The plane to Cardiff was, ironically enough, tardif (yes – it’s a real word). Night was already ensconced well before the taxi ever arrived at the hotel. But by that time, I was too late. I had missed the city’s lupine transformation from normal, everyday, provincial city into a werewolf-like party town. By the time I hit the streets at eleven, the city was howling.
I didn’t have far to walk to meet up with the rest of the lads who were here for the stag party – maybe three or four minutes. But in that short time, I passed one woman sitting on a kerb looking in danger of passing out and another man on the rain-drenched footpath – in the recovery position – who actually had.
The McDonalds up the road was still selling Big Macs – but was no longer allowing the nocturnal revelers to eat inside the establishment. Thus, there was McRubbish everywhere – blowing down the windy St. Mary Street like a high surf tide towards me.
I found the bar and inquired as to my whiskey choices. There were two. Jack Daniels or no Jack Daniels. “What do the locals drink?”, I asked the alewife. “Beer,” she replied, in a perfect Lithuanian accent. I went for the Jack Daniels. As I returned to the table, I heard the band in the corner begin to play a heavy, thrashy version of a Lionel Richie song. No. It was not them I was looking for.
The rest of the night passed in a bit of a blur and I found my way to my hotel room at about three in the morning. I reckon I would have slept well too but for the Irish guy in the room opposite (from a different stag party) who took so much cocaine that it required two police officers with extremely loud walkie talkies to calm him down. I didn’t realise walkie talkies could do this.
The next morning (or ‘afternoon’ as some might call it), I went out for a ramble. Amazingly, the streets were spotless and Cardiff felt like a real city again. The shops were open and in the process of being perused. Men and women were promenading through the streets in Welsh rugby jerseys. Sections of Cardiff society who most likely had never seen it at night were wearing turtle neck shirts and tweed jackets – their hair bouncing as they laughed while cupping a latte between their diswithered fingers.
And then the rains came. A deluge worthy of instant depression befell me. Better duck out of it somewhere lest my shirt become see-through. Such things are unconscionable in a city like this. Well – they are at this hour at any rate.
“Are you here to see the History of Cardiff exhibition?” a tour guide asks me. I had ducked into a museum, apparently. “Eh – sure,” I responded, not wishing to disappoint. I was shown around the museum where the answers to many of my future questions were anticipated and answered. I was told about how there was no city to speak of until a decent coal port was needed in the area about two hundred years ago. It is, thus, a relatively new city by European standards. I watched a film about the last fisherman on the mud flats and was told of how he still regularly comes in to the museum to complain about the inaccuracy of his exhibit. I learn about coal. I learn about miners. And I learn about coal again.
I stand contemplating a scale model of the docks. A local man – also visiting the museum – strikes up a conversation with me.
“That’s Cardiff Bay now”, he says, pointing to the model.
“What do you mean ‘now’? Was it not always called that?”
“No – the locals used to call it Tiger Bay. The tourism folks changed it about twenty years ago when they were looking for a touristy name.”
“Why did they change it? What was wrong with Tiger Bay?”
He contemplates this for a moment. “Well Tigers are dangerous creatures, aren’t they? Don’t want to be scaring off tourists.”
I laugh heartily at this – but it soon becomes apparent that not only is he being serious but also doesn’t seem to understand why I’m laughing.
“Funny thing is, though,” he ventures, “It’s still called Bae Teigr in Welsh – which means ‘Tiger Bay’.”
“Oh! And why do you think that is?”
“Don’t know really. Maybe the Welsh just aren’t afraid of tigers.” Again – not a hint of irony.
The rain over, I return to the streets and head up to see the Castle. Cardiff Castle is actually a very impressive, serious piece of castleage. The site was originally a Roman fort but was replaced by a Norman castle in the 12th century. Inside the impressive curtain walls lies a motte and bailey and an impressive Georgian mansion. But it was not this that I had come to see. I had been told to go and see the ‘animal wall’ while I was there – an outer wall of the castle that, apparently, has animal sculptures so lovingly carved atop them that they have spurred generations of local fairy tales. I’ve always been interested in things like this – unique sights that have captured the local imagination.
Sure enough, I soon spot a wall bedecked with animal sculptures. However, rather than inspire me with wonderment, they give me pause for concern. The animals have all been sculpted awkwardly atop the wall. The sculptor appears to have tried to make it look as if they are resting there – but in reality, they appear to be trying to escape whatever terrible thing lies on the other side of the wall. A big cat haunches his fleshy arms over the wall in a manner that suggests something is trying to drag him back in. A seal raises his snout to the air as if to take one last smell of freedom before terror befalls him. And a bear looks both into and past me with dead glass eyes – frozen in time at the very moment he realized, it seems, that he was going to die … This is all too tragic for me – time to move on.
As I turn back onto St. Mary Street, I see two policemen (in their funny British police hats) approach two men on the corner.
“Are you two dealing drugs then?” he asks in a semi-serious sounding Welsh accent.
“Fuck you copper!” retorts one wittily.
“Now now – there’s no need for profanity.”
“Is there a need for murder, copper? I have a confession to make. I murdered two people. I stabbed them. They crossed me and I stabbed them. You want to take me in for a full confession?” he screams in what I think is an angry Welsh accent.
The policeman simply nods and says “Oh is that right? Did you now?”
I decide to move on. Just up ahead a little, I find the entrance to the indoor city market – a collection of ragtag stalls and food shops that sell everything from Liver and Onion Faggots to second-hand books. I wander through it a while, pausing for a moment’s contemplation as I watch someone kick an innocent bystander pigeon up the arse for no reason other than the arse was there and was not being kicked.
A couple of hours later, the sun went down, and the transformation began afresh…
Now – don’t get me wrong – Cardiff is actually not a bad little city. It has a little of everything – a few museums, a decent number of bookshops, a serious piece of castle … but at night, the only thing that separates it from Gomorrah …
… is the Welsh accent.