"You can come to Wales and make it your own and be your own person"
During the nineteenth century Vivian & Sons helped Swansea to become one of the world's largest copper producers. The city flourished during this industrial period, with the population increasing by more than 500% from the late seventeenth century to 1801. With the natural port links to Cornwall and Devon, much of, but not all of this immigration, originated from the West Country of England.
The Glynn Vivian Art Gallery is one of the few buildings in Swansea that precede the 20th century’s great conflicts, and therefore one of the few to give any real indication of the city's previous success. Built with funding support from the local philanthropist and art collector, Richard Glynn Vivian, the gallery was closed in 2011 for a planned refurbishment of three years. However, it wasn't until 2016 that it finally reopened its doors to the public.
I have come to the Glynn Vivian art gallery today to meet with local critic, Mark Rees, part of whose family migrated to Wales from England during this same industrial period. Mark was educated in the Welsh language and has spent much of his career observing and commenting on arts and culture in Wales.
Hi Mark. Can you tell us a little about your involvement with the arts here in Swansea, and in Wales in general?
Well, from a professional point of view I work as the 'What's on' Editor of South West Wales media. This includes the 'South Wales Evening Post', 'Swansea Life' magazine, 'The Carmarthen Journal', and the 'Llanelli Star'.
The arts is such a huge subject but I cover the whole lot, theatre, opera, music, visual arts. I try and keep it to things that are going on at the time, so if there is a show or an event or a concert coming up, that's what I'll concentrate on. Then I'll interview the people involved, find out what's happening and why they're happening, and give them a bit of colour. You're almost doing a sales pitch for things because there is so much going on, and especially with the newspapers, there's only so much that can go in. So what you're doing is picking what you think are the best things to tell people about and telling people about my part of Wales.
Of course outside of work I've also got the books, and I do a little bit of radio, a little bit of TV too. On a personal level, like in the books, I will cover other parts of Wales, but usually there has to be a link for the papers.
What are your thoughts on the state of the arts in Wales at this time?
Well for the last few years I think it's been positive and on the up. Certainly sitting in this place is an amazing start. It's a shame it took so long to open, but if it taking so long means that it's so good then I think it was worth it. But that's just a Swansea thing, and Cardiff has already got an amazing gallery from that point of view.
Having the 'Welsh Theatre Awards', which is in Swansea this month actually, is a huge thing again I think. It started small, and now it’s a major part of the cultural calendar. Same with film festivals. There seems to be a film festival every week. I'm very positive at the moment and there's lots of things going on.
The challenge really is getting people to make the most of them. There's things out there but whether or not they've got the audiences for it? Which is down to people like me in the press really to convince people that they should make the effort to go along and that it's worth the money.
What do you feel that the arts in Wales has to offer that's different?
Well, I think that there's personalities that we don’t make the most of really. From a Swansea point of view it was Dylan Thomas in 2014. Yes there was a lot of moaning about Dylan overload, but at the end of the day people were going to theatres more than they would have before. I mean Roald Dahl last year had more people than at any event ever. More than went to the six nations, more than went to see Gareth Bale after the Euros.
But it's only really a hand full of people who would get that sort of draw. There's Dylan, Roald Dahl and everyone knows Tom Jones. So maybe part of it is down to bigging-up some of the lesser known ones, or milking the ones we do have a bit better. But you know Roald Dahl has been and gone now, so we've got to move on to the next one.
Somebody pointed out to me that this year is Frank Brangwyn's 150th anniversary. I think had we known about this from the 1st of January, so that people could start making a fuss straight away [something could have been organised], but now we're in February and it's just starting to come to light. By the time anything gets done it will be Christmas all over again.
I understand that you have moved into publishing your own work more recently. Can you tell us about your new book, 'The Little Book of Welsh Culture'?
Yes! It is a little book, which was the number one challenge of it really. I could quite easily fill 10 books this size just about Tom Jones on his own, just about Dylan on his own. So it was about condensing it all down, and the one big thing I tried to achieve with it, was to lead people in with those big names that I mentioned earlier, but at the same time exposing them to things they might not know about. Yes Tom Jones is in there and yes the Manics are in there, but equally I hope that there are hundreds of things that people wouldn't know about. People might love Super Furry Animals but they might not know Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, and by reading about them together in this book, I hope it helps people to realise that there’s a lot more out there.
So I start in the 6th Century with the birth of the Welsh language, which really is the most fundamental part of the book. [After that] I sort of focused on seven key areas, and what I tried to do is give each section equal space. The first part is 'The Culture of Wales', the language, the flag, what the dragon is about. Everyone loves the dragon but what is it? Then there's 'Welsh Literature', which is self-explanatory. There's one on traditional music ['The Land of Song'], so the chapel/choir singing tradition that we have here, which then goes into orchestras and operas later on. And then there's a section on popular music ['Cool Cymru'], which is where the birth of the music charts comes into it, and the first number ones up to the modern day. Then Visual art ['The Visual Arts of a Nation'], performing arts ['Wales on Stage'], and then 'Film, TV and radio'.
So they're the key areas that I looked at, and hopefully you might look at it for one person, one group or one film, and it might have a knock on effect after that.
In your introduction to the book you make reference to Welsh novelist, Raymond Williams, and quote him as stating that 'culture' is "one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language". You describe yourself as finding that very difficult to disagree with. Why so?
Well 'culture' is one of those ridiculous words really. Just take a look around you, the shoes on our feet could be part of culture, sport is culture, football is culture, plants are culture. There's a wooden spoon here as decoration, that's culture. So when I came to write a book about 'culture', I took a decision to use the word as I see it, which is predominantly 'the arts'. Now technically if you've got a dictionary, that is incorrect. The word ‘culture’ does not mean just 'the arts', it means anything you want it to mean. You can go off to somewhere in Africa and anything they do there is culturally different to what you do, in theory.
So yeah I think Raymond Williams hit the nail on the head there. Where I got off easy is Raymond Williams did actually try and explain that word. But Raymond Williams was a much cleverer man than I am ever going to be. I took the easy option to say: "look this is what I mean by the word", because you'd need 10,000 books that size to be able to explain what the word means.
I believe that you'll be publishing a second book later this year too?
Yes! It's called ‘Ghosts of Wales: Accounts from the Victorian Archives’. I was doing some ghost story stuff last year and everyone talks about the Victorian age as being the golden age of ghost stories where you had writers like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins and the formation of the 'Society for Psychical Research' and all these ghost stories coming out. But really what they mean when they say the 'golden age' is the English golden age, or even more specifically the London golden age. Not many of these stories, except a couple of castles in Scotland, come from outside of England really. So I set myself a test, to see if there were any Welsh ghost stories from that period, not in fiction but actual real stories that people had reported at the time. Because people say that they were always seeing ghosts [during that period], so were they really, or are we looking back through rose-tinted glasses? So I spent a few months going through Victorian newspapers, Welsh Victorian newspapers, to pick out anything with ghosts in. As it turns out there were loads of them. So actually what started out as a feature in a couple of newspapers exploded into a whole book's worth. So that's the next book now, it is going to be [a collection of] records of what was reported at the time as genuine ghost sightings, all from Wales and all from the Victorian period, 1836 - 1901. So if I get a move on that will be out for Halloween.
In terms of Welsh culture do you think there is a limitation to how we're perceived both within and outside of Wales? For example, do we limit ourselves with stereotypes, such as ‘the Welsh as miners’?
There is a stereotype, but weirdly what I've found, I get to travel Europe a lot and I meet a lot of fellow journalists from Australia, America, and Asia, and they don't really know the stereotypes. They know next to nothing. I think the stereotypes are something that we see in the U.K., so I think that the miners and things are something that you might get from England and Scotland. But you go across to France and Switzerland and Germany and they're more like: "Wales is just this place with mountains and stuff". They don't even realise that Tom Jones is Welsh. I think the best I've had is that I was in Germany once and someone asked: '"is that where Ryan Giggs is from"? And that was it, that was their knowledge.
So I don't think that it's so much that we need to try and get away from the stereotypes because I don't think they're really there. It's more about telling people that we exist. To use a sporting analogy again, [after] Euro 2016 people were like: "look at those people with that dragon on their flag". That caught people's attention, so let’s use the dragon if that's what people see and like. So show them what we have got and see what comes of it.
Taking this further, looking specifically at how we perceive ourselves in Wales, and in terms of how you refer to the stereotypes within the wider United Kingdom, do you feel that there is any truth to the perception of Wales as being a parochial country that does not allow for outside influences in its culture?
(Looking through his book) As you can tell this is my well-thumbed version, and unfortunately it's my only one. If you think of Wales [as a] melting pot, [let me give you a few examples].
When I was looking into the Booker prize, I looked into Welsh writers. Bernice Rubens, was the first woman to win the Booker prize*, and from Wales. But, from a Jewish family, Lithuanian father, Polish mother, lived in Cardiff and wrote about Cardiff. Then there’s Jan Morris. She was born in England, but you won’t find a more passionate writer about Wales**.
Also shortlisted were Trezza Azzopardi from Tiger Bay and of Maltese descent, and Nikita Lalwani, born in India, raised in Cardiff. These are either award winning or short-listed authors. All considered themselves Welsh, all are Welsh. But all with very different histories, whether it’s from Lithuania, Poland or England. Which goes to show that you can come to Wales and make it your own and be your own person.~
That's just in literature. You see a lot of it in dance too. 'The National Dance Company' in Wales are very good at bringing influences into it. Dance isn't my specialist subject so I can't be too specific about what they're doing, but you see a lot of world influences there.
And I love it when people put their own spin on things like the Mabinogion. I compare it to opera - the purists don't want things to have changed since 1724. The problem is that after 2, 3, 4, 500 years of doing it it's all the same thing over and over and over again. If you don't put your own stamp on it then it's not going to be worth much. And in Wales I think we're doing that, taking things that we might be familiar with and putting a more modern stamp on it.
So do you feel that traditional Welsh culture can live side by side and be positively influenced by these different cultures and move forward together?
Yes! In fact I'd go one step further and say we have to. The more the better. If you try something and fail then it’s soon forgotten and nobody thinks about it again. Experiments aren’t always great. But if it does work then it might be the next masterpiece. I'm very much of that punk-rock DIY ethic really.
The #WeAreWales campaign seeks to represent Wales as a multicultural and multi-ethnic country of varied ancestry and that is welcoming to others. What are your thoughts on this?
If you’d asked me that question 10 years ago I would have said yes, without a shadow of a doubt, 100% yes.
But if we're going to be political about it, my old beliefs that Wales will always “keep a welcome”, that we’ll always be a left-leaning working class heartland, have been shaken a bit in the last few years.
What really surprised me about Brexit wasn’t so much the fact that the UK voted to leave the EU, it’s the fact that Wales voted to leave the EU. Scotland didn’t, Northern Ireland didn’t, and I feel like we’ve let the side down, and shot ourselves in the foot at the same time.
But I also tend to be an optimist, and I don't think anything has irrevocably changed. I understand people’s frustrations, and I think we’re still good people at heart. Wales is still a very welcoming country, and I hope what we’ve seen recently is just a temporary blip.
* You can purchase Bernice Ruben's Booker Prize winning novel, 'The Elected Member' here
** Jan Morris was born James Humphrey Morris on the 2nd October 1926 in Clevedon, England. Born to an English mother and Welsh father Jan has openly defined herself as Welsh throughout her career. She has been published as Jan Morris since transitioning from living as a man to a woman in 1972.
Whilst reporting for The Times in 1953 Jan Morris accompanied the British Mount Everest Expedition on their successful summit of Mount Everest. Later, in 1956, she was the first person to produce "irrefutable proof" of collusion between the French and Israeli governments in their invasion of Egyptian territory.
You can purchase Jan Morris' Booker prize shortlisted book, 'Last Letters from Hav', here.
~ You can purchase Trezza Azzopadi's, Booker Prize shortlisted book, 'The Hiding Place', here. Nikita Lalwani's debut novel, 'Gifted', was also long-listed for the Booker prize and shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award in 2008.
'The Little Book of Welsh Culture' is published by the History Press and can be purchased in paper or digital format here.
You can also follow Mark's Twitter account @ReviewWales where you will be updated about his future publications.
If you are interested in being interviewed for this series then you can contact me via the website, or else on Twitter @WalesBLOGlet. I want to meet people from throughout Wales and I'm happy to travel.