End of the Maskrey’s era

The iconic furniture store that was Maskreys, Cardiff

It was the new social barometer Twitter that gave the first indication of the storm that hit the iconic south Wales furniture stores Maskreys. The immediate reaction from Tweeps was sadness. Maskreys, after all, is – until the end of November – more than just a furniture shop. Since 1898 the Maskrey family have been delivering, to a very particular south Wales market, an aspirational lifestyle that can only be hinted at by Cardiff upstarts like John Lewis, and the can-hardly-mention-in-the-same-breath, IKEA.

Others have remarked today that if Maskreys had adapted their buying policies then maybe it could have survived the competition from the comfortably upmarket John Lewis and the aggressively do it yourself IKEA. That seems to me to entirely miss the point! The three stores were always designed to be the bastions of a certain kind of taste (not always so obviously ‘good’): something that bordered on bling, but was rescued from crassness by craftsmanship and, yes, mostly unattainable for the likes of us, pricing. It meant the comfort of having bought something that would last for ever, reinforced by a feeling of painful expense, and the knowledge that everyone would admire your purchase.

I am sure there was another kind of customer as well: the moneyed for whom price guaranteed peergroup (The Jones next door) approval, even if sometimes the objects were themselves of doubtful taste.

Does it matter then that Maskreys is to disappear?

Robert Maskrey (executive chairman) and Samantha Maskrey

I think so. Firstly, there is the cost to the people involved. I have known Sam Maskrey, and her husband and executive chairman Robert through our common interests in the arts. Of course, they are entitled to retire and their orderly closure of the business, the wanting to do the best for their customers and their staff, is more than anyone can reasonably expect in a slash and burn recession.

The Cardiff store has been on Whitchurch Road since 1913. This is not the most suitable location for such an enterprise but it must be an important draw for many of the other businesses that now exist in the area. (The other most important attraction locally is Cathays cemetery!). There will undoubtedly be a knock-on, recessionary effect on those businesses. The Cardiff building is attractive of its kind but will almost certainly fall into a developer’s hands and an unsympathetic, unsuitable replacement is par for the course in Cardiff’s current planning–free–for–all.

And apart from the Maskreys business, there is equally significant potential loss of Sam and Robert Maskrey and their roles in the cultural life of Wales. The company itself sponsors the Hay Festival of Literature and the Welsh National Opera. Robert Maskrey has chaired the Lower Machen Festival for five years. Sam Maskrey is a director of the Hay Festival of Literature, deputy chair of Arts and Business Cymru and is on the board at Chapter Arts Centre. Sam and I met at Chapter when she joined the board and I managed to persuade her to take very active role in fundraising for the recently completed £3.5 million redevelopment. Without her enthusiasm and arm bending it is unlikely that Cardiff would have the benefit of the new Chapter.

It isn’t impossible, I imagine, for individuals to set up and run and businesses like Maskreys. But as a recent report on the homogenising of our high streets has warned, it is increasingly difficult when companies like Tesco regard land banking and the saturation of communities with their multiple outlets as the way to generate the highest return to shareholders. The idea of a business that delivers a particular range of products in an individualistic way for a carefully focused market depends on the market existing and being able to accurately deliver what they need. Fashion, times and financial ability are all fickle.

There is everything to commend in the manner of Maskreys departure. But many of us will notice the absence of the store and the qualities that Sam and Robert bring to life in Cardiff. For the past 12 years they have sponsored an annual Christmas carol concert held in the Norwegian Church, Cardiff Bay. That alone has raised £150,000 for Shelter Cymru. It’s not just the rich furnishing their eye-wateringly expensive flash pads, it’s the homeless who will miss them too.


Another sort of writing?

Not only do I fail to keep this blog up to date (Tweeting has to substitute sometimes for active engagement here), but I don’t get my homework in on time either.

CD cover for end of course readings with Philip Gross

CD cover for end of course readings with Philip Gross

Homework? Yes, during term time I’ve been trooping off to Cardiff University – well actually to the National Museum in Cardiff – for a weekly dose of “Creative Writing”. The other stuff. I thought I’d better ‘fess up, so here’s a piece I wrote explaining all about it. (Recycling is good!)

And if you’d like to hear how we got on, here’s the recording of the end of term bash – some great stuff from others (I do a monologue which somehow manages to squeeze in the Manic Street Preachers). Oh, and Wales Book of the Year Author Philip Gross does beautiful readings at the end.

Creative writing at the Museum, 2010 class six homework: 300 words on  your creative writing course Course tutor, Susan Morgan

I have been a professional writer for nearly 50 years since that first, paid-by-the-word, journalistic prose appeared in “Teen Scene” in the 1960s. Hundreds of thousands of those  pesky words later there has been: art criticism, news reporting, voiced radio scripts, appraisals, tender bids, university essays, presentations for groups ranging from 2 to 2000, Tweets, blogs, and reports, endless reports of immense expense to clients and comparable cost to the creative abilities of syntax, choosing the bon mot, engaging one’s audience, presenting facts, drawing conclusions, and, above all, staying awake. I am a creative writer!

Alarmingly though, not a “creative” enough writer even though I could boast – if asked –  of a slim volume, half a century ago, of youthful poetry, some voiced on the Home Service radio program “Poetry Today” by the stellar Mary Wimbush.

So, off to the University of Cardiff Creative Writing at the Museum Course where I was to to spend 10 weeks focusing my gaze on every conceivable aspect of the Seven Estuary. I was to discover one of the world’s most important tidal reaches, rich in biodiversity, archaeological remains, myths and historical occurrences. This would provide an abundant resource, based on lectures from scholarly, witty and erudite members of museum staff, and objects from the National Museum itself, for the simple task called “home work”.

Go write a monologue. Produce a short poem. Collect an interview. Experiment with riddles and kennings. In short, discard those years of practice and produce succinct, accessible, vivid and above all well constructed pieces that communicate in a way that can grip, move, inform and, ideally, change people’s perceptions and lives!

That’s what others in the group did with varying degrees of, and often very profound, success every week. As for me?  Well I’m signed up for the Autumn.

A Phoenix rises from The Persians

I cannot imagine that there are many who had the good fortune to see The Persians (background story) over the past two weeks, who doubted that we were present at one of the defining occasions of English-language theatre in Wales.

The cast of Mike Pearson's NToW production of The Persians

Even the London critics somehow managed to find themselves seated, not in West End luxury, but on a hard bench, clad in a regulation green poncho and exposed to the elements deep in the heart of the Brecon Beacons.

All have heaped praise on the National Theatre of Walessixth production in this year’s inaugural programme of The Persians, directed by Mike Pearson.

“They have scored a coup”, The Observer; “Pearson’s superbly imaginative and intense production, at once timeless and modern, has a rare, raw power. This is great theatre – and a thrilling mystery tour for its audience”, The Telegraph; “a production that is both minimalist and massive in its scope and marvellous in its realisation,” the Hereford Times; “what is impressive about Mike Pearson’s production is the totality of the experience”, The Guardian; “some of the finest creative talents working in Wales today… melded together to produce a unique and exciting drama, probably accompanies most artistically fulfilling production to date”, Michael Kelligan; “with the eery music, some wonderful acting and the amazing setting, this is another hit for National Theatre Wales”, Western Mail.

Yes it is all this and more. But for me, on quiet reflection, there is a story behind the production that I haven’t yet seen discussed.

The Persians represents in many ways a Phoenix like rebirth of one of Wales’s greatest theatre companies –  Brith Gof. Firstly, director Mike Pearson, conceptual designer Mike Brooks and composer John Hardy were all key players in Brith Gof’s history. Richard Huw Morgan, John Rowley and Gerald Tyler are all actors who have worked often for extended periods for the company. So, as they say: they have form.

I was a trustee of the company when its Arts Council Wales funding was terminated in 2000. The company’s last grant was £52,500. We decided that Brith Gof – always much more appreciated outside of Wales than in it – should continue as long as we could find the money and the directors had the artistic ideas. Mike Pearson and fellow directors Michael Shanks and Cliff McLucas were eventually offered jobs with regular income. In the end, we had to call time in 2004.

It has been both instructive and rewarding to search the archives to see just how much Brith Gof has given to The Persians. Anyone who saw the Welsh production of

Brith Gof's "PAX" at St David's Hall, Cardiff

“Gododdin” (a remarkable film archive is here, persist with it, the video’s not great quality) in the Rover car factory, Cardiff in 1989, “PAX” in St Davids Hall in 1991, or, even Mike Pearson’s two-man show “In Black and White” with disabled actor Dave Levett in 1992, will see the theatrical connections. The use of extraordinary musical soundscapes originated with John Hardy and Mike Pearson’s work with Test Department in the 1980’s. John Hardy’s (interview here) creativity and musical inventiveness hasn’t lost any of its edge in spite of him being a much in demand composer for mainstream film and television (and still, thankfully, based in Wales).

In the last few productions by Brith Gof – such as Hafod, technology began to appear but hand-held video cameras had to be attached to the performers with trailing cables. In The Persians we have a chorus member with a tiny handheld wireless camera and the remarkable camera work of Pete Telfer projecting the live-action onto video screens. The integration of recorded segments of video is also an inheritance from the days when such things were much more technically challenging.

Some things in the Persians are different: as Mike Pearson explains in his interview with me working with a classic text – brilliantly translated by Kaite O’Reilly – was one of his self-set challenges. It was also in English, where much of Brith Gof’s work had been Welsh or bilingual. And whilst I have no idea what the budget of the production was, I imagine that the generous Arts Council Wales and Welsh Assembly Government funding to NToW (£3M over three years) gave the team a little more flexibility than they had in the old days.

For me then, there is much satisfaction in seeing how 15 years of theatrical development in Welsh theatre could have such a stunning, successful and critically acclaimed rebirth. Many theatre companies throughout Europe owe a debt to Brith Gof. I am glad that the National Theatre of Wales, albeit by a kind of proxy,  and The Persians has been able to honour it so well.

Footnote: there have been some excellent comments that add to my story and, rather than take the credit for knowledge that I didn’t have, I ask that you click on the comments, if you haven’t already done so.
Good news that the archive may get a new life too!

The phenomena of Simonova

In writing about the new YouTube phenomena that is Kseniya Simonova there have been a couple of common threads: “it couldn’t have happened here”, and “but is it art?”
Of course it couldn’t happen here: eight minutes of prime time television with a young (albeit televisually attractive) woman throwing sand about to an edited sound track ranging from bombs to pop music, telling a story through moving pictures about the most harrowing times of her nations’ modern history in which one in five of the population died. Ant & Dec would be struck dumb, and the blessed Cowell would have had her off within nano-seconds.
If you haven’t seen her – do: I think the preliminary round performance is more compelling than the one for the final so that’s the link here – but they’re all on YouTube.

It is easy to believe, for once, the hyperbole: that this performance brought the entire Ukrainian nation to tears. So as a first reflection on the ‘couldn’t happen here debate’: what story telling of a contemporary national event would you select to move the whole British nation? Dunkirk? Diana’s funeral? The London Bombings? No, there’s nothing that would unite us in a nationwide shudder of recognition and shared pain.
And would we allow a 24 year old artist to mediate this shared experience? I doubt it, but ten of millions have tried it on YouTube even though their understanding of the story – and its personal resonance – must in most cases be very slight.
So what of the art. Well, let’s start with Guardian writer James Donaghy’s much blogged quote:

…it’s clear that Simonova has achieved her goal as an artist. If we take it that art’s purpose is to illuminate the world in a new way, provoke a reaction, somehow alter the consciousness of the viewer then her work is a huge success.

He may not have meant to be, but that seems a little grudging – alright as far as it goes. Just consider, first the technique.
I know nothing about sand drawing except that multicoloured postcardy stuff you sometimes see at the seaside. But this is live drawing – making a line and seeing where it goes as Victor Pasmore once described his technique to me. But the material is pretty crude and control must be an immense problem.
This is not a still life sketch though – nor is it quite animation. My nearest parallel is the work of South African artist William Kentridge who has produced extraordinary animated films based on stop-frame filming of works where he draws, then erases, the pictures. This shows the action in motion (although with Kentridge you never see his hand at work, unlike Simonova where the doing is part of the performance) and the rubbed out lines leave ghostly marks as the story progresses.

Simonova takes this idea a step further because the process is the art – as well as the picture. She’ll sketch – say a flight of birds – and moments later they’ll form part of a portrait. This isn’t a single picture, but a constantly moving drama that is visualised in front of us. The ghostly image of the light box (projected on a big screen for the audience who thus have a view of her as performance artist and she even uses simple prompts to set the tone of a piece) mutates as she progresses the story in startling and shocking ways. The end is usually a hand written caption.
And, the whole is choreographed to a sound track that has been thought about in advance and edited so that Simonova’s ‘drawing’ follows the audio story. It is carefully synchronised so one must assume a great deal of rehearsal is involved in order to repeat the outcome.
So it’s art, performance and video all rolled into one. It exists first for the audience – though without the big tv screen it would be a very private experience, and then for us watching both the artist and the audience. I’m not aware that Simonova has made any ‘gallery’ versions of her work, so what we get, we get courtesy of a popular Ukrainian tv show and YouTube.
This to my mind is what is extra-ordinary. Something very discrete, almost incapable of replication and sharing, is transformed by other media into something startling that can be shared by millions.
Where does she go now? What happens to the art? I’ve no idea. But I pray she stays a long way away from Simon Cowell and his Philistine crew.

Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama plans – now that’s more like it!

The heritage, listed Bute Parks are being subjected to pressures from all fronts: if it isn’t the big money lure of sporting events, it’s a local authority that thinks status and political short-termism is more important that what we leave for our children. One of the organisations that borders Bute Park itself is the RWCMD with a building of extreme ugliness albeit linking to a sensitive restoration of the stables that nestle into the edges of the Castle’s back door.

Now – Shock Horror! – they want to cover what little space there is on the site with more buildings and even – Horror on Horrors! – ask the Council for a bit of the Park to cover in concrete! And you know what? I’m all for it! I doubt that the governors and chief executive actually need my ringing endorsement to get their planning application through .. but hey, it’s great not be cheer leading the moaners and nimbies (as described in the past) for once.

Firstly: we were invited weeks ago to a very select presentation (their try out it turned out) at RWCMD to hear from the chief executive Hilary Boulding (the horse’s mouth, as it were) about the creation of the scheme and its impact. There was no hiding the effect the scheme would have. Nor of the necessity to acquire part of Bute Park (a scrubby bit of unused land of no value in the grand scheme of things for the Park).

Secondly: this is ambitious, both for the college and the city. We need it. Thirdly: it’s pretty damn good architecture – adding to the vistas you’ll see from the Park. Unremittingly modern (no Prince Charles pastiche, thank goodness). If anything, they need to raise the optimum amount of money so that finishes and public spaces can be even more adventurous. S

So there we have it: talk to people and explain (Eisteddfod passim, note). Be bold. Employ good architects and really know what you are doing, and don’t stint on the ambition (Glamorgan Cricket Club passim). Exciting, relevant and a potential asset for the future. What more do need. It’s on my “if I win the Lottery list”…. See the details

Olympics: a quick way to destroy the arts and rob a nation?

First it becomes clear that the arts are going to suffer disproportionately because of the 2012 Games, now it’s revealed that a whole country is to suffer.
Pouring boiling oil onto already troubled waters, <a href=”http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/3917/&#8221; title=”Jenkins article”>Tiffany Jenkins </a>makes the case that the arts sector has itself to blame for the current situation, or at
least that it won’t engender much sympathy. It’s her view that the arts has been chasing “an instrumental case for the arts, which has reaped short-term results,” and that they “cravenly plead to the government for cash on the basis of non-artistic
outcomes, stating their work will improve: ‘participation’, ‘self-esteem’ ‘community cohesion’, social regeneration’, ‘economic vitality’ and ‘health’. There is little mention of the quality of the art, dance, exhibitions, or musicals these institutions
could foster.” It’s a fair cop: but in a climate of real fear of reduced spending on ‘proper art’ and the promises of oodles of dosh for just filling in a form with some spanking new buzz words, who’s to say they shouldn’t have taken the money and ran?
It may have been a misjudgement, but I put the government’s raid on future arts funding in a completely different light: daylight robbery. And what about poor – yes, really poor – old Wales? According to Adam Price, Plaid’s economic spokesman, Gordon’s
lot are going to filch a whopping <a href=”http://icwales.icnetwork.co.uk/0100news/newspolitics/tm_method=full%26objectid=19904883%26siteid=50082-name_page.html&#8221; title=”icWales link”>£437 million for the Olympics </a>– I make that getting on for £150 for
each man, woman and child. If you’re still interested it’s even nearly 50 quid per sheep in Wales. There’s not much chance, in spite of what toady Welsh Labour MP’s say, that Wales will see a jot of benefit from the Games as a vehicle for improving
sport, fitness or even the country’s world-wide recognition: this is to all intent and purposes the English Olympics. As for the economic regeneration, well you can argue the toss about how to calculate its worth – and some academics profoundly doubt
that its worth much, if anything. Whatever, you can be certain it ain’t coming to Wales. And, as Price argues, it will have a double whammy effect on Wales causing a less than favourable Barnett settlement. I’ve no doubt that the Games in 2012 are going
to have an impact. I think politicians should be aware of the hidden ones: less money for the arts will lead to lower investment in the creative industries and a less attractive society for high-flying creative people (there’s lots of research that shows
that). An expanding and vibrant cultural industries sector is one of Wales’ big economic hopes. It ain’t going to happen. And the massive disinvestment that would follow the theft of £437 million will make all of Europe’s subsidies irrelevant and
pointless. So there are now two simple questions:
is the 2012 Olympics worth smashing up our cultural heritage and the cultural industries sector in Wales?
Is it worth the price of nearly half a billion pounds of disinvestment at a time when the country most needs it?
What price independence, you might well ask? And could the invitation to stage the Games in <a href=”http://onelondon.blogspot.com/2007/02/can-london-withdraw-from-2012-olympics.html&#8221; title=”Cancel Games?”>London be cancelled?</a>