‘Come up with a solution, any solution, and I’m gonna agree with ya’
– two Jamaican men in an Easton street, Bristol.
It’s my last morning in Wales. The sky hangs heavy over this steely, stunted, security-shocked city. A few more clouds and military helicopters and the whole cumulus’ll come crashing down under the great burden of its own greys.
‘And other spirits there are standing apart
Upon the forehead of the age to come;
These, these will give the world another heart,
And other pulses. Hear ye not the hum’…
There’s a racket in the outside streets, some neighbourly dispute disrupting the smooth flow of Keats’ words with the clamour of mutual misunderstanding. The walls and pipes fidget, rattle and gurgle like a group of skiving schoolkids. Cardiff’s neither awake nor asleep, neither bustling nor bumbling, but just getting along. The path of least resistance, accompanied by a choir of wheezing buses, crumpling newspapers and business studies graduates hustling Sky TV packages. Cardiff pursues the path of its own capital city activity like the descendants of a small group of prospective colonisers, following a menu of vaguely-stated and probably misunderstood instructions about devolution, nationhood, and various self-appointed ‘quarters’. Perhaps this band dropped down in a large spacecraft that’s now used as the Millennium Stadium, or was it the Millennium Centre? Either’s wrapped in its own symbolic sweet-wrapper cladding, predictably fizzy and wacky, for this moment appearing distinctly modern but will quickly becoming dated. And what comes next?
I’ve been surprised by the lack of appetite for greater self-government in Wales, particularly the south. Where are these proud and defiant people? I see the flags out on a rugby day, but I’m struggling against the grain to discover more about its radical history, or to hear its visions and desires about the future. This is no Welsh condition – England has been a desert of the imagination (ah, but Bristol’s coming, and this’ll change), but I’d expected there to be some contagion from the debates north-west of the border, about regional devolution in Manchester, or full-scale independence for the Scots. Those debates in Scotland had truly energised the many different and diverse communities across the country. But across Wales there’s far less certainty, or interest, in the underlying question of public ownership and popular self-government. It surprises me, and it’s a dangerous complacency I think.
The previous night, Jim told me about his dad, from Wales but of a more international mindset, and now working for the BBC in nearby Bristol. Jim paraphrased his dad’s caustic take on the country: a land complacently dependent on a kind of general, expensive and largely unnecessary public sector for its employment. I disagree, and my eyes and ears contradict this, but it jabs and jibbers at my doubts.
Independence is not a question of isolated secession. Democracy is more than just a five yearly ballot. Nation, community and identity are far more than just markers of ‘crypto-fascism’, or whatever vague and clunky concept is bandied around to describe racist and authoritarian ideas. From roads to robberies, and rubbish to reading, the nation-state remains the first and most common form of authority that one encounters. At the present moment, it is little more than a holding company that overseas the protection and maintenance of national and international capital. But there remains the political potential for it to be a vehicle of popular and public power.
I put down the books of dog-eared verse and fish around Jim’s flat for some breakfast, finding in crumpets and sugar puffs smooth satisfaction. Jim’s place is filled with dreamy, exuberant and downright visionary paraphernalia, from the guitars and record sleeves to the misplaced jackets, smatters of rock glamour and heady books tossed about the shelves alongside the biographies of decadent saints. It’s damn refreshing to be with someone still convinced by the possibility of self-transformation through the rhythms and rebelliousness of a life of romance. ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’….
But enough. My bicycle’s still out order, its wheels and brakes all awry, so I head out to Punk bikes again to see if they can fix it with a bit more success today. Perhaps it’s a lucky morning. With a cable tugged and a brake pad adjusted, this rickety, rusty but altogether lovely old thing makes it back on the road without all those previous scrapes and groans. I’m itching for new vistas, and it’s time to leave this unlikely capital and depart, chasing the Newport Road east through the busy traffic out.
This is the war for room to breathe and move. Today’s contestants are teetering supermarket delivery trucks, rapacious white transit vans, and the estate cars of Germany and Japan driven by dozing local cabbies dipping their toes in the bus lane. I am like Don Quixote riding amongst the Huns. Even the pedestrians don’t attempt to cross the roads. It’s pretty clear who’s going to come last today, this fool on the pushbike refusing to ride the pavements. I’m not into breaking the bones of pedestrians or their pooches, and adherence to an unwritten fantasy of road decorum has me wallying around major roundabouts with the majesty of a mayfly. This A48 is a hectic helter-skelter of speedy out-of-town driving, and I come on and off it, catching my breath before rejoining the maelstrom towards Newport. At times there’s safety in a bus route or lon fysiau – and how I’ll miss those Welsh warning phrases like Araf, or Dym ysmygu, Allanfa dan, or cymryd eich priod feddw adref gyda chi!
But, there are signs for cycle route 4. Feeling a little more confident in the planning abilities of the Welsh to put together a cycle path, I decide to give it a try. If I really must have to die, I’d prefer at least to be wearing a smart shirt, and this is not one of those days. I’m on a stubbledy snaggle-tooth path past rusty municipal yards and abandoned attempts at industry, at times blocked off by cracked sinks, cisterns and other shit casually fly-tipped. It’s by no means easy going, but probably safer I guess.
There’s a few country roads chucked in too, and I ride through the village of Old St. Mellons, a sleepy suburban smudge of unimaginative housing and nimby warnings. ‘Do you want THIS?’ appeals placard after placard. The menace and malevolence in question? New houses, during a housing crisis facing young single people. ‘Keep Old St. Mellons GREEN’ is the answer, an ugly and short-sighted response that reflects very poorly on this utterly mediocre, homogeneous and over-affluent dreariness. Mock-historic, mediocre, myopic, semi-detached, dreary, pity-me bleary, the lasting cultural legacy of Conservative voters of the day. It reminds me of Cardiff again, and of a piece of desperate graffiti scrawled upon the board of a closed sixth-form college. ‘Too many empty buildings too many sleeping rough’. As they dream in their four by fours on the way to the golf club, this cretinous class and culture has truly been the most depressing and unnecessary blight on the dreams and desires of Albion.
Somewhere along this trail Cardiff ends and the neighbouring town of Newport begins. There are more nimby warnings in the key of mean, ‘say ‘NO’ to solar farm KEEP Castleton and Marshfield GREEN’. I guess the residents would prefer the earth tremors of shale gas fracking or the contaminated soils and water of nuclear power in their midst? But the signs are everywhere, evidence of some kind of prevalent myopia and selfishness that’s been left unopposed across the nasty array of motorway and thatched semi-detached. I pass Tredegar House, a red-brick Restoration country home kept open for the benefit of visiting tourists. These stately homes all over the country, might there not be something better purposed for them than charging coachloads of pensioners from Swindon and Sunderland to come and nose about them? But they’re characteristic of the countryside. Disproportionate differences between a wealthy few and a disempowered many are a historic norm of these islands. Close by is a huge Asda offering cheap bargains, and a little beyond I pass through the suburb of Duffrin, a run-down series of low-rise council estates that gives way to Newport itself.
Route 4 chooses to skirt around the city centre, awkwardly skittering around some derelict industrial yards in order to safely escort the cyclist out of the town. But I’m wary, and I want to find out more about the town. So I rejoin the road, and pass along a glut of godawful retail parks, one after another, any kind of space given over to whichever investor might want it. Because immediately, from the outset, Newport looks like it’s been abandoned, only that no-one’s told the residents.
I can only draw on what I see and hear, but Newport is by far the most obviously deprived, run-down, impoverished and most desperate looking town I’ve passed through on this trip. I was warned in Swansea and Cardiff about the place, and about the unusually high prevalence of drug addiction, but it’s not that which bothers me. From one’s vague and poorly marked entry one, one is surrounded by rusted and derelict yards where buddleia and weeds burst where once warehouses and factories stood. Most urban areas have demolished these, perhaps for the sake of a park, or new housing, or indeed a retail park or ten, and it looks like Newport might’ve given this a try, but the money or will must’ve run out, as so much which ought to have been swept away or rebuilt still remains. The housing is unusually mean and cramped, bloody ugly and exceptionally shrinked and shoddy, demonstrating a kind of municipal demarcation and damnation of the working poor.
Like much of south Wales, Newport boomed on the back of largely English investment in iron and coal. Its docks were once some of the largest in the UK, and workers from across Wales, England and Ireland moved here for work in its industries and docks. Dirty but dynamic, it was eight years after the Merthyr Uprising that the workers of Newport, Pontypool and Blackwood got together in their thousands and marched through the city with weapons, protesting against the UK parliament’s rejection of the ‘People’s Charter’ of the Chartist movement.
On the 4th November 1839, thousands filed into the town to protest about a plethora of grievances, like poverty, low pay, unemployment, to a lack of political representation. They too despised a distant political establishment that had no knowledge or interest in their concerns, one that would willingly imprison a critic like Henry Vincent for ‘inflammatory speeches’ or totally ignore its popular petitions. They headed towards the Westgate hotel, demanding the release of Vincent and other Chartist prisoners. Violence broke out between the fractional number of panicky soldiers guarding the hotel and the crowds. Twenty two were killed by the soldiers, and after a fight the remainder backed away in terror. Leaders like John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones were rounded up and sentenced to death, but a successful public campaign and further threats of other risings saw their sentences commuted to transportation to Australia.
Welsh has not been heard here for some time, and there was a time in the late 19th century when English businessmen insisted the town was ‘English’. It’s unlikely they’d claim it now. I pass the Royal Gwent hospital and into a small town centre. There are remainders of civic aspiration and ambition in its central triangle and a vague statue of a figure on a globe commemorating the merchant navy. Look around and the skeletons remain of some impressive enough early 20th century high street-style promenades, red-bricks and large bay windows. Wander further up into Newport’s main precinct and there are some impressive Victorian public structures like the now derelict Kings Hotel and an ambitious Art Deco civic centre, but don’t look up too much.
Look around. There are vacant shops everywhere. Cheap barbers, an excess of off-licences, empty caffs and cheap takeaways. There’s a run of discount high-street chains that few are interested in. I cycle round by the River Usk, looking up at some late 20th century tawdry towers by its shopping centre. I wonder, does anyone give two shits about Newport?
I head back up the main thoroughfare of shops, partly pedestrianised, past teenagers off their nut and strung-out junkies clutching their crutches, weary, too weary of it all. Most people are doing their shopping among the discount stores of the precinct, some sat on benches by the occasional piece of public art. It’s a strange mixture of people, casual but unfriendly. And from the outset and like nowhere else, Newport’s the kind of place you want to leave as soon as you enter. The Clash’s Joe Strummer lived here during 1973, playing in abortive rockabilly bands by night and digging graves by day. I wonder what he’d make of it now, though I suspect the problems are decades-set. No investment nor employment; no pride nor care.
The police are searching an office worker quite vigorously by the confusing traffic system between the precinct and the bridges over the Usk. The NATO summit has actually been held here, and not Cardiff, but the police have not thought to detain the town with the same security detail. There’s little prospect of rebellion in this defeated and thwarted city. I cross the Usk, past the remains of an old castle and into the southern suburbs. There’s more utterly strung-out junkies just about standing straight against the graffitied walls of former cinemas and pubs. I pass a barber shop where shoes hang over a telephone wire. For simply looking at it a fraction too long, I’m shouted at with threatening abuse.
These are suburbs of mostly closed downs shops and more cramped housing. I start to pass ‘hotels’ with people sitting outside, single mothers from the area, a west African fella sitting alone, a group of Romany travellers, too skint to do anything or go anywhere. These are places paid for by the government to provide the most basic of existences. I cannot imagine anything more depressing than fleeing the traumas of a warzone to become trapped here, without money, shelter, privacy or any kind of opportunity to learn, work, or do anything else. Just sit or stand, and look out at the passing traffic. There is a real feeling of bleakness here, a quiet and stifled horror about the place. It makes me feel very sad. Something needs to be done. It’s not simply a case of designing more ambitious buildings (god no, the way these modern ones can look…), or building a new Asda hypermarket, it’s deeper. Newport only stands out as the worst instance of a wider social malaise, about unemployment and low pay, about the kinds of houses and town centres built like prison-hives for the poorest who keep communities running.
I’m not sad about leaving the place. I rejoin Route 4, crossing another great pile of fly-tipped household waste. ‘They just don’t care’, remarks another cyclist coming the other way. The route threads through a weedy waste land with pylons, then leads to a series of country roads that are far more pleasant, heading towards Chepstow via a series of small villages like Redwick, Summerleaze, Undy and Magor. It’s around twenty miles of cycling through these narrow and quiet lanes, mostly flat. I pick an abundance of fresh juicy blackberries by Magor, a border former-farming settlement, a standing stone still nearby. Were I to follow this direction up the river Wye, I’d be following the path of William Gilpin, the romantic and wandering cleric whose dreamy pursuits of a beauty ‘picturesque’ led to the publication of Observations on the River Wye in 1783, a cornerstone book in the development of tourism.
‘We suppose the country to have been unexplored… Under this circumstance the mind is kept constantly in an agreeable suspense. The love of novelty is the foundation of this pleasure.’
Gilpin’s interest in nature is surprisingly similar to the modern digital-camera wielding trophy-hunter. His sojourns up to his beloved ruined Tintern Abbey up the Wye are carried out with a hunter’s eye, meticulously attentive for that moment where a new vista emerges and nature reveals, momentarily, a beauty so extraordinary it is of God itself.
‘We travel for various purposes; to explore the culture of the soils, to view the curiosities of art, to survey the beauties of nature, and to learn the manners of men, their different politics and modes of life.’
True enough, but above all it’s the pursuit of beauty in a harmonious, wild, secluded form. I suspect I’d find it with difficulty: Gilpin’s book created a sudden tourist boom, but these are useful notes for the aesthete-explorer.
These settlements are mostly quiet, and I pass the occasional ‘pro’-looking cyclist but that’s all. I cross the old Severn bridge after passing through Caldicot, a small bland looking town, an aperitif for southern England. Chepstow’s nearby with its racecourse. The bridge crosses over Beachley island then right out over the Severn, between England and Wales. I stop to take a photo, and I’m accosted by two local police who interview me on my intentions. Apparently one should not stop in a public place and take a photograph. This bridge being watched carefully, and the larger and newer bridge is ‘on lockdown’ they tell me. They ask about my trip, and inevitably about my punctures, ‘not even one!’, and they’re friendly enough, and we get on well. They’re just doing their job. ‘How far to go?’
So this is England! I cross onto the other side. Unlike Scotland there is no fanfare of national flags, civic signs or quirky kiosks, no first or last pub. There’s no feeling about a border here, the union’s older and deeper perhaps. But there’s a discernible difference once one leaves the busy roads and threads through the narrow villages from Aust and Northwick, Pilning to Easter Compton, I spy a greater variety of greens and wildflowers. For much of the ride I’m joined by a traveller and his son on horse, and we cut a strange trio. There are no more ‘slow araf’ or ‘araf slow’ signs, no more fields with rugby goals instead of football frames. The accent is so different too! Compare the Bristolian south-west drawl to undulating Valleys voice: flat and slurry, lots of zzzs, ooos and aaas. Yet the geographic distance is so slight. How can it be? But these islands are not filled with nations or nationalities, but regional tribes, each with their own self-defining slang and elocution, foods and football clubs, from Manc to Scouse, Cockney to Geordie, Valleys to Glasgae, West Country to Black Country. And tribes is the only way I can readily conceive it.
It’s a sunny day and a nice ride, eventually getting to the outskirts of Bristol at Filton and Cribbs Causeway, the city guarded by a large wall-fortification of high-speed motorway and A-road traffic, garrisons of new car forecourts, petrol stations and supermarkets in the distance. I head into the town from the north-west, via leafy Henbury and Westbury-on-Trym. These are affluent suburbs with white brick, mock-tudor gabling and high security fences, carrying out every precaution against the terror of trespasser or intruder. Fear is the mood of the suburbs. I’m hurtling down the hills of this wibbly-wobbly city, tearing through wealthy Clifton and past signs for the town’s zoo. There are some deceptive hints that might confuse passers-by about Bristol’s initial involvement in the slave trade: I whizz down Blackboy Hill and through an area called Whiteladies, but these areas were developed long after the end of the slave trade. Clifton Down looks delightful. Obviously wealthy, it retains much of its Georgian architecture, sandstone terraces in varied and lovely shapes.
I pass the Royal West of England Academy of Art, the foremost of a series of grand university buildings like the towering Wills memorial pointing over the city, and take a stop. Opposite are the pseudo-classic pretensions of the Victorian Rooms, and a fantastically camp statue of a soldier hoisting up his rifle at the exact same level and nature as… The streets are busy and bustling, but the mood is less hectic or harangued than most city centres. It’s as busy as Manchester or London’s Piccadilly, but the pace is that bit slower, gentler, and more considerate. I like it.
I jump off the bike and walk down the steep incline of Queens Road, watching a few brave cyclists trying to conquer it in the other direction. There are some hip vintage shops and little cafes, and I stop for some overpriced frozen yoghurt before carrying on. It’s clearly a wealthy town. I cycle further down to College Green, the cathedral and City Hall building facing each other as young people sit or lie about in the sun, talking amongst themselves as daredevil lads fall off their skateboards. Despite the steep hills everywhere, the town’s full of cyclists and caters well for them, with a number of well-designed cycle lanes. I pass into the centre which is a little more generically ‘British’, reminiscent of Nottingham’s centre with the Colton Tower overlooking affairs and the waterside hall nearby, the Avon in the distance. I cycle through some pretty cobbled parts, by the Bristol Vic and the Llandoger Trow pub, a ye olde boozer where Daniel Defoe apparently met Alexander Selkirk, his model for Robinson Crusoe whose statue I passed earlier in Lower Largo whilst heading through Fife. There are enticing pubs and eateries everywhere. I cycle up the old Welsh Back, close to the old shipping port, and over through the modern Cabot Circus, a modern ‘shopping quarter’ that’s largely predictable but not excessive.
Bristol’s done well to maintain and keep a distinctive identity. It’s a small city, no doubt, and without the drama, humour or self-affirmation of Glasgow or Liverpool, but my, from what I see, this is a pretty damn good city. It gets much of urban life right. Content with what I’ve seen, I cycle out towards the north-eastern suburbs of the city, along an ugly and far too busy thoroughfare that cuts a line north-south through the town. I turn off at Easton, where I’m staying with a friendly fella called Jackson, who has offered to host me at short notice through the Couchsurfing community website.
I’d decided a few days to cut a day out of my wanderings through the south of Wales. Instead of wittering about the Gower peninsula, I decided to treat myself to an extra day in Cardiff and Bristol. The lives, cultures and communities of these islands are to be found and known in the cities. I pass the J3 library and a ‘future-proof’ set of buildings, easily customisable with new materials apparently, but a little toytown in appearance. Easton’s a little shabby but full of character. There’s some great local shops here, and it’s clearly multicultural. I see peoples from most of the world’s continents all moving around without fuss among the peeling Victorian terraces. There’s a nice and relaxed feel to the place.
Jackson opens the door, a music teacher, DJ and Afro-Brazilian percussionist, and all round nice guy. We quickly get on, and his life experiences and stories are more than sufficient meat for a night of conversation. I meet his flatmate Joe too, studying international development and working as a support worker for people with learning difficulties in Bath. They’re both two sound and friendly young men. They tell me a bit about themselves, about Bristol, and about the rich and diverse music scenes across the city. It’s a young, lively and animated place, and there’s so much happening at any one time.
Jackson has travelled across Brazil to study its unique rhythms and percussion, tied to a suffusion of African traditions and new Brazilian forms, a uniquely Afro-Brazilian combination. His percussion teacher brought him to witness and take part in the night-long ceremonies of the Candomblé religion, where adherents to the religion chanted and danced in worship to its deities or orishas. Each deity has its own personality, social role, symbolic associations, colour and dance. Many crossover with Christian saints, in part out of subterfuge, in part genuine assimilation. Worshippers become possessed by these gods, like that of Ogum, the warrior. Dancers move around rapidly as they slash hither and thither machetes, narrowly and inexplicably managing to just miss each other, as Ogum cuts through the forest to reach battle. Then there’s Eshu, the messenger and most human-like, half-man but half-god, represented by alcohol and tobacco. He is the deity of drunken accidents. Dancers flip their hands up and down as they move, representing life then death, interchanging. It is all strange yet brought to life in this room, in this former maritime city more lively, modern and global in nature than perhaps any other I’ve visit
‘Bristol isn’t a place you go and see. It’s a place you’ve got to be in, get under, spend time around’, Jackson suggests. I’m glad I have a second day here. There’ll be wandering but not sight-seeing. I talk with Joe about politics. After asking for a book recommendation, I lend him my copy of the People’s Manifesto. He worries that the Left can’t compete in getting its ideas across in a simple way. It needs an emotional call to bring people together, not just economic data or a faith in its own historical inevitability. How can the growth of environmentally sustainable materials happen? He’s researching the role of subsidies, and of the ethical programmes of companies, and all this idealistic talk of starting again, thinking again, has my mind back to abandoned and desperate Newport, and wealthy Bristol by contrast.
It gets me wondering about a most basic scenario: were a city to be built again – any city – what would its features be? How many would live there, and what might its buildings and streets look like? How would they move around? In what ways would people work? Where would its energy come from, and its waste go? How would people live? How would they participate in their communities? What would its government do, and not do?
People are weary, sceptical but not apathetic. There is not so much absence of knowledge, just that of belief. The idea of a good ‘politician’ is inconceivable, and politics is an ugly work. New demagogues are beginning to secure support through pitching themselves as unpolitical, ‘saying what they mean’. In figures like Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson we have actors of the stature of Al Pacino or Robert de Niro, able to occupy characters and attitudes without even seeming to be acting. There’s are star performances, masquerading credibility and common sense in a world of balderdash, fag-packets and easy right-and-wrong answers.
Two of Jackson’s mates come over to discuss a DJ event they’re putting on. Together we spend a remarkably civilised evening, drinking herbal teas and cooking together a meal of Freekah (a Palestinian wheat grain, like Bulgur Wheat), chickpea curry and then a stewed apples and fresh-picked blackberries I’d found in Wales. We all chip in, disagreeing on the exact amount of butter required. It’s my first day on my journey where I have not drunken alcohol, shockingly I guess. We talk about vegetarianism. His friend Nathan argues that the most useful thing is to inform others about choices. He now eats less meat and prefers something responsibly farmed by local businesses and producers, but expense is a problem. Jackson’s a vegetarian but will eat meat if it’s served or offered, like many who have travelled across the world and through cultures where vegetarianism isn’t understood. He doesn’t want the food to be wasted or its people insulted. And for the farmer, what would be done with male chickens or male cows? They’re too expensive to sustain. What’s the vegetarian solution to the problem of so much already existing livestock? On an everyday level, it would be easier to kill and turn into food those animals, ensuring more food for the other livestock and feeding more people in poorer countries. Few across the world have the luxury of choice.
There’s two sides to every coin, Nathan concludes, be it religion, ethics, or politics. Perhaps there’s more danger in a bland consensus being presented which disguises their fundamental conflicts. ‘There’s this peculiar mix of nowhereness that politics in this country is heading towards’, he thinks. He highlights the decline of interest in political parties which now seem more alike and homogeneous than ever before. Be it in the rise of UKIP or support for Scottish independence, the brackish water sustaining both is a disaffection and rejection with the political class in Westminster.
Good intellectual discussion among strangers will often leave one with far less sureties than one had before. That’s the pleasure in it. Obstinacy is the resort of ignorance. They play house records on the decks til around 1am, loud and good stuff, and I enjoy chilling back, drinking tea, talking, writing, just thinking. My welcome is warm and there’s plenty compelling me to stay. By 2am the guys are reminded of the baleful prospects of waking up for work tomorrow morning, and head out or up to bed. I lie back on the sitting room sofa and listen to the conversations of passers-by outside.