Mr Skates’s ring cycle

July 28, 2017 8 Comments

The proposed ‘Iron Ring’

The row over the ‘Iron Ring’ proposed for Flint Castle seems to be over, so the time is right to think more calmly about what we’ve learnt.

First, a quick summary of what happened (there is an ignominious prequel, which I’ll skip).  Cadw, responsible for safeguarding scheduled historic monuments in Wales, together with Visit Wales, the arm of Welsh Government dedicated to attracting tourists, and the Arts Council of Wales, devised the idea of a new sculpture to be located within the grounds of Flint Castle.  A firm based in London and Gloucestershire, George King Architects, was favoured for the contract, and for the price of £395,000 they came up with the idea of a large and (inevitably) ‘iconic’ Iron Ring.  This was a direct reference to (comparatively recent but well-established) term for the circle of castles built by Edward I to subjugate the Welsh once his armies had crushed them in 1282.  The Ring represents, they say,

… the intimate relationship between the medieval monarchies of Europe and the castles they built. The sculpture’s precarious balanced form, half buried beneath the ground, half projecting into the air, demonstrates the unstable nature of the Crown.

Strangely, the architects’ rhetoric fails to mention Edward I.  Instead it refers to Richard II’s presence at Flint:

Its location at Flint castle marks the spot where the crown was famously transferred from one medieval dynasty to another, as described in Shakespeare’s Richard II.  Flint castle was the setting as Richard II surrendered the Crown to Henry IV, a momentous event that shaped the history of Britain and Europe.

Richard II at Flint Castle (Photo: Chris West)

There’s no mention, incidentally, of the existing sculpture in Flint Castle that commemorates Richard II and his dog (why the need for a second?).  The main point, though, is that the architects clearly never for a moment thought about how their ‘iconic sculpture’ might be interpreted in Wales.

‘Our work is often designed to initiate an emotional response’, say George King Architects on their website.  This one did.  Public reaction to the publication of their design was immediate and furious.  Why, it was asked, was the Welsh Government sponsoring a monument that apparently celebrated the oppression of its own people?  An online petition calling for the project to be scrapped as ‘extremely disrespectful to the people of Wales’ quickly gathered over 10,000 signatures.  Questions were asked in the Senedd.  Twitter and Facebook filled up with comments that were derisive, abusive or witty, and often all three (‘Anus of the North’ being the outright winner).  Englynion were written.  Finally, the responsible Minister, Ken Skates, announced that there would be a ‘pause and review’, a euphemism for conceding defeat.  The Ring will never be built.

Richard II’s dog

Most commentary has concentrated on the perverseness of a government creating a public sculpture that drew attention to, if it did not actually celebrate, the actions of one of the most ruthless and murderous invaders ever to set foot in Wales.  One would have thought that Edward’s castles, which don’t after all dissolve shyly into the landscape, were effective enough in themselves in advertising his achievements.  Almost everyone, except Cadw and the local MP, shared the same view.  One academic tried the line of defence that the massiveness of Edwardian oppression was actually a tribute to Wales’s refusal to bend to foreign will – an argument unlikely to convince many.

A more interesting question, though, is to ask is why so many people, in and around the Welsh Government, thought they could get away with the Ring?

Ken Skates at Flint Castle

There may have been, as Vaughan Roderick suggests, a political calculation: that a measure of opposition was to be expected, but only from a few ‘Nats’ and isolated dissenters, who could be safely ignored.  More likely, no one thought the Ring would be controversial at all.  If that is right, what does it say about the cultural knowledge and assumptions of all concerned with the decision, from the Minister downwards?

Let’s start with the easiest case to explain, Visit Wales.  Visit Wales used to be a separate entity, the Welsh Tourist Board, but even in those days the mental equipment it used in its mission of attracting tourists into Wales was limited, to say the least.  ‘Sea, Sand and Castles’ were the limit of its horizon (later another ingredient was added, Outdoor Fun).  That people might be attracted to Wales for its intrinsic or unique characteristics was an idea entirely foreign to the barons of the Board.  The suggestion that the (unmythological and unanglified) history of Wales, and its language, literature and intangible heritage could be valuable magnets for at least some groups of visitors struck horror into their souls.  For them ‘cultural tourism’ was a chimera, as well as being a horrible phrase.  Little has changed since, and it probably never occurred to Visit Wales staff, their minds focussed on the behaviour of tourists rather than the sensibility of their fellow-citizens, that the Ring might be a problem.

Flint Castle

The Welsh Government’s failure is slightly more difficult to fathom.  A kind interpretation might go like this.  Culture, we should remember, is an insignificantly small part of the Minister’s portfolio.  Mr Skates has the unenviable task of steering the whole economy of the country, a hard enough job in normal circumstances, without the added nightmare of Brexit.  He might be forgiven for taking his eye off the very small ball of the Ring.  In the past, of course, culture had its own Minister.  And for good reason, since, despite its miniscule budget, culture always carries more potential to cause scandal, outrage and embarrassment than other areas of government.  Perhaps some other worthy Labour AM should be asked to shoulder the culture burden.

How the Arts Council of Wales lent its backing to the Ring is much more of a mystery.  Arts Council staff usually have a much surer feel for the difference between a healthy and positive artistic debate and catastrophic crassness.  It’s also difficult to see how they could justify awarding a large contract outside Wales, given their duty to support the arts of their own country.  A company of flash London creatives hardly needs the patronage of a Welsh Arts Council that’s badly strapped for cash.

Another Flint sculpture: Brian Fell’s ‘Footplate’ at the railway station

A contributory problem is that the Welsh Government has long held an instrumental view of art and culture, when it has taken a view at all.  They can’t be allowed to exist for their own sake, or to satisfy personal needs.  They must be made to serve other, more public, usually economic goals approved by government.  The goal in this case is supporting tourism.  The Iron Ring belongs to a Welsh Government programme, energetically promoted by Mr Skates, called the Year of Legends, aimed specifically at attracting tourists – without evidence, as far as I know, that the tactic is effective.  I’ve written elsewhere about the dangers of this programme, which throws the dubious mantle of ‘legends’ like a straitjacket around the events calendars of the individual cultural bodies dependent on it, and seems to privilege the perpetuation of myth over the search for truth.  Now the programme has claimed a victim.

(One public body is guiltless in the Iron Ring saga.   Flintshire County Council was not consulted about the plan and seems to have taken a sceptical view of it.  Flintshire takes its obligations to Welsh history seriously: anyone walking the Wales Coast Path will know that it’s provided more historical information about the many interesting points of interest visible from the Path than any other local council in Wales.)

Behind all these failures of understanding and sensitivity lies an inescapable fact: that a large number of people, including many in positions of political and financial power in Wales, including Mr Skates, simply lack firm knowledge and appreciation of their country’s history.  The historian and educationalist Dr Elin Jones has spent years pointing this out and urging radical change, but little has been done to modify school curricula.  Broadcasters too are guilty of paying only spasmodic attention to the history of Wales (Welsh medium channels have a rather better record than English ones), despite the continuing public appetite for history and several generations of excellent academic historians expert in all aspects of Wales.  Until things improve, we can expect more Iron Rings, and we’ll have to live through several more cycles of uninformed decisions, bursts of outrage and unnecessary storms.

Everyone concerned should have sensed, of course, that rings can be very dangerous things.  Wagner’s ring spelt trouble for everyone who possessed it, and put an end to the rule of Wotan and his fellow gods.  Tolkien’s ring too, despite its power, was a curse throughout The lord of the rings.  Mr Skates was wise in the end to fling his Iron Ring into the fiery interior of Mount Doom.  Even better would have been to avoid forging it in the first place.

Comments (8)

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  1. Phil Hughes says:

    Thank you for this interesting and informative blog. Somewhere along the way I had missed this” Ring of no confidence” and hadn’t been aware of the arguments raised.

  2. Iwan says:

    Well that’s not quite what I said Andrew. I said that’s what the remains of Edward’s castles reminds me of now – after all the important thing about the original iron ring (like the latest one it seems!) is that it failed. I don’t think I was defending the sculpture, I was suggesting there are always different (and possibly subversive to the original intention) ways of reading it.

  3. Ann Corkett says:

    Thank you for the excellent article.
    Has any one looked recently at the plans for Cei Llechi in Caernarfon, with craft workshops and accommodation (http://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/north-wales-news/plan-revive-caernarfon-slate-quay-13310370). The idea is fine, and something certainly needs to be done there, but from what I can see of the drawings it looks garish,cheap and completely out of character, and the castle seems pretty well obscured. Looking at the virtual walk-through which I see was published in January there seems to more brick than slate used in the buildings (http://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/north-wales-news/take-look-around-planned-revamp-12508797).
    I realise this does not have the emotional significance of developments in Flint, but I would feel happier if more people had a look at it.

  4. Wayne Williams says:

    An extremely thoughtful and sensible article that highlights what the people of Wales have known for a long time – the crass stupidity of our Labour politicians, the staggering ignorance of Welsh history, Language and culture displayed by public bodies in Wales and the taeog mindset that constantly awards large financial contracts to companies in England!
    Dewch Lywodraeth Cymru – Dysgwch hanes Cymru i bobl Cymru!

  5. Llinos Dafis says:

    Diolch Andrew am erthygl wych.

  6. Morwen Rowlands says:

    Gobeithio bydd swyddogion Cyngor y Celfyddydau, Senedd Cymru a Cadw yn darllen yr erthygl gynhwysfawr ardderchog hon.

  7. Anne Greagsby says:

    What can be done about the Mayor of Flint who says the project will proceed….tells #NorthWalesNews she believes those protesting about the controversial sculpture at Flint Castl… https://t.co/2c0ighOnpb

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