Editor and co-founder Gary Raymond reflects on the first ten years of Wales Arts Review, from its humble beginnings to its current status as “furniture of the country’s cultural life”. “Some Dark Philosophers” is an edited version of the foreword to the upcoming Wales Arts Review anthology, Home To You, which celebrates our ten year anniversary.
What does it mean to be editor of something like Wales Arts Review for ten years? For its first ten years? You may as well ask what is it like to live a life, with all its ups and downs, its stresses and joys, the minutiae that conglomerates to create some grand meaning? How do you reflect on a publication that has put out five thousand pieces – articles, reviews, interviews, features, news etc etc etc? How can you look back across all that and be of one view on what Wales Arts Review has achieved? It’s not even all that easy to say what it is we have become? We began as an online magazine, a journal, but those labels seem less and less relevant as the years have passed. “Media hub” sounds too Nathan Barley. “Platform” has always sat uneasily with me. It suggests a level of editorial distance I don’t recognise. How have I come to think of it? Wales Arts Review is a living, breathing document of the art and culture of a country.
But we certainly began as a magazine, at least in the minds of us who founded it. And we began delivering our content in a weekly, and then fortnightly, newsletter (the newsletter that still exists today, back as a weekly), as if (I used to be fond of saying) it was being pushed through your letterbox every Saturday morning. And our inspirations were magazines and journals. A bit of the Guardian’s G2 here, a sprinkle of the Paris Review there. We had no hesitation in talking and writing about our lofty ambitions. Pretensions. We didn’t know any better. If we did, we might not have tried any of it. I’m proud of the ideological origins of Wales Arts Review, the shameless embracing of the highbrow, the revelling in the lowbrow. Wales Arts Review has been a journal of many brows.
I’m sure we put some noses out of joint in the early days. I know we did. I’m sure we still do. Back then we must have looked like upstarts. There was much good will for us out there, but also plenty looking forward to the day we fell flat on our faces. Exactly where a thing like Wales Arts Review should be, in that fault line, feeding off the tensions, looked at with a mixture of affection, admiration, suspicion, scorn, and plenty of other feelings along the spectrum. We ruffled feathers and we championed some of the unheard. As Michael Sheen has said of our first decade, “Wales Arts Review has challenged, provoked, encouraged, enraged and inspired the arts in Wales.” Enraged, no doubt. Sorry about all that. But I believe unequivocally that we have never published a word that was not honest, even when we’ve been wrong. Just as it should be. We’ve been true to ourselves, and true to our roots, and true to the ideas of what a review should do when they first emerged in the eighteenth century.
We started as outsiders, rabble rousers from the town the rest of Wales, nevermind the keyholders of the middle classes who dominate(d) the creative industries in Wales, would have preferred to see slip off into the Severn Estuary and out to sea. But Newport breeds sterner folk. For the last seven of our ten years, Wales Arts Review has existed on the sustenance supplied by the Books Council of Wales’s revenue funding, and regular injections of project funding by the Arts Council as and when we’ve made a convincing case that we needed it. The monies we have drawn down from those purses over the years I believe is testament to the essential value of what we have produced, because we certainly haven’t been going around making friends or giving out massages or bags of sweets. We have worked hard for the funding that has meant we have been able to do our work. But the dominating narrative for Wales Arts Review, even when given the oxygen of funding, has been that the work has demanded we go way beyond what the money available would have otherwise produced. Writers have rarely been remunerated to the tune of their true value, and editors have regularly given at least double the volume of blood, sweat, and tears than that which they are contractually obliged to do. I’m not complaining. This is by way of highlighting what an extraordinary achievement Wales Arts Review is. The enthusiasm for it, the collaborations and contributions, over the years, tell a double-edged story; one of a nation desperate for thoughtful and thorough coverage and discussion around its art and culture, and simultaneously of a country uninterested in funding it properly.
What most people probably don’t understand, or remember, is that Wales Arts Review was and is a working-class venture. Perhaps the intellectual ambitions of the Review have clouded that in the minds of people who think publishing the things we have written about cannot be a working-class preoccupation. Art, literature, music, theatre, film, opera, sculpture, dance. One thing we have never given a shit about is who this stuff is supposed to be for. We have written about it all, and I hope for the most part, we have done so with wit and compassion, and with an understanding that our readers could and should include the people we were as kids – curious passionate working-class oiks with dreams of being writers. “Libraries Give Us Power” was an early part of our mission statement, a mantra almost, and it’s why we have always been free of a paywall, partially publicly subsidised, available to anyone with access to the internet. We should not forget that Wales has a powerful story when it comes to working class intellectualism. To doubt that claim of Wales Arts Review’s character is to misunderstand just how Welsh the Review is. I have frequently questioned whether we could have done this anywhere else, in any other country. I doubt it.
And it’s easy to forget what a success Wales Arts Review is. The very fact it is easy to forget is testament in itself. We are part of the furniture nowadays. But let’s just quantify it. In our ninth year, we were read in two hundred countries around the world. Two hundred countries engaging on some level or other with the art and culture of Wales. The theatre, the literature, the cinema, the television, the politics, the music, the sculpture, the painting, the thoughts and ideas of our little country, a place constantly vying for some shards of the international spotlight that being part of the UK should, but doesn’t, promise. I regard that as a success. I’m not sure how to measure anything else. But I know good writing when I see it, and Wales Arts Review is packed with good writing. I regard that as a success. I feel Wales Arts Review is a force for good, that we have high standards, and those standards mean that the ideas expressed within our pages boast a country of mature, intelligent, and entertaining thinkers. The Review’s foundation is the idea that critical writing is an artform, and that it’s worth reading for its own sake, regardless of what the subject matter is. A quarter of a million readers seem to agree. I regard that as a success.
Every venture needs a core ambition. What was ours and has it changed? I have to admit that the core ambitions of Wales Arts Review, from the moment it was conceived, were not the same ones we still talk about in-house. Wales Arts Review exists to give excellent writers the opportunity to cast a spotlight on the cultures of Wales, and that spotlight is available to the world for free. But that tenet came perhaps hours after the original idea for the Review was conceived. I remember the moment well. The entire concept decided on at half time during a Liverpool-Chelsea League Cup game watched at the Halfway pub on Cathedral Road in Cardiff. We wanted to create a publication that bypassed the prohibitive costs of running a print magazine (Dylan Moore and I had edited and published The Raconteur for a few years before this) and cast out the spectre of our experiences of Wales’ dire magazine distribution mechanisms of the time. Amazing to think Welsh cultural life had next to no presence on the internet in 2012 (there were notable, siloed, exceptions), but when we identified this as a niche in the market… well, I don’t want to use the word radical, but…
The reason we wanted to be in publishing in the first place? We wanted a place to write. Wales Arts Review was about bringing the conversations of the pub, conversations about art and books and music and movies, to a place in where anybody could pop their head. We felt very keenly that the world of periodicals in Wales was a closed shop to us. Perhaps it was because we weren’t in the right clique, perhaps it was because we were from Newport, perhaps it was because we were crap. All of these were very possible and articulated to us by a variety of people at various points. So, we decided the only way to do what it was we wanted to do was to do it ourselves. And if we were crap, the best way to improve was to give ourselves the space in which to grow as writers, and to do so out there in the public eye where we could fall and rise in real time. Nobody else was going to do this for us. What underpinned the impetus of Wales Arts Review was the idea that in Wales, if you want to see anything done, you need to do it yourself. (I don’t think much has changed).
In 2014, Wales Arts Review held a live event at the Riverfront in Newport to celebrate what we were and where we wanted to go. I gave a short speech, a bit of agitprop theatre, in which I said just this. (Not sure who I thought I was trying to be, but there was a lot of piss n vinegar in it). If you want to get anything done in Wales, you’ll have to do it yourself, and do it in spite of the moneymen and the politicians. There were a few of the literary old guard there that evening, and I think they appreciated the echoing of their own youthful calls to arms of a different era. Afterwards, at the bar, a Tory councillor came up and had a go at me, frothing at the mouth, indignant at my lack of respect as she listed off all the impressive things she’d done for her wealthy Caerleon constituents. She didn’t offer us any money though.
Within a fortnight of that Liverpool-Chelsea game, the conversation had broadened, and two became six, the six holding note pads and vague ideas of what our roles would be in a new magazine. We gathered at Dylan Moore’s flat (again in Cardiff). The night the thing was really born. But apart from those two foundational happenings, Wales Arts Review was for years a Newport endeavour; more accurately, we convened in the Murenger House, often at the top end of the bar on a Friday teatime where the editorial team would drink beer and hatch plans and allow the organic stuff to happen, the stuff that might be called strategy in another setting. Observers began to call the Murenger our office. If you had an idea, or a pitch, or a complaint, you could bring it to the bar. If you know the pub, you’ll know the vibe, the ethos, you’ll know of it as a watering hole, you’ll know of its Dark Philosophers. It wasn’t anything so staid and formal as an office. It was our forum.
For the first few years, Wales Arts Review operated with a budget of zero pounds and zero pence. We had a choice to either exist in the world as it was or not exist at all, lamenting the world for not being as we would have liked. It couldn’t have prospered and made its mark without the borderline obsessive focus of the people who wrote and edited for the Review in those early years. Some brilliant, established figures encouraged us and wrote for us. But it boggles the mind now that so many worked so hard to ensure Wales Arts Review existed at all. And we did it for years. I remember well, our original design editor, Dean Lewis, an ex-welder with an animation degree, pulling an all-nighter to build our website using little more than his considerable intuitive talent and the manual that came with the software. I believe it was ready by dawn, a few hours before we’d announced we were going to launch. All those people excitedly waiting to see us fall flat on our faces over the years have no idea how close they have come to seeing it happen on day minus one.
Dean was perhaps the most obsessive perfectionist among us, but it’s really a story of brilliant people doing whatever it takes to get things done. I am nervous of listing names, in the likelihood I miss one out, but it wouldn’t be right to not mention the major contributors to Wales Arts Review over the years, the names that have appeared on the masthead at some point or another. The Review would not be what it is, and would not sit where it now sits, without every one of them. Ben Glover, Steph Power, Phil Morris, Dean Lewis, John Lavin, Emma Schofield, Cerith Mathias, Craig Austin, Durre Shahwar, Dylan Moore, Jafar Iqbal and the hundreds of writers who have written for us. In the last two years, a new breed of editors has helped push us up to the current heights and it’s important too that I put the names of Caragh Medlicott, Bethan Hall, Rosie Couch and Josie Cray, and Holly McElroy in this list of thanks. The talent that has moved through the virtual doors of the virtual office is significant not just because of what it has meant to the Review, but because many of these figures have gone on to shape various areas of Welsh cultural life in their own way. Many have gone on to work elsewhere, Moore and Lavin work as editors now at other publications, Steph Power has served as Chair of Tÿ Cerdd, Craig Austin serves on the board of Literature Wales, Cerith Mathias was a founding director of the Cardiff Book Festival, the Pontypridd children’s book festival, and is a bookshop owner; there are so many others examples of how Wales Arts Review is enduring through its alumni in many areas of cultural life in Wales. Each of those I’ve named have numerous other accomplishments to their names, and many other people besides have done things just as impressive. It’s testament to the Review’s influence and draw that there is too much to mention even in an attempt to scratch the surface of what we’ve all done.
Perhaps it’s both a strength and a weakness of the Review that our continual poor financial state means we have a high turnover of personnel. It means we are agile, always fresh in the perspectives we publish, but it also means everything, always, is like pushing a boulder up a steep hill. We stood ten years ago to argue for the professionalisation of arts writing in Wales, and we stand in no different spot today. There is a disconnect in the way Wales talks about itself, and the way it literally values the things it’s talking about. With our commitment to the cause, we have compelled those who allocate the public funds to give us money, but it was always far short of what we needed. My god, what we could be achieving now for the arts and culture of Wales with proper funding to value the enormous talent we have in our ranks and at hand in our contacts list.
Most of those good people I name above moved on as time went by. I wouldn’t like to say it was uniformly to do with money, but energy levels get strained, work becomes work and should be valued correctly; and, importantly, other opportunities begin to come up because of the profile the Review’s success gave us. By the time my good friend Phil Morris, who was the Review’s managing editor from 2012 to 2016 (and who very sadly left us in December 2021), guided the Review through its first block of core funding from the Books Council of Wales, the backbone of the Review’s team needed recognition, appreciation for the work we had done. For all of Phil’s hard work, we were not given what we needed. It was the Review’s first and only existential crisis moment. The team, that founding body who had given so much, was about to walk. I wrote an open letter, saying something absurdly dramatic that I undoubtedly believed, something like “the decision to underfund us was a decision to close us down”, and I published it on our website late on the Friday afternoon, knowing we would have control of the narrative and the public temperature on this over a weekend when the offices of the Books Council would be closed. Upstarts indeed. Maybe so, but I have to be honest: writing about that still makes me angry, still makes me resentful, that Wales Arts Review has never been properly funded by the organisations who have the power and the money to do so. I don’t regret writing that open letter. Not all of the Wales Arts Review team agreed with the decision to go with this way, and that’s important to note. But it worked. I had a phone call from the Chair of the Arts Council of Wales asking us what we needed, short of a U-turn from the Books Council, to continue operating. Phil and I decided the best course of action was to ask for the funds to build a new website that would incorporate space for advertising, and so we could show our editorial team that we had commercial ambitions, and also that “the establishment” did have faith in us, even if the independent panel who handed out funding grants at the Books Council didn’t have enough of it.
The public funding model of Wales Arts Review was never a crutch, it was never supposed to be the easy option, filling out applications rather than testing our mettle in the commercial marketplace. It is, rather, a central building block of the Review’s mission statement; that conversations and great writing about art and culture should be accessible to anybody, anywhere in the world, regardless of their economic background. The democratising power of the internet must not be eroded in favour of isolating these discussions behind paywalls or subscription models. We believed Wales could be the envy of the rest of the world having something like Wales Arts Review there to shine an entertaining critical light on the creative cultural movements of the country, funded by the public purse, in the spirit of the working-class miners’ libraries that educated so many generations. And when I have been in India or Japan or America or wherever, and I introduce the Review to people I meet there, we are envied for precisely this model. The public funding of Wales Arts Review has enabled us to be read in every country in the world at some point in our history (hats off to whoever was reading us in the icy wildernesses of Greenland in 2016), and, keeping in mind the (ever-decreasing) hurdles of internet connectivity, by people of all backgrounds.
Money has always been a hot topic of conversation throughout the Review, and if I seem to be banging on about it here a little too long, it’s only because of how important the subject has been to the life of Wales Arts Review. It’s frustrating that Wales Arts Review has operated on a semi-professional level for so long, and before that as an amateur venture. But we should be open about that, because pretending otherwise is to give the systems of cultural motion in Wales a stature it does not yet deserve. That the Review is not in receipt of all the money we need is a damning indictment of how Wales views and values its culture. But, of course, I would think that, wouldn’t I?
Which brings us to the question of value. What has Wales Arts Review been worth in its first ten years? It’s difficult to be Welsh and immodest, but I’ll give it a go. A cursory glance at what the Review has done will see writers who have come through our ranks, the other publications that have risen in our wake, the culture of debate in Wales that was once the purview of academic elites talking to one another in periodicals with tiny circulations and is now an open and vibrant public forum… you won’t convince me we did not play a part in these developments. Yes, they may have happened anyway – we didn’t invent the internet, we didn’t invent social media, we didn’t invent the issues. But they didn’t happen without us. They happened in this version of reality where Wales Arts Review blazed the trails and kicked open doors.
There is too much to list if we’re talking about the items we have published, the relationships we have forged, that have made me proud of the work we do. But when I think back over ten years I think of our scope and our reach and our depth. James Lloyd’s Gezi Park protest features were an early example of our international ambitions. Our dedication to the literature of Wales has been important to me personally. We have sponsored the People’s Choice Award at the Wales Book of the Year Awards for six years now. Our feature of twenty-four essays searching for the Greatest Welsh Novel did exactly what I hoped it would do; that is, not anoint a winner, but open a public conversation about the richness, excellence, and wonders of Welsh fiction. Our partnerships around Wales have been vital to our sense of worth, from the Wicked Film Festival in Rhyl which works to give access to the film industry to kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, to our relationship with Welsh Women’s Aid. More recently, during Covid, we worked to raise money for artists who were facing financial hardship due to lockdown with our Digithon festival, and we raised close to seven grand, handing out sixteen essential hardship bursaries. Not long after we worked with Holly McElroy, who had come through an internship with us via Cardiff University, to set up our Environment section where we could publish work directly related to the climate crisis. Sometimes it feels like barely a week goes by when we haven’t had the opportunity to work on something exciting. At the end of 2021, we decided to publish a list of the hundred greatest albums ever to come out of Wales, with a similar goal of being less interested in crowning a number one album, but more with giving those hundreds of thousands of people around the world who read us some Welsh music they might have previously not known about. And then we come to the increasingly turbulent year of 2022, to our publication of poet Alexei Porvin, bravely protesting Putin’s actions in our pages, and the stunning responses to my call out to Welsh writers for mini essays on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Wales Arts Review never ceases to make me proud.
The real value of Wales Arts Review has always been in the editorial team’s dedication to good writing. This may seem idealistic, in an age of fast eyes and dopamine hits, but what has evolved over the decade is an ideology that has become a successful business model. At the outset, when selling the idea of the Review, talking on panels and going to pitch meetings, I was forever prattling on about how our philosophy put the quality of the writing way up here as a priority, and everything else, whatever was number two on that list, as way down here. What that means now is that our archive is a rich and hardworking area of revenue for us. Quality is our business model, even if back when I (at least) was a naïve kid, all that piss n vinegar, pissing off local councillors, just trying to walk like Ben Bradlee and write like Gore Vidal. But we all knew somehow – I knew – that this wasn’t worth doing if it was for any other reason than publishing good writing. Not for chasing hits, likes, retweets, not for luring celebrity endorsements or glitzy invites to red carpet events. It had to be about good writing. Way up here.
And so, in 2021, when we decided to end our presence on Facebook after the U.S. Congress compared their operational business strategy to that of Big Tobacco (i.e. getting children addicted to their product), it was not an existential question for our business like it might be for so many other organisations our size. The reason being, Wales Arts Review is not dependent on social media for its traffic. Our “naïve ideals” in 2012, of prioritising good writing way above any other consideration, was a business plan by 2021 that meant the Review was not built on the shifting sands of social media morality but was founded on the age-old semi-ruins of a belief in good stuff serving us well. Amidst all that precarity, and my cynical belief that we could be closed down at any moment, we were building a business that had longevity as one of its columns. Every day that Wales Arts Review survives, it’s been getting stronger.
That’s not to say we’ve always known what we’re doing, and I have spent ten years learning on the job. I have had good friends and advisers. And we have Ben Glover, too, who has been managing editor since 2016. Ben is the unsung hero of Wales Arts Review; he is its backbone, its steady hand, and the quiet visionary away from the spotlight. Without his ideas, and his implementation of those ideas, the business model and the infrastructure of Wales Arts Review would be fragile and even more financially asthmatic. And aside from that, Ben is the perfect foil for me as editor because he’s a dear friend, has an excellent intuitive mind for expansionist ideas, and he works bloody hard to make sure the Review keeps going, keeps growing, keeps improving.
But this has largely been instinct, and it is sheer luck I seem to have decent instincts. They are writers’ instincts first and foremost, but they have strengthened into those of an editor, I think. An example. In 2018, a new BBC Wales drama was on the horizon. A friend of mine, an arts journalist and editor in London, had recently advised that the Review needed to do more writing on television. My editorial instinct told me that there simply wasn’t much to write about when it came to Welsh TV, and we did a bit anyway. But I watched the first episode of this new drama and the whole while I was watching it, I couldn’t shake the feeling the title made no sense to me. I was wrestling with what exactly the title was trying to get across. This spurred me on to write a short piece about it. Most of the review was dedicated to this question. I knew at the time it was flippant (I hoped it was witty), but it was TV and that wasn’t what our readers were really coming to us for. The programme was Keeping Faith, and it soon became the most watched drama in the history of BBC iPlayer. Fifty thousand people read that review and I’ve regretted the flippant tone of it ever since. But my writerly instincts informed my editorial instincts on that occasion. We now write about TV regularly, and our reviews of Welsh language drama in particular frequently rate in our most read pages of any given month.
That’s just a small insight into how organic the life of Wales Arts Review has been. Following instincts, having fun, not taking ourselves too seriously while at the same time taking the central tenets of our responsibilities as a critical journal very seriously indeed.
What it comes down to is this: did anyone, at any point, think Wales Arts Review would last ten years? Definitely not. For my part, I always felt (and still do) that next week could be our last. I always feel like someone is waiting to pull the plug, eager to call time on this uppity Newport project. We’re not the right type of Welsh, not Welsh enough, not Welsh language enough, not pro-Welsh independence enough, not Welsh Labour enough, not Team Wales enough. As an editor of a thing like Wales Arts Review, you’re always made to feel you’re not enough of something or other. But I believe in the pages of Wales Arts Review you will find the definition of the country. It’s better than any political movement or nationalistic prevailing wind. National identity is complex, and Wales Arts Review continues to compile it. The living, breathing document. Probably my belief in our precarity is no longer founded (although, I still need the “probably”), and it’s just a hangover from the days of our youth when every day felt like your last. But reaching a milestone like ten years gives you pause, and in a moment of stillness, we might be allowed to think of what the next ten years could look like. What can the Review achieve, where will it go, and what will the editor’s essay look like on our twentieth anniversary, and who will write it?
I was thirty-two when we decided to start Wales Arts Review. I was living above a charity shop storage room in Newport and signing on the dole. Since then, I’ve written five books, written three radio documentaries, I have my own BBC Radio show, got married and had a kid, and have been around the world working on various projects, from Tokyo to Mumbai, and the whole time Wales Arts Review has been the central reservation – the meridian strip, if you like – of all I have done and tried to do. Wales Arts Review has given me everything I haven’t had to take for myself. Its first ten years has proved what can be achieved with little money and a lot of drive, and I hope in the next ten years the Review will finally get the full support that it needs and deserves, and future editors will take it to an even higher plane.
Back when it became apparent Wales Arts Review had a readership, and that that readership was growing, something began to be heard when we all managed to get together and sit across a pub table from one another. It made me realise we did after all seem to know what success would look like, how we could measure it. We began to talk about the Review as if it was its own entity, an independent body; not the collective energy output of us mad starters, but something that would live beyond us. Maybe at the time it was fanciful. Say it enough times and it might just come true. But now it is true. And I for one look forward to watching the future of Wales Arts Review.
“Some Dark Philosophers” is an edited version of the foreword to the upcoming Wales Arts Review anthology, Home To You, which celebrates our ten year anniversary.
Ten Years of Wales Arts Review Ten Years of Wales Arts Review Ten Years of Wales Arts Review Ten Years of Wales Arts Review Ten Years of Wales Arts Review Ten Years of Wales Arts Review Ten Years of Wales Arts Review Ten Years of Wales Arts Review Ten Years of Wales Arts Review