Picks of 2023: Sarah Tanburn, Myfanwy Alexander and Ant Heald
2023 has been a complicated and focused year for me, publishing one book, Children of the Land (available from all good bookshops) and finishing another.
In February, I took a research trip to French Caribbean Guadeloupe and spent a long time in the moving, beautiful and essential Memorial ACTe, the museum of enslavement in the Antilles.
Unforgettable and absolutely worth a visit if you ever get the chance.
Much closer to home, and very different, were the opportunities offered by Cadw’s Open Doors.
On the Saturday we visited Abercamlais, a manor house just north of the A40 and east of Brecon – small by the standards of Elizabethan mansions but beautifully formed, where the family are engaged in a generational restoration.
Sunday took us to the Viridor Energy Recovery Facility just by the docks in Cardiff. If you’ve ever driven past wondering what those sleek green and grey curves concealed, try and get inside yourself.
Absolutely fascinating to discover what happens to your black-bag rubbish in south-east Wales.
Top tip: do not put your disposable vapes in the bin! They have batteries in and regularly cause fires. Apparently, they also do arranged trips for schools and interested groups.
My third pick of the year has to be the section of the tenth Artes Mundi prize on display at the National Museum in Cardiff till February. (More works are to be seen at various venues across Wales but I have not got to them yet.)
Three stunning artists, all focused in the Middle East portraying the roots and impacts of years of conflict alongside love, family, and everyday life. Really worth an hour or more of your time.
As we approach what RS Thomas described as ‘the year’s turning,’ I both stockpile books against potential snowstorms and look back over those I have enjoyed throughout the year, and it is a good measure of quality if the writing lingers in the memory like a loved tune.
I’ve read some corkers and also waded through some less glorious: as a service to all the publishers out there, I issue a plea about the currently adequate supply of books either ‘discovering’ rural Wales or parroting glib ‘solutions’ to problems observed during a brief ramble.
We are currently well-stocked with eco-colonists and alas, many of them seem to find their way into print.
A splendid exception to the shallow Gortex guru genre is David Elias’ book ‘Shaping the Wild.’ Based on knowledge and affection which are deep, Elias describes an upland farm with vivid language and a delicate tone.
Elias is a true naturalist, bringing nuance to the tentative conclusions he draws from years of experience. If you read one book about Wales this year, it should be this one.
I read to learn, of course, but I also read for entertainment and there have been several nights when I was unable to leave my chair by the fire until stupid o’clock because I simply had to find out what happened next.
Beyond books, my cultural high point of 2023 was the moment of stunned catharsis I shared with fellow audience members at the end of Theatr Genedlaethol’s production ‘Rhinoseros.’
Other pens have rightly praised both the adaptation by Manon Steffan Ros and the pacey, intelligent staging: my abiding thought is gratitude for the reminder that creativity is a social glue.
To experience art in the company of others is to recall what makes us human.
‘Pick of the year’ features are an opportunity for those who are — and for those of us who aspire to be — well-read, well-connected and culturally savvy, to establish the lodestones that mark the direction of our culture.
So, I had my highlights lined up: among them seeing the triumphant return of two-time Welsh Music Prize winners Adwaith to their home venue of the Cwrw bar in Carmarthen in February.
Finding depth and complexity emerge from the ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ bumper-sticker version of Welsh nationalism through reading Dr Wyn Thomas’s comprehensive and meticulous history, Tryweryn: A New Dawn.
Further deepening my thinking about the relationship between my native England and my chosen Cymru through hearing the parallel experience of Mike Parker at Llanelli WEA in September, and thence through reading his zeitgeist-capturing, pandemic-straddling psychogeography of the England-Wales frontier country in All the Wide Border.
Enjoying a maritime romp around the Irish Sea in Jon Gower’s The Turning Tide that seems a brine, brack and cliff-fringed companion volume to Parker’s road, river and land-locked tome, the pair exploring Wales’s relationship to what lies beyond the edges that define its territory.
Long form journalism
But when I reflect on the cultural products that have most sustained my spirit, formed my thinking and anchored my attention, it has not been the firework moments of gigs and book launches I find myself returning to, but the steady unfolding of long-form journalism and commentary, the unfurling of new voices in fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction, contained in periodicals that after a decade living in Wales now almost fill a bookshelf on their own.
For years they have slipped quietly and regularly onto my doormat, but their future is threatened by the withdrawal of their core funding from the Welsh Books Council.
Planet: The Welsh Internationalist provides each quarter a consistently radical, multifaceted view of the world from Wales and of Wales in a global context.
Although linguistically anglophone it takes seriously the role of Cymraeg in shaping the mind of this nation through the brilliant ‘Welsh Keywords’ series.
In the current issue, Welsh-Chinese author Rowan Zhao reflects on ‘Croeso’, a word that has resonated powerfully here in Llanelli, in a year when Welsh national symbols have been appropriated by an ugly exclusionist faction that fresh from the ‘Wales is not a migrant camp’ rhetoric of the asylum hotel protests have now turned their attention to targeting purported ‘illegals’ sleeping on the streets.
A re-read of Sophie McKeand’s piece on ‘Radical Empathy’ from the spring issue is in order.
New Welsh Reader
New Welsh Reader continues both to unearth new voices, and offer incisive critique, across all forms of the literary arts, including reappraising writers of the past.
Perhaps the most compelling and beautifully written piece they have published this year was M R Thomas’s account of meeting Jan Morris in her hayloft home in 2007.
In a polarised world of social media confrontation where being trans is so often decried as a literally cocky act of effrontery, this vividly human portrait honours her (much missed) humanity.
Piercing, and at times provoking rather than hagiographic, but always empathic, it does what the best writing about writers and their work should do: sending the reader renewed and enlightened back to the author’s books.
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