Wales, the Writer and Society: The Fierce Urgency of Now


If Gary Raymond is right, and we are experiencing the first rumblings of a new flowering of Welsh art and culture, it is incumbent upon he or she whom Raymond calls in his essay ‘The True Critic’ to raise questions. What, exactly – or, even, roughly – will this culture-quake look like? More importantly, what will be its social impact? If this contribution to ‘the eternal conversation’ is indeed a ‘Letter to the Future’, what will it mean for you, my primary audience, the inhabitants of that unknown future?

Raymond’s essay, with its attentiveness to time, put me in mind yet again of Dai Smith’s claim that Wales is ‘a young country not afraid to remember what it might yet become’. Entirely appropriately, it is a maxim that grows more prescient by the year, and may yet become a kind of permanent tagline for the whole idea of our nation. At the inaugural Theatre Critics of Wales Awards earlier this year, Smith in his capacity as Arts Council Chair quoted Martin Luther King’s ‘fierce urgency of now’ to describe the impassioned activity of those who had brought the evening about. There is a generation in Wales now who are not content to wait their turn.

Creative excellence, on its own, is not enough. Criticism, on its own, is not enough. Even ‘the eternal conversation’, ‘wine-singed’ or otherwise, is not enough.  The conversation needs to be realised in activity, with direction, purpose and social commitment.

And there are times in history when it takes a generation unscarred by the battles of the past to rise up and move forward with confidence. Many of the critics who write for Wales Arts Review lived through the miners’ strike, for example, only as young children; many of us, as Gary alluded to through his own personal story, through geography or history or some trivia of autobiography, cannot personally identify with the battle to save the Welsh language. Other, older, critics are possessed of the same fierce urgency not through lack of age or the presence of rage but through simple experience; having lived through artistic and political lean times, before Wales had a national theatre company or much of a publishing industry to speak of, or a Government to call its own. Soon there will be those who knew no now.

I mention politics in an essay about the arts because the much improved health of the arts scene in Wales undoubtedly owes much to devolution and the ensuing quiet revolution in identity politics (two thirds of people living in Wales now self-identify as Welsh first, British second or not-at-all). Just a decade ago Wales Arts Review would not have had nearly so much to cover, let alone celebrate. If there is to be, as Gary Raymond predicts, an even greater ‘earthquake’ to come – what he calls ‘an unprecedented era of creative excellence, a seismic movement that will provide a significant platform that is visible way beyond [our] borders’ – then we need to examine what such a movement might entail, what it might precipitate. Earthquakes can be exciting, but they can also be dangerous. Creative excellence, on its own, is not enough. Criticism, on its own, is not enough. Even ‘the eternal conversation’, ‘wine-singed’ or otherwise, is not enough.  The conversation needs to be realised in activity, with direction, purpose and social commitment.

Other such artistic flowerings have had not only a cause in the wider world but also an effect. The Harlem Renaissance, to take one pertinent example, was an artistic ‘event’ around which the whole of African-American history might be said to swirl. After slavery, the Civil War and the Great Migration, black Americans found a cultural capital had been created, almost by accident, amid the social unrest of early twentieth century New York. Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and others, meeting at Thurman’s home in much the manner Raymond describes in his essay, self-styled, with knowing irony, as a ‘Niggerati’. Race riots and strikes were as much a part of the atmosphere as jazz, blues and spirituals. At the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, known at the time as the ‘New Negro Movement’, was the idea of betterment through art, music and literature. Through intellect would come challenge to pervading racial stereotypes and prejudice. Through art would come recognition of humanity and demand for equality. Ideas propagated by the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois laid the intellectual and cultural foundation for what would become known as the Civil Rights Movement and all that was to follow. It was clear, in other words, what the art was for, and what it was against.

Closer to home, the so-called Celtic Twilight (or Revival – it is notable how many artistic flourishings claim to reprise previous glories, real or imagined) made its mark on world literature at a time roughly contemporaneous to the Harlem Renaissance, primarily through the work of Irish poet W.B. Yeats and his circle. Where Harlem and the so-called ‘New Negro’ was all about progression, both artistic and political, the Celtic Twilight was a reaction against modernity. Where the writers of Harlem reacted to past and present troubles by looking to the future, the Celtic Revival sought to soothe and remedy present injustices by looking to the past.

In its specific incarnation as the ‘Irish Literary Revival’, the movement was concerned with creating work distinct from English culture through rediscovery of ancient myths and legends. Its cultural nationalism was underpinned by a wider political nationalism and the first stirrings of what was to lead to the violent uprising of Easter 1916 and what might be seen as a chapter that only finished, tentatively, with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. There are then, we might agree, both positives and negatives within the possible consequences of an artistic revival, opportunities and dangers. A culture can imagine or reimagine a nation into being, but its power can also propagate violence. Of art is born culture and of culture politics. As Yeats himself wrote in his poem about his nation and the protagonists of the Easter Rising: ‘Now and in time to be, / Wherever green is worn, / [All] are changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.’

Wales at the time was caught up in its own Revival, albeit of a different kind. Gary Raymond’s essay finishes with the claim that ‘always embattled … always beautiful’ Wales has ‘at its heart … music and poetry and socialism – the most important things the human creature has ever mined from the cosmos.’ What’s missing here of course is also Nonconformist Christianity, an oversight not striking because of its omission but because, once so characteristic as well as emblematic of Wales, it is now even more forgotten than the ideals of socialism, the beauty of poetry or the elation of music. We would do well to remember that at many points in Welsh history its influence was such that it actually informed the other three.

The most celebrated Revival (1904-5), catalysed by the twenty-six year-old preacher Evan Roberts, was not simply an isolated religious movement (although 100,000 converts were made in Wales over an intense nine-month period); it had far-reaching ramifications and influences on Christianity throughout the world, notably on the Pentecostal movement nascent in California. More than that, its non-denominational, non-sectarian spirituality coincided with the rise of the Labour movement, and a general disaffection with more traditional expressions of worship in the Established Church, especially among the working class and the young. Like some of the industrial unrest that both preceded and followed it, the Welsh Revival played a major role in the development of ideas about social justice, not just here, but around the world. By proxy it also informed much Welsh art. Chapel culture, with its emphasis on communal singing, fine oratory and rhetoric and a genuine sense that ‘we are all in it together’ gave rise to many of the qualities, motifs and forms that we think of as distinctively Welsh.

It is perhaps in this past, through rediscovery of the threads from which the nation is woven, that a true artistic – and social – revival might take place. Tellingly, the high point of Welsh artistic achievement in the last few years, The Passion of Port Talbot, might yet prove, as its own Voice in the Wilderness character proclaimed, to have been the beginning. If this is indeed a letter to the future, I already permit myself to call it out as such. At the time I wrote the following:

[S]omething else is going on here too… People are rediscovering something about themselves. What was it the Stranger had said down on the beach? ‘What was hidden shall be shown / What was silenced shall be said / What was forgotten shall be known’. In the minutes before the Easter parade, a group of relatively elderly folk lift their voices in song. There is something pitiful in the way their voices falter; the sound they make is the weak warbling of that almost apologetic Anglicanism that dominates the English brand of Christianity. Despite the Cymric choices of hymns – ‘Calon Lan’, ‘Welcome in the Hillsides’ and, inevitably, ‘Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah’ – there is nothing of the traditional nonconformist hwyl of south Wales’ former chapel culture in these embarrassingly bland renditions.

And then:

In just a couple of short generations, south Wales towns like Port Talbot have not only lost the chapel-and-singing culture that once made them distinctive in the eyes of the world, but it has almost completely been replaced by its polar opposite: secular materialism and an accompanying shying away from public singing or displays of high emotion that aren’t hidden beneath the cloak of sport. The muted chorus of ‘Feed me ‘til I want no more’ only serves to underline that even the tradition of hymn-singing at rugby matches has been reduced to two lines from William Williams and replaced by Max Boyce, Tom Jones and repeated attempts to render the name of the nation in a monotonous two-syllable drone.

Any artistic earthquake needs to have at its heart precisely these qualities: a fervent desire to remember what was forgotten, to say what was silenced, to show what was hidden.

And already there are signs that such a movement is already afoot. In what might, in retrospect, become known as the global age of the whistleblower, many Welsh artists and critics – in contrast, perhaps, to the past – seem interested in the bigger picture. At the inaugural Wales Arts Review Critics Roundtable last autumn, I chaired a panel that included National Theatre Wales artistic director John McGrath, conceptual artist Sara Rees, playwright Tim Price and broadcaster Adrian Masters. The debate was titled ‘Art, Politics, Theatre and Truth’, which was quite a lot to fit into an hour. We began by discussing how art and theatre can be used to challenge those in power. Rees’ installation ‘Democracy’ and Price’s play The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning were very much cases in point. Talk soon turned to the perceived consensus governing much within Wales’ politics, characterised by Masters as ‘broadly left wing and broadly nationalist’.

McGrath was quick to challenge my suggestion that such a consensus can form the basis of opportunity. In contrast to the Punch-and-Judy show at Westminster and the much more worrying politico-cultural faultlines that seem to be developing over the border, manifested recently in the media frenzy and wave of Islamophobia following the murder in Woolwich. In Wales, where there isn’t such an inclination to lurch right given half an opportunity, my point was that we might actually be able to focus on building the kind of country we want. But on reflection, McGrath’s instinctive reaction was the correct one. Political consensus, especially a vague one, only ever breeds complacency and inaction. It is polarization that makes people political. Conflict, whether physical or ideological, radicalisation, the passionate questioning of decision-makers; these are the motors of change.

If we stand on the precipice of a tangible artistic flowering in Wales, for Wales, of Wales, we need to be clear what it is before it starts. What do we stand for? And what against? There needs to be a political edge. The backdrops for the biggest questions of our age are no longer elsewhere; they are everywhere, which means here too.

Last time there was a surge of Welsh cultural activity – in the late 1990s with so-called Cool Cymru – the political message was simple: We Are Here. Seeing as there were a clutch of decent bands and a couple of half-decent films, it was no longer uncool to drape y ddraig goch over your amp or, more importantly, release an album in Welsh. Cool Cymru was a glib journalistic label for a brief flurry of activity, an offshoot of an equally contrived Cool Britannia. It was not that Cymru was cool; the important thing was that it was no longer uncool in the eyes of the wider world. You might not think a few decent indie bands made a difference, but after that it was okay for Huw Edwards to read the News at 10 and Charlotte Church to present Have I Got News for You. Gavin and Stacey may not epitomise the ‘passion, intellectualism and elitism’ of Gary Raymond’s call-to-arms, but it is a signifier of our place on the map within wider British culture. And that, perhaps, is the thing.

The backdrops for the biggest questions of our age are no longer elsewhere; they are everywhere, which means here too.

It is no longer enough to simply say We Are Here. The question now is What Are We Here For? Another key signifier of Welshness from the Cool Cymru era was Rhys Ifans’ character Spike in the Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts rom-com Notting Hill. Spike is the comic Neanderthal who spends the whole film walking around in his pants, the Welsh idiot who makes Grant’s English idiot look kind of charming by comparison, allowing Grant to have a bumbling on-off affair with Roberts’ American beauty. The fact that the film itself is a harmless romp through the clichés of the genre makes its use of stereotypes even more pernicious. The Welsh had arrived. We were on the big screen! But see also Twin Town, and even Ed Thomas’ House of America. We were losers.

House of America is in fact a great place to start tackling the problem. The film, and the play it was based on, precisely concerns Wales’ inferiority complex and lack of indigenous heroes. Like the young Gary Raymond, the protagonist dreams of being Jack Kerouac. But things have changed. We have changed. There now exists a generation of Welsh artists for whom being born or raised in Cymru has not been the disadvantage it was seen as previously. Raymond’s polite request that we ‘move on from Dylan Thomas’ was an almost incidental question in an article that covered so many other important issues with characteristic gusto. Almost. As the Welsh cultural sphere gears up for a whole year of Dylan-worship in 2014, it might yet become the rallying cry for a generation about to step out of the centenarian’s shadow.

I have nothing against Dylan Thomas. Dylan Thomas 100 is admirably wide-ranging in its inception and its mission statement seeks to engage everybody from school pupils within Wales to tourists without. But the fact remains – despite all the glorious lyrical anarchy of Thomas at his best – that if we really want to present our best to the world, he is neither the kind of artist nor the kind of man to whom we should aspire. When National Theatre Wales worked with Volcano to produce a version of Thomas’ short story ‘Little Dogs’, the result was an astonishing audio-visual spectacle, but its depiction of contemporary Swansea nightlife rang hollow in the same way that Maciej Dakowicz’ book of photographs Cardiff After Dark captures an aspect of Welsh culture that represents, as Kaite O’Reilly pointed out in an excellent appraisal for New Welsh Review: ‘two streets and the activities of a partying, predominantly Caucasian minority.’ She continues: ‘Cardiff was Britain’s first truly multicultural society, yet the breadth and richness of the city is not here. This is a Cardiff after dark, not the real, full Cardiff.’

It is time we asked ourselves some bigger questions. What is Art for? What can it achieve?

And whether it is Cardiff, or Dylan’s native Swansea, or Wales as a whole, there needs to be a reflection on who we are and what we are, where we have come from and, perhaps most of all, who we would like to be. Rather than endlessly reflecting our worst social problems back at ourselves in uncritical celebration, can a new period of artistic excellence not also move into the arena of criticism? Gary Raymond emphasised the importance of our discipline, arguing, rightly, that it is an artform in itself, even as it holds art to account. He also wrote about the notion of moving beyond ‘good’ and ‘bad’ when talking about art. It is time we asked ourselves some bigger questions. What is Art for? What can it achieve?

If it is time for Welsh critics to view their craft as an art, it is the view of this Critic that the time is also right for Welsh artists to view their work as a vehicle for criticism; not a mirror to reflect society, but a hammer to change it. If this generation, our generation, my generation of Welsh actors and writers and artists and photographers and filmmakers and musicians does indeed possess the talent to make the rest of the world sit up and take notice, we had better be totally clear what we would like to be noticed for. A poor country this if our creative excellence has as its context stifling problems with literacy, unalleviated poverty, widespread drug and alcohol abuse, a disenfranchised youth, a lonely, cold and neglected elderly, and all the time a growing social and economic inequality. A rich country, however, if we can harness the talents of artists like the ones with whom I shared a sofa at the Wales Arts Review Roundtable, with keywords (itself a Raymond Williams term) like Radicalisation and Democracy to fuel a New Welsh Revival with social justice at its heart. A rich country indeed if we can really live out the true meaning of this creed: ‘a young country not afraid to remember what it might yet become.’

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis