Last night I went to Ebbw Vale. Not perhaps at first glance an opening line to evoke anticipation in the same way as, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, but trust me, this was a night that would rake up memories and provoke emotion. I was going to see the second leg of Adain Avion‘s tour around Wales, as part of the Cultural Olympiad, and the opening event in Ebbw Vale – Ghost Parade, pulled together beautifully by artist Stefhan Caddick.
I’d been watching the weather anxiously all day. Summer had been doing its best but, by late afternoon, the grey clouds were back and gathering over the uplands above the South Wales Valleys. The windscreen wipers were swishing in earnest as I passed the fuselage of the Adain Avion DC-9, parked up in a lay-by, ready for its grand entrance.
Ebbw Vale hove into view through a veil of mizzle, but the car park was already buzzing with several hundred people, clutching slogan-less placards, finishing off their rehearsals for the great parade to come. And these people weren’t artists, bussed in to swell numbers, but a huge cross-section of the community. The crowd ranged from tiny dancing crews, cadets, local youth clubs, all the way through to the added exotic flourish of the belly dancing class and older individuals who would have remembered the marches and protests that marked the decline of the coal and steel industries, the principle sources of employment the town throughout the 20th century.
In its heyday the town was black and red with coal dust and iron oxide, blasted away by the cold winds of the 1980s. It was home, in 1992, to one of the Garden Festivals that were supposed to reverse the blight of de-industrialisation and green up the scarred landscapes across the UK. Sadly the model had already been acknowledged as a failure by the time the festival’s turnstiles started to spin with the many visitors (circa 2,000,000).
So much for the history lesson, playing through the archive of my mind. A cheer went up as the DC-9 rolled into view and parked up, while a troupe of cadets drummed and the procession started to form, ready for the off.
Down through the town, with a tense moment as Adain Avion skimmed snugly beneath the arch of a bridge to pull up beyond.
And then the blank placards made sense as the crowd quietly (well, as quietly as such a crowd can manage) took their places along the walls of the tunnel of the bridge, holding up their white canvases as images of the past flickered across the placards and faces, while two trumpeters offered an accompaniment that managed to mix a mournful air with something more hopeful. Through the arch at the end of the tunnel the dusk drew in and the clouds rolled down from the hills.
Then we were off again, down to the site of the former steel works – new turf laid for the occasion and a brass band installed under gazebos to keep the rain out of the upward-tilted mouths of the euphoniums.
And now the white placards came into their own, hung off an armature to create a single screen (I can imagine project manager Sian Thomas with graph paper and pencil, working this out). Against the darkening sky and the moody hills, big history and small, personal vignettes (Caddick had collected footage from the locals) coalesced as the screen was completed and the scaffolding rolled away.
At 11pm the band put down their instruments, the screen went dark and security lights flicked on to keep the sleeping hulk of Adain Avion safe for a busy week’s worth of events in Ebbw Vale. Last week it was Swansea. Next stop Llandudno, then back to Cardiff for the final leg of Marc Rees‘ aviatory art project.
I have had mixed feelings about the Cultural Olympiad, partly seeing it as a bone thrown to the arts community in exchange for the raiding of the arts lottery pot to support the sporting event that will divide the UK in a few weeks. There has been much emphasis on inclusion and legacy, participation and reach. Not forgetting the actual quality of the funded events and the branding. But this project walked the thin wire across the chasm of token gesture, patronising inclusion and dubious quality and really delivered an evening to remember, that really seemed to resonate with the audience and participants (I eavesdropped like mad). And most telling of all, despite the rain, I didn’t feel moved to whinge. Not once.