Gary Raymond looks back over 2014 as a year in review, or perhaps more truthfully, a year at Wales Arts Review.
For Wales Arts Review 2014 has been a quick long year. Yes, I will start with an ugly sentence. Having looked back over this year’s output, we seem to have published so few. 2014, I think, however long Wales Arts Review is allowed to exist, will be remembered as the year where we grew up, where we went from trying to impress, to having a significant role in shaping the debate. As a team, we matured, we became attuned to our roles as editors and critics, and as writers we began to realise and appreciate the responsibilities that lay in our passions. 2014 is the year Wales Arts Review realised a few things. We have grown, rolled up our sleeves, become closer to each other and to the subjects we write about; the Review’s managing editor Phil Morris has guided and facilitated a passionate but, shall we say, unconventional vessel into the waters where we previously thought only fleets belonged (Phil’s work has been immense this year). Perhaps we are a fleet now – I don’t know. We are certainly a different entity to the one we started out as. 2014 has confirmed that. But it was also – excuse the cliché (you don’t find many of them in our pages, either) – quite the journey.
The easiest way to tell the story is to get on with it. So here is a personal reflection from me, the editor, on a year in the life of Wales Arts Review.
January saw us set out our stall for much of what was to come – what we could plan for, anyway. We hit the ground running, came out fighting, still with NYE hangovers and a turkey paunch. One conversation in particular I had been throwing around over the festive period developed into perhaps our most ambitious project to date. We launched our project to identify the Greatest Welsh Novel in our first edition of 2014, which was to become a year-long debate, stuffed with glorious tangents and surprises.
We wanted to address what we saw as a lack of any cohesive and concentrated debate about the Welsh ‘canon’ – yes, a debate about a debate, first and foremost. We felt there was a void on the artistic landscape of our nation that left doubt if there was any canon at all. So we framed this public conversation in garb befitting a modern media outlet: a winner would be announced, chosen by public vote. But the main aim was to start discussion up and down the country. A list was carved; 25 novels were nominated by our writers and an essay attached to each title arguing its merit. I only asked that each essayist tackle two specific points: what makes it Great and what makes it Welsh. The rest was for them to wax rhapsodic. Some titles you may have expected to be there missed out, and some very obscure ones slipped in. I debated the idea on BBC Wales and in the pages of the Western Mail – the debate was kicked off, and it spread far and wide.
Throughout the year I received messages from strangers, as well as friends and peers, giving opinions – ‘We were discussing this in the pub the other night and we decided if How Green was My Valley doesn’t make on there the whole thing is a joke…’; ‘My wife and I are waiting eagerly to see if How Green was My Valley will make on your list of 25. We will be horrified if and when it turns up.’
With the GWN, we wanted to test the appetite for debate in Wales. It turned out to be ravenous. In November the winner was crowned, and it was a worthy one. But the joy was in the previous eleven months. The idea seemed to work, and the debate, I’m sure, I hope, will continue.
It was around these early days of 2014 we also began to look at the possibility of Wales Arts Review’s first hard copy publishing venture. We all come from a ‘print’ background at the Review, and have always talked about the idea of eventually having some kind of traditional publishing arm, where we could produce collectable hard copies of anthologies of, or extensions of, the best work we publish online. 2013 had seen the first 12 stories of our collaboration with the Rhys Davies Trust published, and the quality of these stories, backed up by a premise which had really struck a chord with writers and the public alike (to create a ‘map of Wales’ through fictional representations of the landscape), meant that our first book almost chose itself. We continued publishing the best fiction writers in Wales, one a month, commissioned on this remit, and in November we collaborated with the H’mm Foundation to produce our first anthology, Wales Arts Review’s A Fiction Map of Wales, edited by our fiction editor John Lavin. And, so far, even in the choppy waters of modern publishing, it is selling fast and receiving enthusiastic responses. It has sparked so many ideas on the editorial team that I don’t think I’m sticking my neck out too far in saying we may very well see more Wales Arts Review titles on non-virtual bookshelves in 2015.
Much of what we have achieved in 2014 came to a head at our Critics’ Roundtable, organised with military precision by Phil Morris (which as many of you will know, is a very rare thing indeed in Wales) at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff on November 1st. It was a highly successful, passionate and though-provoking day busily populated with artists, critics, and a fair number of what the ‘industry’ has begun to term, rather antiseptically, ‘arts consumers’. We had many esteemed guest speakers, and to each and every one we are grateful for the support – but the highlight for many was hearing Siân Phillips read from One Moonlit Night at the climax, and then Caradog Prichard’s daughter, Mari, giving a beautifully touching speech about her father, on accepting the accolade the Welsh public had afforded him with winning the Greatest Welsh Novel vote. It was not just a fitting end to the year-long debate, but a point in the evening that will live long in the memory for many in the audience. It certainly will for those of us who worked to make it happen.
We have also been working extremely hard this year to bring through new talent. Aligning the public idea of what a ‘review’ is, and what it is Wales Arts Review, as a critical journal, does, is an ongoing endeavour. Explaining that what we do is part of the landscape of a healthy artistic community, and not something that shouts from the side lines, is an educative process. Everyone here at the Review works hard to get that message across. All great cultures have critical debate as a central tenet. A Review, like this one, is there to crystallise it.
Part of our efforts to help many understand this has been the foundation of our Young Critics Mentor Scheme, the brainchild of Phil Morris, which this year, as an inaugural exercise, ran for six months; an exploratory dry run for what we will be doing in 2015. Our young critics were enthusiastic and serious-minded, and we look forward to meeting more, and to seeing the next generation mature through our scheme, and hopefully, to see the next editorial team of Wales Arts Review somewhere in amongst them (the current team has a few more years in them yet, hopefully, though). Among many other ideas on the table at the moment, is to take the mentor scheme to Bangor in 2015 and to draw out some of the talent we know to be there.
But that is next year. Let’s not get carried away. I’m supposed to be talking about this year.
December is important for us folk at the Review; we take stock as well as recharge some batteries. And it has been an exhausting year, in which we have made many friends, covered hundreds of events, and travelled the world.
And when I say exhausting, I am not using poetic licence. Serious ailment has made its way through the editorial team in 2014 – Phil Morris, Ben Glover, Steph Power and myself have all seen more hospital waiting rooms than we would have liked. Some of you will know, but many of you will not, that I suffered some ill health in May, and although I couldn’t be less interested in writing an autobiography, it is worth mentioning here for one reason: unlike my cardiac muscle, Wales Arts Review did not miss a beat during the 6 weeks or so I was in convalescence. I was rushed into hospital with a suspected heart attack in the dark early hours of Thursday 8th May. On the Friday the Review went out as normal. And it did so for the following two or three issues, before I came back to the Captain’s chair.
Inside the troublesomeness of a doctor saying the word ‘heart attack’ to you, there must be positives. I finally read Middlemarch. I discovered the magical joys of pink custard. And I found out the editorial team I assembled in 2013 is a pretty formidable one. I was banned from having anything to do with the Review for about six weeks, and the world was none the wiser. If an original goal of setting up Wales Arts Review was to create an institution, something that exists outside and beyond its founders, May 2014 suggested we have succeeded. A shame I needed to have an angiogram to find that out, but still… never let it be said I don’t lay myself on the line for the cause.
But enough about me…
Our music editor Steph Power was a guest at the Bregenz Opera Festival in Austria to see the work of WNO’s Artistic Director, David Pountney, who was also AD of this world-famous celebration of the form. Few people can have single-handedly written so much on one event, but Steph is a veracious documentarian, and Dean Lewis’ artwork (continuously integral to what the Review is) for our coverage all came together in a swirl of magic and colour. I have often wondered if the story of Wales Arts Review wouldn’t make a decent opera. We have the writer and designer all ready to go in-house if it was to happen.
We formed a very encouraging partnership with the Association of Welsh Writing in English, and published a series of the academic papers presented at their annual conference, a series we dubbed The Gregynog Papers.
Our Green Man coverage this year, where four of our writers (including me) produced a rolling blog of the festival, was a marvellous opportunity for the team to test itself, and also for us to try and capture something of the vibe of what I think is the best festival around. It was very much an experiment, seeing what we could produce on a snit of a budget, all very DIY and punky, which is how much of Wales Arts Review gets done – but this was a massive commitment, one that could have blown up in our faces. We learned a great deal, and some things didn’t work, but the reader responses were overwhelmingly positive, and it bodes well as a tester for things we might want to do come festival season next year.
Our fiction editor John Lavin was a guest at the Cork International Short Story Festival, and reported back on all of the delights of this brilliant celebration of the form. John even managed to convince Colin Barrett to come to Wales and discuss his debut collection, Young Skins, at our Roundtable event, just a few weeks before he was to pick up the Guardian First Book Award for that very collection.
We were at Hay, of course, the largest arts and literary festival in the world, and the highlights were many, but most notable was the singling out of Fflur Dafydd as a beacon and future icon of the Welsh literati.
We were in America in two separate guises this year also. Matthew Mathias wrote a fascinating article on the Welsh abroad from the Rugby Sevens tournament in Las Vegas, and we continued our fond relationship with the Tennessee Williams Festival in New Orleans, fostered by regular contributor and guest editor Cerith Mathias, reporting from the highlights of this year’s jamboree, as well as celebrating and collaborating with Deep South Magazine on a Welsh appreciation of the Southern Literary tradition. Putting that edition together was an enormous amount of fun.
Special editions are something we put a huge amount of work into, but they are also very rewarding, and I’m sure 2015 will see a few more of our fortnightly editions take this form. They often come about after a conversation between editors, and we identify something that needs focus. Our Cutbacks Special was such an occasion, looking at not just the potential impact of Welsh cuts to the arts, but the mentality of it, the wider meaning, what such moves say about Wales and the Welsh. There was a stack of superb essays and reflections on the subject, led by an article about the threat to Welsh theatre by the great Peter Stead. Steph Power’s essay on the importance of the life of an arts venue to a civilised society should also be compulsory reading for any grey suit with hands on purse strings. Nobody else published such a focussed and thoughtful work on the subject – not here and not in any other part of the UK.
And if that Special was composed with furrowed brows, others were more fun-loving.
We published our first, and long overdue, Young Person’s Special, dedicated to the creativity and energies of children and Young Adults (as the marketing bourgeoisie now terms them). We celebrated our second birthday with a look back over the best work we have been honoured to publish in our short life, with our Anniversary Special. We published our second annual Summer Fiction Issue, bringing out a jam-packed edition of brand new stories for the holiday season from Wales’ top writers. We were all over the Scottish referendum, not only having live blogs from Edinburgh as the voting took place, but we published a long series of extremely engaging love letters to our celtic cousins in ‘Dear Scotland…’. (It’s such a shame they made the wrong choice in the end). We had a great deal of fun with our Halloween Special, we published a pile of exclusive new spooky stories from some of Wales’ finest fiction writers, and produced our first podcast, on the subject of horror films. John Lavin and Jon Gower came together, collaborating with Caught by the River, to edit our Nature Writing Special, filled with wondrous writing on the subject of the Welsh landscape. That special in particular has received many plaudits from readers and writers alike. And, of course, we gave the omnipresent Dylan Thomas some attention when his birthday came up in October, an edition that I think could only have served to refrain from overkill because of the quality of the writing.
One aspect of the Review I think we have really worked hard to knock out of the park this year has been our big interviews. I have always cited The Paris Review as our model, but the thing is, to emulate that model you need the subjects to be of a certain calibre too, and this year we have really attracted some of the most talented, interesting and engaging artists in Wales.
Amongst our longform lead interviews in 2014 we talked to film director Kieran Evans, the very same weekend he picked up his BAFTA for Best Debut for a British Director for Kelly + Victor; we had a long and far-reaching conversation with former Welsh Secretary Peter Hain on the publication of his book about his parents’ anti-Apartheid activism in 1960s South Africa; I had a really good chat with new Poetry Wales editor Nia Davies in the Spring, about what to expect from her vision for the reputable publication and the state of modern poetry; we spoke to Gruff Rhys, fast becoming an icon and a bit of a renaissance man of Welsh arts and letters, on the release of his album-book-movie-app American Interior; we hit the Hollywood A-list when we spoke to the legendary Diane Ladd about her life and career during the Tennessee Williams Festival coverage; one of my highlights of the year, published anywhere, was our interview with award-winning writer John Harrison – a more fascinating man you could not hope to find yourself in the company of, and this interview brought that across in abundance; I was also extremely proud that it was Wales Arts Review who, I think, have published the best interview Rachel Trezise has ever given – she speaks frankly and at length about her craft and her career to John Lavin; we got the lowdown on hit Welsh noir cop thriller, Y Gwyll/ Hinterland, when we spoke to playwright and co-creator Ed Thomas; and, perhaps my own personal highlight, and leading this final issue of the year, is our interview with the wonderful and generous Sarah Waters, ahead of her first theatrical outing, The Frozen Scream, coming to Cardiff this December.
It’s perhaps worth noting here that Wales Arts Review has published 24 full issues in 2014 and 3 special editions besides. Not a single issue has contained fewer than 20 articles, made up of longform essays, reviews and interviews. We have published more reviews than I could possibly mention, and to mention a few favourites would be an injustice to all the hard work that has gone into the others. We have a remarkable stable of writers, with sharp minds to match their sharp pens. And the Review would be nothing without their passion and voice. Do take a moment to look through some here.
Every year, of course, sees the passing of people we hold dear, and Wales Arts Review is no different to any other collective in that. From the very sad passing of Nigel Jenkins at the start of the year, to the loss of Dannie Abse toward its end, we gave over space to heartfelt and fitting tributes to many important figures, all of whom are now being greatly missed.
But one person we did not pay tribute to in print at the time was one of our readers. Peter Gabe, who died suddenly, just 65 years of age, was a friend and a purist; he had no pretensions of being anything other than a ‘consumer of art’, an enjoyer of engaged thinking and stimulating debate. Pete was a civil servant, always in a suit and tie; he left no wife or children but a beloved family (including his nephew, a professional jazz drummer of whom he always spoke with such pride) and many friends. His passion for literature (he read widely, but I think he had devoured every Scandinavian detective book ever written), and for music, especially jazz, meant that he left me with an anthology of valued conversations in the Murenger House pub in Newport where we almost always crossed paths. (It’s not often you meet someone with whom you can talk for hours about the photographs of Herman Leonard, or the solo style of Sonny Stitt, and when you do, you must keep hold of them).
But for the purpose of this retrospective, I bring him up not because I miss those conversations, which I do – more often than I ever could have thought I would – but because Pete was an avid reader of Wales Arts Review. He always wanted to discuss it, something he had read in it recently, or something he wanted us to do. Pete was a gentleman, a classy example of someone who took things on their merit. We were friends because we had a laugh, and shared common interests, but he liked the Review because it was something he disagreed with as often as he approved. We were part of the debate, part of the conversation. And so, now, when I’m sitting in a meeting and somebody asks me a question along the lines of ‘What is your target demographic?’ or ‘Who is your typical reader?’ I think… well… it’s Pete. It is Pete and it was Pete and there was nobody like him just like there is nobody like any of our other readers. Pete was not a demographic. He was my friend, yes; but he was a Wales Arts Review reader, and since his passing I’ve felt like we are depleted, we are a man down. One of many heartening responses to our crowdfunder campaign, was an email from a reader (and well-known writer, although we have never had occasion to speak to each other before), who said to me that the success of the crowdfunder, seeing all those people give to the Review, was letting our legions of readers know that they are not alone, making them ‘concretely aware of how Wales Arts Review is appreciated by a wide network of readers’. I had not thought of it like that before. And when I think of our readers, I think of Pete and I think of that email. You are not a demographic, and we are not targeting you. We’re just doing what we think we should be doing, writing and publishing what think is of value, to the best of our ability. I hope 2015 will allow us to do more of it. We have big plans, I assure you. Pete would have been very excited indeed.
original illustration by Dean Lewis