Drinking a lot isn’t new. The world has always been filled with drunks. But the idea has got around that here in the burgeoning Welsh capital, the city that along with London, Los Angeles and Llanystumdwy never sleeps, drinking has taken on epidemic proportions. It never used to be like this. That’s the complaint of our steady and suburban council tax payers. They lie abed listening to the josh and clatter of inebriated youth staggering home. In my day, they say, we’d have a pint or two, certainly. But we always knew how to behave. This barbarism they see, or think they see in the city’s sparkling streets, is new. They are worried. It’s a respectable fear. The world has once again gone wrong. What can you do.
But is it all new? Certainly the mass falling about in public is but then that’s what you get when cities are developed so that indoors and outdoors merge. Today the centre of Cardiff is one great well-lit pedestrianized precinct. The smooth oft-swept plazas are rich in street furniture – bins, benches, booths, revolvers, statues, billboards, plantings. They are illuminated by lines of shop windows like giant televisions. In fact in front of St David’s Hall there is a giant television. Half the concert hall’s frontage now broadcasts rolling sport and news. Some of these exteriors are now more comfortable than their user’s homes. Little wonder we search for joy within them, ambling slowly in soft shoes.
Public Houses across Wales, indeed right across the UK, have been closing at a prodigious rate. This is nothing to do with the population losing its taste for alcohol. It is entirely down to how we now consume our drink. We like it cheap, we buy it in supermarkets. We drink at home. Together, alone. We drink with impunity in our gardens, leaning on our front walls, walking down the streets, swaying inebriatedly across the city’s centre with our open lager cans in our hands. It’s an economic driver, a swift hit at a quarter of the price we’d pay in an old dark wood, wilton-carpeted public saloon. So the Taff Vale and the Moulders Arms, and the Salutation, The Bristol Hotel, the Marchioness of Bute, The Vulcan, The Lifeboat and the Greyhound have all closed. Their badly-shaven regulars, fags in hand, have gone to the winds. The land the pubs once occupied have been redeveloped and profit has been made. Cardiff’s stock of watering places has been severely reduced.
In those lost pubs drinkers of many generations mixed. The old stager would be in the corner, the young buck with his brylcreamed hair at the bar, the travelling salesman in his cheap suit ensconced in the lounge. There were darts and cards, crisps and conversations. Behaviour was cordial. The rising pissedness that alcohol brings was controlled by the generational mix. These pubs certainly had their beer-fuelled moments but the norm was calm. You could go into them and feel safe. Nobody ever felt out of place.
Today in the recessing twenty-first century it’s different. If we do venture out to drink then it’s likely to be to a suburban tavern near where we live. These places mix food with coffee mornings and offer families a complete package: games machines, sizzling steaks, bouncy castles, cakes, wine, death by chocolate, cider with ice cubes in it, high chairs. The city centre with all its lights is too far off, you can’t park there readily, it’s full of marauding youth.
We’ve been here before, sort of. In 1863 with a population a quarter of the city’s number today Cardiff had 211 places where you could drink – inns, pubs, hotel bars. According to Brian Glover’s excellent Cardiff Pubs and Breweries (Tempus) Adam Street back then had seven pubs while Bridge Street boasted eight. The density of available watering holes was unmatched. Working men, these pubs’ main clientele, would spend their entire leisure hours inside them, staggering home at stop tap through the poorly lit streets to their homes in the walking suburbs of Butetown, Grangetown, and Splott.
Today this mesh of sawdust-floored town-centre drinkeries has been largely replaced by the new phenomenon, the vertical bar. These gleaming palaces are spread throughout Cardiff’s revitalised heart. They are vast and built from glass and aluminium. They have pinewood floors and laser lighting. In them you stand, vertically, in your hundreds. You crowd their long bars and down shots and cocktails and lager stuffed with chillies. You shout and yell. You do it with your jacket at home and your skirt as short as it will go. You have body art tattooed on every available surface. You wear thumb rings and earrings and rings on your toes. You enjoy it all. You are young.
This is the new and frightening to non-participant world for which Cardiff has become famous. Cardiff is the UK’s epicentre for the stag and the hen do. Coachloads arrive from Swindon, Gloucester and Portsmouth, dressed as nuns, or supermen or fairies. They stay for days. They have a blindingly staggering time.
Cardiff photographer Maciej Dakowicz has captured it all in his exhilarating night photography. He has spent much of the past five years staying up late and not drinking. He follows the revellers, men dressed as superheroes and women dressed as Playboy bunnies. He takes their photographs. He depicts them from when they start, full of smiles and upright vitality, to when they finish, lying pale faced and dishevelled among Caroline Street’s discarded chip wrappers.
‘Photography is nothing’, the great photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson once said. ‘It’s life that interest me.’ That’s Maciej’s approach too. In his collection, Cardiff After Dark, the capital’s street nightlife is revealed in a way that many will find both amazing and shocking. Amazing because they had no idea that the city’s night life was this extensive and shocking because they will no doubt disapprove of what they see. Cardiff, the binge drinking capital. Cardiff, no simple centre of Welsh culture and Welsh government, but the place you come to revel in and then be sick.
Maciej’s approach is to stay out of the action. He awaits Cartier-Bresson’s moment and then he takes the shot. He reached Cardiff in 2004 to study at the University of Glamorgan and as for many of his compatriots found the city’s atmosphere to his liking and stayed. Like Cartier- Bresson he takes an enormous number of photographs. On a good night, he says, he’ll shoot five hundred. This splendid Thames & Hudson full plate and full colour hardback narrows that vast collection to ninety-nine.
Nothing is taken with an flash which gives the photographer the chance to slide around the action unnoticed. The results are stunning. Revealed in all their glory are the leisure times of the young: their pains and their joys, their rollicking up yours attitudes, their relentless pursuits of the hit and the high. People sit and lie in the gutters, on pavements, on street furniture, in doorways. They sprawl in ungainly fashion, grope each other, suck their cigarettes, drain their stomachs onto pavements, stare blind-eyed at their mobile phones.
In the queue outside Walkabout they simultaneously text each other. Outside the Prince of Wales they squat eating chips. A woman in hair curlers and a respectable man in a double-breasted suit sit on a street bench as if this were a park. Around them the wash of Macdonald’s wrappings rises like an incoming tide. On St Mary Street a mid-thirties couple in short-sleeve shirt and fawn jacket lounge on the pavement imagining the place to be Barry Island. Behind them revellers queue for endless fast food. There are pole vaulters, bench sliders, knicker revealers, head holding ill faces, dissolutes surrounded by police in high-vis vests, and men praying at the windows of patrol cars. A woman carrying a seven foot plastic penis comes out of Wood Street to meet the man with the tennis racket from the 118 118 advertisement. Blokes take their tops off, kiss each other, show their bums. Captain America has his head up someone’s skirt. A guy with red hair and the words “One Life One Chance” across his back leans on a bar. There are inflatable women and inflatable men, fatties with their shorts bursting. Women wearing L plates. Men dressed as women. Women dressed as men. Waitresses out of their minds. Dancers and singers. Gropers and fondlers. The young of this part of the wider world all having a good time.
Maciej Dakowicz spent seven years living here. He founded the Third floor Gallery at the bottom of Bute Street. He now lives in London. That’s our loss. He’s gone, the bars stay on.
Cardiff After Dark by Maciej Dakowicz is published in hardback by Thames and Hudson at £24.95
An earlier version of this posting appeared in the magazine of the IWA, The Welsh Agenda