CJ Stone's Britain: Old habits die hard (Cardiff)
This story was first published in the Guardian Weekend October 26 1996. It was the first in a series of travel pieces called CJ Stone's Britain. This is the original version of the story. The published version was less than a third its length, and didn't include the all-important Church of the Resurrection story.
"It's the Mothership!" he said, leaping across the room to pump Steve's hand. "I always call him the Mothership," he added, turning to me, "cos that's what he is."
We're in the Flyhalf and Firkin in Cardiff, drinking Dog's Bolter, at a scuffed wooden table, on scuffed wooden chairs, surrounded by all the necessary accoutrements and symbols of a bar that takes its theme from the game of Rugby. The beer is glutinous and sickly and very, very strong. You get the feeling that it was supposed to have been called the Dog's Bollox, only the brewery had backed down. The stranger beams us an extravagant smile, and purses his lips. He has on a striped Burton's shirt with the cuffs ripped off, and his hair is cut short at the sides but long at the back. He is noticeably thin. That smile is almost child-like. It's as if he's trying to please the grown-ups. His eyes are charged with electricity.
"You're looking well," Steve says. "What have you been up to?"
"I've been in hospital," the other says. "I've been trying to get off the whizz. Two weeks without, and they chucked me out with a handful of Valium and a prescription for Temazipam. What good's that gonna do? So I had to get in a little powder to keep me goin', you know. But I'll be off it next week, you'll see. I'll be clean by the end of the week. I'll probably do a yard of whiz, and then that's it. I've always wanted to do a yard of whizz."
"Yeah, yeah, sure," I was thinking. "Where have I heard that before?" But it was a new one on me, hearing Steve described as the Mothership. Very apt: because there is something of the Mother about Steve - something nurturing and protective - while at the same time he reminds you of The Creature That Came From Outer Space. He's like a confused alien stranded on the planet, still trying to work out what the Earthlings are actually up to.
We caught a bus back to Ely, where we bought some chips. I had Chicken-off-the-bone, curry, rice and chips, because it was on special offer: £3 for a huge tray. Steve said, "when you need things heating up in here they say, 'do you want it in the microwave, or in the fat?' They say it like that: 'in the fat.' And 90% of the people say, 'in the fat'. That's what it's like round here."
I slept on the settee. Steve said, "the blankets are caked in Stonehenge mud, I hope you don't mind." I slept with them under my head. I went to sleep looking at a poster of a blue-skinned woman with violet nipples shaped like flowers and white hair and eyebrows who was glancing at me suggestively. Steve had said, "she's a spirit-being. She'll come to you in your dreams."
I certainly hoped so.
Cardiff became a city in 1905, and the capital of Wales in 1955 (although the celebrations were held-over till the following year). There was a Roman fort here, on the site of the present castle, in 75AD. In the 13th century it came under the tenure of Gilbert De Clare (known as Gilbert the Red), when the whole of Glamorgan became independent of the Crown. But there is no doubt that it was the presence of coal in the nearby Valleys that accounts for Cardiff's pre-eminence in the region. The docks were excavated in 1835, and by the middle of the 19th century Cardiff was the greatest coal exporting port in the world.
Actually it's more like an English city than the capital of Wales. There can be precious few here who speak the Welsh language. People from North and Mid-Wales (and parts of the Valleys) - fiercely protective of their language - are probably scornful of their brethren in the South, brought up on English ways, English culture and mores. But - for all that - fragments of the language do survive. There's the accent for a start. People pronounce Cardiff as Caerdiff. Given that the pre-fix "Caer" - meaning "fortress" in Welsh - is predominant throughout the country, it becomes clear that Cardiff people have the pronunciation just about right. Then there's the peculiar grammar. They say, "is it?" a lot. "Comin' down the pub, is it?" Well I can't guarantee that this is a Welsh construct, but there's a certain resonance to it, a certain warmth. I like it. It's friendly.
There's more than one Cardiff. Like a lot of cities, it's a collection of villages, each with its own atmosphere and habits. Llandaff, with it's cathedral. Canton with its cheap shops. Cardiff Bay (formally known as Tiger Bay) with its clubs and late night drinking haunts. Grangetown, Riverside, Roath and Ely. And Splott. Nothing much happens in Splott. I only put it in because it deserves a mention as the most fanciful place-name in the British Isles. Someone should write a song about it.
Many of you will know of the city because of the furore following the refusal to allow Lottery money to be used to build a Opera house here. But it has the largest Fish and Chip shop in the world - Harry Ramsden's in the docklands - and they have live opera there every Monday night. There's culture for you...
There's an apocryphal story about Cardiff, that during the plague they buried some of the victims alive. People say that this is the reason that Cardiff has so many delinquents and messed up people wandering about. I can't comment on that. I can only say that in my time there I met (and I'm counting them in my head) three schizophrenics, two drug addicts, one combined schizophrenic and drug addict, one busker and several drunks. I was also introduced to a couple of hundred stick insects, several mullet in the river Taff, frogs and axolotls, a variety of rare, poisonous or hallucinogenic plants, and one weird fungal culture called Kombucha, which floated on a bucket of sweet tea weaving strange tendrils into the liquid below, the product of which Steve drinks daily, and swears-by as a cure-all. He says it cures arthritis, amongst other things. So I apologise in advance to all you normal Cardiff people if the city I describe is nothing like that one you live in. It's Steve's city I am describing.
There's an apocryphal story about Cardiff, that during the plague they buried some of the victims alive. People say that this is the reason that Cardiff has so many delinquents and messed up people wandering about
The following day Steve had to work, so I went with him. He cleans, once a week, for the mother of his child and her current boyfriend. She's has a personality disorder and is partially sighted. He's a methadone addict. I'd told Steve that I'd help him. Their flat is in Grangetown, across from a small park. It's on a brand-new development, still in the process of construction, but there was already an air of decay in the echoing stairwell leading up to the flat.
The boyfriend was in the living room watching the TV when we entered. The sun was streaming in through the open window. He was sucking heavily on a cigarette and drinking a cup of coffee. He never offered us one. He said: "I've just had my injection."
Steve said: "Where's Susan?"
Susan got up to see us, wrapped in a nylon housecoat about two sizes too big. She said:
"I couldn' sleep. I wen' to bed at five an' I didn' get to sleep till eight. It's me sleepin' habits. I got terrible sleepin' habits. I don' get enough sleep, an' then I start to fall asleep in the day. I hate my sleepin' habits. I'm gonna have to get my sleepin' habits sorted out." She repeated this story, like a mantra, several times, while Steve and I got on with the cleaning.
The kitchen was filthy beyond belief. It was obvious that they did no washing up whatsoever, and merely chucked the dirt-caked utensils into the bowl to await Steve's weekly clean-up. I was thinking - as my hands itched in the fetid water overspilling from the bowl - "It's no wonder your sleeping habits are messed up. You never do anything." The boyfriend, meanwhile, had gone to get himself some bottles of cider and was busy guzzling them in the bedroom with the curtains closed. I scrubbed everything obsessively. I was washing up everything in sight, boiling up countless kettles and scouring the surfaces. I don't even clean my own home like that. Finally, when we were done, we sat in the front room with Susan. She was still talking about her sleeping habits, sucking at her cigarette like it was her Mother's nipple, wrapping her lips about it and taking drag after drag. Once she'd finished that one she lit another. Steve said, "have I done enough?" Susan made him clear one of the tables in the living room.
"So how much is that?" asked Steve.
"Let's see. You did it quicker than usual, but I'll let you off and still pay you the same amount. Now: I had the boy for the weekend, and Monday and Thursday. That's £7.50. So you owe me £1.50. You can work it off if you like. You can lay the carpet in the bedroom for me."
"I'd rather pay you cash," said Steve and handed her £1.50 in change.
I was trying hard not to scream. I had to hold my hand over my mouth to stop myself. 'The boy' is their son. Steve has looked after him most of his life, but she charges if he wants her to look after him. We'd just cleaned up her filthy flat, and Steve was handing over £1.50 for the privilege. It all seemed like a wild parody of some Greek-style divine punishment: like Tantalus or Sisyphus, only worse.
When we got out I was bursting with indignation. I said: "Steve, you're being conned. They leave the washing up all week. Why should you pay her for looking after her own son?"
"I know," he said, and laughed uproariously. He finds the whole thing hilariously funny. That's why I love Steve so much. He's unique.
Church of the Resurrection
In the evening we went to Chapter Arts Centre. I remembered it from many years before as a rough and ready meeting place with subdued lighting and scrubbed wooden floors. These days it's all polished steel and lino with a burdensome light. We were meeting a mutual acquaintance, who I'd not seen in twenty years. His name is Alan. He and I used to share a room together.
Alan had brought a present for me. It came wrapped in two plastic carrier bags, and he unwrapped it ceremoniously. It was a plywood sign from the first ever Glastonbury festival. "Worthy Farm" it says, with a Star of David pointing the direction.
A friend of Steve's came over to join us. "Do you mind?" he said, indicating the spare seat.
"Yeah, yeah, sure," we said: "sit down."
At which point he launched into a ponderous lecture on some life-after-death philosophy. He was very drunk, and pausing between each word. Every time I turned to Alan to say something he'd lean over and wave his hands at me. "Excuse me, excuse me." It was a few minutes before I realised he didn't actually have anything to say. I said: "Listen: I think you're missing the point. We're not interested in philosophy. I haven't seen this man in twenty years." He stayed silent for a minute, blinking and trying to focus his eyes. "Excuse me, excuse me," he continued. In the end I told him to shut up.
Alan was telling me what it's like to be in a Rock'n'Roll band. "It's like kissing frogs," he said.
"Is that the name of the band?"
"No. What I mean is, being in a band is like kissing frogs. You're always hoping that one of them will magically turn into a brilliant musician, but they never do."
"Well it ought to be the name of your band," I told him. "Kissing Frogs: you'd go far with a name like that."
Alan hasn't changed. He's put on a bit of weight, and he kept on insisting that he leads a mundane, quiet existence compared to the old days. But there's the same old slightly startled blink to his eye, and the same old sense of humour. "The people at work don't understand me," he said. "One of them asked me how I was and I looked at my wrist and said, 'well, the blood's still pulsing...' He looked at me as if I'd gone off."
Steve and I rushed to catch the last bus. We were passing a church when Steve said, "that's where my friend Dave hung himself. It's called the Church of the Resurrection."
We spent the following morning listening to L. Ron Hubbard on tape. Steve is an ex-member of the Church of Scientology. He was guffawing all the way through. "I used to take this so seriously," he said.
Ron (as he's affectionately known by his followers) was telling us about a near-death brush with some vast Truth. He referred to it as The Wall of Fire. So awe-inspiring is this Truth that the mere mention of it would make you sick. Many people in history who have approached this Truth have died. Ron is the first man ever to have come through the ordeal. He did it so that others would be able to follow him. It concerns the origins of sexual perversion on this planet. Apparently it came from a Thetan dictator called Xemu several billion years ago. He ran a confederation of 75 planets, and brought certain of his subjects to Earth, where he tied them to a mountain and dropped nuclear bombs on them. He was experimenting on them, by implanting them with sexual perversion.
Steve said: "So Ron was right. It would make you sick. It would make you sick to have paid all that money just to hear all that gobbledegook."
In the afternoon Steve went busking. But he needed a drink first. We went to what is known as the Cafe Quarter. It's an area where all the pubs and cafes have tables and chairs out on the pavement, like a European city. It looks very pleasant. We went to a bar called Wellington's. It has a sign on the wall at the front, stating the name, with the two Ls shaped like Wellington boots. We got a pint and sat outside.
On a nearby table an old couple were eating their lunch. The man had a gammon steak, which was huge and coated in a thin slick of dark oil. It was folded in half on his plate, and I was fascinated by his struggles to cut this obscene, pink blubbery-looking thing without it flopping open onto the table. Later Steve went to get us another pint, but he was refused service. He was wearing shorts and a waistcoat. The barman said he was inappropriately dressed. So I went to buy the drinks instead, and he refused me service too, despite the fact that I had on trousers and a tee-shirt. So there you go: the cafe quarter seems nice enough, unless you happen to be either a hippie, or a man with a strange fascination for what goes on on other people's plates.
After that Steve started busking. We went to Hayes Island, outside the indoor market. This is my favourite part of Cardiff. There's an old wooden cafe called the Hayes Island Snack Bar, where a grumpy woman serves you strong tea, and you sit in the cool shade of the trees being shat on by seagulls. It's where all the misfits hang out, and there's talk of redevelopment. I expect they want to turn it into another cafe quarter, and then Steve and I won't be welcome there either.
Steve sang Stand By Me, and the theme from the Coco-pops advert. He was roaring this stuff out and stamping his feet as the passers-by slid past him looking the other way. Then he sang:
"I'm a big kid, look what I can do,
I can wear big-kid pants too.
I'm a big-kid now."
Somehow he'd turned this strange inanity into a punk anthem. He was belting it out over and over, smashing at his guitar and going at breakneck speed. A couple walked passed and said, "well, he's doing well then." Another woman said, "we should pay him to shut up." Steve only gave up when his voice gave way and a nut from his guitar flew off. He made £1.52.
We went to another pub so that Steve could recover his voice. He was feeling demoralised. He started talking about Leonard Cohen, who is his greatest influence. "I dunno why people say he is all doom and gloom and suicide. I find him funny. Mind you: it was a Leonard Cohen song that sent my friend Dave to the Church of the Resurrection to hang himself."
There were three of them in Steve's house that night, Steve told me, which was unusually quiet. Steve was in bed, and his son was asleep in the other room. Dave was downstairs on the settee (the same one I'd been sleeping on, I imagine). All of a sudden Steve was woken up to the sound of Leonard Cohen at full volume. It was Death of a Lady's Man:
"The man she wanted all her life was hanging by a thread.
'I never even knew how much I wanted you,' she said."
Dave came upstairs. He was brandishing a knife as he burst into Steve's room. He was covered in sick, and soaked in piss, which was a common state to be in.
"See this? See this, Steve old man," he said, waving the knife about. "If you want to join me I can stick this in you."
"No Dave, I don't think I want that in me," said Steve.
"I hope you don't mind. I'm gonna take down your washing-line and use it to hang myself. This time it's gonna work."
Steve was too busy trying to calm down his son to take any notice. This was one of Dave's tricks. Once he's got Isaac back to bed, he went downstairs to see what was happening. Dave was there, cutting down the washing line. He'd cut his hand. He asked Steve to make him a roll-up, but there were no papers, and the tobacco was all soaked in piss.
"Oh God," said Dave. "This is a dying man's last wish, and I can't even have that. I'll never trouble you any more. I'm going," he added, and left.
Well this was all in a day's work for Steve in those days. He took in all the misfits and oddities, all the losers and the drunks and the deranged and the confused. Dave had lost a girlfriend many years before, and he was still sore over it. He drank gin and took downers, and woke up regularly covered in puke. No doubt he'd woken up suddenly this night and, seeing the state of himself, thought, "Oh God, it's me again!" Steve had to get on with placating the neighbours and calming down his son. Eventually he fell back into bed. He heard about it on the news the following day. Apparently the vicar had found him. The newspapers characterised him as a young man with a history of drug-addiction and mental illness.
"When was this?" I asked.
"I dunno," Steve replied. "It was the year that Culture Club had a hit with Church of the Poison Mind."
Since this piece was published three of the people in it have died.
Janice Pugsley (called "Susan" in the story) died at home of a massive brain haemorrhage on the 24th of June 2003. She was 50.
Stephen Dunn, Janice's boyfriend, was found dead in 2001 following continued drug problems.
And finally Alan Roderick ("Kissing Frogs") who died of a heart attack, October 19th 2007.
- CJ Stone's Britain: Up the Junction (Birmingham)
Birmingham is a monument in praise of the car, all busy in the rush to get from here to there, wherever that is