Saturday, 9 April 2011

Still Real Afters All These Years

It had been a good night at Chapter, proving that the cultural epicentre of the city hadn’t yet completely shifted to Roath. The night before I’d been at Market House, the art centre’s extension next door, a mess of studios, work rooms, offices for small arts companies, designers, publishers, dancers. I’d been talking up the capital, giving the assembled my take on what makes this great place tick, how it shines and shimmers, how it had been in its dirty past, how its Welshness works, how it fits into Wales, a post-industrial coal valley capital, growing ever larger over the hills that stand behind it, recovering land from the mass of tidal bog to its south.

“I bought your Real Cardiff when I first came here,” says the Turkish girl, smiling. “I thought it might tell me where I was”. I tell them about the lost wells of Penylan and the one with the shape of Christ’s knee on the rim. I tell them about the Butes being like Bill Gates and buying out anything that sprang up in opposition. The austere second Marquis with his docks and his visions. The Catholic third with his Victorian Disneyworld at Cardiff’s heart. I talk about the rivers, the Tan, the Whitebrook, the Canna, the Wedal, which we no longer have. We sup Cabernet Sauvignon and sporadically nibble at the crisps brought by the organiser. Some of the listeners buy books.

For many years I came here to the New Welsh Review offices, presided over, then, by the late Robin Reeves. Robin was a green-leaning socialist nationalist. Voice of understanding. Knew the world’s shape. He ploughed a liberal furrow with his literary magazine, NWR. You got a free mug if you subscribed. On these were the faces of Idris Davies and R.S. Mug collectors signed up and then threw the magazine away. The magazine itself has now moved to Aberystwyth and its former offices are occupied by men with drawing boards and computers and tubes of paint. Out of the window I can see early evening Market Road revellers, setting off for the pubs of Cowbridge Road – the Corporation, the Ivor Davies, the Kings Castle, the Admiral Napier. Places full of shine and light.

It has always been like this in West Cardiff. Before the Arts Centre came to Chapter in 1971 the buildings were Cantonian High School. Before that the space was used by the monthly Canton cattle market which ran from the Police Station to Carmarthen Street. Sheep and cattle pens, stables, slaughter house, meat market, manure, dust.

But today culture shines. Blown Magazine is based here and the theatre is the venue for John William’s In Chapters performances. NWR under its new editor Gwen Davies might even launch in the bar. Watch this space.

An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #192

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