Cardiff and Literature: two words that are not usually found in the same sentence. London has Dickens, Dublin has Joyce, Edinburgh has Stevenson, Paris has Balzac…Cardiff has, um, Ken Follett? But I’m not being fair. Yes, the capital of Wales is still waiting for its defining muse, remembrancer and psychogeographer; yes, most Cardiffians’ reading habits extend no further than the Argos catalogue; and yes, the few efforts so far to novelise the city, from the clunky historical inevitability of Jack Jones’ River Out Of Eden (1951) to the corny slumming-it of John Williams’ Cardiff Dead (2000), have failed miserably to portray any semblance of the stranger-than-fiction reality and come nowhere near to nailing Cardiff’s queer quintessence. However, unrecognised by the dominant cultural decrees of the London literary supplements or the Tesco book aisle, Cardiff has actually contributed much to the the riches of both Welsh and English literature and today is displaying the unmistakeable signs of a budding literary movement.
It is in the field of poetry that Cardiff has so far nurtured major figures. A city that can produce current practitioners of the standard of Dannie Abse, Duncan Bush, Gillian Clarke, Bobi Jones and Gwyneth Lewis is clearly a place with some sort of special poetic sensibility in its ether. And, although he had departed on his wanderings through the length and breadth of Wales by the age of six, the brilliant R S Thomas (1913-2000) was also a Cardiffian – not that you would not know it from the complete absence of recognition from his home town.
This Nobel-nominated giant of 20th century European poetry, whose uniquely beautiful, serene, spare, seething rage is already part of the literary canon, would be commemorated everywhere you looked and lauded from the rooftops had he hailed from any other city. Yet Cardiff’s time-worn unresolved issue – its contradictory position as both irresistibly Welsh and immovably British – means the anti-intellectual, petit-bourgeoise Cymruphobes who make the decisions round here have never been willing to celebrate a man whose very subject was Wales, its ransacked landscape and its vanquished people. This same controlling establishment, on the other hand, have no problem naming a major public space in the city Roald Dahl Plass, despite the fact that Llandaf-born Dahl (1916-1990) didn’t define himself as Cardiffian let alone Welsh (he was very much a posh Anglo/American-Norwegian), that Cardiff as location or inspiration barely figured in his works, and that he is already fully memorialised by the museum dedicated to him in Great Missenden, England, where he lived most of his life. Other capital cities celebrate national heroes when they name their important streets; Cardiff’s low-brow and anti-Welsh councillors humiliatingly scratch around for anyone with a mainstream reputation that Joe Public might have heard of and who happened to have passed this way. Striving for cultural credentials so as to tick the box marked ‘literature’, these imbeciles have dragged Wales’ capital down to an unseemly competition with a Buckinghamshire village for a slice of the Dahl industry – a competition that Great Missenden then comfortably wins. Meanwhile the treasures of Welsh literature, the oldest literary tradition in Europe with a back catalogue of countless unsung geniuses, are deliberately ignored. It takes a peculiarly epic combination of bigotry, pettiness and twisted self-abnegation to pull off such a trick.
Just to rub it in, a plaque with the complete text of Cargoes, a well-known tumpty-tumpty piece of schoolboy doggerel by minor English poet John Masefield (1878-1967), stands close to Roald Dahl Plass down the Bay. Masefield’s relevance to Cardiff is infinitesimal: he came here just the once, sailing to Chile from Bute East Dock on the barque Gilcruix in 1894. The fact that such a big deal is made of the likes of Masefield in the capital of a country laden with its own exceptional poets across a 1,500-year bardic tradition speaks volumes about the stultifying conservatism and colonialism of Cardiff’s rulers.
One of R S Thomas’s most telling messages is that all great art is local while all inferior art is provincial: there is more than enough in one’s own square mile to reflect universal experience. Cardiff’s habit of hitching a ride on any bandwagon so long as it’s not Welsh (manifest in all aspects of city affairs, from the embarrassing Scott of the Antarctic obsession through to the never-ending litany of philistine Brit “events”) betrays a profound provincialism, the creepy fawning for approval from the presumed important people. Ronald Stuart Thomas, son of a Cardiff sea captain, knew that the Welsh are capable of so much more than that. If only someone would listen. Using the humdrum blackbird to symbolise the forgotten Welsh voice in his poem A Blackbird Singing, he ends with words that Cardiff should take to heart:
A slow singer, but loading each phrase
With history’s overtones, love, joy
And grief learned by his dark tribe
In other orchards and passed on
Instinctively as they are now,
But fresh always with new tears.