The Cardiff Story: first critical review

I should have known.  Anything officially opened by that Camilla Shand (you know, the mammal-hunting, home-wrecking current shag of Charles Windsor) was bound to be crap. The billionairess cantered through Cardiff last week to cut the ribbon for ‘The Cardiff Story’, the city’s new museum in the Old Library.

A bewhiskered old grey mare whinnies for her oats…and, to the right, a horse…

Naive fool that I am, I harboured faint hopes that at last the city’s amazing-but-true story might begin to be revealed, that maybe the centuries of obfuscation, evasion and outright lies would be at least slightly queried, and that Cardiff would perhaps now be grown-up and confident enough to break the cycle of disinformation and embrace rather than flee from its past.  Ha! How wrong I was.  What we are served up in the Old Library is nothing more than the usual breathless, gurgling claptrap that can be found in any tourist leaflet or website, a re-warmed idiot-friendly version of the knackered and discredited narrative of all’s-well-with-the-world historical inevitability, with everything that contradicts this cosy fatalism conveniently airbrushed out of existence.  Vast chunks of time that don’t fit ‘the facts’ are simply not mentioned at all, crucial watershed events never happened, key people never existed and, search high and low as I did on my first visit to the museum this week, I required a microscope to find so much as a solitary reference to the word “Wales”.  This isn’t a museum; it’s a propaganda exercise designed to push the one-big-happy-family narrative of a benign, benevolent Britain further down our throats. It’s a shocking disgrace and a deep embarassment for Cardiff.

Where to begin to describe the museum’s myriad shortcomings?  The ‘mission statement’ is as good a place as any: “An international cultural venue which is an inclusive, exciting and inspirational resource…” it drones, in the over-cooked, hollow lingo of the business school seminar.  It’s that “international”, a word bolted onto everything in Cardiff from swimming pools to out-of-town light industrial units, that gets alarm bells ringing.  As usual in these parts the word is being used as a dodge to by-pass and bury the “national”, without which the “international” is a logical impossibility. It tells you straight away that this will be a museum about everything-but-Wales.  Try, if you can, to imagine, say, the Musée de l’Histoire de Paris minus the French Republic and you’re getting warm.  Then there’s the sickening slogan: “Your City, Your Story”, a blatant lunge for folksy credentials, down-with-the-people solidarity and democratic validity, dripping with the demotic insincerity of the tabloid newspaper headline. This effectively advises you to leave your brains at reception before entry.

Inside, one is immediately struck by the cheapskate naffness; the chaotic, ugly display stands with their amazingly unenlightening captions and underwhelming visuals; the ‘interactive’ areas with their snail’s-pace, so-what effects pitched at the level of the uncurious pre-pubescent; the piles of disconnected, incoherent, trivial tat garnered from Echo readers’ attics; the derisory box-ticking of every threadbare Cardiff cliché you ever heard before from Billy the seal to Tommy the fish; the insulting absence, apart from the odd blink-and-you-missed-it nod, of Cardiff’s cultural inheritance, whether in architecture, art, cinema, comedy, dance, literature, music, poetry, politics, religion, sculpture, sport, theatre or in fact any human activity you can think of; the cowardly refusal to address in any way Cardiff’s pivotal role in the development of the Carbon Economy or the incredible terra-forming recklessness of Cardiff’s massive environmental skid mark; the overwhelming air of a dull, middle-management convention at some provincial conference centre; the juvenile attendants with their sales staff patter and specious smiles; the lazy reliance on corny lighting effects instead of creative use of the atmospheric space; and the sheer get-me-out-of-here drudgery of the whole lamentable experience.  All this mess is designed to tell the very tall “story” we are asked to swallow.

This is the version of Cardiff as written by the conquerors of Cardiff.  It is as old as the annals of Tacitus (56-117), which sought to justify Roman imperialism by implying that Britain was a blank sheet of paper just waiting for their civilising script.  Despite the fact that excavations in 2006 provide irrefutable evidence that there was a Celtic settlement at the lowest crossing point of the Taff a good 1,500 years before the Romans arrived, this small point is breezily glossed over and ‘history’ deemed to begin with Julius Caesar and 55BC.  Then, apparently, nothing whatsoever happened for virtually a millennium until the uninvited Normans honoured us with their presence.  These vacant centuries are dismissed as the “Dark Ages” (ie: the English didn’t figure in them), no matter that, for Wales, they were a Golden Age in which language, literature, music and society flourished.  The Norman land-grab, which took 400 years to complete and involved the violent death of at least 25% of the Welsh population and the dispossession and enslavement of the rest, is treated like a gentle exercise in pan-European co-operation – there is not so much as a hint that the LONGEST WAR IN HUMAN HISTORY swirled around Cardiff: some oversight, huh?  And why so reticent with the fascinating biographies of the self-appointed Lords of Cardiff Castle?  Surely the target demographic of X-Box kids with Attention Deficit Disorder would relish details of the murderous thuggery, racketeering and tyrranical rule of the Clares, Despensers, Nevilles, Herberts etc? After all, they did forge the daily reality for 15 generations of Cardiffians and you can’t go a few metres in the city today without coming across another street named in their honour. Likewise, the entirely illegal annexation of Wales by the English state in the 16th century is strangely missing from this bowdlerised travesty, even though it has impacted on every single aspect of Cardiff subsequently, continuing to this very day. And the 150-year era of the Butes gets the full forelock-tugging whitewash too: you wouldn’t know that these scheming megalomaniac parasites ransacked the natural resources of Wales for their private gain and moulded Cardiff to facilitate their unbounded greed, becoming the richest dynasty in the world in the process before swanning off back to their Scottish palaces as soon as the profits dried up and leaving a traumatised city to pick up the pieces.  Oh no; according to ‘The Cardiff Story’ the Butes were just kindly toffs who did a lot of work for charity.  As for the long, ongoing struggle for Welsh freedom…you must be joking.  The revival of Welsh nationhood over the past 150 years, without which Cardiff would be just another ex-coal port on the Severn (think Barry or Newport), and upon which the identity, economy and future prospects of Cardiff hinge, is studiously ignored. So devolution, the most important structural change in Cardiff’s history since the 1536 seizure of Wales, receives only the most superficial skim: it wouldn’t do to furrow the brow of any British Nationalist.  Nor is there any place for the rich story of the Welsh language in Cardiff, the tongue of the overwhelming majority of Cardiffians for all but a few decades of the 13th century (French) and the past 150 years (English) – however, by contrast, any Cardiff name with non-Welsh roots (eg: Womanby, Hayes, Golate) is flagged up and analysed in detail.  And, of course, nowhere could I find a single reference to any of the vast and fascinating cast of local government buffoons, brigands and bastards who time and time again have inflicted their disastrous blunders upon the people of Cardiff.  This, then, is that rarity, found only in one-party states and banana republics: a museum designed to conceal not reveal, to manipulate not inform, and to spread lies not speak the truth. It is scarcely credible that such an institution is being opened in 21st century Europe.

Museum manager Kate Howe’s track record at the very minor Ironbridge museum in Shropshire, Bantock House museum in Wolverhampton and Cradley Heath Workers’ Institute hardly equips her to grapple with the complexities of a major city. But the buck must stop at the desk of leader of the Council Rodney Berman. The hapless LibDem has been running the city for 8 years now. This is his baby, with his trademark gloopy slime-trail all over it. On Planet Rodney Cardiff is no more than a “brand” to be marketed with feel-good flannel like a tube of anti-wrinkle cream, its status as capital of Wales a mere marketing tool with Wales as an optional extra to be summoned up when convenient, and its citizens just passive, frivolous shoppers to be fobbed off with bread and circuses. Berman’s lowest-common-denominator race to the bottom has brought Cardiff to the degrading position of selling itself as a low-rent Babylon in competition with fading seaside resorts, crumbling ex-Soviet cities and Third World beach villages for a slice of the pissed-up Stag’n’Hen economy. Cardiff is actually a serious, grown-up place, not this basket-case joke, but under Berman’s watch, the process begun by Russell ‘Goodwage’ Goodway’s Labour administration has accelerated to the point where the city centre is now a dehumanised, privatised, closely-surveilled nightmare entirely organised to facilitate the profiteering of corporate multinationals and fly-by-night spivs. So of course the Scot is going to put in place such a museum: when you’ve got chain hotels clamouring to fill their empty rooms you don’t rock the boat.

“…och Nick hen, we’re small and provincial, fix me a malt…”

What this museum does, in the end, is simply peddle a very old ‘story’: Cardiff as the product of dashing, vigorous, entrepreneurial outsiders with the Welsh, at most, allocated a minor role as awestruck yokels admiring English derring-do; and Cardiff as different from Wales, owing nothing to Wales, somehow greater than Wales and actually not really Wales at all.  Wave after wave after wave of conquerors, plantations, colonisers and immigrants have pushed this line, seeking to take the Taff out of Cardiff to further their own interests. But Cardiff, by absorption, integration and sheer gravitational pull, has always and will always revert to its default Welshness – it is this inconvenient truth that such British Nationalist projects seek to counteract.

There is growing awareness in Wales, and this museum obligingly confirms it, of our status a tightly-controlled colony.  When nations shake of their colonial pasts and achieve independence, they write their own histories from their own perspectives, and the coloniser’s stories are themselves consigned to history. This outrageously bad abomination indicates how far we have yet to go.