“Isn’t that Ninjah?”
My companion laughs. Everyone in Cardiff knows Ninjah, and when I mention him the response is always the same. As soon as I’d said that I’d be spending a couple of months here a friend of who knows the city told me I must look out for him. I listened to his somewhat madcap first album, watched a couple of videos in which he entertained people on of the city’s main thoroughfares by banging percussively on some bins, and started following his escapades on Facebook. And it is him, cycling towards us, half an hour after I arrived. I tell my friend about it and he’s surprised it took me so long to bump onto him.
The area I’m staying in is called Splott. When I got off the coach and told the taxi driver where we were going, his unenthusiastic response told me it held something of interest, and as we were driving along one of is narrow streets or tiny terraced houses I saw a mural proclaiming pride in the area. It’s clearly economically and socially deprived, but not lacking in curiosity or character. Or indeed controversy, starting with its bathetic name. There’s an apocryphal tale that it derives from ‘God’s plot’. In a more contemporary attempt to talk up where he lives, the landlord of my Airbnb place prefers to refer to it as /spləʊ/. In addition to the name, it’s got quite an involved history. Apparently a lot of Irish moved there in the late 19th century, taking refuge from the famine. Clashes with the local Presbyterian population ensued. As a legacy of that period, Splott still has quite a collection of churches. They were joined by a number of factories, including a steelworks and brewery and, at one point, a university for disadvantaged youth. Both the steelworks and the brewery shut down in the late 1970s.
Shirley Bassey grew up in Splott and started to make her name there, singing in the local pubs, of which there used to be dozens. Now there are two or three. There is very little passing trade to bolster the dwindling disposable income of the locals. When I set foot into one of them, one of the drinkers mentions Deliverance. The place in question is a amiable, run-down, drinking barn, with a handful of local men getting properly drunk to the jukeboxes and and looking forward to the karaoke on Friday. The patrons are welcoming and happy to talk, sharing tales of long days in insecure jobs.
The effect of two-thirds of a decade of ‘savage cuts’ (thanks Nick) are very visible. Local churches have regular and well-attended food banks. A couple of years ago the cash-strapped council shut down a popular swimming pool, provoking furious protests. Along with the pride, there’s defiance, as seen in the drive-by gestures of the mobility scooter owners in this locally-filmed video (directed, as it happens, by Ninah). It shows off the Magic Roundabout, which marks one end of Splott. The area is hard to walk to and around. When, on my third day, a church collapsed, the ensuing detours made it even more isolated. Still, while the tragedy ruined my sole attempt to get to work by bus, it did make it even easier to talk to people. On my way home from an exploration of the remaining local pubs (which mostly involved conversations about all the pubs which have closed), people asked me for directions, which was quite entertaining.
Splott is probably not dissimilar to a lot of smaller towns in Wales or the north of England. There may even be areas of Sheffield (my hometown) which are comparable. On June 23rd last year, Cardiff voted to remain in the EU, but I can see why Wales as a whole rebelled. Whatever Vince Cable and (oh yes!) Nick Clegg have to say on the matter, you can’t separate the Brexit vote from the increasingly dire conditions in which so many are forced to live. Splott is clearly struggling but by no means the worst. While for some life seems to revolve around the acquisition and consumption of cans of beer, the takeaways are mostly old-school Chinese rather than fried chicken, and although there are some betting shops (which may well help explain the disappearance of the pubs) there isn’t a Ladbrokes and Paddy Power and another Ladbrokes on every corner. That may well change. After all, once the safety net is torn down, people will grab at anything in the attempt to survive.
There’s quite a contrast with the city centre, which seems to have been refurbished to suit the assumed requirements of slumming premier league footballers. On a Sunday afternoon it proved impossible to find somewhere to eat that was neither a sports bar or part of a chain, those gargantuan blinged-up all-you-can-eateries which only justify the extortionate prices if you eat enough for a week. Cardiff Bay is nice to look at and from, but it’s a shame that it has the exact same seven or eight franchised restaurants, thought to attract the right kind of consumers. It’s a pity when other parts of the city have so much character.
The local market, once I track it down, proved to be one of those places which take place in a car park and specialise in cans of vehicle spraypaint and hefty bacon sandwiches. Easy to disparage, perhaps, but it’s what people most need on a Saturday morning, and you can set out your own stall for only £7 a day. It’s a shame the council clearly does nothing to promote it or to maintain the premises. The wrong kind of enterprise, the wrong kind of consumer. It seems I stood out in my overcolourful shirt (passing comment from stallholder: “I didn’t know we were in fucking Bermuda!“), because when I asked someone about other markets around town, after a couple of references to local landmarks which met with blank looks, he uttered the (for me) delightful phrase “You’re not British, are you?”. Regular readers of this blog will understand my joy on being asked this. As it happens, I wouldn’t actually mind being Welsh, although of course I’m not really anything more than a tourist. If you want to know more about Splott, this is an excellent place to look.