Picks of 2023: Catherine Kirwan, Richard Parfitt and Carole Hailey
Israel’s horrific war in Gaza eclipsed all other news in the closing months of 2023, including the savage October 7th attacks by Hamas. It will take generations to even begin to repair the damage but a ceasefire would be a start.
Published just shy of thirty years since the 1994 IRA ceasefire, Martin Doyle’s memoir ‘Dirty Linen’ is an empathetic and ultimately hopeful analysis of the devastating impact of the troubles in the author’s home parish.
Sally Hayden’s ‘My Fourth Time We Drowned’ is another essential non-fiction read amidst the noise about small boats.
In live music, the Sounds from A Safe Harbour Festival (Cork, September) was so good it made me think I’d died and gone to heaven. Other music highlights were John Grant Sings the Songs of Patsy Cline at the National Concert Hall in Dublin (also September), Ron Sexsmith at Triskel Cork in April and Martin Hayes and Common Ground Ensemble Live at St.Luke’s in Cork in October.
In visual art, Corban Walker’s ‘As Far As I Can See’ at Crawford Art Gallery Cork was special. In theatre, Druid O’Casey in Galway in July was unforgettable. Paul Mescal and Patsy Ferran excelled in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (the Almeida at the Phoenix) in March.
I very much enjoyed seeing Frank O’Connor prize winner Carys Davies return in April for Cork World Book Festival in an interview by Sarah Harte (with David Constantine) and I eagerly await Carys’s new novel ‘Clear’ (coming March 2024).
2023 was a vintage year for crime with too many good books to mention but among many others I loved Dennis Lehane’s ‘Small Mercies’, Mick Herron’s ‘The Secret Hours’, Catherine Ryan Howard’s ‘The Trap’, Jane Casey’s ‘The Close’, Liz Nugent’s ‘Strange Sally Diamond’ and Andrea Mara’s ‘No One Saw A Thing’.
Richard John Parfitt
Standing on the corner of Commercial Street in Newport listening to Commercial Street by Jon Langford & the Men of Gwent through my in-ear headphones, I feel like I’m in some kind of time warp.
Apart from the numerous vape and charity shops that seem to dominate, you are as likely to find a store boarded up as open. Mountains of eiderdowns and blankets are piled up and set back in doorways.
Everybody waiting for the storm to pass. ‘No one gives a shit, around here,’ a vaper sitting on a piece of cardboard says to me, as a great guff of something sickly and sweet envelops my head.
I have no money for a bottle
Cigarettes or food to eat
I move swiftly on the cold wind
Blowing down Commercial Street
The Men of Gwent beg to differ, and as evidence offer up Lost on Land & Sea, a record that concerns itself with the lost history of place.
It’s very much a collaborative effort, as in Ruby, a song sung by guitar player Matt Gray about Newport’s Ruby Loftus, who worked as a lathe operator in the Royal Ordnance Factory during WW2.
Celebrated as the UK’s answer to Rosie the Riveter, an iconic image of Ruby painted by Laura Knight now hangs in the Imperial War Museum.
Men from the ministry doubted her skills
She sent them packing back to Woolwich Arsenal
You get the impression that during the writing of the album, the Men of Gwent must have trawled the microfiches and newspapers of the local reference library looking for source material, such as Mrs Hammer’s Dream, a pop ballad sung sublimely by Julian Hayman and Lily Grey – a song that reimagines the sorry tale of five year old Tommy Jones who went missing, probably abducted, and whose lifeless body was eventually discovered after a gardener’s wife from Brecon had a vision in a dream.
Mr Hammer found the spot exactly where she said
High on a ridge by Pen y Fan
Originally from Newport but living in Chicago since the early 1990s, Jon Langford has had a long and prolific career as a widely exhibited visual artist, cartoonist, raconteur, political activist and celebrated songwriter. If Lost on Land & Sea is a collaborative record made by a collective of Newport musicians led by the creative force that is Langford, then its strength is in the diversity of voice and songs. Whether it be the mythical and mystical undercurrents of Lost in Wentwood, or the portentous toil of Black Gold at 6 Bells, they just keep coming at you. Everyone a zinger.
The ballad, the country rocker, and even an anthemic Ghost Light: a song that mentions Newport’s worthy successor to the Legendary TJ’s – Le Pub. Written during lockdown, the ‘ghost light’ alludes to the single bulb that hangs above the stage in an empty theatre.
This symbol of hope and guiding light back from the uncertainty of dark times even namechecks the owner, Sam Dabb, whose name, like John Sicola before her, has become synonymous with the venue itself.
The ghost light shines, just like a nascent sun
Shines on everyone
Wide eyed and drunk, I’ll see you down the front
Later that day, walking across Town Bridge and listening to a song about a ‘missing mother’ most likely lost to the water, I stop to take in the view. From the copper dome of the old Art College to the mudbanks that lead to the Transporter Bridge and then the wind turbines I had not seen before.
With the River Daughter singing in my ears I see a bright green Samaritans’ notice pinned to the railings and remember an article I’d read on marketing and the importance of choosing where to place your advert in order to reach your target audience.
The immediacy of the message stopped me in my tracks. There were others too. Homemade and coloured in with felt tip pens. ‘Sometimes Even to Live is an Act of Courage’.
The community reaching out. The town coming together. A moment of grace.
Jon Langford & the Men of Gwent: Lost on Land & Sea Available from Country Mile Records.
2023 has been a wonderful reading year with many memorable books being published. However, one book is not only easily my book of the year, but my book of the decade.
In Ascension by Martin MacInnes is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read, plunging readers into the depths of the ocean where all life began, before flinging us up into cosmos.
Despite its epic scale, at its heart In Ascension illuminates our shared humanity and reminds us how fragile and precious is our very existence. Longlisted for the Booker Prize (in my opinion, it should have won!) In Ascension has recently been named Blackwell’s Book of the Year. I concur.
The Green Man Festival is a regular fixture in our family (although the woeful ticketing system provides hours of untold stress as each year one unlucky soul draws the short straw to try and secure tickets).
Green Man 2023 was wet. Friday’s rainfall was torrential, but the skies cleared for the weekend, the mud dried, and this most reliable of festivals lived up to its reputation for great music, great food, great beer and wonderfully chilled punters.
Particular highlights were Goat – the Swedish alt and experimental fusion band – who perform wearing costumes resembling a folktale fever dream, and Sudan Archives – an uber-talented violinist and singer-songwriter – who performed an absolutely mesmerising set on the final evening.
It was my turn to wait in the queue for tickets a couple of months ago and now the nightmare of that day is finally fading, I say: roll on 2024.
Podcasts are writ large on my cultural radar this year.
My debut novel came out in February and I was very fortunate to record an episode of Chloe Timm’s fabulous Confessions of a Debut Novelist podcast. Chloe – who was herself a debut novelist in 2022 – interviews novelists about their experiences of having their first book published and it was a joy (and a privilege) to spend time chatting to her.
Whether you’re an author or a reader, this is a fabulous podcast which gives a no-holds barred insight into the many, many ways writers arrive at the point of having a book published.
The other podcast I’ve been listening to a lot is the Empire podcast hosted by historian William Dalrymple and TV and radio presenter Anita Anand.
Now into its fifth series (on the Empires of Iran) the combination of depth of research and knowledge, the expertise of the guests and the wonderful chemistry between the two presenters has made this my go-to podcast on every car journey this year.
If you had told me back in January that I would spend almost four hours listening to the history of the Koh-I-Noor diamond, I would have thought it more likely that I would wear the diamond.
But William and Anita make this (and every other subject they cover) compulsive, shocking, informative, entertaining and at times, very funny. History at its absolute best.
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