Thursday, 6 August 2015

Cardiff South

It’s big enough, this city.  It’s the biggest thing on the whole walk and hangs its eastern side right at the sea’s edge.  I’ve crossed it many times and now I’m doing it again with John Williams, just to be sure I’ve covered it all.  In the large and mostly empty car park of Tesco Pengam Green, down at the bottom of where the runways once were when this moorland doubled as Cardiff Airport, we’re discussing who the clientele of this south Cardiff superstore might precisely be. Tremorfa, the Cardiff district this technically is, barely seems large enough. The gypsy camp I tracked around the back of a couple of hundred yards further on would hardly tip the balance. Celsa Steel Mill workers at the end of their shifts buying four-packs to quench their thirsts. Leisure sailors walking in from the Rhymney River Motor Boat Sailing and Fishing Club. Maybe there’s an expansion to Cardiff that we don’t yet know about. Tesco in place, ready to serve the new apartment blocks being built among the scrap metal yards and the car breakers, on piles sunk into the foreshore and on piers cantilevered out over the river. If this were still 2003, when anything was possible, then maybe.

John Williams  Photo: P Finch

John Williams
John Williams, master of Cardiff Dead and biographer of Shirley Bassey,  has just told me that he’s thinking of changing his name. Ten books down the road and he’s just discovered that the one he’s been using is hopeless.

John Williams guitarist
John Williams composer
John Williams New Zealand horse breeder
John Williams football sociologist
John Williams Welsh historian
John Williams Welsh artist
John Williams user interface designer
John Williams Blackburn Rovers chairman
John Williams BBC reporter
John Williams philosopher
John Williams Texan novelist
John Williams Brooklyn blogger
John Williams Detective Chief Superintendent

It’s this last one that rankles. Detective Chief Superintendent John Williams, head of the 1980s investigation into the Lynette White murder. That murder, in a flat in James Street, Butetown, Cardiff, in 1988, became the obsession of the John Williams I am with. The murder changed his career direction from chronicler of detective fiction and novelist of the noir to Cardiff fictioneer par excellence. He’s the man against whom all other narratives set in the capital are now measured. 

So, if you were not John Williams, then who might you be? John reflects. “Johnny Highnote, maybe.  I got that one from a dream. On the other hand I quite like Johnny ‘Nightlife’ Williams. There was a Bertie ‘Nightlife Jarrett’ who was one of Shirley Bassey’s early co-stars. People I tell this to think I’m insane.”

The Plan - A Walk To The Barrage
Our plan is to walk from here to the Barrage, right through the centre of the city’s southern half. The working class suburbs, the office units built where heavy industry once was, the playing fields, the lines of shops. We go up through the Pengam Green private new build, along Hind Close, De Havilland Road, Handley Road and Hawker Close, the names of the planes that once flew from here now celebrated in orange brick. Tremorfa Park, in full socialist fashion and untroubled by herbaceous plantings, is large, flat and dense with football pitches. A notice at the entrance still announces last November’s firework display. At the western end St Alban’s School sports, sack races, penalty shoot outs, team relay and slam dunk is in full end of term swing. 

John, described by the Independent as bald and stocky and with “the air of Donald Pleasance” (which is a little unfair, I’d say it’s more the air of Peter Sallis or, if he were white, Willie Dixon) finds a hole in the park fence and we emerge on Runway Road in the heart of the council house territory that Tremorfa always was. Sunset gates, half-rendered pebbledash semis, badly cut hedges, notices warning of dogs and against junk mail, NO MENUS. There’s no sense anywhere of the sea that you could virtually touch if you stood on stilts. These are post-war homes for heroes, housing for East Moors Steelworkers when that place filled the local skyline with smog, an eastern Splott beyond the Roath Dock rail link. Hardly any of these things are relevant now. A train a day to the rolling mill comes down the link. The steelworks closed in 1979. The space is now a business park.

We cross the bottom of Splott Park, going under the South Park Road railway bridges, to emerge by the now boarded-up Grosvenor. These south Cardiff workers’ pubs are closing as fast as the industry that once supported them. John is talking about his latest enterprise – touring the capital’s social clubs in the company of novelist Rob Lewis. They’ve already tracked City Road starting at the Conservative Club, taking in the New Park Liberal Club, the Cardiff and General Municipal Works Club and Institute, and then ending in Charles Street’s Cardiff Ex-Serviceman’s Club. These places, once all-male bastions of working-class exclusivity, are now pleased to hear from anyone pressing their buzzers. Obtaining temporary membership is no longer the problem it once was.

Splott Proper
In Splott proper, where we now are, the nineteenth century terraces are a familiar sight. John lived here in the early eighties. We walk along Splott Road to the refurbished Star Centre. Here at night, when I regularly came twenty years back to learn martial arts, they’d steal the wheels off your car if you didn’t pay the local kids a pound to guard it. In the centre’s window are adverts for Zumba Dance Fitness and Flash-mob meditation. It’s a changing world.

Railway Street running past both writer Susie Wild’s former place and the now closed Cardiff Arms eventually reaches the New Fleurs, Skittles & Darts, Function Room, Bar Food, on Walker Road. “A place of great significance in the history of Cardiff punk,” John says. For a late-70s guitarist who couldn’t really play like John the arrival of punk was a gift. “I regarded it as mass conceptual art movement,” he tells me. “The music business was promoting bands like ELP and Yes and you couldn’t just have a bash at being them. But with punk anyone could join in. I was living in London and running a punk fanzine called After Hours I got it printed, appropriately after hours, by a friend who worked at Communist Party HQ. The whole thing was very socialist. On a visit back home to Cardiff to see my folks I put copies on sale in Spillers. Cardiff band Reptile Ranch who’d recorded a do it yourself 7-inch single bought one and wrote to me. They lived at 1 Walker Road and invited me down. I ended up staying.”

Is the War Over?
Z. Block Records, Reptile Ranch’s label, operating out of the Grass Roots Coffee Bar in Charles Street, but using Walker Road as a business address, then put out Is The War Over. This was Cardiff punk’s trailblazer compilation album. In addition to Beaver, Mad Dog, The New Form, Addiction, Test to Destruction, and The Riotous Brothers the album had two cuts by probably the only Cardiff band from this period that the world will remember, Young Marble Giants.

Outside the Fleurs was once a red phone box. John and I stare at the empty space it occupied.” We gave out the number of that box for Z. Block,” says John. “Rough Trade rang us there to offer a contract for the Young Marble Giants.” The future was bright. For a time.

John’s own band, The Puritan Guitars, then fell apart when his inability to actually play started to become apparent. Instead he formed a band where you sang. This was a nine-piece doo-wop with added David Bowie outfit called the Skeleteens. The band practised over there. John is pointing at the Maltings Warehouse, a little to the west of The Fleurs. “We went to Paris to busk. I was there more for my ability to speak a bit of French and pass the hat round than my ability as a singer.” Music, despite considerable desire, wasn’t to be John’s future.

East Dock Early Morning Photo: P Finch

Beyond the magic roundabout lies the now enclosed East Dock, full of water, weed and sometimes fish. It’s a sanitised reminder of how this area once was. Warehouses demolished to be replaced by apartment blocks resembling warehouses. A single preserved dock crane. Metal loading buckets cemented to the walkways. The dockside itself railed for safety. No ships bar the preserved and rotting barge, the Eben Haezer, moored outside the Wharf pub. Diving ducks in action. Floating bags and half-submerged cans.

Access is officially via Schooner Way but Atlantic Wharf, as the top end of the dock is known, can be reached by climbing a low wall on Tyndall Street. John is telling me about how Cardiff ended up being the place that defined him as an author. If doo wop wasn’t going to get him there then crime would. The printed version, anyway. Beyond music his abiding interest was the novel noir – crime made literature, crime written down. He’d completed Into the Badlands, a book about American crime writers, and, along with the black London crime novelist Mike Phillips, had decided to research a book on the event that, as we’ve heard,  changed his own career direction, the killing of Cardiff prostitute Lynette White.

Lynette White
On Valentine’s Day, 1988, in a flat above the Kingsport Betting Shop in Cardiff’s James Street, White had been brutally stabbed more than fifty times. The police, floundering around for a suspect, selected three locals as perpetrators, massaged the evidence, and got their conviction. Stephen Miller, Yusef Abdullahi and Anthony Paris, the Cardiff Three, were sent down in 1990. Local indignation was considerable and a campaign to prove their innocence was launched.

John, who’d parted from Phillips at this stage, found himself in Canal Park at the annual mix of dope, Clark’s pies, curried goat, Haile Selassie and dub that is the Butetown Carnival. Here he met Abdullahi’s wife, Alex, working a fundraising stall. Perceived, correctly as it turned out, to be on the side of the innocents, John was invited back to the family house in Alice Street. In the tiny terrace he was confronted with boxes and boxes of prosecution evidence, formally released to the defence. There were interviews with almost every drug user, pimp, sex worker, petty criminal, street walker, layabout, alcoholic, and low-lifer at large in greater Butetown on the night of the 14th February, 1988. Five thousand reports. A sociological document without equal.  

As the book progressed John found himself sitting in Butetown’s now rebranded Paddle Steamer pub surrounded by known criminals and drug-dealers getting the news straight from those who made it. Around him spun an outrage of incredulity and barely repressed rage.  People who would normally never speak to a middle-class boy sitting there with a notebook were induced to tell him how their world worked.  The cause was everything.  John was fighting for them.

John was inspired. His Bloody Valentine, the true tale of justice appallingly being miscarried came out in 1993. The Court of Appeal had ruled that a gross miscarriage of justice had taken place and the Three had been released. It then took until 2000 for the Police to reopen their investigations and a further three years for the real killer, Jeffrey Gafoor, to be convicted using DNA evidence. In 2011, eight more years down the line, ten of those involved  in the original Cardiff Three conviction were finally put on trial for conspiring to pervert the cause of justice.  In the way of things this trial  then collapsed.  The judge ruled that eight of the defendants were not guilty of perverting the course of justice and two more as unable to get a fair trial. The truth recedes and the mist returns.

Cardiff Bay Seafront  Photo: P Finch

The Sea Lock Pound
I’m getting all this as we cross Dock bottom to wend our way through West Close, where the Taff Vale Railway once built steam engines. We go along the side of the old Slipper Baths and enter Canal Park, the grasslands that run south from Cardiff Central Station almost to the sea. This was once the basin of the Glamorgan Canal – the Sea Lock Pound.  The place where the barges carrying coal and iron all the way from Merthyr met the sea. The Pound stayed full of water until the steam dredger Catherine Ethel ripped the sea lock gates off in 1951 and the waterway was abandoned.

We sit on a bench pretty much from where the famous 1950s Bert Hardy Picture Post photo of the Canal Basin that currently adorns John’s study wall would have been shot. John is talking about the Cardiff Trilogy that made his name, linked stories of low-life grit and humour set in the city of his birth. He’d written a short story about a prostitute ripping off a sailor and sent it, along with the manuscript of a spy novel he’d finished, to his agent. “The novel is okay but it’s the short story we like,” was the reply. “Do more.” With the Lynette White evidence to hand and the prospect of publication up ahead the idea for what eventually became the first book of that trilogy, Five Pubs, Two Bars and a Nightclub, was born. 

Beyond the park is Dumballs Road. To the north this leads to Curran Road and off that to Williams Way. This was once site of the Williams steel stockholding and – later – aluminium window family business. Famous enough now to be marked on the map. We forgo the chance to take a photo of John standing by a road sign that bears his name to walk instead past South Wales’ Police’s new fortress-like HQ and over the bridge into Grangetown. The sea, or at least Cardiff Bay’s fresh-water empounded replacement, is in full view. The sun is glinting, aeration pumps are pushing up their bubbles and, officially, there’s not a leak in anyone’s basement for miles around. Prior to the building of the Barrage this was the district’s fear – ground water would rise, sewage would back up and roads would be deluged. Didn’t happen.

The birds that once dined on the flats here have gone, to be replaced with swan and duck. On the Taff’s western bank Channel View Leisure Centre looks out at serried rows of moored yachts. If you live in Butetown then Grangetown is another country. But Henry Bassey, Shirley’s brother lived here, says John. So did Lynette White, once. We pass the Marl, drained playing fields now but once tidal flats, to reach the blue and yellow bulk of Ikea.

Ikea is a Cardiff magnet. Built on the site of the gasworks at the top of Ferry Road it’s been a destination for the upwardly mobile, the wannabe, the hunter for cheapskate shelving, the newly-wed and the working class kitchen replacer for most of the past decade. It’s seen off Maskrey's and Habitat and wrecked the profitability of BHS’s lighting section. There’s pretty much no one under thirty who does not possess an Ikea cutlery drainer or one of those battery coffee frothers that cost a pound. 

John, it turns out, carries an Ikea Family Card. We are here for a traditional lunch and since we’re too early for the much advertised Ikea Swedish Crayfish Season – be a part of the largest crayfish party in the UK & Ireland – which is a pity, we stick with what they’ve got. Mash, gravy and Swedish meatballs with Lingonberry Sauce followed by jelly that looks like Swarfega but tastes like Sunny Delight. What else.

Penarth Head From The Barrage  Photo: P Finch

The Trek Back
I trek back through the Grangetown streets, over the much celebrated Clarence Road Bridge, to side-cut through the residential docks south of James Street. If it were not for the liner-styled buildings that line Mermaid Quay ahead this could be Cardiff’s past hanging on. Thin terraces, gulls, sense of the sea beyond.

I pass the waterside conglomeration of restaurants on which the Bay centres, thick with customers in slow shoes and Marks and Spencer coats. Ahead is the white spire of the wooden Norwegian Church, moved, rebuilt, everything cleaned and replaced so that virtually nothing of the original remains, yet authentic to the last nail. South of it is the Barrage.   The coast. Back on track again.

(This is an updated slice taken from Edging The Estuary - Peter Finch - Seren Books - not quite a Real Book but almost)

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