The Wales Arts Review Critics’ Roundtable
I was lucky enough to be invited to sit on a panel at the Wales Arts Review’s Critics’ Roundtable at the Wales Millennium Centre, and took advantage of the opportunity to check out the event as a whole.
The first session I attended was on the theme “Why has pop given up on politics?” with former 60 Foot Doll Richard Parfitt, author Rhian E. Jones, and Gray Taylor of Newport hip-hop crew Goldie Lookin’ Chain on the panel. There was much bashing of Ed Sheeran, for his apparent endorsement of David Cameron, and his general blandness; and nostalgia for pop music which was avowedly political (Lennon, Marley), or indulged in subtler social commentary (“Common People”, “A Design For Life). The general opinion seemed to be that politics in popular culture is now the domain of artists in other fields (e.g. Russell Brand), and that blatantly political pop musicians (whether on the left or right), would struggle to get industry support these days.
The “Celtic Connections” panel consisted of Rachel Trezise (from the Rhondda, but part-educated in Limerick), Tom Morris (Welsh, but now resident in Ireland) and Colin Barrett (Irish author of the acclaimed collection “Young Skins”), all of whom read from their work. A major strand of the discussion was commonalities between contemporary Celtic writers – a similar sense of humour, a feeling of being in the margins, the prevalence of recognisably regional voices (at least more so than in English literature). The accessibility of the short story form was also a major theme, and all three writers denied having been overly influenced by great writers of the past (“a healthy antagonism” was a phrase which came up), and claiming to be more inspired by real life, film, music etc.
The panel I sat on, with playwright Matt Hartley, director Kate Wasserberg and producer Mike Salmon was focussed on “What can be done to support new playwrights in Wales?” Not very well attended, and I’m not sure I made a great deal of sense or said anything original (more open doors needed) but it was good to see some friendly faces, and to hear from Kate about her plans for The Other Room theatre space, opening up in 2015; and from Mike about his hopes of developing a Playwrights Studio for Wales – a central agency for new plays. The most depression suggestion was that “new writing” seems to be a toxic label when it comes to theatre-goers and venues outside Cardiff.
The final session was the hook on which the whole event was hung – “What Is The Greatest Welsh Novel?” – discussed by Wales Arts Review editor Gary Raymond, and writers Dai Smith, Francesca Rhydderch and Joao Morais. Based around the poll which the Review has been running, the relative absence of women from the 25-strong shortlist was discussed, as was the fact that some of the best-known Welsh novels (“How Green Was My Valley”; “Rape Of The Fair Country”) were not on it. The slipperiness of the very idea of a “canon” was also addressed. The role of the Wales Arts Review in fostering serious discussion of the arts in Wales was hailed, especially given the lack of interest shown by the media elsewhere in the U.K.
The highlight came in the evening – the award of the accolade of Greatest Welsh Novel to Caradoc Prichard’s “Un Nos Ola Leuad” (“One Moonlit Night”) – presented by Welsh acting legend Sian Phillips, who also provided a highly evocative reading, and graciously accepted by the author’s daughter Mari. And no, I haven’t yet read it, and was embarrassingly unacquainted with much of the long-list.
A rather inspiring day on the whole. Apparently, on one of the other panels, pessimism was expressed over the future of professional arts criticism, but if the event proved anything, it’s that creativity, and debate about it, is in excellent health in Wales, whether or not financial reward is involved.