Picks of 2023: Del Hughes, Mike Parker and Rhiannon Lewis
Obviously, I understand why ‘impulse control’ and ‘delayed gratification’ are lauded as positive traits that we should all aspire to.
But my restraint has always been patchy – a Joe’s Sundae can knock me off the healthy eating bandwagon for months – and these days, middle-aged and with a hastening sense of my own mortality, I’m hesitant to delay anything, pleasure in particular.
Which is why I rarely explore a new (to me), author if they don’t have at least a couple more books in their locker . . . logic being, if I love it, I’ll want to devour the rest of their canon post-haste.
So, it was doubly lucky that I stumbled upon C. K. McDonnell’s, The Stranger Times.
Not only were there another two books in the series (with the fourth due in January – huzzah!), but a quick internet search uncovered that, under his Caimh McDonnell moniker, there’s a hefty lump of delightfully surreal crime fiction to enjoy too.
This includes the, paradoxically named, Dublin Trilogy, which currently comprises seven books, along with various spin-offs. And yep, I’ve ploughed through them all, and they’re darkly comic and undeniably brilliant.
The Stranger Times is a quirky urban fantasy/whodunnit, set in the Manchester offices of a Fortean’esque newspaper.
The editor, a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, ex-Fleet Street hack (who subtly uses a shotgun to scare away humanity), oversees a motley crew of loveable misfits, including a naked Rastafarian and a sentient printing press.
It’s a madcap and genuinely LOL-inducing read, combining the paranormal with proper investigative journalism – a first for that newspaper!
So, even if you’re not normally a fan of this genre, I’d deffo say give it – and Mr McDonnell’s other books – a whirl.
And with Christmas rapidly approaching, there’s a little gem of a series that will be ending forever with one final festive finale. (Sob! Pass me the Kleenex.) I’m talking about BBC’s Ghosts.
Created by the same team who brought Horrible Histories to the telly, Ghosts is about a young, cash-strapped couple who inherit a decrepit mansion, only to discover that it’s chock full of some very needy ghosts.
As the disparate group of spooks face up to the boredom of eternity, endure various existential crises, and grapple with twenty-first century ‘living’, this ultimate in house-share sitcoms follows their hilarious, and oftentimes poignant, wait to finally make it to the, hopefully, heavenly afterlife.
So, if this has passed you by, you’re in for a real treat. All five series are now available on iPlayer which, I guess, is the one upside of saying farewell to the Button House gang. But even if you’re already a fan, why not have a binge in readiness for the climax?
Mind, I think we’ll need to keep those tissues handy, ‘cause I’m betting quite a few of them will be getting sucked off at 7.45 pm on Christmas Day!
Having done my degree dissertation on Eugène Ionesco, I was so excited to see Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru planning a production of his Rhinoceros, and even more so when I saw that it was to be translated into Cymraeg by Manon Steffan Ros.
My expectations were thus sky high, and I’m thrilled to say that they were far exceeded. Manon’s exuberant script together with Steffan Donnelly’s dazzling direction (and a superb cast) produced a work of genius.
It was glorious fun, inventive and lively, but it also succeeded in taking a sixty-four year old allegory of rising conformism and narrowing minds and minting it brand new for now, and for Wales.
A month earlier, my musical highlight of 2023 was the Unthanks all-dayer at the BBC concert hall in the Wales Millennium Centre, part of Cardiff’s Llais festival.
I had wanted to see the sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank for years, hooked as I am on their Northumbrian folk magic conducted in harmonies that seem to have been drawn from the bottom of an ancient well.
Again, expectations were met and well exceeded, helped enormously by the perfect acoustic of the hall.
Another fine acoustic is Machynlleth’s Tabernacl, home of the town’s exquisite classical musical festival. For the first time, they programmed a whole day around one composer (Schubert), and it was a triumph.
Lots of fine books, but even more importantly, bookshops. Having a new book out in the spring meant a lot of readings, many as part of a joyous double act with Jon Gower of this parish, and they were terrific (Fishguard, Penarth and Mumbles were particularly swashbuckling highlights).
The independent bookshop sector, in Wales and beyond, is doing such inspiring stuff, not just flogging books, but bringing people together and giving us all a space to listen, learn and discuss.
Right now, that is such an urgent and important task.
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I am a little obsessed with the work of the artist Thomas Jones, Pencerrig, so the first of January 2023 was very memorable. Driving back from visiting family in the north, we decided to take a slight detour and track down the chapel where he’s buried.
Visiting Caebach, near Llandrindod Wells, is like stepping back in time. Although we couldn’t go in, we peered through the unusual ogee-arched windows and imagined ourselves back in the 18th century.
Richard Veasey’s account of Jones’s life, particularly the years he spent in Italy, is a great place to start if you want to know more about the man.
To get acquainted with Jones’s paintings and drawings, locate a copy of the fabulous Museums & Galleries of Wales’s catalogue, produced to accompany the memorable exhibition of Jones’s work back in 2003.
Jones’s paintings of buildings in Naples, two of which are in Cardiff, are as fresh and modern as the work of the Impressionists. He deserves to be better known.
In Room 42 of the National Gallery you can pause as long as you like and be mesmerized by his postcard-sized ‘Wall in Naples’ without hardly an interruption, even on the busiest of touristy days.
Talking of artists, the unveiling of Sebastien Boyesen’s statue of Cranogwen in the village of Llangrannog must count as a cultural highlight.
Boyesen has worked his magic again in the same way he did with Sant Crannog, who stands above the beach.
I don’t think it’s fanciful to say that you know that a piece of sculpture works when you’re drawn to it and want to spend time with it.
The lovely garden surrounding Cranogwen and the seating area next to Sant Crannog will be places for quiet reflection and contemplation for many years to come.
More artists. If you didn’t see the exhibition of David Jones’s work at Y Gaer, Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery, you missed a real treat.
Shortly after seeing the exhibition, I was also lucky enough to hear Dr Peter Wakelin, exhibition curator and author of ‘Hill-rhythms: David Jones and Capel-y-Ffin’, in conversation with Alastair Laurence at the Chapel, Abergavenny.
I’ve read so many great books this year but ‘The Mirror and the Light’, by Hilary Mantel, was this year’s standout book for me.
I can’t wait to see Mark Rylance returning as Cromwell in the planned sequel.
And, cinema: if you’re tired of explosions or all those Marvel characters that seem to be everywhere at the moment, why not take a look at Rebecca Miller’s latest film, ‘She Came to Me’.
A lovely, quirky, funny film about imperfect people living imperfect lives. A perfect joy.
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