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….

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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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Happy St. David’s Day!

Dydd Gwyl Dewi Hapus!

It seems an appropriate/auspicious date on which to post a blog about another famous Welshman, Dylan Thomas.

I was commissioned, by the Museums Association, to review The Dylan Thomas Centre’s new permanent exhibition on Dylan Thomas. The review will be in this month’s Museums Journal (out today) but here it is too:

So, to begin at the beginning….

Dylan Thomas famously dubbed Swansea an “ugly lovely town” and this rings true as one approaches the Dylan Thomas Centre, situated beside the fishboat bobbing marina. This part of Swansea is still undergoing development and the car park, and its environs, could do with upgrading to create a better impression. However, the Dylan Thomas Centre itself is an attractive pile, constructed of honey-coloured limestone.

On entering, the staff are friendly and welcoming and exude a pride in their work and their workplace. They oriented me, pointing out the Dylan Thomas exhibition and the temporary exhibition and education spaces.

First impressions of the new permanent display, telling the story of Thomas’ life and works, are of a rather traditional, if shiny and new, space. A circular gallery chronologically arranged from, on the right, Thomas’ birth round (anti-clockwise) to his tragically early death in New York. One can see many tabletop glass cases and text on walls. “Oh dear” I thought.

However, how does one tell the story of a writer if not through his, and others’, writings? So I liberally sprinkled benefit over my doubt and began to engage with the exhibition…

The walls are peppered with quotes from the appropriate stage of the exhibition’s story (a timeline stretches along the edge of the ceiling from start to finish) and these begin to draw visitors in to the unravelling tale. “The memories of childhood have no order, and no end” struck a chord with me as did the description of the Kardomah Gang “…drinking coffee dashes and arguing the toss” (which could easily have described the MA Conference in Cardiff. Apart from the coffee…).

Throughout the space there are flip-up panels which invite inspection. They reveal further quotes, facts, and general information and, whilst a simple idea, the physicality actually enhanced the experience. There are smaller, lower, flip-up panels whose contents are more abstract and I was puzzled by these as there is no explanation of what they are for (one assumes they are for children and/or wheelchair users but this is not obvious).

Working further around the timeline one reaches a seating area where one can use headphones to hear Dylan Thomas’ writings in his own words. This was a special moment as I had only heard one or two recordings of his before. The headphones are essential in this position as there is significant sound “bleed” from an art installation around the corner which makes the exhibition feel more alive but also, sadly, does annoy slightly.

I was blown away to learn of his association with the Surrealist movement and his links with Dali, Picasso etc. It is this kind of informational gem which this exhibition delivers.

The whole exhibition is design-heavy, with objects, graphic panels and labels combined. It is, on the whole, a good design but there are one or two zones where it is difficult to make the link between object and label.

The designers have made the exhibition as interactive as possible (a challenge given the nature of the written word, photographs and other printed ephemera) with touch screens and flip-up panels. A model of a radio engages visitors in selecting, via a rotating knob, different broadcasts of Dylan Thomas’. I found this informative and entertaining until my selected broadcast ended and the radio emitted a loud, sustained hiss which I could not switch off (I sloped off, hoping no one noticed me…). All exhibitions featuring such interactivity are going to suffer from wear and tear and perhaps this is what’s happening here.

The art installation in the centre of the gallery mixes video and audio from various broadcasts of his works into an immersive experience with the visitor standing in the middle of three video screens. I found this piece a welcome artistic accompaniment to the rest of the informative gallery. Working further round one comes to objects associated with his most famous work “Under Milkwood”. They are held in cases whose design is redolent of medieaval reliquaries. Given the nature of the cases’ contents I felt this was highly appropriate and, hopefully, intentional.

Throughout the exhibition there is, where possible, primary source material which either was created by the hand of Thomas or is closely associated with him, his family and his story. Understandably, since his death, a great deal of other primary source material has been acquired by other collectors and it was wonderful to see this addressed through the temporary exhibition gallery close by which, at the time of this visit, contained a fascinating set of original writing from an American University’s collections.

The exhibition reaches a poignant end with a case showing Thomas’ tweed jacket and trousers and, finally, his death mask. I found this, and the photograph of the poet in his coffin, terrifically moving. It stimulated me to find out even more about the great man.

As a proud Welshman I was more than a little ashamed at my ignorance of the spectrum of Dylan Thomas’ work. Perhaps more than any other Welshman Dylan Thomas belongs to the world. This exhibition, despite minor glitches, admirably introduces visitors to his life, times and works. It takes them from his cheeky happy childhood, through his creative blossoming and, finally, on to 9 November 1953 when he died aged only 39.

Do Not Go Gentle

You know when a few, seemingly disparate, things come together in one’s mind? Well that’s how I feel today. Museums, music and dementia.

A friend of mine on Facebook (he’s actually also a real friend and not just one in a social media context. I do have a few…) posted a moving video of what is being regarded as Glen Campbell’s “last song“. It’s a ballad recorded very recently and, almost immediately thereafter he has moved into 24 hour care as he has now entered the final stages of Alzheimer’s.

Glenn Campbell is one of the greatest guitarists and song writers, of any genre, of any time. Before he stepped out on his own he had been a member of The Wrecking Crew, an in-house band of musicians who are the actual players on hundreds of other, more famous artists’ albums. (The story of The Wrecking Crew is fascinating and I’d urge you to check it out if you can).

But Alzheimer’s, and any other cause of dementia, does not respect creativity and fame. Its insidious tendrils fan out through the brain and, slowly but steadily, they switch off the lights as they go (watch Grayson Perry’s excellent Channel 4 programme “Who Are You” for a typical, yet hugely moving, case study).

I was fortunate, a couple of months back, to attend a session at the conference of the Group for Education in Museums which looked at how museums can provide services to people with dementia. The “Portal To The World” workshops at The Fitzwilliam Museum were an excellent example of museums being used as safe, creative places where both people with dementia (I hate the phrase “dementia sufferers” and the implied sense of pity that comes with it) AND their carers could come together and make, talk, see, hear, discover, be……

Such programmes cannot easily be put together and need collaboration between museum and specialists. However, when it works it really works!

This is where Dylan Thomas comes in. Having seen the story about Glen Campbell and having experienced the work some museums are doing, it got me thinking about his famous poem “Do Not Go Gentle“. I have always associated that with the sense of loss that one feels when a loved one dies. The anger it generates. The raging against “the dying of the light”. But I now view it as a call, not to anger, but to action. In the context of dementia (and I’m not going to give it the honour of a capital “D”) it is the call to not give up. To find that spark of creativity in all of us and keep nurturing it until the very last.

Whilst I’m pretty sure no one reading this blog will have the impact of Glen Campbell in their lifetime, we are all creative beings. We can all benefit from activity in a museum/art gallery context.

So, whether you are the lineman for the county or the linesman for your local rugby team, however frail your deeds have been, however often you caught and sang the sun in flight, when dementia comes knocking I hope that your rage can take you to a better, creative place and that you blaze like a meteor and be gay.

Ooh! Get EU!!

A few years ago I was very fortunate to be offered the opportunity to undertake a study visit to Sweden, under the (then) Arion Scheme (EU funding for “mobilities”). This enabled me to spend a week learning about the Swedish Folk High School model of adult learning. I had not heard of it before but I was blown away by its simultaneous simplicity and depth of impact.

The Folk High School model was invented by Nicolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig, a Danish polymath, in the late 19th century. In essence it was based on the German philosophical concept of “Bildung” which was about the development of the human individual in the round, not just as someone to be trained for a particular job. Cultural learning is an important part of the Folk High School system.

The latest round of funding for such mobilities has just been launched. This is now under the Erasmus+ scheme.

If you want to secure funding to allow you to travel to other EU countries to expand your personal and professional horizons, I’d urge you to apply. This strand of Erasmus+ is for adult learning professionals. Quite clear cut if you work in an adult learning institution. If you work in the cultural sector, but focus on adult learning and learners, I’d be interested to see you securing this funding. Let me know how you get on!

Bon chance!

Greenman. What Next?

Bit late with this one, seeing as Greenman Festival was about a month ago, but I have been very busy since (honest).

For the uninitiated, Greenman Festival is a musical and artistic smorgasbord served up in the stunning scenery of the Brecon Beacons in Glanusk estate near Crickhowell. Surely there is no better backdrop to a mainstage than Greenman’s?

I have attended this festival, with my family, for the past four years and have experienced the gamut of weathers and emotions. However, one thing is for sure, we never leave Greenman without having learned something new. A new band discovered, a new joke gleaned from the comedy tent, a new (and usually very tasty) food, and the usual collection of soon-to-be-regretted festival tat (ponchos, felt hats, native American birthing blankets woven from the finest garlic etc etc etc).

On the music side, this year I was blown away by performances by Jonathan Wilson, Mercury Rev who performed their “Deserter’s Songs” album in its entirety), First Aid Kit (great band, silly name. I mean, there wasn’t a triangular bandage in sight anywhere!), Kurt Vile, The Waterboys and The Gentle Good.

I go to this festival to unwind. To enjoy the music and a few beers in the shadow of Crug Hywel and Llangattock Hill. Not to work. Certainly not to network. But that’s what happened on day 2 of Greenman.

We were sitting in our beloved VW campervan, called “Sheldon”, discussing what we would go and see that day, when my wife pointed out a session called “What Next?”. It was a 45 minute panel discussion in the Babbling Tongues (spoken word tent) and was billed as: “…a movement bringing together arts and cultural organisations from across the UK,to articulate and strengthen the role of culture in our society”.

“Sounds interesting” I said. I’ll just dust off my felt hat, don my poncho and be off…

What Next?” is a “movement”.  A loose (not in the biblical sense) association of individuals and organisations who want to discuss the role of the arts and culture in today’s society. Given recent funding cuts to the arts and culture (with surely more to follow) this movement is potentially highly valuable to helping raise the public profile of arts and culture.

It was a stimulating discussion. So much so that I have now started to attend the What Next “chapters” (sounds a bit masonic but I assure you there wasn’t a bare kneecap to be seen). For me it is early days but I will continue to engage with this movement. I’d urge you to check it out too. The more the merrier!

Missing the point

Two Lib Dem stories in the press this week have reduced me to a quivering, fuming wreck. Firstly Nick Clegg announces a commitment to investment in treatment for mental illness. “What’s wrong with that?” I hear you cry across the ether. Surely this is a good idea? Well done Nick! Well yes, it is broadly to be welcomed but his emphasis on “treatment” and anti-depressant drugs development is, to use a hoary old chestnut, bolting the door after the horse has already fiddled his expenses (oops, bit of politics there…).

Adult learning has been proven, time and time again, to have significant benefits to participants’ mental health. Adult learning is a low-cost, high-impact solution to many mild to moderate mental health issues. Anxiety, agoraphobia, depression etc. Look at Manchester Museum and IWM North’s “In Touch” volunteer programme which was simply designed to get local community members to volunteer in the museums. An unexpected result was that some became less reliant on prescription medication and others even returned to employment.

This paper from NIACE, back in 2003, expresses the impact of adult learning on mental health too. This is nothing new. The research is out there. Nick Clegg is to be lauded for raising the profile of mental health issues but he, and all parties, need to develop a deeper understanding of the BEST ways to tackle many mental illnesses.

The drugs don’t work for everyone….

The second Lib Dem faux pas (and I hasten to add I would be as exercised about this if any other political party said these things) is Peter Black MP’s quotes in today’s Telegraph re the Welsh Government’s record of effectiveness through the Communities First programme.

Communities First is a very expensive economic and social development programme for the poorest areas of Wales. It has cost in the region of £400 million over 12 years. There are many who question its effectiveness but Peter Black has chosen to illustrate this by questioning the worth of a tattoo art course (costing £170 per person) in Bridgend. He says, of the course and fees, “These funds are being allocated to create sustainable communities and to get people into work. It is difficult to see how this venture can be justified in those terms”.

Well, putting the big picture of Communities First to one side Mr Black, why are you picking on a perfectly appropriate course which not only engages adults who have not been in education for a long time, but also introduces them to a potentially lucrative career!? Art, of whatever type, has the power to empower. Tattoo art has the power to employ.

Once again, politicians, please engage your brains before engaging your mouths. Adult learning in, and through, the culture sector makes a difference. Stop knocking it and start funding it….

Grrr…..

It’s not rocket science (actually, some of it is!)

National Science & Engineering Week commissioned andco to produce a review of the event and recommend future developments. It identified that women, some ethnic groups and lower socio-economic groups were disproportionately under-represented (compared to UK population demographics). It also found a need for events to be organised where people were, rather than expecting participants to visit science centres, and a need for much better marketing. The excellent report is much more detailed and analytical but, demographics aside, how often do event organisers assume people will come to them? How many event organisers put 90% of effort into building events and only 10% into marketing? Sadly the voice in Kevin Costner’s head in “Field of Dreams” was wrong. If you build it, they will not necessarily come…