When you cross over the Brecon Beacons via the Beaufort road you suddenly cross a line between the open moorland and the post-industrial landscape, marked by a line of electricity pylons. I’m not sure which side of the line I prefer. Surprisingly, perhaps, I admire and even like the post industrial landscape inhabited by the ghosts of miners, steelworkers and the lost fortunes of entrepreneurs and the dreamers who made porcelain in works like Nantgarw where beauty and purity emerged from the smoke and filth of the potbanks. I like it and yet I loathe what’s become of it in the industrial estates and business parks that replaced it.
Today we drove to Cardiff to see the David Nash exhibition in the National Gallery of Wales. While we were there I tried to search out the old Welsh Academy building in Bute Street where I did a bit of work in the 1970’s, and the terrifying Dowlais Arms pub where we would take our lives in our hands to book a taxi by CB radio to take us back to the Railway station for the last train back to Bristol on a Friday night. But it’s all been demolished and redeveloped. The only bit I recognised was the long stone wall where I swear I remember the words “Tubal Cain” painted in huge letters – presumably long since painted out by someone who failed to understand the Old Testament history of the name. The fading neo classical building in which the Academy was once housed seems to have been demolished along with everything else. If I can be a bit contrarian for a moment we found very little to commend what’s replaced the derelict docklands. There were endless coffee bars and restaurants of exactly the same provenance you would find in the centre of almost any large city. We could have been in Birmingham or Bristol or the London docklands – it really didn’t seem to matter. Any sense of place, of history had been erased by the uniformity of 21st century life. Everywhere and nowhere in the span of a short walk, history is contained and defeated by streetside captions, theme pubs and signposts. In fact the very word ‘heritage’ has become yet another resource to be strip-mined and sold off by the new ‘creative’ entrepreneurs and their theme parks – just at the time we most need to reflect on the industrial revolution, what it gave and what it took away from us, and where the degradation first gripped us, as it will grip the nations where it is beginning today. This aetiolated version of the past is fed to us like pre-digested pap and serves an ideological purpose. There’s something very perverse about the fact that the Assembly building is so hemmed in by building developments and chain restaurants. Instead of leaving the building in isolation within the context of the ruined industrial landscape that might suggest “this is what we’re here to redress”, the new buildings press against the assembly building like silent lobbyists saying – “remember who you’re here to serve”. The steel magnates and mine owners have gone, to be replaced by an equally rapacious economics that, having taken the coal, has returned to frack the last drops of value out of the nation.
I once (supervising on a school trip) said to a retired mine engineer at Big Pit in Blaenavon – “You must miss the camaraderie of the job. He replied “No I hated every bloody minute of it!”. The camaraderie, the courage and resilience of the communities are not things to be celebrated as much as admired. Yes we can appreciate the resilience of the communities but this was essentially a survival mechanism against the terrible behaviour of a class of human beings who belived that it was perfectly alright to sweat a natural resource like coal or steel through the exploitation of less powerful human beings.
There was a small craft market going on and Nick went to buy some Welsh cakes. He asked the woman in charge (he’s a fine chef) “do you make these with all butter or a mixture of butter and lard (the traditional way)? ” “Stork (margarine)” she replied. We tried them but they stuck to the roof our mouths like stale puff pastry.
The David Nash exhibition was something else. It was everything that the city has turned its back on. Here is an artist who has made it his business to look at the natural world not as a resource to be extracted and sold off, but as the object of a prolongued meditation. They’re almost religious in their intensity. It’s an exhibition of fifty years of work since he bought an old chapel in Blaenau Festiniog for £200 in which to work and presumably do a lot of thinking. What did I admire most? – well he can draw, I mean he can really draw. There’s a playful element (in the very best sense of the word), that reminds me of the intensity of children’s play. There’s a sense of the re-enchantment of the world through a profound attentiveness. It smells good when you walk into the gallery – is this a normal term of art criticism? It was just so good! We’d seen another film about the large lump of carved tree trunk that was cast into a stream and followed in its passage to the sea at Barmouth some years later, but watching a slightly fuller version on a large screen encouraged us to sit down and watch it right through. It sounds a little like conceptual art but it was much fuller, richer, and much more meditative than most work in that mode. There’s a lot of work in the exhibition and I came away thinking that there’s a very close kinship between the kind of attentiveness that artists like David Nash exhibit, and the attentiveness of the scientist. All that nonsense put about by CP Snow about two quite different forms of consciousness has entered into the bloodstream and it was wrong. My old music teacher, AF Woodman, used to shout at us – “I know you can hear it but have you been listening?” Call it close attention, call it meditation or mindfulness – it really doesn’t matter much, but we’ve spent so much time quantifying, describing and judging the output of artists so we can make lists in order of importance, that we’ve missed the really important bit. Once again I’ll apply my entirely subjective way of judging an exhibition – does it make me want to work? – yes. Does it change the way I look at things? – yes.
Finally, and on an entirely different subject, how do you make a perfect poached egg? Here’s the answer – no stirring, no vinegar, no little plastic doofers. Crack some eggs – they need to be so newly laid they’re almost warm – and put them carefully into a bowl. Bring the poaching water to the boil and then slide the eggs in. Ta da! perfect poached eggs.