The critic waited.
The critic waited and waited and waited, and then there came a tweet, a thread, and then there were three stars in the Telegraph and maybe something in the Guardian. A Tory politician aired his concerns about money wasted and lack of oversight (it matters to them when it’s the beans of art and culture). And then… the critic waited. Three million quid, he heard from one reliable source. And that was it. Galwad was over, and there was a tweet, a thread, three stars in the Telegraph and maybe something in the Guardian. Galwad was over.
Galwad, if you are one of those who didn’t get to see it, or, even more likely, if you’re one of those who’ve never heard of it, was the Welsh iteration of the UK-wide Unboxed festival, originally called something like the Glorious Festival of Great Britain Festival, and before that Definitely Not the Festival of Brexit Festival. A brief synopsis of this Wales-wide, Sky Arts-platformed, multimedia tale for our times would include time-travel, climate change, race-relations, bilingualism, some writing, some acting, and a largely incomprehensible timeline spread across so many spaces it was close to impossible to keep up with what was happening when. The week-long roll out of “content” was so discombobulating you could be forgiven for thinking it was done on purpose to throw people off the trail. How can you review something if you can’t figure out how to watch it, right? If you did manage to keep up with it, you’re a better person than I, but then, I didn’t try that hard, and as far as I can ascertain, neither did anyone else. People I know who sit at the very highest tables in the land had no idea it was on, even if they knew what it was, and had no idea how to engage with it comprehensively if they did. All for the best, I understand. What I saw amounted to scripts that would have been obliterated in the most basic of workshop scenarios. What I saw were actors doing their best with dialogue not fit for the cutting room floor of a CBeebies pilot. What I saw included some yoofs sitting around a dystopian campfire in the year 2052 saying things like “Turns out climate change was bad after all…”, “Yeah, if only humans had listened, maaaaan.” What I saw was embarrassing. But out there… amidst the grumbling gears of the medialand that never sleeps… silence.
In private, I have heard the social media feed likened to a GCSE project; I have heard the acting compared to a cheap student-made music video, and the writing… well, I didn’t need anyone to tell me how bad the writing was. But the most damning part of this catastrophe is not so much that a lot of people got paid a great deal of money to make something so dreadful, but that almost nobody in Wales has said anything about it publicly. Instead, cloistered corners of Wales’s cultural moneypit are patting themselves on the back over this artistic Bog of Eternal Stench they put up. The creators of Galwad haven’t even had the common decency to respect the silence they inspired and slip off gently into that good night. No; they are apparently pretending they hit it out the park. The “Team Wales” mentality has incubated a proud history of shouting that the Emperor’s hairy arse is actually a bespoke and expensive pair of leather britches. Well, the Emperor, I’m afraid, has been stripped to the bone on this one.
There used to be a phrase that was whispered from behind cuffs in the earliest days of Wales Arts Review, a phrase that caught what we thought the Review was forming to fight against, one that was introduced to us by members of the old(er) guard, and that was “praise criticism”. Although “praise criticism” was far from a Welsh phenomenon, it is perhaps particularly damaging for a place as small as Wales. Praise criticism, I think, although still existing in areas where writers feel to criticise a Welsh thing is to undermine the nationhood project (or damage their future career prospects), is now a minority sport. Critics are more honest, and for the right reasons. But what has emerged in its place is the criticism of the deafening silence. If it’s bad, say nothing’s best.
It is an old joke that everyone in Wales knows each other. But it is an old joke with truth in it. Families that go back generations spread out like snow angels and hands touch and fingers lock, and eventually, in Cardiff, you can be present, as I was recently, as a Jones and an Evans realise their mothers are cousins and from the same part of the Neath valley. As a support network this can be invaluable, but it can prove deadly for robust, honest debate about work and cultural achievements. And so, what is “good” and what is not is often very difficult to discern. This is not because “good” rests on the honest appraisal of the masses – the majority opinion can be just as wrong as the single voice in the wilderness – but rather because when something is bad and nobody will admit it, what you end up with is a country of people who have no idea what “good” is, even when the rest of the world is looking in and laughing at us. It is a lack of honest cultural criticism that makes Wales seem parochial.
The longstanding problem of the Welsh critical landscape has been one of timidity dressed as seriousness. As Malcolm Ballin puts it in his excellent study Welsh Periodicals in English 1882-2012 (UWP, 2013), “The magazines have sometimes seemed to avoid controversy and reviewing has often appeared bland. There have been few successful ventures into humour or satire; seriousness, sometimes verging on solemnity, has been the preferred mode of address.” It seems in Wales, for a hundred years or more, the literati and academic intellectual classes recognised the allure of Thomas Carlyle’s statement that the “man of letters” is “our most important modern person” and realised that at least the pretence of this kind of public seriousness might elevate the national project. But pretence, it turned out, has not been enough, and honest, mature debate about the arts and culture of Wales has rarely been platformed with true rigour and depth. The art of criticism is in a very different place than it was even twenty-five years ago, never mind a hundred and fifty when Carlyle made his statement; and although in Wales some view critics as the volunteer arm of their marketing department (which, extended to the wider scope, means propaganda), its stock has gone up here too.
In my experience, the cultural organisations of Wales, and the people who populate their offices, are at odds with the artists they serve in that they have paid lip service to the importance of a strong critical sector without ever working to ensure any such bastion can exist, never mind thrive. One reason why Wales Arts Review did not review Galwad was that we did not have the budget to pay someone to dedicate their week to it. And so a £3 million art project goes off with a whimper and without any essayed critical response. Most artists, however, even the most insecure and thin-skinned, appreciate the need for criticism as a first point in the forming of vibrant public debate. A published critical response by a trusted and honest critic should be the marker around which the fiery conversations and arguments of the pubs and coffee dens can find their tensions and validations. The establishments of Wales have always failed to take this self-evident fact seriously enough.
Lisa Sheppard, in her essay on the historical health of publishing in Wales in The Cambridge History of Welsh Literature (CUP, 2019) recognises in the creation of these tensions and validations what could amount to a brisling counter-culture. She argues that “modern authors, poets, and critics have had to challenge various conventions, practices, and agendas… in order to make ‘room’ for certain bodies of literature, new styles of writing, and approaches to criticism, as well as a particular means of national cultural expression.” But, as usual, in Wales there is a rebuttal, the pressurised consequence of the liberty of impoverishment: “ironically, while sponsorship has helped carve out this space, the vital support such funding provides has at times been under threat, and Welsh literature, its authors and institutions, has faced pressure to demonstrate the relevance and viability of its work.” But the real irony is that to argue against this transactional phenomenon, the idea that literature must fulfil political criteria in order to be funded, a free and vibrant critical culture must already exist.
But away from abstract notions and utopian ideals for the elitist discussion boards of the intellectual classes, publicly funded praise criticism has been an age-old problem in the modern Wales, and as it stands, if it stands at all, it stands for a microcosm of the experiment of Welsh nationhood and why it is doomed to failure as tested by its current interlocutors. Protecting ideas from honest and rigorous debate makes for weak ideas and perpetuates the prominence of the boldest bullshitters rather than the people who can solve problems. The “Team Wales” mentality makes for defensive, isolating nationalism rather than an impressive cultural portfolio that could work to embolden the Welsh Independence movement. A strong and vibrant critical culture in the arts is an obvious place to start ensuring a culture has the foundational conversations to be the best it can be. Otherwise, it’s just free marketing and propaganda.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, and broadcaster.
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