Walesa’s children

Clifton Street in Adamsdown is one of Cardiff’s most repellent roads; a dog-eared line-up of fast food, charity shops, poundstores, tanning salons, bookies, boarded-up premises and general neglect and dereliction from top to bottom. Here, a mere ½ mile from the city centre’s power-washed and air-brushed veneers, is the sad, scabby truth about contemporary Cardiff. And it’s not only the tawdry, cheap’n’nasty, bottom-of-the-barrel consumerism that makes Clifton Street so horrible; it’s also the people. Yes, that’s right: the people.

Before I explore the calamitous social mix that has congregated in the area, one thing needs to be said loud and clear: it is not racist to question and criticise the policy of mass immigration that has been imposed by global capitalism and enthusiastically implemented by puppet governments across Europe over the last 30 years without thought, analysis or debate. Just because the far rightwing has hijacked the issue to infect tiny minds with xenophobia doesn’t mean there isn’t an issue. And the issue is nothing to do with race – that’s just a red herring to distract, deceive and set worker against worker. It is about the crazed free-market economics destroying the planet for the enrichment of an infinitesimal few in which everything has been monetised and marketised – including people. In order to drive down wages, neuter trade unions, undermine collective principles, worsen working conditions, allow corporations to escape regulation and create an infinitely flexible, fluid pool of labour, people are now forced to be peripatetic economic units the whole world over. In the UK it suits big business perfectly to foster migration and so continually increase the population because more people equals cheaper labour, more consumption, more “growth”, more profits and bigger shareholder dividends. This growth is not the true growth of improved productivity, standards of living, skills and knowledge, all of which are deteriorating inexorably, but the artificial growth of the bodybuilder pumped up on steroids. It has been ushered in at the behest of the financial markets, a vast criminal conspiracy of grand larceny, laundered money, tax fiddles and scams with its global HQ in the City of London, living parasitically off indebtedness and boom-bust bubbles in the sure and certain knowledge that their cloned client governments, whether Tory, Labour or LibDem, will bail them out from public funds when the next crash comes because they’re “too big to fail”. For all the patriotic posturing of the typical Tory, the last thing free-marketeers want to deal with is a multitude of strong, well-defined, independent, autonomous nation states. That patriotism is just for Union Jack-bedecked Sun-reading morons queuing in the Mall for a glimpse of the nipples of King William V’s future ex-wife.   The multinational corporations that decide economic policy are actually extra-national; loyal to nowhere but the most lenient offshore tax haven. “British” business long since ceased to exist thanks to these proud Brit Tories; just look at the privatised former public utilities, all now in the hands of French or US or Asian conglomerates. Arch-Thatcherite Norman Tebbit still best epitomises this schizophrenic rightwing confusion: in one breath berating British Indians for not passing his “cricket test” by cheering for India; in the next salivating over a mobile workforce with his “on yer bike” wet dream – a dream that has become today’s “on yer budget airline” nightmare.

I now come to how all this is playing out along Adamsdown’s main artery. First, a little history – most unfashionable in post-Blair UK where we are urged to forever stride into a bright future and are written off as spoilsport throwbacks if we try to draw on the past for lessons.

Clifton Street was built in stages between 1866 and 1870 by the Tredegar Estate, the 2nd biggest landowners in the Cardiff area after the Butes. Partially tracking an old pathway from Newport Road to Upper Splott Farm, it was planned as a link down to the Great Western Railway (GWR) and originally called Connection Street because it connected the residential terraced streets named after heavenly phenomena and earthly riches that were laid out over 20 years from 1860 onwards on the farmland either side of it. The agents of the Morgan dynasty of Tredegar House near Newport were not being fanciful when they chose these street names. Like the Butes they dealt in iniquitous 99-year leases rather than surrender an inch of ground, freeholds giving ownership of any minerals underground plus the air-space overhead. So the Morgans weren’t joking when they ransacked the thesaurus; they were boasting – and their arrogance gave Cardiff its most famous collection of street names: Meteor, Planet, Comet, Eclipse, Constellation, Polar (now the eastern section of Constellation), Orbit, System, Cycle (demolished in the 1970s, now Anderson Place), Star, Sun, Moon (demolished in the 1940s, now covered by Adamsdown Junior School), Metal, Gold, Silver, Copper, Lead, Iron, Tin, Platinum, Zinc, Onyx (now Lower Clifton Street), Garnet (now the western section of Broadway), Sapphire, Emerald, Ruby, Topaz, Diamond, Pearl and Agate.

In 1868 the half-completed Connection Street was renamed Clifton Street. The total population of the Roath parish, which stretched from Penylan to the coast, was just 292 in 1851. By the 1871 census it had risen to 7,791 – an incredible 2,700% increase caused by mass economic migration to the booming coal port. More than half the incomers came from England, and most of those were from Somerset, Gloucestershire and Devon. This is why the name of the West Country’s most celebrated structure, the Clifton Suspension Bridge (completed 1864), was utilised – partly to make all those Bristolian exiles feel at home and partly to honour Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) who had engineered the suicide-leap masterpiece (and the GWR at the bottom of the Street). This was the second tribute to Brunel in the area: Upper Splott Farm was converted into a pub in 1858 and named the Great Eastern after Brunel’s steamship which had been launched that year, the biggest in the world at the time (the pub on Metal Street lasted until 2003, but Adamsdown’s oldest surviving building was outrageously demolished in 2009 to be replaced by a forest of buddleia on a vacant lot).

After Roath was formally absorbed into Cardiff in 1875, Clifton Street was remodelled by Estate architect WG Habershon (1818-1981) into the main commercial thoroughfare of an area that was then called Splotlands (single ‘t’), while Adamsdown was merely the name of a farmhouse that had been obliterated by the GWR and a Georgian manse south of the railway (East Moors community centre on the Sanquahar Street/Carlisle Street bend marks its location). In 1890 reorganisation of Cardiff’s local government to reflect population growth created both Adamsdown and Splott wards out of Roath and the two areas did a curious swap; Adamsdown jumping north of the railway and Splott doing the reverse journey. The last vestige of the old nomenclature is the Splotlands pub, stranded (and boarded up) in the heart of today’s Adamsdown on Meteor Street. By then Roath’s population had soared to 40,000, the thrown together Welsh/English mix of Adamsdown had cohered through class solidarity into a tight, multi-faceted community of dockers, railwaymen and steelworkers, and Clifton Street had organically become the kind of thriving, busy shopping street teeming with social interaction that today’s politicians and planners run round in ever-decreasing circles trying to resurrect.

At the outbreak of WW1 Clifton Street had more than 70 shops selling every conceivable product – including the proverbial butcher, baker and candlestick maker. 75,000 people now lived in Roath, everything was on the doorstep and small independent businesses flourished. Although Victorian capitalism was voracious and cruel, it had yet to develop into today’s all-powerful, destructive, amoral monster; the vital counterbalance of organised labour had yet to be crushed; the 24-hour mass media propaganda machine foreclosing all debate and alternatives had yet to be put in place; the crazed logic of economies of scale making size an end in itself had yet to become Holy Writ; localism, sustainability, variety, proportionality and pride in good service had yet to be jettisoned for the get-rich-quick and growth-at-all-costs fetishes; common endeavour and shared purpose had yet to make way for look-after-number-one selfish individualism; humans had yet to be shrivelled into competing, colliding credit ratings; there was still such a thing as society.

In retrospect it can now be seen that this was Clifton Street’s highwater mark. Cardiff’s monolithic coal economy began to collapse in the 1920s and didn’t stop until the city had entirely deindustrialised by the 1980s. The closure of the GKN Steelworks on the East Moors in 1978 as big business increasingly operated on a supranational level in order to avoid accountability and scrutiny and chase the cheapest labour was a symbolic body blow from which Adamsdown has never recovered. Over this period Adamsdown’s population fell by 20%, and would have fallen even further had it not been topped up with immigrants from the Commonwealth exercising their right to live in the state that had invaded, colonised and exploited their lands by moving into this and other pauperised inner-city zones across the UK. Asians and West Indians brought diversity and new ideas and, contrary to myth, integrated smoothly into the existing population. But to ignorant Little Britishers who couldn’t get past skin pigmentation they were all “blacks”, and the UK’s rancid racist template was set.

Then the chickens of Adamsdown’s hasty and unplanned speculative Victorian origins started to come home to roost. It turned out that much of the Tredegar Estate’s housing stock had been jerry-built, especially the later developments on the east side of Clifton Street. One by one the Pennant sandstone terraced houses are being replaced by jarring breezeblock infills with brick cladding, marring the streetscapes from Sapphire Street to Pearl Street and starkly contrasting with the earlier, better-built terraces on the west side, many of which in Lead, Iron and Zinc Streets have been splendidly renovated back to how they must have looked when brand new in the 1860s. In addition, the Estate’s short-sighted omission of any green spaces in Adamsdown, unimportant 150 years ago when wide open countryside lay to the south and east, became a major handicap, harming health, mood and quality of life. On top of this there were those 99-year leases. Leasehold reform in 1967 had eased the situation but, because so few could buy out their leases, this only resulted in Adamsdown becoming Housing Association territory: 30% of properties are today rented from HAs, the highest proportion in Cardiff. Combined with Thatcher’s sell-off of Council housing, financial deregulation, the rise of buy-to-let and the huge widening of income inequality, this has left Adamsdown with the worst of all worlds: institutionalised poverty, sink estates, chronic overcrowding, no-go enclaves and a transient, disengaged population. The social fabric was unravelling.

The next negative impact came from a familiar source: Cardiff Council, with its abiding tendency to fuck up. I am spoiled for examples in Adamsdown, but traffic management policies illustrate the syndrome well. Narrow roads laid out when the horse was the main means of transport struggled to cope with the coming of Big Oil’s car-dependent economy, and Cardiff’s lack of a viable rapid-transit passenger railway system added more pressure on the roads, exacerbated by the closure of the very handy Roath station on Pearl Street in 1917. In Adamsdown this was particularly problematic because of the way each landowner had built without reference to what other landowners were doing – the Tredegar Estate’s streets to the east of Clifton Street, for instance, are all no through roads because they butted up against the barrier of the adjacent Bradley Estate’s Nora Street (originally John Street). The Council somehow managed to make things worse with a series of badly considered knee-jerk reactions to congestion and rat-runs in the 1980s, blocking off all east-west routes through Adamsdown apart from Broadway for reasons that today make no sense. Try driving from, say, Agate Street to Sapphire Street to see what I mean (tip: DON’T ask a passer-by for help when you get lost). The conversion of clogged, polluted Clifton Street to one-way traffic in 2009 was long overdue, but the Council got it spectacularly wrong by making the one-way direction north-south when it should have been the other way round. The vast majority of Clifton Street shoppers who come by car are from amenity-free Splott to the south, not prosperous Roath to the north; but as usual in Cardiff the occasional convenience of the rich was given priority over the daily needs of the poor and now a car journey from Splott to Clifton Street has been rendered nearly impossible: the ¼ mile trip involving a two mile detour either via Carlisle Street/Royal Oak/Broadway or via Constellation Street/Meteor Street/Glossop Road/Newport Road. It was another nail in Clifton Street’s coffin.

A lot of Clifton Street shopkeepers blame the one-way system for their struggling businesses, but they’re only half right. Long before it was introduced, the Street was dying of slow strangulation by Cardiff itself. Shamefully, Cardiff has the poorest hinterland of any European capital because its political leaders refuse to acknowledge any responsibility to wider Wales and greedily drain the lifeblood out of everywhere in a 30 mile radius. Even as close as Clifton Street there is no competing with the shopping overkill in the city centre. All that’s left for Clifton Street are the demographics the city centre doesn’t want to attract: the boarded up Tredegar pub is home to the heroic Red & Black Umbrella squatters (see and on the other side of the road Urban Jungle Hydroponics are having a go. It’s so encouraging to see an interest in horticulture.

And now a new blight has, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, descended on poor old Clifton Street: Poles. Poland joined the EU in 2004 and Poles were allowed free movement within the EU in 2007, a policy designed to foster the roving, deracinated, scavenging, uninformed, malleable army of sub-minimum wage workers the EU capitalists’ club requires to keep profit margins growing. Young Poles soon spread out across Europe and more than 30,000 descended on Wales – 5,000 of them to Adamsdown, to crank the ward’s population up 50% between the 2001 and 2011 censuses. Putting to one side the damage this drain of young workers is doing to Poland itself, the impact around Clifton Street has been awful.

If one had to choose a nationality to swamp your home patch, Poles would not necessarily be high on anybody’s list. Coming from the most Catholic and reactionary country in the EU, a country with a tragic, blood-soaked history of war and atrocities as the meat in the Prussia/Russia sandwich, Poles are still struggling with modernism let alone post-modernism. And Adamsdown doesn’t get the Chopins, Curies or Polanskis, it gets Poland’s unemployed underclass: monoglot, ignorant and narrow. They are not asylum seekers, not fleeing a war zone, not refugees, not from a former British colony and not suffering under a domestic jackboot; they are simply pissed off with their low-pay, limited opportunity homeland and, putty in the hands of Anglo-American cultural blandishments, fancied a change. For those uncompelling motives Adamsdown has been turned upside down. Clifton Street alone has four ‘Polski Skleps’ (jars of pickled gherkins and vacuum-packed cucumber soup – mmm, just what Adamsdown’s been crying out for) and has become the manor of surly, strutting Poles. They are instantly identifiable by their shouty arguments contemptuously conducted on the litter-laden pavements, by their bone-marrow tendency to ghettoize and stay poles apart from people not exactly like themselves, and by their strict adherence to gender stereotypes that were laughably passé here half a century ago: the women expressing “femininity” with vulva-high ra-ra skirts and count-the-pubes pantaloons; the men blindly groping for “masculinity” with shaved skulls and impressive neo-Nazi tattoo-work. But, funnily enough, these immigrants never figure on the racist radar of the BNP, the English Defence League or UKIP – they’re white, they’re rightwing, they’re ok.

Here’s another fresh cultural diversification Poles are delivering to Adamsdown: new flavours of racism. In WW2 Poland was, after all, a main venue for anti-Semitism, pogroms and concentration camps, playing host to the extermination of Europe’s largest Jewish population. Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka…the names of these Polish towns still send a shudder down the spine. The invading Germans set up the death camps, but plenty of ordinary Poles helped man them, and turn on the gas taps. You don’t need me to spell out their ancestors’ likely attitude to the dark-skinned Turks, Iraqis, Somalis and Pakistanis all around in Clifton Street. Tension and bad vibes hover in the air and are further compounded by a group of people who are never considered in Cardiff: Cardiffians. Uncomprehending, brutalised and stunted local lads from food parcel housing projects like Anderson Place and Adamsdown Lane, their patch threatened, their brittle self-worth challenged, regularly run amok up and down Clifton Street, taking out their inarticulate rage on anyone “different” with random acts of violence and vandalism. It’s lucky the 1872 Police Station closed in 2009, otherwise the cops would have something to do. All in all, progressive, liberal Cardiff has been set back years while Clifton Street is plagued by clashing cultures, mutual incomprehension and simmering hostility; a poisonous recipe that has made it somewhere to be avoided at all costs, day or night.  Who voted for this? Answer: nobody. What is this process called? Answer: democracy.

Wales must like it or lump it, because Welsh sovereignty was stolen and is currently stashed out of reach in London, Brussels and Washington DC. And Wales is particularly vulnerable to such immigration. Already suffering from the lowest sense of national identity in Europe thanks to a thousand years of physical and psychological colonisation, Wales is now being squeezed out in a crippling pincer-movement: the comparatively rich English cashing in their equity and downsizing for the attractive views; the comparatively poor Poles taking a chance and upgrading to afford a 4G smartphone. Bulgarians and Romanians are due next year. Those few eastern Europeans who stay on and commit to Cardiff will eventually integrate and evolve of course, but most will adopt the all-prevailing “British” identity that’s rammed down our throats from cradle to grave, not the virtually invisible Welsh identity that asks for a rebel heart and a counter-intuitive head to be discovered. What this means is that, as always, it’s back to the perpetual uphill Welsh task of converting the non-Welsh to Welshness. I know it’s possible because I’ve done it many times – but I’m getting tired…so very tired…so tired…