Monday, 20 June 2011

Hold Onto What You've Got. The Past, The Present and the Penylan Laundry

For the past twenty years Cardiff has been a boom town. The centre, once riddled with brick terraces and soot-marked municipal Victoriana, has been turned into a futurepolis. The Docks, until the 1980s a decrepit post-industrial wasteland, have been reimagined as Cardiff Bay and made into the Emerald City with Lloyd George Avenue as the Yellow Brick Road. It’s a shining example of Welsh civic centralisation and local boosterism meeting up with profit- fuelled property development against a background of weak planning control. Cardiff has rocked, rolled and tumbled into the Dan Dare future. Along the way it has somehow achieved for itself a purpose that it has lacked since the days of coal.

Change has been Cardiff’s driver with almost nothing sacred. The canal went, docks were closed and filled-in, the meshed streets of the town centre were turned into shopping malls, the meeting halls and grand cafes became stores and apartment blocks, while the traffic, hated and loved by everyone to some degree or other, spun in ever tightening circles.

But move out from that white-rendered, glass and steel centre and what do you find? The world as it was. Cardiff’s 1890 to 1920 industrial red-brick boom still largely in place. The suburban streets with their corner shops, pubs and amenities are still there. So, too, the parklands, our beloved green lungs, our open spaces, our playing fields, our streams and rivers.

Nothing much changes in the suburbs. Canton, Cathays, Roath, Penylan, Ely, Llanishen. We live as we always did. New fitted carpets, inside bathrooms, double glazing and central heating maybe. But essentially we are as we were.

In Penylan, before the new build worker’s housing rushing up from Roath got there, on Lord Tredegar Land, halfway between Roath Court and the great houses of Bronwydd, Wellclose, Fretherne, and Oldwell on the side of Penylan Hill stood an open field – part of Tir Colly farm. In 1898 The Dyeing, Carpet and Window-Cleaning Company Ltd opened their new venture. The Cardiff Steam Laundry. Built of Cattybrook Bricks with bath stone and white marble embellishments the enterprise occupied an acre-wide site. Cardiff’s burgeoning middle-classes needed somewhere to send their soiled shirts and their creased sheets.

There’s a drawing in the Western Mail of September 23rd, 1898 that shows the new laundry in full glory. It is surrounded on three sides by open fields, trees and hedges. That wouldn’t last for long. In 1900 Marlborough Road School opened alongside it. Same architects – Habershon and Fawckner – the company who also built most of the terraced houses in the road. Within ten years the farm and the fields had gone. The Laundry was taken over by United Welsh Mills in 1923 and later slid into disrepair as a buddleia-infested outpost selling cut-price carpets, wood flooring and pine furniture.

The school, for all of its one hundred and ten year existence has opened onto the laundry’s unbroken red brick wall. In the days when communism was a force somebody painted a patriotic hammer and sickle there. As fear of the Russians rose a gallows was painted above. The outlines of this long-lived graffiti are still just about visible. On a fine day.

In the 1940s the Infants school was hit by a German Bomb and pupils rehoused on a temporary basis at Albany Road. By the time I got there in 1952 the reception classes had been rebuilt. There were still bomb shelters in the yard. In the Junior school, several years later, I was sent out through the school window, half a crown in my hand, to slip up the hill to buy my form teacher a packet of ten Players Navy Cut. I told my mother. As a smoker herself all she did was smile.

In 2008 outline planning permission was granted by Cardiff Council for the development of a fifty unit retirement complex plus doctor’s surgery on the now almost vacant Marlborough Road laundry site. The 2009 recession led that developer to withdraw. When the economic climate subsequently improved the site went back onto the market. There followed a contest between a supermarket chain and provider of what’s euphemistically called “assisted living”, retirement accommodation builder McCarthy & Stone. Retirement won.

McCarthy & Stone are now proposing to demolish the laundry, red brick walls and all, to build in their place a multi-unit, landscaped retirement village. Check for a detailed look at their plans. They’ve done the whole public consultation exercise, handing out leaflets and running an exhibition. 41 people came.

The McCarthy & Stone arguments are good ones. Retirees, they say, tend not to drive, live quietly, don’t hold late night parties and won’t want onsite drinking and dancing facilities. Impact on the local neighbourhood will be low. The red brick wall along the Blenheim Road frontage, in place at least a year before the school was built, will go. The retirement apartments will be built to look rather like the existing Blenheim Road housing stock. They’ll use red bricks. They’ll look the Victorian part.

It all sounds very reasonable. Measured. Calm. But for the fact that yet another part of Cardiff’s past will go and go forever. As a city we’ve never done very much to conserve what we have. Not that we had that much to begin with. Cardiff is essentially a Victorian and Edwardian creation. There’s little here that predates the nineteenth century. The façade of the Laundry, the steam boiler rooms, the stables and the sorting and storage sheds would be untouchable if they were a hundred years older than they actually are. CADW would have listed them as unique, designated them a site of significant historical and cultural interest, developed them as a tourist attraction, attracted Heritage Lottery grant aid and charged us to go in.

But they are too young. Rather like the Red House pub, lost to apartment development in the Bay, they’ll have to go.

A local opposition group with a growing membership has made a call for arms and wants to fight the developers head on. They have a Facebook page: Save The Old Laundry Cardiff. They suggest development of the site as an arts centre. A laudable aim. But one that would certainly present people living in the surrounding streets with more traffic, more noise and more late night drinking than they currently experience.

I wonder, too, in these times of arts-funding squeeze, who might pay for the development? The Council have already made clear who their preferred developer might be and finance for that initiative is already in place. Do we actually need another arts centre in Cardiff’s east? How can I, a long standing proponent of the east of the city’s creative development, be asking this? But a few blocks to the west of the Laundry site is The Gate, an existing arts complex, which could do without competition on its doorstep.

Is there an answer that will work? I’m desperately searching for one. Keeping the past as it was would mean knocking down the school and the nearby housing to return the Laundry and its outbuildings to their original field-surrounded state. Clearly ludicrous. How far should we go to keep what we once had? Would a development that retained the facades but rebuilt everything else be what we need? That’s happened to Altolusso on Bute Terrace where the Victorian façade of what became New college has been retained and a 232 foot skyscraper built onto the back. Does that maintain the continuity of our history? Maybe we could lift the whole thing, brick by brick, and rebuild it at St Fagan’s. That’s happened there with churches and workingmen’s halls. I fear, though, that economics and, more importantly, time will be against all this. Soon the bulldozers will come. Protest at that point will be too late.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Don't Blink. Write.

There’s a solid history of Welsh authors doubling as newspaper columnists. Long ago the novelist and poet Herbert Williams moonlighted nightly as The Stroller on the South Wales Echo. Tom Davies was Pendennis on the Sunday Observer and then for years wrote an increasingly off the wall column for the Western Mail. How do you do it? You sit down with the idea in the back of your head and you bang the keyboard. For authors it’s the purist form.

In the days when I ran a bookshop in Charles Street I once commissioned R. Gerallt Jones to write the leader for Oriel, our monthly magazine. Copy was due by 4.00 pm Friday. Gerallt entered the shop at 3.30, asked for a notepad and a chair and then perched himself somewhere between Anglo-Welsh fiction and Celtic History and, surrounded by customers, scribbled furiously. At 4.00 he handed in his completed column and asked for the cheque.

So that, I thought, is how you do it. Don’t blink. Write.

For the Western Mail I’ve been The Insider now for two hundred and one columns. That’s a lot of banging the keyboard. I’ve been The Insider because I’ve been inside - watching Wales’ literature machine and helping to guide it. For the most part it has been a joy. Although discovering just how invisible Wales often is in the world has been painful.

We are a small a nation, perversely we keep celebrating that fact. No air force. No submarines. No international policy that means a light. A population that could be absorbed without trace in the twenty-first century suburbs of Istanbul, Tokyo, or Rio.

Our influence is nil. Most of the world hasn’t heard of us. Apart from perhaps in Patagonia the mark we’ve made on the planet is slight. Who are we? We’re the Welsh. We used to do a lot of things. When we were thick with coal and iron and social heroes. But today we sing. And we write.

It’s that last item that kept me going.

We write. And in increasing quantity we are turning out authors with big reputations whose words will endure. Owen Sheers, Ken Follett, Gillian Clarke, Dannie Abse, R S Thomas, Russell T Davies, Andrew Davies, Gwyneth Lewis. From the inside I’ve done a little to help let this achievement be seen. We had the Academi, the literature promoter, and now there’s Literature Wales, the National Development Agency. Literature with reach, walking tall. How it should.

But I need time to write. I started out that way, as a poet, and there remains a way to go. Administration slows you down. I’ve got two psychogeographies to complete, and a raft of poetry, on the page and off. So I won’t be fading quietly. I might not be weekly at the Mail but I'll be posting blog entries here. Keep in touch.


Monday, 6 June 2011

How Much Future Is There?

I guess the state of the future only really starts to concern you when you pass forty. Before that it’s all zoom and delight. My approach has been to find someone at least a decade older than I am and watch how they get on. If they are still having a good time then everything’s fine. I ran into our National Poet Gillian Clark reading, opening things, making welcome speeches and generally elevating the art form on at least four occasions last month. She’s older than I am by the requisite amount and shows not the slightest sign of flagging. Her work continues to hit target perfectly and the world clearly loves her. Plenty of future left.

When you die in Wales they name a competition after you. Just before that they have an event celebrating your life and work. Herbert Williams, whose lifetime achievement writer of the people event was put on more than a decade ago, told me that the next thing was daisies. Pushing them up. Since then, however, Herb has published two books of poems and at least half a dozen novels. And there are more on the way this year. Herb is clearly not ready for slowing down yet.

Those who have actually moved to another plain, including a few who managed to get their celebratory event after they’d gone, live on as names attached to gongs. The Dylan Thomas Prize. The John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry. The Harri Webb Award. The RS Thomas Poetry Prize. This latter trophy was actually only awarded once. It was given by the prize founder, Dafydd Wyllt, to the best poet who happened to be in the room at the time.

Some of you will remember Dafydd. He used to stand outside the Post Office in Hills Street playing an accordion. Welsh airs. The prize was an elaborately woven dressing gown cord attached to an engraved brass tag. I can’t recall now who actually won but it wasn’t me.

The Rhys Davies Short Story Competition is actually a contest of a totally different stripe. Set up in memory of the great Rhondda author the award offers a first prize of £1000 for a piece of Welsh fiction written in English of no more than 2500 words. That’s quarter of an hour’s worth read out loud. The entry fee is £6.00 a story and to enter you need to either live in Wales or have been born here. That makes both Prince Charles and Rowan Williams eligible. But would they win?

Judges this year are Trezza Azzopardi, Russell Celyn Jones and Sian Preece. Closing date is July 22. Winning stories will also be broadcast by the BBC. Funded by the Rhys Davies Trust and managed by Literature Wales entry forms are available online at . Good luck.