A Taste of the Avant-Garde – in Brecon

A Taste of the Avant-Garde – in Brecon

I’d just seen the film On the Road when I went to the Cardiff launch of a book about a group of artists in Wales, A Taste of the Avant-Garde; 56 Group Wales, 56 Years. The room was full of ‘older’ people who had been arty beatniks in the fifties and sixties, like my much admired cousin Dave (who was not only a painter but played the sax, and is still cool of course.) These people were (mainly) still elegant and hip-looking: they had the ever-youthful freshness and bold style of those who had witnessed the dawn of the New Age, an age of self-expression, sexual freedom and spiritual adventure. ‘Oh the parties…’ sighed one woman I met, and I recalled the ecstatic frenzy of the jazz club scene in On the Road. Where would you find that vibe nowadays?

The group was founded in 1956 by a three abstract artists who wanted the power to show and promote their own work – David Tinker, Eric Malthouse and Michael Edmonds. Before long their numbers had swelled and they were deservedly successful, touring their work round the UK and Europe. You had to be invited to join. As time passed they even allowed a few women in (though never more than 25%) including feminist artists like Erica Daborn and Sue Williams (powerful stuff). Gradually they became part of the art establishment, were resented and reviled by some outside their orbit. They still exist today, though now all sorts of art is represented, not just cutting-edge abstraction.


The earlier pictures in the book are evocative of a world recovering from WW2 when it seemed everything was being discovered for the first time – jazz, sex, drugs, etc – but also an innocent world, a world where sports jackets were still worn, smoking was good for you, and women were usually decoratively secretarial or wifely. Abstract art, like jazz, was a badge of this world. If you didn’t like it, you couldn’t enter. The Welshness was an added touch of cool – in one black and white photo from the seventies, Sally Hudson stands in front of her husband, Tom’s paintings featuring the Welsh map, clad in a long dress, with sleeves and hems bordered in a repeated pattern of the same map.

I am not myself part of the art world and was only at this event because the people who created this book are friends – the scholar and collector, David Moore, and his partner, Sue Hiley Harris, a sculptor-weaver whose extraordinary textile version of her own family tree has been widely exhibited (including a brief, partial glimpse in my chapel.) These two are part of a genial group of artists who animate the small world of Brecon, with their un-self-regarding enthusiasm for art and sociability. At the weekend Sue and David opened their Georgian house overlooking the canal for an exhibition of work from the 56 group Wales. My favourites were the vivid, animalistic canvases of Will Roberts and the dynamic glass sculptures of current member, Antonia Spowers – plus Sue’s own work (though she is not in the group), especially the ghostly veil called Hidden Wave in her attic studio.

To find out more about this fascinating book and other artistic activities in this quiet-yet-buzzing part of mid-Wales, visit the Crooked Window website.

And if you like abstract art, take a look at my talented brother’s website.

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My grandad’s diary

I found my grandad’s soldiering diary a couple of weeks before Remembrance Day while I was rationalising a cupboard. There it was, in a file labelled Memorabilia, a skinny little black thing, a Charles Letts diary for 1918, covering just the last few months of the war. I had mislaid it for years. His handwriting was loopy and legible, his spelling was pretty good, but he’d very little space to write about the momentous events he was witnessing. I skimmed through it, wanting to save a proper read till right time. I’d never met my granddad, but my mum had told me he’d died far too young with his lungs ruined: he’d lain out for three nights in no-man’s land, until rescued by a stretcher party.
The right time came on Remembrance Day, when I got home from a night out at the theatre seeing a play about Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, called Not About Heroes by Stephen Macdonald. The two young poets were officers, obsessed with the idea of looking after their men, both willing to sacrifice themselves in order not be called cowards. But my grandad was not an officer. Having grown up in the coalfields of Lanarkshire, near Blantyre he’d made his living first as a bookie and then a grocer. My mum told me that he was hopeless at both occupations, and they were often very hard up. As a bookie he lost money and as a grocer he gave people tick and ended up with nothing. But the diary shows him an intelligent and observant man, who was interested in the lives of the people he saw about him, horrified by the devastation in the towns he marched through, and fit enough at 32, to come second in a 100 yards race and earn 10 francs winning in a boxing bout. His accounts of battles were terse and understated:
In the attack this morning bit of a mix up but we got a few thousand yards, Black Watch and Devons (?) get badly cut up. Saw, first time, German and British dead. Sick at the sight….this has been some week. It is wonderful how the men stand it. Our casualties are about 20 per cent…we have one of our fellows buried alive..
I sat that night, with a glass of wine, and read every entry. With the autumn came the big bloody battles of the endgame, in one of which young Wilfred Owen had died. The officer classes in the play were heroic, but my grandad, William McCallum, felt no need to pretend to be heroic. He noted his relief when he was held back from the front line to do some clerical job. Perhaps as a literate Scot, familiar with Dickens, Burns and Shakespeare, he was in demand to do paper work? And when he reports, on October 1, hurting his hand at a railway station, you could feel the relief and hope seeping through the pencil lines of his diary like the blood from his smashed finger. Maybe he would survive and see his wife and his baby son again! The soldiers knew the war was about to end. He writes on October 3, 1918:
American doctor examines my finger and sends me down the line…. look like getting out the worst month of the whole war. What luck!
That was the last he saw of the front line, he was home within two weeks and the war ended of course on 11 November that year. Suddenly it struck me that, had he not damaged his finger (perhaps shut in a train carriage door?), he might well have killed in those terrible last battles, like poor Wilfred Owen. In which case of course I would not exist because he would not have returned to Scotland and gone to bed with my gran to conceive my mother.
Then it occurred to me that maybe he had hurt himself deliberately, in order to get out of the fighting. There’s no clue in the diary, but then there wouldn’t be would there? I’m just glad he survived and had 15 more years of life before he died from his lung problem. The mystery is this: he says nothing in the diary about being gassed and lying out in no man’s land for three days, though he does mention comrades who had experienced this. Was the family story a fabrication? I’ll never know the truth, but I feel close to Willie McCallum , the granddad I never met.