SIX NATIONS CHAMPIONSHIP
Cardiff’s famed acre by the Taff first hosted international rugby in 1884, when Wales played Ireland in what was then called the Home Championship. The competition became the Five Nations when France joined in 1910 and the Six Nations with the inclusion of Italy in 2000. Therefore there are always at least two, and in alternate years three, sell-out international matches in Cardiff each February running into March. It is often forgotten that these special Cardiff days used to be comparatively infrequent. Up until 1954 the St Helen’s ground in Swansea shared the two home fixtures with the Arms Park, so there was only one Championship game per season in Cardiff. Nevertheless, even then the Arms Park felt like the spiritual home of Welsh rugby – perhaps because of the deep impact of the 1905 win over the All Blacks when the 47,000 Cardiff crowd broke into a massed choral rendition of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, the first time a national anthem had been sung at a sporting event. Today’s stadium, completely rebuilt, turned on its axis, holding 74,500 and used throughout the year for Wales’ packed rugby schedule, is still Cardiff’s best-known landmark, and Cardiff is still at its most palpably exciting when the Six Nations comes to town. Sadly, the WRU’s ticketing policies have emptied the Stadium of ordinary fans and filled it with corporate free-loaders, WRU hangers-on, the stinking rich, eBay bidders and disinterested neutrals, with dire consequences for the once-electrifying atmosphere. It is in the pubs and streets around the ground rather than in the ground itself where that atmosphere survives, and the city pulsates with Welsh hwyl as the old spine-tingling songs roll down the Taff one more time.
ST DAVID’S DAY PARADE
Wales is denied an official holiday on March 1st. There is overwhelming popular support for the idea, it is Assembly government policy, every other European country (bar England) has a national day and the UK already has fewer public holidays than anywhere else, so it is hardly asking for an awful lot. But London says no (it would apparently ‘damage the economy’ – tell that to Ireland!) and the Assembly is powerless to act. Until the day arrives when Wales has control over its own affairs, it is left to the people to force change from the bottom up. This is a familiar tale in Wales: a University, a National Library, a National Museum, a Children’s Hospital – all were repeatedly refused by London but eventually established anyway thanks to years of fundraising and campaigning by ordinary Welsh people. The same thing is happening with Dydd Gŵyl Dewi, St David’s Day. The feast day of David (c540-c600) is the oldest continually celebrated Saint’s day in the world, having been observed in Wales since 800. It will take more than the British state’s knee-jerk paranoia to suppress this innocuous expression of Welsh identity. Cardiff’s civic leaders, forever proclaiming the city as ‘capital’ of this that and the other, anything but Wales, always used to studiously ignore the day. Amazingly, it wasn’t until Labour lost the Council to the LibDems in 2004 that British Nationalism in Cardiff was weakened enough to allow the first-ever St David’s Day Parade in the capital’s history to take place. A gaping chasm in Cardiff’s calendar was filled. Each year since then it has grown in size and significance with more and more Cardiffians booking the day off work; the parade and pageant through the streets evolving into a joyous, anarchic display of the range of Welsh possibilities.
RHS FLOWER SHOW
Horticulturalists and plant nurseries from across Wales exhibit over three days in the wide expanses of Bute Park. The middle-class gerontocracy of Glamorgan and Gwent shuffle (annoyingly slowly for someone with my high metabolic rate) past feature gardens galore and fritter away unearned income in a veritable shopping mall of generic garden-centre gubbins. There are themed displays, from drought-tolerance via the edible rainforest to what to do with the typical small back garden of Cardiff’s terraced streets, Local Authorities display the weirdly regimental municipal bedding scheme, giant marquees marinate in heady floral aromas, and a lot of money can be quickly spent in the plant marketplace – pinching off free cuttings to root up later at home is, of course, not countenanced.
GLOBAL MARIJUANA MARCH
In 2012 Cardiff joined the 700+ cities worldwide campaigning for an end to the preposterous criminalisation of cannabis and for individual autonomy and freedom. If Uruguay can do it, so can Wales. Here I was intending to add a suitably droll pay-off line…but I can’t get it together.
BBC CARDIFF SINGER OF THE WORLD
St David’s Hall (Biennial)
Recognised as the most coveted prize in opera, the vocal competition was established in 1983 to coincide with the opening of St David’s Hall. Having being whittled down to 20 finalists after a year of auditions, the cream of young classical singing talent comes to Cardiff for a week of dazzling virtuosity. The Welsh entrant (in 2013 baritone Gary Griffiths) is selected at the biennial Welsh Singers Competition held at St David’s Hall the year before. As well as the main prize the song prize, introduced in 1989, runs concurrently. List of winners:
|Year||Main Prize||Song Prize|
|1983||Karita Mattila (soprano) Finland|
|1985||David Malis (baritone) USA|
|1987||Valerie Esposito (soprano) Italy|
|1989||Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone) Russia||Bryn Terfel (baritone) Wales|
|1991||Lisa Gasteen (soprano) Australia||Neal Davies (bass baritone) Wales|
|1993||Inger Dam-Jensen (soprano) Denmark||Paul Whelan (baritone) New Zealand|
|1995||Katrina Karnéus (mezzo-soprano) Sweden||Kirsi Tiihonen (soprano) Finland|
|1997||Guang Yang (mezzo-soprano) China||Christopher Maltman (baritone) England|
|1999||Anja Harteros (soprano) Germany||Dae-San No (baritone) Korea|
|2001||Marius Brenciu* (tenor) Romania||Marius Brenciu* (tenor) Romania|
|2003||Tommi Hakala (baritone) Finland||Ailish Tynan (soprano) Ireland|
|2005||Nicole Cabell (soprano) USA||Andrew Kennedy (tenor) England|
|2007||Shen Yang (bass-baritone) China||Elizabeth Watts (soprano) England|
|2009||Ekaterina Shcherbachenko (soprano) Russia||Jan Martinik (bass) Czech Republic|
|2011||Valentina Naforniţă (soprano) Moldova||Andrei Bondarenko (baritone) Ukraine|
|2013||Jamie Barton* (mezzo-soprano) USA||Jamie Barton* (mezzo-soprano) USA|
* double winners
The venerable native festivals of Wales are, one by one, being resuscitated after centuries of decline. Also called Alban Hefin (Summer Solstice), Gŵyl Ifan is the midsummer festival, traditionally celebrated through the shortest night of the year. In 1977 it was reintroduced in Cardiff after a gap of approximately 200 years and since then has grown organically to become a three-day folk dance event with a procession round the city centre, dancing around a summer pole at City Hall Lawn, dance competitions at the WMC, a Twmpath (barn dance) and a boozy Taplas (mass dance).
WELSH BEER & CIDER FESTIVAL
Organised by the Campaign for Real Ale, this three-day event, moved from City Hall in 2008, allows drinkers to sample some of the delicious and potent beers and ciders produced by Wales’ 60 breweries and micro-breweries. Beer consumption is at its lowest level since the 1930s due to the dominance of mass-produced synthetic lagers and the fading of the pub habit, but you wouldn’t know it from the queues champing at the bit to get into the old CIA and imbibe some of the 250+ beers and ciders – all in the interests of research, it goes without saying. After getting my bearings with the scrumptious Rechabites bitter (4.0%) from Aberdare’s Grey Trees brewery, I reckoned I might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb and tried the legendary Otley Odessa, brewed in Pontypridd to a punishing 9.7% alcohol by volume. I had to be taken home and laid out horizontally in a darkened room.
UNITY THEATRE FESTIVAL
Wales Millennium Centre
Following a boost in funding from the Arts Council of Wales, what started in 2008 as a modest ‘inclusive theatre’ production by Hijinx, one of the WMC’s resident companies, is now spread over 10 days and features international as well as home-grown disabled performers.
Since being set up by the late, unlamented South Glamorgan County Council in 1988 the Cardiff Festival has absorbed a number of formerly free-standing events and now makes the spurious claim to be “the UK’s largest free outdoor festival.” Events of note coming under the Cardiff Festival umbrella are given separate entries – suffice to say here that this non-stop, corporate-swamped knees-up is being cut down to size as the Council faces huge budget reductions and councillors are compelled to give up their sideline as Showbiz Impresarios to concentrate on defending jobs and services. There is nothing new about our rulers trying to appear cuddly and win popularity with handouts and petty amusements. Roman poet Juvenal (c60-c130) coined the phrase ‘bread and circuses’ for the practice 1,900 years ago, and observed that it occurs when politicians hold the people in contempt and when the people have given up on politics.
CARDIFF COMEDY FESTIVAL
According to conventional wisdom, comedy festivals are a compulsory weapon in a competitive city’s armoury, so it was inevitable Cardiff would acquire one in 2009. Organisers Catchy Monkey productions avoid the silly error made by previous failed efforts – shipping in comedians you can see anywhere – and concentrate instead on Cardiff’s unique characteristic: it’s Welshness. Highlights include the Grand Gala at St David’s Hall, comedy workshops at the Central Library and the Welsh Unsigned Stand-up Award, concluding at the Glee Club. I’ve got a joke: How many Englishmen does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Two – one to administer the flagellation while the other phones an electrician.
EVERYMAN OPEN AIR THEATRE FESTIVAL
National History Museum
Amateur company Everyman, founded 1942, has held a summer festival of outdoor theatre since 1983, originally in the grounds of Dyffryn House, the astonishing mansion of coal owner John Cory (1828-1910) west of Cardiff, until being relocated to St Fagans in 1996. In the glades and clearings of the Museum’s idyllic parkland the Chapter-based thespians stage three high quality productions of popular evergreens over three weeks; normally a Shakespeare, a musical and a family show.
INTERNATIONAL FOOD & DRINK FESTIVAL
Roald Dahl Plass
Food festivals multiply like listeria bacteria on a camembert left out in the midday sun; one more must-have accessory for any city wishing to flag up its sophistication and prosperity. Cardiff, inevitably, has got in on the act with a family-orientated weekend down the Bay. Over 50 producers from across Europe set out their stalls and hope the weather holds. Bring a fat wallet and an iron constitution.
Roald Dahl Plass
A free day of entertainment showcasing African and Asian music and dance – on a stage positioned where the sea-lock of the Bute West Dock once creaked. Stalls sell exotic food and drink as well as a wide range of global bric-a-brac.
ONE PLANET FESTIVAL
A brazen bucket of greenwash flung over the city in 2012 by the newly-elected Labour Council just as it produced a turbo-growth Local Development Plan that would eradicate what little remains of Cardiff’s countryside. The unreal week of events was launched with an ecobabble masterclass from a Labour timeserver in which words were stripped of all meaning and a controversial plan to make Cardiff “an enterprising, prosperous, healthy, happy, clean and green city in the future” was unveiled. Cloud Cuckoo Land to follow.
Free graffiti art and hip-hop festival started in 2007 as a memorial to young Bill ‘Roxe’ Lockwood (1992-2007) from Canton who died in a road accident. Over a weekend talented kids from the healthy Welsh graffiti scene cover the entire wall of the railway embankment running along the park’s eastern boundary (130m/425ft long, 9m/30ft high) with a spectacular display of vivid, original works.
A week-long Welsh-language festival with numerous events across the city, established by Menter Caerdydd in 2006 to cater to the city’s 50,000+ Welsh speakers and countless learners (eg: me). In absolute numbers, Cardiff has more Welsh speakers today than at any time since 1881 – the long ebb tide is being halted, and even a little reversed. Tafwyl is part of that process. It keeps on growing, despite the Council cutting grant aid in 2013. The Labour-controlled Assembly, less hostile to the concept of Wales, picked up the tab. A highlight is the free Ffair Tafwyl on Castle Green.
St David’s Hall
Under the baton of artistic director Owain Arwel Hughes the Welsh Proms began in 1986 and have become an integral part of the Cardiff calendar. In a week of concerts the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, as well as visiting orchestras, perform well-known works from the classical repertoire. Highlights include the Children’s Prom with the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra and the free, fringe-tinged Daytime Proms in the foyers and levels of St David’s Hall. On the ‘Last Night’ Arwel Hughes invariably wheels out the light classics, tugs a forelock to England with Elgar’s chauvinistic Pomp & Circumstance (a one-way courtesy never returned to Wales with a rendition of, say, Men of Harlech at the Royal Albert Hall), applies for a knighthood with God Bless the Prince of Wales, and then redeems himself by concluding with something actually Welsh, Gareth Wood’s moving Fantasy on Welsh Song.
Earplugs are required during turns by those who paid their dues in X Factor elimination heats, but there’s still plenty of good music to enjoy, including up and coming Welsh bands, at this free, weekend-long, sponsor-heavy event centred on the City Hall Lawn. The bureaucratic ban on drink (except the drink available at astronomical prices from officially-sanctioned outlets) is easily circumvented by taking a hip-flask. UPDATE: Event scrapped in Council’s 2014 budget cuts.
Start Canal Park/ finish City Hall Lawn
A descendant of the Butetown Carnival that ran from 1974 until folding in 1986, revived in 1990 as a Caribbean-style Mas (from masquerade) and incorporated into the Cardiff Festival: the dead hand of municipal condescension meant it lost much of its old gritty authenticity in the process. The route of the parade was changed in 2007 to come straight up Bute Street and St Mary Street to the City Hall and become one more act at the Big Weekend, whereas previously the steel bands, drummers, street dancers and flamboyant costumes had threaded their way from Loudon Square through the Butetown streets to the Oval Basin. Community leaders objected and petitions were collected, but the Council was unmoved. Poverty not giving the right image to leisure trippers, Butetown itself was erased from its own carnival. Cultural cleansing was then completed in 2012 with the dropping of the word ‘Mas’ and its replacement with the word ‘Cardiff’ in some brainless PR exercise. What can’t be tarnished though is the exciting and creative build-up to the parade when the costumes are designed and made in the ‘Carnival Camp’ at Channel View Leisure Centre. UPDATE: Butetown Carnival revived summer 2014 (Council leader Phil Bale obviously reads this blog)
By the end of August Cardiff is suffering from chronic festival-fatigue syndrome. Was it for this that our ancestors toiled – a never-ending jamboree on the rates? Cardiff Harbour Authority (part of Cardiff Council) has its own shindig over a long weekend of tall ships, naval displays, sailing regattas, pirates and sea shanties. In other words, the motley crew who blockaded Cardiff’s maritime artery now serve up a ships’ biscuit of arr-Jim-lad cultural illiteracy. Weigh anchor!
From its inauguration in 1999 as the Lesbian & Gay Mardi Gras this event has become part of the scenery, championing the diversity and equality that is in the DNA of Cardiff. The good-natured crowd wander between the main stage, dominated by those overlapping and interdependent genres Pop and Camp, the cabaret tent, the dance tent and the marketplace while trying to avoid two abiding hazards: torrential rain and paying over the odds for food and drink. Chapter Arts holds the annual ‘Queer Cymru’ fortnight of films and performances to coincide with Pride and since 2012 the day kicks off with a LGBT parade through the city centre. The dumb decision to hold the 2013 event in the Millennium Stadium was a disaster the organisers do not intend to repeat. In 2014 it’s back to Cooper’s Field.
GREAT BRITISH CHEESE FESTIVAL
After being held at various locations in southern England since 2000, this weekend event was moved to Cardiff in 2008 “for the foreseeable future,” thanks to financial carrots from the Assembly government. Fans of curdled milk + rennet, hotel owners desperate to fill vacant rooms, and those not repelled by the ubiquitous “Great” + “British” formula were pleased. The peacocks of Cardiff Castle, resident there for over a century, were not: they were cruelly evicted to make way for the farting foodies.
National Museum (Biennial)
A contemporary visual arts competition, established in 2004, in which artists from all over the world, no doubt enticed by the £40,000 prize, submit works that “add to the understanding of the human condition.” These are reduced to a short-list exhibited in the Museum for two months before the winner is announced at a swish ceremony in November. Winners so far:
2004: Xu Bing (China)
2006: Eija Liisa Ahtila (Finland)
2008: NS Harsha (India)
2010: Yael Bartana (Israel)
2012: Teresa Margolles (Mexico)
Every Welsh funding body you can think of chips in to stump up the money, hoping that the cultural exchange will be enriching and that Wales will garner some international attention. Of course if it’s genuine, lasting international attention a country wants, there is only one tried and trusted way to get it: independent statehood. In the meantime, it seems the plan is to turn the whole world into one giant Eisteddfod.
CARDIFF HALF MARATHON
Start & finish Cardiff Bay
Initiated by Barnardo’s Cymru in 2003, the half marathon is a good earner for charities through sponsorship of individual runners. Let’s gloss over the 2010 cock-up when the course was found to be 193m short of the requisite 21.0975km; organisation has improved since. There are spectator-friendly ‘cheering stations’ at various points along the flat but meandering route. To participate costs £32.
Chapter Arts and Cineworld
A gay and lesbian short film competition worth £25,000 to the winner, founded in 2007 by film producer and Welsh internationalist Berwyn Rowlands. Thirty short-listed films are screened during a five-day festival before the winner is announced at a mwah-mwah ceremony at the Park Inn, Mary Ann Street. It’s the world’s biggest short film prize and the booty must be spent on making a new film in Wales. Winners so far:
2007: Pariah – Dee Rees (USA) – film made with prize: Colonial Gods (2009)
2008: Cowboy – Till Kleinert (Germany) – film made with prize: Boys Village (2011)
2009: Steam – Eldar Rapaport (USA) – film made with prize: Little Man (2012)
2010: The Samaritan – Magnus Mork (Norway) – film made with prize: Burger (2013)
2011: I Don’t Want To Go Back Alone – Daniel Ribeiro (Brazil) – film made with prize: The Way He Looks (2014)
2012: The Wilding – Grant Scicluna (Australia)
2013: Gorilla – Tim Marshall (Australia)
Music festivals come and go in Cardiff, but this one could stand the test of time. Started in 2007 by Cardiffian Huw Stephens, Welsh music champion, Radio Cymru/Radio 1 DJ and son of Welsh literature’s éminence grise Meic Stephens, Sŵn has become an indispensible platform for Wales’ thriving music scene. Over four days contemporary acts across a broad spectrum play Cardiff’s best live music venues. With one ticket, exchangeable for a wristband, there is access to all the gigs, allowing punters to roam from place to place discovering new sounds.
Fireworks are let off in Cardiff on any old pretext: Gavin Henson has forsaken styling mousse! Launch the pyrotechnics! A neurotic need to give the impression that the city is in a permanent state of orgiastic bliss means there are more explosions here than in down-town Kabul. The biggest display of all is the one organised by Cardiff Round Table since 1981 on the Saturday nearest November 5th, long purged of all the papist-bashing implications of Guy Fawkes Night and now called ‘Sparks in the Park’.
Various venues (Cardiff and Newport)
Attempts to establish an enduring film festival in Cardiff have come unstuck in the past (who now remembers the International Film Festival of Wales or the Cardiff Film Festival?). Getting noticed on the crowded global festival circuit is not easy. But Soundtrack, launched in 2008 with an interesting theme of the relationship between film and music, is carving out a distinctive niche that suggests durability.
City Hall Lawn/Gorsedd Gardens
Every year since 2001 the area in front of the City Hall is transformed into an open-air ice rink in the weeks running up to Christmas. The designated historic park and conservation area is trashed so thoroughly it takes months of restoration and returfing to return it to normal. Here’s the deal: the Council provide another opportunity for big business to make a killing (£5 a pint + £3 deposit for the plastic glass!) in return for all the hackneyed trappings of a cheap pack of secular Christmas cards: the tall fir tree, the twinkling lights, the carousel, the snow, the muffled skaters, the grotto, the big wheel, the inanely happy, rosy-cheeked peasantry – oh, hang on a minute, they’re real people.
The ancient Welsh tradition of Calennig, the New Year’s gift to mark the passing of the Winter Solstice and the gradual lengthening of daylight hours, long pre-dates Christianity. Apples were studded with cloves, decorated with a sprig of box and rested on tripods of twigs before being taken around the neighbourhood by children. The custom became more elaborate as the millennia rolled by: dried fruit, hazelnuts and ribbons were added and lumps of cyflaith (toffee) were given to the children. In Glamorgan groups of boys would visit all the houses in their community and leave the Calennig on window-sills right up to the 20th century, but a combination of industrialisation, monotheism, immigration, Anglicisation and general homogenisation seemed to put an end to Calennig. However increased national awareness has seen a revival in recent years and now Calennig has evolved into a full-blown Welsh Hogmanay. In Cardiff over 50,000 turn up outside City Hall for a New Years Eve party through to the chimes at midnight.