultural event of 2016.
Among the exhibits were two large oil paintings, the main one Christopher Williams’s The Welsh Division at Mametz Wood 1916. Its well-intentioned realism and theatricality would have gone down well in an exhibition of Soviet-style, state-sponsored art. It’s the right subject painted in a heroic style but it is utterly dead. Far more evocative was the other one, Edward Handley-Read’s eerie depiction of the wood itself, its sylvan appearance corrupted. There’s a ladder against a tree and what is almost certainly the remains of a sniper high in its branches – a German sniper. It reminded me of Max Klinger’s etching Im Walde, a forest scene at the centre of which, barely discernible, is a neat pile of clothes with a note on a sheet of paper: it’s a suicide note. Thus do the trees carry a darker message and their branches weep.
After the war, little would be the same again. In art, it would be modern. But, sad to report, Modernism would prove to be a dead-end, a lost opportunity.
Nigel Jarrett is a novelist, poet, short story writer and regular music critic for Wales Arts Review. His latest novel, Slowly Burning, is out now.
It has certainly been a challenging year, a year of change, uncertainty, deaths and remembrance.
In February I saw Chwalfa, a drama based on the Great Strike of the North Wales, Bethesda Quarrymen, 1900-1903. Then there was Brexit. The centenary of both The Easter Rising for Ireland Home Rule and the beginning of The First World War. Aberfan, remembering 50 years on, the loss of a generation, 166 children died due to the collapse of a colliery spoil tip on to their school. Trump becoming Americas President and the numerous losses of the greats. Fidel Castro died only a few weeks ago. 2016 has brought such heaviness on people’s hearts and spirit.
I visited Fron Goch near Y Bala on the centenary of the Easter Rising. It felt important making the effort to remember a 100 years on. But something happy and positive was happening in the history of Wales, on the same day.
As I drove enthusiastically home listening to Radio Cymru in case I didn’t make it home in time for the best part, driving through Betws y Coed, Capel Currig and passed Ogwen Lake, the highlight of 2016 was happening now, windows open and the volume raised high, Gareth Bale and his team mates were in France lined up on the field at the Euros, for the first time ever. I could see them in my mind’s eye as I listened to the anthem, (the best part), driving through the stunning mountains – a thousand and more voices made them come alive!
It was such a fantastic, uplifting and proud feeling, to be a part of something, something that the world was watching, and we won, 2-1 against Slovakia and we didn’t want to go home, we pleaded in song “Dooooon’t take me home, Pleeeeeease don’t take me home…..” We made it all the way to the semi finals! The Best fans in the world we were, they told us so on notice board on the streets of France. We raised the flag high for Wales and proclaimed that we are, together stronger.
Sara Rhoslyn Moore is an artist.
Some big ticket events genuinely lived up to the hype in 2016, particularly Painting the Modern Garden: from Monet to Matisse and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts I and II. Closer to home, the iconic pairing of Van Morrison and Bryn Terfel delivered a spellbinding retelling of the 18th century folksong Shenandoah at Cardiff’s Festival of Voice, while there was a rare sighting of Marxian funksters Scritti Politti to excite Welsh Corbynista’s of a certain age.
My personal highlight of the year, though, comes from the other end of the cultural spectrum, away from the glare of the spotlight and the roar of the greasepaint. In September, WBEZ 91.5 Chicago, a not for profit radio station, broadcast One Last Thing Before I Go; a show that examined how people find the courage to communicate in the most testing and tragic of circumstances.
The programme is teed up with a short piece recalling the doomsday scenario of the Cuban Missile Crisis. When Strategic Air Command in Nebraska went into lock down, those staffing the facility were each allowed to make a final call to their loved ones before the nuclear codes were unscrambled. The calls were made on the strict understanding that the reason for making contact could not be revealed. As Joseph Heller might have said ‘Boy, that’s some catch’.
The banal conversations that took place in that unparalleled moment, when the ending of the world could not be acknowledged, found an echo in the unspoken goodbyes that tormented the survivors of 2011’s Tohoku Tsunami. Really Long Distance, narrated, without fanfare, by Miki Meek explored the reasons for the anguish and the silence of those still mourning the missing. Producer/ Presenter Meek made a fine job, too, of translating and contextualising a cache of sensitive audiotape recorded by Japanese news channel NHK, who were the first to properly document the haunting story Otsuchi’s “Telephone of the wind”.
Really Long Distance is one of those incredible ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ tales which takes some swallowing whole; a disconnected phone in an old English style phone box perched above the Pacific Ocean, became the destination for thousands of grieving relatives to hold one-way conversations with the husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters that they would never see again.
Some of the relatives had journeyed to Otsuchi to beg for forgiveness, some of them to question or scold the dead. Most came, though, to reassure the missing that they were doing well, that they were enduring. The important purpose of these exchanges, as Meek explains, is to counter the commonly held belief in Japan that the dead hesitate to cross to the other side if they see family members suffering. Really Long Distance is 22 minutes of exceptional Public Service Radio that will remain with you forever.
Kevin McGrath is a music writer and regular critic for Wales Arts Review.
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