‘We can’t just say it’s all bad man, we have to think about what could happen.’
– Jimmy, Cardiff.
I awake in the northern suburb of Roath Park, Cardiff. I’ve set an alarm, but what has me up and out of bed are the affections of a dog, Ropo, who runs into the room and licks my face and feet with his barbed and tickly tongue until I manage to shoo him away. I have tea and breakfast with Sebo, an accomplished photographer and, typically for that profession, overly perfectionistic and self-critical. Since the couple moved to Cardiff from Finland after Hanni got a PhD scholarship nine months ago, Sebo’s been volunteering at local galleries and organising small workshops, as well as occasional bits of work here and there for the BBC.
He’s also made friends with the guys at Punk Bikes, a small cooperatively-run bike shop on the junction between Newport Road and City Road to the east of the centre. My back brake has started rubbing against the wheel and the spring seems to have gone awry, once again – this curse previously afflicted me across the Midlands and Nottingham – and I’m starting to despair. At my insistence we cycle at a slow pace so I can keep up (!), and we cycle past a collage of neon and ruins, cuisine houses that span the continent of Asia besides tatty phone shops, neglected Victorian townhouses turned into cheap bedsit lets and, a little behind the scenes, garagelands besides one-way streets cutting hither and thither on this quiet sunny morning. We follow one down til we reach a tight alleyway marked with stylised graffiti. Here’s Punk Bikes, and the service is friendly and off-the-cuff. I’m shown some of their bizarre home-made cycles, odd trikes and bikes which somehow succeed in travelling from A to B. The brake spring is adjusted though they’ve no brake pads suitable for my old-fashioned bike, so I’m pointed elsewhere and head out. The repair’s overpriced but the ethos is sound, though by the end of the day the spring will go again.
Sebo and I part ways by City Road. Squadrons of police dominate the road. I overhear one local’s speculation: ‘who knows how many of them are undercover cops?’ Does it matter? CCTV makes itself known on the corner of every public promenade, inside every cranny of the local not-so-local store, pricking itself out of twitchy net curtains, ‘beware the dogs’, ‘smile, you’re on…’. Public security does more to evoke fear than anything else, and Cardiff’s precautions are more disruptive and disquieting than anything I’ve ever encountered. With all these police, with their motorcycles, helicopters, and a huge metal security fence penetrating right through the city, what are they protecting us from? Or rather, who are they protecting from us?
I head towards Cardiff’s centre along Newport Road, a wide and ugly thoroughfare lined with educational and office buildings of one kind or another, and ugly white hotel high-rises. Most of their mid-to-late 20th century designs still seem to bear the marks of the grid paper they were first loosely sketched on, pursuing symmetry and order in their clean lines at the expense of any distinctive identity. It’s a 1960s technocrat’s vision of the future, led by and for the car-driver, and the busy street is reminiscent of Croydon or Reading. There is no concession to ease of travel for cycling and walking, and the road’s overwhelming. Luckily Cardiff makes up for it, though with the excessive security around the city’s particularly joyless.
I pass through the sprawling St. David’s mall in the centre, part of a massive pedestrianised shopping precinct where, characteristically enough for a British Town Centre, is entirely given over to selling things. One could damn it with some justification: shouldn’t cities be places to live in, and their centres place to meet and celebrate the aspirations of its people? But look around, spend some time drifting by, and people are not being slavishly determined to simply look and buy. People loiter on the benches, mill around in small groups, almost oblivious of the high-end stores around them. They serve a function, but not a city’s most important one.
To get out of the town centre and towards the castle and cathedral, I have to pass through a metal security fence-cum-checkpoint, and cycle out on the other side, up cathedral road and towards the north-western suburbs of Cardiff. There’s a line of Victorian hotels servicing the sports fans of the nearby Millennium Stadium. I stop at Bike Shed, where the service is friendly and informed, and my back brake pads are replaced cheaply, then continue. I’m escaping Cardiff for the day, away from all the NATO crowds and menace in the air. And my destination is quite a treat, a tip stumbled across in Blackwood when discussing former miners’ institutes. St. Fagans is a village just outside Cardiff which contains a large national history museum. But it’s not contained in a single building with glass-paned collections and travelling exhibitions. Instead over a hundred acres, St. Fagans contains a vast number of reconstructed buildings and gardens taken from across Wales and rebuilt here, displaying and explaining the country’s social history across hundreds of years.
To reach St. Fagans, I pass through the middle-class residential suburb of Llandaff, which is pronounced ‘Landaff’ rather than ‘Clandaff’, as it should be in the Welsh tongue, betraying a cultural normalisation and domination of English here. Next comes the village of Fairwater, where kids from the local school queue in the local bakery and co-op for doughnuts. Afterwards there’s a ring of countryside, a breath of fresh air, uncoerced, quiet, then the small village of St. Fagans.
I enter through the castle gate, and wander round the Tudor castle, originally a Norman motte and bailey thing at the centre of the village, rebuilt in Elizabethan times in the fashionable shape E, then after centuries being empty became the playhouse of a wealthy Victorian family, from which most of the furnishings remain. The rooms are huge and luxuriously-appointed, redecorated later to the bourgeois tastes of the year of our lord 1850, such a contrast to the squalid and difficult lives of miners and their families. The gardens outside, Italianate, gorgeous, dedicated to the beautiful expressions of flowers primped, pricked and manicured, conceal in their lusciousness the obscene toleration of urban exploitation and poverty which made them possible. What would statistics make of social inequality of then and now? But these stately homes and cosy castles are government-funded visitor attractions. The dachas, villas and mansions of the super-rich today lie behind thick security gates and guarded complexes. Don’t count yourself so lucky.
St Fagans National History Museum was originally set up in 1947 as the Welsh Folk Museum. Its purpose was to preserve a cultural connection with rural culture felt to be dying out. It uses its vast open-air setting to demonstrate this connection through the forty or so re-erected buildings taken brick by brick from the far corners of Wales and restored here. I wander through an Italian garden, by a place that resembles cider-making, big in the south-east of Wales, then by a large timber 19th century barn, and through a tunnel to the other side of the park. There’s a large 17th century farmhouse painted scarlet red to ward away evil spirits. Further up, I pass a reconstructed post office and bakery from the early 20th century where bara birth can be bought. There’s the Gwalia stores, a slice of domestic life from 1912 that one can peek around, but I’m most intrigued by the Oakdale Working Men’s Institute. It once stood in a village adjacent to Blackwood, but it’s been taken brick by brick and reconstructed here.
Wandering around is strange and superb. One can poke about what a historian believes to be its library and meeting room, silent, sanitised and clean, no bubble of banter here, just tourists with their cameras, like me, anxious to scoop up and properly sniff the air-fragranced remains of working class history. Men learnt to read in these rooms, and then expand their reading beyond the Sunday paper to Karl Marx or Tom Paine. As well as a large meeting and lecture room upstairs that were regularly used, there were games and dances regularly taking here. Perhaps you’d need to take a stop down one of Blackwood’s boozers to compare pastimes today. There is something certainly paternalistic about all this temperate and sober leisure, say compared to the more extensive culture of boozy working men’s clubs that I encountered across the Midlands and North. (In fairness, these type of clubs are something I first encountered in London before, CIU-affiliated clubs, some still existing in a kind of dormant half-life in Penge and South Norwood. Off-putting, definitely. I didn’t start drinking in ‘locals’ til I left the M25, where it felt OK. I regret to say that I only drank in 50% of Penge pubs… The CIU refused full membership to women until 2007).
St. Fagans is a truly delightful place to explore, and were I a resident of this surprisingly small and unengaging city, I’d be found reading a book, climbing a tree or fast asleep on its lawns. Entry is free, and there’s so much to explore. I find St Teilo’s church, an extraordinary building piled up in stages from 1100 to 1520. Take a look inside and prepare yourself for bewilderment. Local congregations to the church, originally built near Swansea, couldn’t understand Latin, nor later English. The church lacked the wealth to produce elaborate stained glass demonstrations. Instead, it’s thought that the church would’ve been filled with incredible ochre paintings across its alabaster walls. The images dominate one’s attention and imagination far more than the poetic renderings of the lost scribes and translators of the books later convened into the Old and New Testament. The images are bloody and mysterious, and their faces utterly inexpressive, suggestive of a void of feeling.
They remind me in a different way of the attempts of the comic-artist Robert Crumb to render the Book of Genesis into modern graphic illustration. They resemble that disquieting, sober, distant air. These are not stories but parables, the life and death of a fallen god that impart ethical lessons to those steeped in fantastical traditions about suffering and redemption. Christianity’s gift to these islands, and elsewhere, I think, is in its unparalleled ability to explain and expiate personal suffering. There’s much I find intolerable about it, but that alone I’ve recognised countless times in the lives of others. The crudities of Richard Dawkin or those young impressionable graduates quoting Nietzsche in backpackers’ hostels cannot, despite their eloquence or passion, match such a power, relatively meaningless now, but utterly essential in modern European life until the 20th century.
St. Fagans is a wonderful place, and I could spend all day here, like the couples lolling about on the lawns and the families picnicking under the willow trees. But Cardiff is still my problem. We can lark about in the past and its perfumed masques, but what curator would take a chance on the museum of the present, or the future? That unsteady and certainly damn wrong terrain is the stuff of poets and writers. So let’s give it a go. What makes a life here? I head back towards Cardiff centre, along Cathedral road and then the security barricades. I detour by the Millennium Stadium, a UFO washed up on the banks of the River Taff besides some ultrabland commercial developments. I give up exploring its crannies and head towards the centre.
And Cardiff is strange like that, in a way I suppose reminiscent of Chester with its city-centre racecourse but nowhere else: it’s damn small. Who made it the capital? Ach, who else claims it? Swansea, Aber, Mach? None would bother. Here’s the maddening crowds. So I stroll up St. Mary Street (?), taking a look at Spillers, Britain’s oldest extent record shop 1984. Content that I still have no interest in collecting the hard copy of music, I wander back through the shopping precinct of St Davids, delighting in people-watching, then I cut through its service crannies back to Newport Road, home turf it feels, en route to Roath. I whizz up City Road and take a pause by D’vinyl records and the Record Shop, peering at things I have no interest in buying, delighted in the pleasure of their presence, a geek’s windowshopping. I pop round the corner and get the best pastry of my wanderings, a hot chilli paneer roll from Pooja’s sweetshop and bakery. I stroll around Albany Road, a delightful multicultural spread of shops.
Here’s another problem: where do you sleep in Cardiff when you know no soul?
Well, there’s this charming man in town who used to hit the drums in a band I bluffed bass in back an aeon or two ago. His name is Jimmy, and he remains impossible to get hold of, deeply unreliable yet delightfully affectionate and friendly in his apologies. He remains one of the more captivating front-men I’ve met in my fool-years of musicking in London, though don’t bother looking him up. He’s a whisp in the wind, a flower-burst of fine songs that lasts no more than a year or two in Denmark Street, Mare Street, Nowhere Street pub-band-land. I make a base in the Ernest Willows Wetherspoons. Cheap beer sustains my inner bard for a few hours whilst I wait for even the slightest word back from Jim. Being trusting and prone to risk, I’ve placed my night’s bet on one of the oldest of old friends. Four hours into sitting in this pub, checking and re-checking text messages, he does not disappoint.
Whilst Jim picks up a mattress from the back of beyond, retired couples behind me argue absurdly over details of a child abduction case. It’s in the news, and like anything flashing over the frontpages of the popular press, everyone has a view. They pass judgement on the individuals and a family they have no knowledge of based on a recent news fixation. The atmosphere’s ok, quiet enough to work, the beer cheap and reasonable. I leave and head up to the Andrew Buchan pub on Albany Road. Hey, it’s underwhelming on the outside, looking like a badly-converted caff, but it’s an excellen boozer. They serve local Rhymney beers, nothing special but at least something different, but what beats all else is the jukebox banging out classic rock. Lovely and atmospheric.
Hey, here’s Jim. It’s only been… four years? Don’t mention time, that cruel standard we judge ourselves against, as if expecting some kind of bill of itemised expenses that some supernatural being will issue a refund from. He’s tanned, happy, smart and articulate, lively, affectionate, an old friend, an old dog, just lovely. Jimmy! He’s just started a job at the local council.
‘I wanna keep this one!’, he laughs, as I remind him of his inability to hold anything down except a damn good beat. He’s a Cardiff boy, and knows a bit about the terrain I’ve been losing myself in. ‘The valleys are absolutely beautiful, but I think it’d be too much of a shock to the system.’ He plays at this pub regularly with two local fellers as ‘The Bones of Saint James’, though over conversation talks about outlandish musical ambitions as he always did, multiple musicians, elaborate compositions, the dreams of producing something intrinsically different. Musicians are alike. He introduces me to a friend a little after arriving, Merlin, and his girlfriend, who have just moved nearby. They talk about the cheapness of the rent, of e-cigarettes, and of Merlin’s unusual job of producing business news stories for banks and investors, to a degree creating the reality of the markets. We sit and drink for a while, talking and enjoying ourselves, then head back to Jimmy’s gaff in Roath.
‘I don’t read the news any more, it’s just too depressing’. He has a very kind and gentle way about him, and often describes things as ‘beautiful’. He sees the good in all the people he meets, in a kind of dreamy and impressionable way but one that feels to me so unusual after the hard-headedness of travelling and conversing with strangers. He picks out one LP after another and plays the Kinks, Beach Boys, Roy Orbison and the Ronettes with the dexterity and intuition of a mood musician.
We’re talking about London, that great wen we’ve both escaped from. His story’s rougher and gruffer, one of serious drug dependency, chance encounters and working relationships with one or two major musicians, a heroin needle stuck in one well-known man’s minder’s hand, then the hard and often-unrewarding, lonely task of going clean. ‘It just messes you up for days, you haven’t got any life’, he says, remembering the bad old days. Getting back to Cardiff wasn’t much easier. He worked in a now-closed record shop which once sold a good deal of graphic novels, most stolen from Forbidden Planet and other larger stores. The fella would sell them stolen Judge Dredd originals, then later Jim would use him to accrue what he then needed. Things have improved much then, and it’s a pleasure to see an old friend in better health than ever before, a lovely and kind young man. We drink together, then I disappear to peer through his poetry books and rock and roll ephemera. His flatmate’s gone AWOL, and I bed on his mattress. My sleep’s fine, strange and restless as it always is.
And all this, lovely as it is, is another unplanned, somewhat random encounter. Here I am, drunk and happy, still unsure what Cardiff’s quite about, what it’s for. I know that with internet access and the gift of the gab I could pass at least a week travelling around the town, staying with random strangers and encountering more strange stories. There’s a disarming friendliness about the place, a bustle and business that overlooks without thought the activities of strangers. So don’t come looking for a national monument, city cathedral or castle, cos Cardiff’s in the life of its people. And that’s not to say it’s any more charming, affectionate or inspired than the Valleys, Swansea or elsewhere, oh no. But in Cardiff, you can get away easily with being a stranger. So come down and give it a try.