It’s that time of year again, and Wales Arts Reviews‘ writers have been choosing their cultural highlight of the year. The brief was simple; it had to be something that happened in 2014 and it had to be something that left a mark on that writer’s psyche. In three parts, we see impassioned writing on a diverse range of subjects, and also see the emergence of a striking cultural map of 2014. In Part Two, we see tributes to NTW’s Mametz, Made in Roath and Sarah Waters.
As far as I’m concerned, the knack of the greatest art is to enable you to experience, or feel that you’ve experienced, something beyond that which you know. Two novelists did just that to me at opposite ends of the year. Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing dispensed with traditional syntax to drop you right inside the consciousness of the unnamed narrator. It wasn’t a pleasant experience but I’m still thinking about it nearly a year after reading it.
In The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters forces you to go through a radical shift of focus and form after about three hundred beautifully-written pages in which she realises a post-war period you think you know well. I found it extremely difficult to adjust and nearly gave up, regretting the loss of the book I thought I was reading. I’m glad I went back to it for the second part of the novel (or third depending on where you draw the line) which I read, heart-in-mouth.
I expected National Theatre Wales’ Mametz to be impressive, but I didn’t expect to find myself fighting back tears as I sat in the dark and the drizzle in Monmouthshire woodland. All the barriers of theatre’s artifice fell away to leave you feeling wounded and raw. Extraordinary.
Sometimes though, you want to see what you know reflected back at you which is what the Manic Street Preachers do in the song, ‘The View from Stow Hill.’ It’s small-scale and slight compared to the rest of the album, Futurology, but its unsentimental, elegiac but warm portrayal of Newport chimes so well with the big town/small city that I know so very well.
The song ‘Yn Rhydiau’r Afon’ sees the Joy Formidable also celebrating where they’ve come from after a long period of travel and change for the band. It’s absolutely beautiful, uplifting and even euphoric, which is all you need to know.
I’ve read, seen and heard some wonderful things on the arts scene in Wales this past year, but for dark beauty there was for me nothing to match the climax of National Theatre Wales’ Mametz, with text by Owen Sheers, expanding on his 2015 poem ‘Mametz Wood’ and drawing on the work of World War One poets. It’s taken me a long time to catch up with the work of National Theatre Wales, and now that I have done so I have found it to be bold and brave. Which means that it attracts praise and opprobrium in equal measure. Personally, I like the immersive nature of its work, which enables you as the person who experiences it – you are never simply a watcher – to shift and deepen your view of the world. That to me is the point of theatre.
And so it was that on a sunny day in June, I and others drove down a twisting lane near Usk, parked and walked into a field. There was nothing sinister about the field, or the surrounding woods. People picnicked, there was a book tent. In due course we were led through a gate – and straight into a trench. I didn’t know before what a World War One trench was like, and of course this was a sanitised one, but nonetheless, I was disquieted. It was so much bigger than I’d envisaged. Then, in a barn, we watched a scene with soldiers in a bar. Now I couldn’t see very well through the crowd and I wasn’t sure what this was ‘about’. We continued, ushered into a bigger barn, open on one side. We sat, close together, on hay bales. We were still watching, scenes of life in the trenches, and, glimpsed on the side, the people left behind. As it went on, I was getting slightly bored. Later, I thought that was actually how it must have been in the WW1 trenches – boring as hell.
And then it turned into hell for those men, the men of the Welsh regiment who were slain in Mametz Wood in the First Battle of the Somme in 1914. Sitting there I realised that not only were they going over the top and into the line of fire, but so were we. We were not to be allowed simply to watch from then on. There was the sound of shell fire all around. Of course no-one shot at us, but a sergeant major yelled at us to keep in line, and even the teenagers who had been giggling until that moment fell silent.
It was in the wood that the full horror was played out. To call it beauty may seem perverse, but there was a vile beauty in the way men rose and fell in front of our eyes. The word dumbstruck is often used casually, but for me it was literally true. At the end I was physically unable to speak for several minutes.
At the start of this period of centenary reflections on World World One I was cynical. Mametz made me see and think about it differently, and for that I am the richer.
Roath, Cardiff, is home to the fascinating and beguiling annual arts festival, Made In Roath. This year, the festival took place during the 15th – 22nd October, enticing arts critics, arts lovers and the intrigued. Made In Roath is now in its fifth year, showcasing the creative work of rising and established artists, musicians, writers and more.
Using Roath as a neighbourhood-wide hub of activity, the festival manages to merge the whole community together. Roath is known to be home to a whole bunch of creatives and this essence pings through during the run-up. Cafes, bars, shops, houses and even cars are subject to leaflets and posters promoting events going on in the area; you can hear people talking about the programme over a pint and social media carries the wider word like a huge-winged hawk.
What really distinguishes the festival (since its first year) as making a dent in the arts in Wales is the programme utilising Roath to saturation point. Disused buildings (Blockbuster, Albany Road) were transformed into impressive contemporary art galleries; Waterloo Tea was packed for Mab Jones and Johnny Giles’ poetry readings; public spaces (such as City Hall) were used for tap dance conversion sessions. And there was so much more.
However, there was one event that really caught the eye of many for its location, what it entailed and – of course – the artist, award-winning and revered photographer, Glenn Edwards.
The exhibition, My Front Room, was a variety of black and white and colour photographs of the diverse range of pub-goers at The Claude, which is one of the heartbeats in the Roath community. Edwards took photos of regulars, staff and other clientele. The photos were then displayed in the pub, forming a sort of renegade, jagged yet affectionate portfolio of everyday pub-life. The photos also managed to form an outlook on the sometimes-forgotten harmonious human-nature whilst underpinning you with an admiration for the Roath community as a whole.
This is what Edwards had to say about My Front Room:
The fact that there is such a diverse clientèle at The Claude was one of the reasons for wanting to document the pub. I live just a few hundred meters from the front door and play a bit of pool there. I see the age range and variety of person using the establishment from student to pensioner. It is something I have thought about for quite a while and the Made in Roath festival gave me the excuse for doing it.
I don’t think documentary photographers switch off completely and while playing pool there were pictures all around. At times it was a relief not to have a camera but more often than not frustrating that I was missing the moments presenting themselves.
So, Made in Roath gave me the incentive to take my camera with me rather than a cue.
I love looking at old photographs that tell me what life was like in the past and I would like to think the photographs taken will show Claude pub life to future generations. I wonder how different that will be.
It’s difficult to pick a single event of this year out of such a bumper crop of cultural goodies.
On a personal level participating in an artist in residency placement for just nearly a month in Pakistan was an unforgettable and often surreal experience. Working until way after sunrise to the sound of muezzins, smalltalk with the British High Commissioners wife at the exhibition opening revealing that her mother grew up in Mumbles, being x-rayed and bags searched by armed guards every time we entered a shopping mall, hotel, or even Nando’s. It was a rarely granted insight into an often misunderstood country that I felt very privileged to be part of.
In terms of those unexpected and incredibly memorable live event moments, I recall the Dinefwr Literature Festival, when only a day after Rik Mayall’s funeral an obviously grief-stricken Adrian Edmonson took the stage for the headlining event in front of a subdued audience – with the exception of a young child impervious to the tension of the tent and striding around in front of the stage in a state of sternly determined interpretive dance. After a few songs he could ignore her no longer and broke into a grin with the words: ‘Well, I have to say this is the first time my music has ever been emoted to by a five year old with chopsticks…’ In that moment the solemnity shattered and palpable relief washed over spectators and performers alike, as dozens got up to join the dancing and the space was filled with joyous appreciation for the rest of the night.
But if I had to pick just one Welsh cultural highlight – I would cheat and plump for Gruff Rhys’ American Interior, which being an album, documentary film, book and app gives plenty of bang for its buck, and is a multi-platform offering which is simultaneously groundbreaking and accessible. Each element has met great critical acclaim in its own right, and each one of these media brings a new dimension to the exploration rather than being a re-hash of the others just for the sake of it – the book was shortlisted for both the Gordon Burn Prize and Guardian first book prize. Having musically investigated such true stories such as the life of John DeLorean and Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, Gruff Rhys is developing a talent not only for compelling narrative but also in discovering and fleshing out little known historical characters so fascinating it seems unbelievable that they have remained unexplored for so long. He’s a force of Welsh culture so multi-talented it would be sickening – were it not for the fact that he’s also such a thoughtful, sweet and thoroughly pleasant guy.
As the festive period fast approaches, one tends to remember youthful evenings waiting with heightened anticipation for old St Nicholas, or to be precise, waiting for what gifts he may leave in your stocking; which was obviously hung by the chimney with care. Oh the horror of the wait, the long hours sleeplessly waiting for Christmas morning; agony, certainly. Yet, also exhilarating as time feeds growing anticipation, until the moment comes and the jolly old man’s gift makes it all worthwhile. Unfortunately, as one gets older the festive period perhaps offers less exhilaration, so we find other moments to wait for, certainly waiting for a trip, or a sporting occasion, or even waiting to meet long seen family and friends can feed growing anticipation. However, for this reviewer, waiting on all of the above certainly awakens a child like sense of agony/exhilaration, but equally does waiting on the work of a certain artist. Micah P Hinson is one such artist, fortunately the wait in 2014 was worthwhile, as his newest album Micah P. Hinson and the Nothing – released by Talitres in March – is not only his best work, but the best album of 2014.
Micah P. Hinson and the Nothing begins with a slap in the face in the form of the folk/punk track ‘How are you, Just a dream’, an upbeat number which Hinson assaults with out of key singing and a heavy pinch of cynicism. Following this, Hinson meanders into the album with some solid tracks before ‘I ain’t Movin’ – a sparse piano driven piece which allows Hinson’s Texan drawl to shine – indicates the album’s full worth. At this point the album kicks into full gear with ‘The Same old Shit’, ‘Sons of USSR’, and the ‘God is Good’ of note. Yet it is with the track ‘the Quill’, that Micah P. Hinson and the Nothing, stamps its authority on the musical landscape of 2014. Again driven by piano, ‘The Quill’ is a rather brazenly emotive piece on which Hinson laments, ‘The quill holds the paper still, the ink draws nothing from this lonely heart’, before conversing with a past ‘darling’ about suicide and the battles of moving on; and it is a mesmerising exchange. The album finishes with a rather Hinson like song ‘A Million Light Years Away’, an off-key guitar love song, which feeds into a ghost track ‘The Crosshairs’, a track which wonderfully illustrates an innovative approach to song construction which has dominated Hinson’s often sadly overlooked musical career. As an album it also has flaws – like the track ‘The Life, Living, Death And Dying, Of A Certain And Peculiar L.J. Nichols’ failure to capture the essence of existing Youtube live performances – but as a whole, it is superb.
Looking back at 2014, there has been some other stand out musical moments, notably Neil Young’s A Letter Home, Kate Tempest’s Everybody Down, and for this reviewer a special night listening to the one and only Patti Smith, but it would be fair to say it has been a poor year in musical terms. Yet, in Micah P. Hinson and the Nothing, 2014 has seen a great artist reach new heights and produce a masterpiece; an album with depth and innovation which this reviewer hopes will inspire other artists in 2015. This reviewer waits in agony/anticipation.
Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red – London’s public installation in memory of the First World War- provoked wide coverage as a news item but received small critical comment. The blogosphere sniped. The choice of location spoke, said one, the Tower of London itself being representative of centuries of domination and torture. There is a problem with symbols; they elude any one interpretation. The Tower, Norman at its heart, could equally be seen as symbol of Britain’s subjugation.
Even the number of the ceramic poppies was up for critique. The conflict drew in an astonishing range of nationalities. The number of 888,246 was a nationalistic insult to the hundreds of thousands recruited from Empire and beyond. Their numbers raised the death toll to 1,118,760.
A professional critic delivered a view that damned the poppies and ricocheted as far as the House of Commons. In his reading any art of memorial must contain horror. ‘The moat of the Tower’ he wrote ‘should be filled with barbed wire and bones. That would mean something.’
He is wrong on three counts. Firstly, there is the pragmatic. The installation had another purpose, to raise money for charity. The ceramic poppies were able to achieve that in a way that wire could not. Secondly, there has already been an extensive representation of the war, literary and visual, which confronts it and conveys it unstintingly. Otto Dix caught ungainly humanity in his on-the-spot sketches. The dizzying perspective that Henry Lamb created for his ‘Irish Troops in the Judean Hills Surprised by a Turkish Bombardment’ communicates shock. Nevinson’s ‘La Mitrailleuse’ captures with intensity the psychological price of soldiery and is the precise opposite of public art. The viewing eye has to look deep into the sombre colours to descry the corpse in the middle.
Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red had an artistic intent. That was to convey something for which the human mind is ill-equipped, the visualisation of large number. For this it was crucial that the artwork be approached from the south via Tower Bridge rather than from the jammed underground station. The number of poppies in the moat adjacent to the Thames seemed unimaginable. Then, to move around the Tower and see the space of red grow and grow was to experience it gradually and feel its cumulative impact.
Of the four million who were there a few, but not many, held smartphones high to photograph the art. It would make a poor simulacrum. Because the poppies were identical they only worked as a totality. The rapid, vaulting camera of the broadcasters could not get it either.
And, as with all public art, it was an opportunity to be public. The bystander I spoke with had caught the six twenty-five a.m. train out of Liskeard simply to be there. Her family had a single memento from the conflict. A great-uncle had been saved by carrying a heavy bible in his breast pocket. The family had it still, along with the German bullet still embedded in it.
Go to Wales Arts Review’s Highlights of 2014 Part Three