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CJ Stone's Britain: On the scrapheap (Swansea)
First published The Guardian Weekend June 21st 1997
How could a man of such compelling genius as Steve - so at home amongst these strange plants, so immersed in the life here, so knowledgeable - be left on the scrapheap, unemployable at the age of 44?
“I can’t help it,” I said. “I quite like Steelworks. I always think there’s something heroic about them. At night they look like an Hieronymus Bosch vision of hell.”
We were passing Port Talbot steelworks on our way into Swansea. There was the smell of sulphur in the air, and two huge chimneys belching flame. Steve pointed to the dead trees on the blackened hills overlooking the works, and I had to admit that - maybe - large scale industrialisation wasn’t all that good for the environment. “But imagine them when they’re closed down, all ramshackle and covered in Ivy,” I said. “It would look like a ruined castle then.”
“Yes,” said Steve. “Imagine.”
I’d been staying with my good friend Steve in Cardiff for a few days. He’d been saving up these vouchers, so he was entitled to a free trip to Swansea by bus, as long as he was accompanied by a fare-paying passenger. So, why not? I’d never been to Swansea before.
The first thing we did when we got there was to look for some lunch. Steve is always hungry and, for once, so was I. We went into Boots and discovered there was a special offer on. Three sandwiches, a bag of crisps and a can of cola for £1.50. Well I know that there’s a Boots the Chemist in almost every town, and I guess they had the same offer in every branch at the time, but as an introduction to Swansea it seemed a hopeful sign. A generous town, maybe. Steve and I were excited at our bargain: even more so when the till registered the special offer at £1.40 instead of £1.50. A whole 10p cheaper. “We like Swansea,” I said to the check-out girl, and she laughed.
We sat on a low wall outside, in the shadow of the large modern shopping centre near a busy road, and ate our lunch. Once more - like the special offer in Boots - we could have been in any city centre anywhere in the British isles. Swansea, like Coventry, had it’s heart bombed out during the last war; and looking at the place from this position, it was rebuilt by the same people too. It’s once you get away from the bus station that you start to get an impression of the real Swansea. The whole town is nestled comfortably between the low hills and the wide expanse of the bay. It’s like it’s resting in cupped hands. You get a strong feeling of being contained, protected by the hills. You also get a feeling for the history of the town as you look out over the bay. On one side is Port Talbot, grimly fuming like an Ogre’s castle, and on the other side the Mumbles, a pleasant seaside resort. You get the feeling that the town is slowly metamorphosing from it’s grimy, polluted industrial roots into a breezier, more relaxed place; that its future lies with the tourist industry.
Our first visit was to Plantasia, a tropical hot house shaped like a huge glass Ziggurat in the centre of town. It’s part of another new development, a combined shopping and leisure complex called Parc Tawe. Steve guided me around, naming all the plants. This is his area of expertise. He said, “if I was working here I’d have creatures in here too, tree frogs and insects. But the people wouldn’t like that. They’d be saying, ‘what’s all these insects doing in here, get away, get away,’ waving their hands about, like that.” And he waved his hands about to demonstrate.
“I think it’s a brilliant idea Steve,” I said. “Why don’t you apply for a job?”
“They wouldn’t want me,” he said. “They’d say I was too weird.”
But then I thought that this is exactly what is wrong with our world, that a man of such compelling genius as Steve - so at home amongst these strange plants, so immersed in the life here, so knowledgeable - should be left on the scrapheap, unemployable at the age of 44. The world needs Steve. It just doesn’t know it yet.
Iron in the soul: 'There’s something heroic about Steelworks. At night they look like an Hieronymus Bosch vision of hell'
After that we went for a walk along the beach. Again Steve was perfectly at home. He was naming the shells as we walked. He ducked down quickly to pick up a crab to show to me. He was pointing out the little dappled fish darting between the stones in the sun-lit water of the mud pools. “They’re gobies,” he told me. “I like to keep an eye on the changes. What I want to know is where all these shell-fish came from? They shouldn’t be here. They’re all dead.”
“Steve,” I said, the intrepid reporter as usual, “tell me about Swansea.” I was hoping for one of his stories. He tells the funniest stories, usually involving large amounts of alcohol and almost invariably ending in some form of humiliation. Like the time he tried to get to St. Tropez in a leaky rowing boat and ended up almost drowning in Cardiff docks.
“I dunno,” he said. “There’s a man with a beard who breeds adders. And there’s a Leech centre. And a man who has the world record for eating Earthworms.”
“No, Steve. I want one of your stories.”
“I can’t think of one at the moment. Swansea’s not like Cardiff. There’s no mad people here. I fancied a girl who lived here once, and although it didn’t work out as usual, at least I could walk through the park and get my head together afterwards. I’d like to live in Swansea. It’s peaceful.”
By now we were wandering through Singleton Park on our way to the hot houses. Once more Steve was pointing out all the plants to me. After a while I grew tired and sat down on a bench to read a newspaper, while he continued on his solitary quest. He looked so calm, peering over his glasses at all this abundance of life, totally absorbed. A squirrel came and sat on my bench, waiting for food.
Afterwards we went to the pub. “I’ve got a story for you,” said Steve.
“Great,” I said, getting out my notebook, and looking forward to another helter-skelter ride into madness and mayhem.
"I came to see Roy Harper here,” he said.
“Yeah?” I said.
“Yeah. And I got in for nothing.”
“Yeah. I was on the merchandise desk. I sold one of his records for him.”
“And then I got a lift home.”
“And that’s it.”
“That’s it? You came to see Roy Harper and then you got a lift home? Is that the best you can do? It’s not much of a story is it Steve?”
“Like I say,” he said, “Swansea’s not like Cardiff. Nothing ever happens here.”