Saturday, 19 March 2011

How Cities Compare

The rivalries of cities are eternal. Cardiff vs. Newport. Cardiff vs. Swansea. Cardiff vs. the rest of Wales come to that. We know how these things work even if we don’t fully understand them. Drive east out of Cardiff and the signs welcoming you to Wales’s first city, Newport, begin almost immediately. Cardiff might have a high rising centre but Swansea has Wales’s tallest building, biggest book prize and the best library in the country.

In Newport they have the best pubs, in Cardiff it’s the shops, and in Swansea the beach, the sea, the pace of life. In Cardiff, as capital, things naturally cluster. Government, media, finance, culture, clubs. This is a product of economics and happens the whole world over. Not that this stops the complaints. Why is the Assembly in Cardiff and not in Pontyclun? The Stadium should have been built in Bridgend, the Millennium Centre in Bangor and the National Museum in Wrexham. The BBC would be far better off in Aberaeron. And Glamorgan Cricket’s SWALEC Stadium should certainly have been constructed in Llandod. These are not inventions, I’ve heard these things said.

Not that this is anything new. At the end of the nineteenth century, and despite the British Empire being at its height, Wales went through a brief patch of nation building. We would have both a National Library and a National Museum. In 1905 the Privy Council allocated the money and a bitter war broke out between Cardiff, Wales’ largest conurbation, and Aberystwyth, the country’s geographic centre and the Welshest place on earth. Aber already had books, but so too did Cardiff. Local worthies jostled, papers were written, meetings were held. Eventually a compromise was reached with the National Library going to Aber and the Museum being established in Cardiff.

Aberystwyth got the book collection of physician Sir John Williams and two of the great books of Wales: The Black Book of Carmarthen and The White Book of Rhydderch. But The Book of Aneurin, the prize, the work that contained the earliest known example of Welsh poetry, The Gododdin, the tale of the great battle against the Saxons at Catraeth, that went to Cardiff.

That would have been an end of it, too, if it hadn’t been for Local Government reorganisation and the recent abandonment of specialist archival services in the Capital. In a fit of unexpected co-operation the decision was taken to permanently loan The Book of Aneurin to Aberystwyth. In exchange Cardiff would get a pair of facsimiles, expertly produced by the National Library’s rare books department.

Who wins? Everyone. All we need now is for The Red Book of Hergest to be repatriated from its imprisonment in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and Wales will once more have the set.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #189

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