Category Archives: Uncategorized

Joy Division 

I was out walking my dog yesterday. Up ahead I saw a small group of pre-school children being taken for a walk by nursery staff. They were tiny against the adults holding their hands. Suddenly a council tractor drove past them. A big green and yellow thing. The children were too far away for me to hear but I could see them judder with excitement and point at this wondrous toy made real. That moment of innocence touched me, following a day of such horrendous news.

Bully for you. But not for me….

Some of you might know that I recently decided to stand for election to Cardiff Council in the upcoming May local elections in Wales. The vast majority of you will not.

However, I have just resigned from that position as I cannot bear the prospect of potentially being part of a party group (were I elected) with a powerful, proven bully. A bully of women nonetheless (proven by a recent adjudication panel for Wales, to which the case was referred by the Ombudsman for Wales).

Now if you want to find out what party I was standing for, who this bully is and all the nefarious details of the case then you can (because you are clever people and can use Google) but this post is not about party, personality or politics. It is about bullying.

Wednesday 8 March is International Women’s Day 2017. A day when all of us, irrespective of which gender we identify as, celebrate women’s successes and protest against the inequalities they face.

And one of the biggest problems they face is workplace bullying.

This is not to say, as a man, I cannot have a robust argument with a female colleague. Goodness knows I have, and have indeed experienced workplace bullying from a female manager myself. However, if I’m in a position of organisational power over a woman then I have to respect that position. Also, there’s the physical fact that I’m 6ft 4in and weigh the same as a prop forward (although I do try to de-emphasise  with stripes…).

It is important for all of us to respect each other.

If I’m guilty of bullying then I should apologise and seek to ensure it does not happen again. In the case to which I have nebulously alluded above, the man in question has yet to apologise. This I find inexcusable.

To potential bullies everywhere I say, taste your words before you spit them out.

 

Ghosts in the Machine?

Museums Association’s Patrick Steel (Museums Journal 14 Dec 2016) has drawn my attention to the fact that museums have been entirely left out of the Welsh Government’s diabetic coma-inducingly-titled “Light Springs Through The Dark: A Vision For Culture In Wales” (who on earth comes up with these report names…!?).

This is, as the pretentious title suggests, a “vision”. For culture. In Wales.

A vision that has a blindspot when it comes to museums.

The Welsh Government itself commissioned an Expert Review of Local Museum Provision last year. But has done nothing with it. Now it has conveniently forgotten about it and left it out of “Light Springs…” (Or should that be “Sh*te Springs…?” Perhaps the name will stick….).

Patrick’s full article can be read here.

One specific point leaps out. The Welsh Government are currently consulting on their suggestion to create an organisation called “Historic Wales” to combine the commercial operations of Cadw, National Museum Wales and The Royal Commission. In “Sh*te Springs…” (see, it DID stick!) the Welsh Government states it will create Historic Wales. No ifs, no buts, it will create. Nice valuing of consultation there WG!

I am appalled by Welsh Government’s attitude to the museum sector. Initially interested but, ultimately, callously indifferent to the contribution museums make to Wales economy and soul.

2016 was a bad year for all sorts of reasons. Museums in Wales will not be looking forward to a prosperous 2017.

Bah humbug….

Wish You Were Here

I’m a cultural consultant. My finances are subtly balanced. So why have I splashed out on attending a conference in Germany rather than one in the UK? I must be loaded!? I must be a senior level professional!? I must be a huge Europhile!?

Well it’s kind of a mix of those. Apart from the money and the senior thing.

I am a strong believer in the sharing of ideas. Of listening to others. Of giving your own opinion too. Networking…

I’ve been a consultant in adult learning and museums for two years. Prior to that I spent 10 years working for an adult learning charity called NIACE and a longer period within education and marketing in the museum sector. Part of my role at NIACE was to represent the organisation on EU projects. As a result I, for the first time, began to travel to continental Europe to attend, and sometimes speak at, conferences. I found, early on, that leaving the UK gave me an almost palpable sense of being on the outside and looking back in at my home’s museum sector. For good and ill.

So I am definitely in the Europhile zone. Over the years I have made friends in many countries and I have learned a great deal from them. There are wonderful learning projects happening across the rest of the EU. The UK does not have a monopoly on innovative ideas in the cultural sector.

Each year, as a consultant, I attend one major conference as an opportunity to develop myself as a professional and to make new contacts that might lead to work in the future. This year I looked at my main three targets: GEM, MA and AIM. None of them fitted well. One because of timing and the other two because of cost. Then I received notification of the annual NEMO conference in Karlsruhe.

NEMO is the Network of European Museum Organisations. Basically its membership is comprised of each country’s museum association. It’s the network that the UK’s Museums Association goes to.

I have attended two previous NEMO meetings in Berlin and Ljubljana. I spoke at the latter on “adult learning and the museum sector” (an insightful exploration of the relevance the two sectors have to each other).

NEMO conferences are attended by an interesting mix of senior-level museum directors right through to early career museum professionals. Conference themes are always on interesting/engaging issues of the day. Workshops are led by some of the most highly regarded professionals on the continent. And, critically, the three day conference is refreshingly cheap! This one has cost me just over £100 and includes all food and drink (at the time of writing I am still in Karlsruhe and attempting to drink my weight in red wine).

About 160 delegates are attending this conference so it has a nice feel to it. Not too big.

Over the last two days I have met up with old friends from Sweden, Denmark and Italy and caught up with their fascinating work around engaging adults in learning. I have also met some lovely people from The Netherlands, Russia, Finland and Liechtenstein. Surprisingly I have only spoken to one UK attendee. From what I can see I am the only UK delegate who is not a speaker/workshop leader.

The lack of UK delegates saddens me. I appreciate it is immediately after the MA Conference but I’m sure there are many museum professionals in the UK who would benefit from being at this one. I have done my best to promote the conference to my networks back home but noone has reacted positively. A few have got back to me to say that it sounds really interesting but they could never justify a “jolly” .

There does, of course, have to be a cost/benefit analysis each time you look at attending a conference but to write one off purely because it is on continental Europe is so wrong. As I mentioned above the conference has cost me a little over £100. I paid for a flight to Frankfurt, a train from there to Karlsruhe and the cheapest hotel I could find. I estimate this conference has cost me no more than attending MA or GEM in Scotland.

So much for the cost. What about the benefit of NEMO 2016?

I was stimulated by the keynote address from Pier Luigi Sacco, Professor of Cultural Economics at IULM University, Milan and visiting Professor at Harvard (no relation) University. He posed the question “how do museums create value?” Surely the most crucial question facing all museums as they face death by a thousand cuts. An appeal to any conference organisers reading this article: book him!

Other presentations included “creating partnerships with scientific, social and artistic sectors”, “measuring the value of museums”, a fascinating and rigorously-researched “critical reflection of Guggenheim’s return on investment in Bilbao”, a moderated discussion on “Business models of museums: what works and what doesn’t?” and an enlightening “museum cooperation with colleagues from Europe: How to apply for EU Culture funding”.

Informal discussions, usually over a glass of wine, inevitably gravitated towards Brexit once delegates realised where I was from. All were horrified.

So, did I make new contacts? Yes. Did I learn new things? Yes. Did I find work as a result? Short answer is “no”, longer answer is “no, but I am in a better position to offer my services to a wider range of countries than I was before”. Did I have fun? Yes, apart from finding myself with 5 hours to kill in Karlsruhe on a Sunday due to my poor calculations re return flight tickets (there’s only so long one can stand in sub-zero temperatures, clutching a Starbucks coffee, outside H&M to piggyback their wifi signal…).

If you think conferences on continental Europe are “jollies”, think again. Broaden your mind and your horizons will follow.

(This review is also available on the ICOM(UK) website: http://uk.icom.museum/news/view/?title=/nemo-conference-2016-wish-you-were-here/ where you will find information on the Working Internationally Programme)

 

 

Whip Crack-Away

Below is the unedited text of my review of a current exhibition in National Museum Cardiff. The review appeared in the May edition of The Museums Journal:

The marketing for this exhibition has heavily used the imagery of Indiana Jones, the jauntily-hatted, kangaroo-hide whip-wielding hero of Hollywood scriptwriters. Whilst I am a fan of the Steven Spielberg films this did worry me as I expected to encounter more style than substance. More story than objects. However I was to be pleasantly disappointed.

Treasure: Adventures in Archaeology is the National Museum Cardiff’s first temporary exhibition, for over 20 years, for which an admission charge is levied. £7 per adult is not cheap (35 concessions, 16yrs and under go free) for a museum which has done much in the last decade to grow its reputation as a museum which provides access to all. So I donned my museologists hat, stowed my whip of cynicism on my belt and entered…

The exhibition is housed in the museum’s east wing temporary exhibition gallery which is a long rectangle in plan. Visitors enter via one of the long sides of the rectangle. The first thing to notice is the excellent, large, narrative panels which introduce visitors to some of the basic principles and issues to be found in the rest of the exhibition. The panels are mounted at a relatively low (but not too low for my 6ft 4in frame) height and use language which is both appropriate to a wide range of visitors and as much challenging as it is informing. The size and style of these panels is consistent throughout the gallery and greatly enhance the objects on show (some of which, for me, were stronger than others).

The very first case-mounted objects are poorly lit from high above and shadows spoiled my viewing of them. Throughout the gallery there are some issues with the individual object labels and lighting for the same reasons.

On entry I turned right and started to view the cases and panels. After a few minutes I arrived at the exit! I realised, with the help of a museum attendant, that I should have turned left. A simple problem which could be simply rectified by some kind of panel-, or floor-mounted instruction/arrows.

Once back on track I noticed the exhibition itself only took up about half of the temporary exhibition space, which was a disappointment for a paid-for exhibition. Having visited the museum many times over the years I assumed the whole space would be taken up.

I found my stride and started to read and view. The exhibition adopts an intriguing and stimulating approach of taking the visitor on a chronological inquiry of archaeology, using key archaeologists as the hook.

Did you know that Giovanni Belzoni (1778-1823), one of the first real excavators of Egyptian sites, had an earlier career as a strongman and was also known as “The Sampson of Patagonia” and described later as “archaeologist and weightlifter”? I love these kinds of facts and couldn’t have been more surprised and entertained if I’d learned that Geoff Capes had joined the Time Team..

The displays continued on through William Matthew Flinders Petrie “Father of Egyptian Archaeology”, Heinrich Schliemann (discoverer, and plunderer, of Troy), Hiram Bingham the discoverer of Machu Pichu (at this point the large narrative panel asked the question “What’s the biggest thing you have ever lost? Have you lost a city?”, which made me smile) and more.

It was good to see information about Adele Breton who, apart from William Petrie’s wife, was the only female archaeologist I could see. Her obsidian tool cores, from Mexico, were beautiful and my favourite objects).

This trail of historically important archaeologists continued through to include early British examples and some from Wales.

The story of these individuals was cleverly interwoven with the story of a small number of cultures from around the world. Mycenae, Ancient Greece, Pre-Columbian, Rapa-Nui (Easter Island), Egypt and Wales.

One or two of the intermediate level narrative panels were placed at different heights and some were too high for the smaller visitor or those who may be seated. But this is a minor point in what otherwise is a good execution of a text-writing which is highly engaging. The several interactive screens around the gallery are simple, intuitive and work well. They flesh out the story told by panels and objects and give the visitor a deeper engagement. Their use of illustrations and text was crisp and uncluttered.

At one point, for some unknown reason, there is a 2ft diameter brown ball (mounted in a side panel) which is constantly revolving to reveal a skull embedded within. This didn’t bring anything to the experience other than a loud “click” each time it turned.

As a Welshman I was fascinated by the displays of archaeology and archaeologists from Wales. Finds from the wreck of the Ann Francis, the Tregwynt Civil War hoard and hoards from Bridgend. All clearly displayed.

Near the end of the exhibition (now that I knew where that was…) there are cases which explore the cultural impact of archaeology through time. Books, ornaments, stamps, jewellery etc. Another exhibited archaeological “fakes”, challenging the visitor to think about what archaeologists do and the finding of “truth”.

A panel on 1920s archaeologists and their relationships with newspapers and the writing of regular articles was used to draw parallels with “bloggers” of today. Another took the opportunity to explain the importance, and impact, of responsible metal detecting with an explanation of the finding of a Viking burial in Llanbedrgoch, Anglesey.

A children’s area contains paper, crayons, workbooks and textured panels from which to take rubbings. A simple, but well delivered area which will entertain children and adults alike. The workbooks contained some activity which asked children to think about what is meant by “treasure”. I think the exhibition could have been a bit more explicit about this too, but that is a minor quibble.

Finally, framed by the two bronze exit doors, is the case containing the “real” Indiana Jones’ hat, jacket and whip. He is a Hollywood hero to many, but the case label politely pointed out that he wasn’t necessarily the best at careful, logical, scientific excavations and research.

The visitors’ book comments are universally positive and I have to agree with them. I spent an hour in the exhibition and learned many unexpected things.

As I walked down the steps outside the museum I couldn’t resist glancing back to see if I was being followed by an enormous stone ball….

 

Apathy in the UK

I haven’t written a post in this blog for some months. I only tend to write when something moves me and I feel I want to share. Well today I have most certainly been moved (if by “moved” you mean “angered”).

It’s election time in the UK. Devolved government elections and some local authority elections in England as well as the media circus that is the London Mayoral Election.

I have always exercised my right to vote. I see it as a duty. However, today I spoke to someone from high up in a South Wales Valley and asked them, in all innocence and just as part of the general chit-chat, had they voted yet.

Their response was “Oh no, I don’t vote. I’m not into politics”.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing!

I didn’t challenge them as I felt it unfair that the two of us should argue over this issue, rather than our government take action to sort out voter apathy.  The pundits/polls predict a very low turnout for the elections in Wales

It CAN be done. Look at the Scottish Independence Referendum. In the run-up to that I happened to be in Edinburgh and chatted to a taxi driver about what he thought of the whole thing. I expected an angry, semi-literate, right wing response from him (after all I have experience of Cardiff taxi rides…) but no. He started to tell me about a heavy political tome he was reading by a well-respected academic. We discussed the pros and cons and I left his cab energised by his commitment to learning more about the potential political and economic impact of independence.

Voter apathy is a symptom of a lack of engagement with society. A feeling that there are things that we need not worry about because nothing ever changes. A feeling that politics is irrelevant.

Well, see those potholes in your road? That’s politics. See those homeless people begging in the street? That’s politics. The 3 week wait to see a GP? Politics. The new estate built on a Greenfield site? Yep, politics.

In the absence of a revolution we need politicians to grasp this nettle of self-disenfranchisement. We need more adults learning about the importance of action at a personal, family, community and national level. We need more adults learning. Learning empowers people. But then again, maybe that’s exactly what the ruling classes don’t want…?

Right, I’m off to vote. It happens once every few years but I am going to make a promise this time. I promise that I will do my best to get more people to vote next time (for whatever colour of political party). I don’t know how I’m going to do it but I’m going to try. It’s my duty.

 

Cardigan reclaims its past

Here is the unedited text of a review I wrote for the Museums Journal. It appears in Issue 115/10 (Oct 2015). The printed review actually reads better, but here’s the original: literary warts and all…..

I was born in Cardigan and brought up a few miles away. It has always been a part of my “cynefin” (habitat) and, although it lies 11 miles north of my hometown I still count it in my “fillitir sgwar” (square mile).

My use of a couple of Welsh phrases and words here is an indication of the cultural and historical importance of Cardigan and its Castle as it was here, in 1176, that Lord Rhys (a famously liberal and cultured Prince) held the first Eisteddfod (a festival of Welsh singing, poetry, dance and art). The Eisteddfodau (plural of “Eisteddfod”) are a central pillar of Welsh language expression to this day.

Lord Rhys’ was the first stone-built castle to be raised by a Welsh Prince and, over the centuries, has been attacked and rebuilt several times. The current fortifications are only a few hundred years old and in the central courtyard lies a Georgian country house of decent size.

The Georgian house inside the walls of Cardigan Castle
The Georgian house inside the walls of Cardigan Castle

As a child, my memories of the castle are of an imposing, dark, inaccessible, decaying fortification which was central to the one-way traffic system of the town. A 12th century council roundabout if you will. The last surviving member of the last family to own the Castle lived in the crumbling, damp, kitchen of the Georgian house from the 1940s until 1984 when she moved into a caravan in the grounds. Ultimately Miss Barbara Woods moved into a care home in 1999 and the Castle was bought by Ceredigion Council in 2003. In 2011 the Cadwgan Building Preservation Trust (who now own and run the site on behalf of the community) secured a total of £12 million from HLF, ERDF and Welsh Government to restore the Castle and develop it for tourist and local use.

One enters the restored Castle through the gift shop (the weakest point in any castle’s fortifications, according to comedian Bill Bailey…) which is well stocked with locally-produced materials, although the wooden shields emblazoned with the Cross of St. George seemed a little out of place at a site with such a place in the history of Welsh opposition to Norman Marcher Lords, King Edward, and the English Civil War. The latter dispute resulted in the Castle being dismantled so it could not be used as a defensive structure in future.

On exiting the shop one emerges immediately into the central courtyard, which was a revelation. A huge amount of work has been carried out to conserve, restore and stabilise existing stone fabric of the Castle. Gone are the crumbling crenulations of my childhood. Gone are the rainforest-dense overgrowth of generations of neglect. In their place are crisp stonework and a simple central lawn with newly-planted borders.

Central courtyard viewed from the front door of the Georgian house. Cafe in background
Central courtyard viewed from the front door of the Georgian house. Cafe in background

One gets a sense of openness and renewal. This is a space I’d like to return to again and again. For this reason Cadwgan offer a special, one-off, season ticket price so that local people can return on multiple occasions and, hopefully, build a relationship with what is a tremendous new local resource. My mother was with me on this visit. She spent her younger days in Cardigan but now, as an 85 year old who is dependent on wheelchairs for mobility, doesn’t get to return too often.

Before exploring further my stomach got the better of me so we adjourned to the cafe. This is a starkly modern construction of slate, glass and polished steel which opens to the central courtyard but also has views over the High Street in Cardigan. One gets a feeling of floating above the town. Its modernity sits very well with the restored stonework of the Castle, after all the walls have themselves been built and re-built several times over the centuries.

Cafe interior. Tasty baguette in foreground!
Cafe interior. Tasty baguette in foreground!

The choice of food was a bit limited, but I put that down to the fact that the catering is a new venture and will, like many other aspects of the Trust’s work, develop with time. The service was great and one gets a sense that staff are proud to be working in such an iconic place.

Sculpture of Lord Rhys' throne. Situated in Castle courtyard
Sculpture of Lord Rhys’ throne. Situated in Castle courtyard

The paths around the central courtyard are well suited to wheelchair use, if a little steep in one or two places, and my mother enjoyed the short journey around the battlements (taking in the WWII pillbox overlooking the bridge over the Teifi river). We then visited the Georgian house.

Again, staff were very welcoming but sadly the building was not. The opening ceremony had taken place only a few weeks before but already the lift was broken and the top floor was also closed due to “health and safety reasons”. Newly-restored buildings do have teething problems but I was not overly impressed with a broken lift which resulted in us being able to see less than a third of the house. Still, we explored the ground floor.

Some parts of the house have been left unrestored and house enigmatic remains from its latter years' history
Some parts of the house have been left unrestored and house enigmatic remains from its latter years’ history

In the kitchen (in which the last owner lived for many years) there was an excellent bilingual video presentation, voiced over by the Welsh actor Matthew Rhys (no relation to Lord Rhys…). The video gave a very clear description (through 3D animation, still photography, music and narration)of the Castle’s history. However, the experience was spoiled by a combination of the echoey acoustic of the room and the voices of visitors in the corridor outside. This made it impossible for my mother, who has a hearing aid, to hear. Indeed I found it hard too.

There were a couple of other rooms to visit which told the story, through panels and displays of objects, of the history of Cardigan and also that of the Eisteddfodau in the town. The overall “feel” of these rooms was good. Airy, uncluttered and containing good cases, interesting objects and clear panels. Sadly a couple of interactives had already ceased to work, there was an interactive map which was horizontally mounted (making it inaccessible for children below a certain height or indeed for any wheelchair user) and some of the label text was tiny and mounted far from the objects and down at skirting board level. In a nutshell there were some classic errors made in design and a lack of durability in the interactives.

On a more positive cultural note, as a Welsh speaker I was pleased to see Welsh and English text always had the same point size and emphasis but the Welsh came first and the English second. This is not a nationalist point, rather it is good that a tourist attraction in Wales sees that the language is a. critically of service to locals and b. gives tourists a signal that they are visiting somewhere “different”.

Built into, and growing out of, the walls of the Castle on the town side are a number of buildings which, as part of the restoration, have been resourced for room hire and for accommodation. Although £12 million has been spent on reclaiming this iconic castle from the clutches of nature there is no secured revenue funding and the whole project needs to income-generate to survive. So, once again, as in the 12th century, Cardigan Castle will become a centre for cultural events for visitors. Despite some teething problems with displays and technology I think Lord Rhys would have been pleased….

From Here To Eternity

A couple of months back my 14 year old son, Conor, came home from Scouts with information about a bus trip to the WWI battlefields of The Somme and Flanders. Now those of you who know me know that I am a highly social animal. However, on this occasion, I didn’t fancy a four day trip with a group of adults (and children) who I didn’t know. Nothing against them , I just didn’t fancy it.

So my wife suggested Conor and I go on our own in Sheldon (our 28 year old VW campervan). The main reasons for us going were threefold: 1. Conor was studying WWI in his history lessons, 2. I felt a need to explore this history further, and 3. my eldest son was busy revising for A-levels, so it would be good to give him a week’s “clear water” with no distractions in the house.

And so the die was cast.

Not knowing anything about the geography of WWI I turned to that fount of all knowledge, Facebook, to ask my friends if any of them had any advice/experience. Turns out rather a lot of them had! I received useful input from a number of friends who suggested areas to camp and places to visit. Some even lent me books and tour guides to help with my planning. It became evident that there was too much to do/see in the time we had, so I focussed on four things I felt we absolutely must visit. Mametz Wood, Lochnagar Crater, Menin Gate and Hedd Wyn’s grave.

The first and last of these have a particular Welsh resonance which I will come to later. Lochnagar Crater, in La Boiselle, is one of the largest man-made craters in existence and was created by the detonation of explosives packed into tunnels beneath the German frontline. Having read “Birdsong” I felt we had to witness the aftermath of mine warfare. The Menin Gate is in the ancient walls of the Belgian city of Ieper (better known by its French name of Ypres) and is a monument to thousands of men for whom there is no grave.

As Conor attends a Welsh-medium high school, where all lessons are conducted through the medium of Welsh, I wanted him to view WWI through the lens of Welsh regiments and individuals. Mametz Wood was the scene of bitter fighting and heavy loss by 38th Welsh Division and Hedd Wyn was the bardic name of Ellis Evans, a farmer’s son from Trawsfynydd who was a celebrated poet.

So, with Sheldon set for camping (and having had a new handbrake cable and brake cylinders fitted), we hit the road on the Tuesday after the half term Bank Holiday. Bound for Dover.

Conor and Sheldon await the ferry to Calais
Conor and Sheldon await the ferry to Calais

An uneventful drive and a flat-calm Channel crossing put us in Calais with another two hour trip to reach The Somme. Conor proved to be an effective navigator as I concentrated on not hitting oncoming traffic head-on.

I was a little nervous as I didn’t know what the Camping Bellevue campsite was like (it was the only one anywhere near Albert, which is where we wanted to be) but it turned out to be set in beautiful countryside in a protected natural environment. As we approached the village of Authuille (where the camp site was situated) the roads became narrower and the number of vehicles for me to hit became fewer. We began to see enormous monuments through the trees and across the rolling farmland. The kind of monuments one would expect to see in inner city London, not in a national park. The closest village to Authuille was Thiepval, a name I remember from reading about WWI battles. But we pushed on and arrived at Camping Bellevue with enough time to set up camp and cook a pasta supper.

The owner was a jolly farmer who spoke not a word of English but seemed not to mind our appallingly bad knowledge of French. We communicated effectively enough for him to tell us that we were in a special environment for wildlife and that we would see many sites the next day. The camp site lived up to its name as we had clear views across the river Ancre to the woodland beyond and the only sound we could hear was that of birdsong, including a cuckoo in the distance (funny how cuckoos are always in the distance and never close up).
So ended day one of our adventure.

We were right in the middle of The Somme.

Next morning we packed up, bade the farmer a sincere “merci” and drove out of the campsite. As soon as we turned onto the road we saw a sign for “Authuille Military Cemetery” so we turned off the road again and parked up. The cemetery was on a hillside that dropped down to the river Ancre.

The very beautiful and peaceful Authuille Cemetery
The very beautiful and peaceful Authuille Cemetery

One of the comments in the visitor book (which every cemetery has in an alcove at the entrance, together with a map showing all the names of those interred within), said that it was the most beautiful cemetery they had visited. And so it turned out for us. The regimented ranks of white headstones, neatly mown grass, perennial plants and overhanging trees made it feel more like a park than a place where lay the broken bodies of three hundred men. Men who faced unimaginable horror.

We were to see many more of these...
We were to see many more of these…

As we were to find throughout our trip, this juxtaposition of peace and violence permeates everything here. It is at the same time unsettling and reassuring, sad yet uplifting.

It wasn't just British Nationals who died here

It wasn’t just British Nationals who died here

We jumped back into Sheldon and headed off for the Thiepval Memorial which was about a mile away. It was huge. It would not have been out of place in the heart of a major city.

Thiepval Memorial. Conor for scale...
Thiepval Memorial. Conor for scale…

So here, in a clearing in a small wood, with gently rolling arable farmland all around, it had great presence. The base, upon which stood a tall tower, was approximately 30 feet high and, as we walked towards it, seemed clad in plain white limestone. As we got closer we began to see that every square inch of this seemingly blank canvas was incised with the names of 78,000 men who died in Somme battles but for whom there is no grave.

Thousands and thousands of names
Thousands and thousands of names

78,000 men blown to pieces and/or buried beneath the cloying mud until farmers or builders uncover them in future years. That is equivalent to the population of the City of Bath just wiped off the face of the earth. It was a powerful symbol and we spent some time quietly walking under and around it.

From here we drove to La Boiselle, again very close by, to visit the Lochnagar Crater. This is an enormous crater which was created when British miners detonated thousands of pounds of explosives directly beneath German lines. It’s difficult to explain the size of it, but imagine watching a news report about a truck bomb in somewhere like Iraq and seeing the crater that makes. Imagine something a hundred times bigger and you might be close to Lochnagar Crater.

DSCF1166
Lochnagar Crater

I wanted us to see this as I have read “Birdsong” and found it to be the most upsetting, claustrophobic, yet compelling of novels. In front of us was an example of exactly the kind of mine warfare that Sebastian Faulkes so graphically described. The geology here is basically chalk and flint. Everywhere, on the farmland around, are flint nodules set in the crumbly light brown and white soil. I picked up a small nodule to take home as a reminder. Something solid as a stimulus to memory. I guess that’s the purpose of memorials.

On our way to our final destination of the day, Mametz Wood, we happened upon a sign to the Canadian Cemetery at Sunken Road. Intrigued we turned down what was a rutted, unmetalled, farm track. Sheldon’s suspension was sorely tested but, after 300 yards, we came to two separate walled cemeteries which seemed to float above the green wheat fields in which they sat.

Cemeteries in fields of wheat...
Cemeteries in fields of wheat…
Canadian Cemetery, Sunken Road
Canadian Cemetery, Sunken Road
Sheldon almost camouflaged...
Sheldon almost camouflaged…

This is the way of war cemeteries, we found. I guess the logistics of collecting bodies and bringing them to one huge cemetery are too difficult, so they erect them where the soldiers fell. Even if it means that they are cheek by jowl with productive farmland. The past is never far away from the present in The Somme.

I took one or two photographs to share with my Canadian cousins and we then retraced our bouncy steps to the road. Onwards to Mametz Wood

Our last stop for the day, before the hour’s drive north to Ieper, Mametz was the largest wood in The Somme. Given its position on a slight ridge, and the cover it provided its German occupiers, it was a key strategic target for the British during the first Battle of The Somme.

Between the 7th and 10th July 1916 the 38th Welsh Division fought to take the wood. Thinking they were up against poorly-trained conscripts the Welsh advanced across the low ground. Unfortunately for them the wood was held by battle-hardened German troops who opened fire from the front and sides. From what I have read it sounded like the archetypal mowing down of troops in a pointless assault. The British Army generals accused the Welsh of cowardice in retreating after early failures to take the objective. By the time the wood was taken 4000 men lay dead or wounded. One battalion (14th Swansea Battalion) entered the wood with 676 men but lost 400 killed or wounded.

The poet Robert Graves fought in the battle and later wrote of the aftermath: “It was full of dead Prussian Guards, big men, and dead Royal Welch Fusiliers and South Wales Borderers, little men. Not a single tree in the wood remained unbroken”.

The excellent publication “Call Them To Remembrance” by Gwyn Prescott is an account of the Welsh rugby internationals who died in WWI. Some of them met their grisly end in Mametz Wood. It is an imprint of Welsh Academic Press and well worth a read.
We stood at the base of the monument to the fallen and looked across the low ground to the wood and decided to see if we could access it.

Er Cof. Memorial to the fallen at Mametz Wood
Er Cof. Memorial to the fallen at Mametz Wood

Crossing the killing fields, now yet another blanket of dark green wheat, we entered the wood. We could just make out the pockmarked surface of the ground underneath its shroud of bramble and ivy. Strikingly, in amongst the tall trees, we began to see individual wreaths, red dragons and flags placed amongst the vegetation and some even nailed to the trees themselves. This place obviously has strong resonances for family members to this day. It was an inspiring thing to see.

And so on to an hour and a half’s raucous thrum of Sheldon’s diesel engine as we headed northwards to Ieper (Ypres) for our next two nights stay. We were heading to Flanders with only three set targets. Find the poet Hedd Wyn‘s grave, visit the In Flanders Fields museum and witness the Menin Gate ceremony…

We arrived in good time at the Camping Jeugsdtation which is a very well organised (perhaps too well organised…) campsite a 10 minute walk from the Centre of Ieper. I highly recommend it but book ahead!

After a nice meal in a restaurant in the main square of Ieper, within sight of the Menin Gate, we returned to our trusty steed/kitchen/bedroom and settled down for the night, wondering what the next day would bring.

I’d decided that, for the morning of our last full day, we would first visit the In Flanders Fields Museum. I felt that it might better inform our understanding of what happened, where, and when. I was not to be disappointed. At the ticket desk we were each given a white rubber wrist band with a red poppy shape looking like the face of a watch. We had to scan this device across a reader and then use a keyboard and touchscreen to enter our names, ages and home addresses. This subsequently allowed us to unlock personally-specific information in some of the displays. It was a clever bit of tech and it really drew one in to the whole experience.

The museum had a dark feel to it, in lighting and decorative terms. Understandable, given the subject matter. Excellent interactive panels, maps and videos oriented us in the landscape. Superb collections of objects helped explain the pre-war social history of the area and the terrible events that followed.
All in all it was one of the best arranged and interpreted museums I have ever visited (and I have worked in museums for over 20 years). However, halfway through I came across a small display of trench warfare hand-to-hand combat weapons (within a wider display of trench warfare and life). There were clubs and maces better suited to a mediaeval exhibition, daggers and stilettos of every description and, critically for me, a knuckleduster with a 3 inch stiletto blade pointing straight out of it. This case, and this object in particular, pushed me over the edge. I really couldn’t take any more. It was the realisation that someone actually used this fist-held device and simultaneously punched and stabbed other human beings in order to not be killed himself. This brought home to me the close-up brutality of the whole war.

This is not a negative comment on the museum. Far from it. It told the story of the Great War very sensitively and I recommend it to anyone. But the relentless presentation of objects of death and destruction was too much. So I made an excuse to Conor and we left. Illuminated but immeasurably saddened.

Our final target for the day was Hedd Wyn’s grave. Hedd Wyn (Blessed Peace) was the bardic name adopted by Ellis Humphrey Evans, a farmer’s son from Trawsfynydd in North Wales. He was a poet. He went, reluctantly (to avoid his younger brother being conscripted), to war and is now better known as a war poet.

After his basic training he returned home for furlough. It was during this time that he wrote an “awdl” (a long, ornate poem in an ancient tradition) called “Yr Arwr” (The Hero) as his entry for the National Eisteddfod of 1917. He entered it under the nom de plume “Fleur de Lys”.

At the Eisteddfod the Archdruid called out three times for Fleur de Lys to make himself known. He was then told that Hedd Wyn had died six weeks earlier in an attack on Pilckem Ridge, near Langemark just north of Ieper. The bard’s prize Chair was draped in a black sheet and taken, in that state, to his family’s farm. The 1917 Eisteddfod was forever known as “Eisteddfod y Gadair Ddu” (The Eisteddfod of the Black Chair). As the Archdruid put it “The festival in tears and the poet in his grave”.

In the late 1990s a Welsh language film “Hedd Wyn” became the first British film ever to be nominated for a foreign language Oscar. Conor and I watched it on Youtube (where it is in four parts) before leaving for our trip. I’m glad we did so as it was a good film and very moving.

Whilst the staff at the museum were helpful and told us where to find his grave, they gave us completely the wrong cemetery name! This threw us off for a while until, at Cement House Cemetery, we asked two local workers who were tending the graves. With their help we discovered that the grave was in Artillery Wood Cemetery, not far away. I asked these guys how many cemeteries their team looked after. “In this area?” they said (approx 16sq mile) “150”.

On finding Artillery Wood Cemetery we quickly identified Hedd Wyn‘s grave, thanks to the cemetery map held within a bronze box at the entrance. It was clear, from the signatures and comments in the book of condolence, that we were not the first Welsh family to make a pilgrimage to the poet’s grave.

Hedd Wyn's grave, Artillery Wood Cemetery
Hedd Wyn’s grave, Artillery Wood Cemetery

As we did not have familial links to the Great War I decided that we would pay special respects at Hedd Wyn‘s grave, so I read out one of his poems “Rhyfel” (“War”) which I reproduce below. I intended writing the last line (which is translated into English below) in the book of condolence but more than one visitor had beaten me to it. So I simply wrote “Bachgen Trawsfynydd. Arwr Gymru”.

Rhyfel

Gwae fi fy myw mewn oes mor ddreng,
A Duw ar drai ar orwel pell;
O’i ôl mae dyn, yn deyrn a gwreng,
Yn codi ei awdurdod hell.

Pan deimlodd fyned ymaith Dduw
Cyfododd gledd i ladd ei frawd;
Mae sŵn yr ymladd ar ein clyw,
A’i gysgod ar fythynnod tlawd.

Mae’r hen delynau genid gynt
Ynghrog ar gangau’r helyg draw,
A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt,
A’u gwaed yn gymysg efo’r glaw.

The shriek of boys is on the wind,
Their blood is blended in the rain.

Respect paid, we returned to Ieper for the ceremony at the Menin Gate.

Opened in 1927, the Menin Gate sits on the site of an ancient gate into the walled city of Ieper. The Gate is a monument to over 54,000 men who died in the battles of the Ypres Salient and for whom there is no grave. The total figure was 90,000 but there wasn’t enough room on the monument for all the names, so the rest are on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing. A total of 300,000 men died in these battles.

 

Menin Gate
Menin Gate

Buglers from the local Fire Brigade have played The Last Post at the Gate every evening since 1927 at 8pm. Conor and I joined a large crowd to witness this.

Menin Gate ceremony
Menin Gate ceremony

As the buglers played and the crowd observed a minute’s silence, I looked at the thousands of names carved into the limestone above and around me. It was too much to take in so my gaze stopped at the name of one Private Agate of the Australian Artillery. As the silence continued I tried to imagine Private Agate. What did he do before the war? When was he killed? How did he die? Does his family ever visit this place? In thinking about the one, I hope I thought of the many.

The ceremony ended and Conor and I headed back to Sheldon for our final evening in Belgium.
The whole trip was emotionally draining. I do not regret going but I’m glad we only spent a short time there.

As we drove into the port of Calais we had a modern reminder of how conflict can effect ordinary people. To the right of the elevated road that took us through the controlled area there are sand dunes. In those dunes were many tents and makeshift tarpaulin-covered shacks filled with illegal immigrants desperate to cross to the UK. Displaced people wanting to survive and make a new life for themselves. No doubt the four years of WWI created similar tides of the dispossessed. This became a final codicil to our journey and simply added to my melancholy.

I was glad to return home to my safe, stable, peaceful, loving home for which I will never be complacent….

Liberty and Taking

About 18 years back my wife bought me a rather fetching tie. Liberty print. A small-scale pattern of blues, whites, pinks and greens. Its texture was lovely and it quickly became my favourite neck adornment. Sadly, due to its popularity, it wore thin and began to lose its structural integrity (essential for any man-about-town’s dress). So it was consigned to a charity shop where, no doubt, it languished for a while before being sent to a clothes recycling plant. No matter, it had done its job and I still remember it fondly.

16 years ago this month (May) my father died. He was a few weeks shy of 81. Born in 1918 he was quite old to have had a kid my age. He served in the Merchant Navy in WWII, was torpedoed and spent time in a POW camp in North Africa. He was a swimmer and a runner all his life. A strong member of his community he was the fittest man of his age you could hope to meet. Even in his late 70s he was running 5 miles a day. Until, out of the blue, a cancer took him after that saddest of euphamisms “a short illness…”.

I picked him up from hospital after the doctors told him there was nothing they could do to fix him. On the way home from Haverfordwest to Newport (Pembrokeshire) I took him on a circuitous route to encompass the roads he used to run on. The valleys he jogged through. The mountain he slowly plodded up. We both knew he wouldn’t see them again but nothing was said. We stopped to pick a sprig of blindingly-yellow gorse to put in a bedside vase. Sadness hung heavy, as it does now as I’m typing. As we drove I oddly thought that the hedgerows were the same colour as my old tie. It’s odd how the mind can focus on the most trivial things at the most crushingly serious times.

He died less than a week later with all 6 of his children around him and his wife, my Mum, beside him.

I have just been down to home to visit Mum, who is now 4 years older than Dad when he died. It is May. Again. The hedges of the Gwaun Valley are a base colour of intense grass greens peppered with the blue of the bluebells, the white stitchwort and the pink campion. Like my Liberty tie.

I’m moved to write this as it is the hedgerows in May that most remind me of my father. And my tie.

My father did his job and I still remember him fondly.

Our Cultural Commons roundtable, Cardiff

I was pleased to be a part of this round table (even though it was rectangular…). Unlike others, where one leaves feeling one has had an intellectual exercise and nothing else, this event left me feeling there was something in the air. Something which would transform the organisation and delivery of voluntary arts at a local level. Don’t ask me what it is, just watch this space…..

Cultural Playing Field

On Friday I was at the beautiful setting of the Norwegian Church in Cardiff Bay for the second of the Our Cultural Commons high-level national policy roundtables. This event was co-hosted for us by Nick Capaldi, Chief Executive of the Arts Council of Wales and included representatives of the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, Literature Wales, Creu Cymru, Cadw (Welsh Government’s historic environment service), National Theatre Wales, Wrexham Borough Council, Rhondda Cynon Taff Council, Disability Arts Cymru, the Adult Learning and the Culture Sector Consultancy and others.

Nick Capaldi opened the discussion by saying he thought Our Cultural Commons “a very interesting proposition in these very challenging times – what it is to sustain and promote local arts and creativity, continuing to make things happen despite difficult circumstances”. He asked what needs to happen to create the environment for this activity to take place. Nick pointed out that if “our…

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