Tiger Tales

Dublin has Joyce, Edinburgh has Stevenson, London has Dickens, Los Angeles has Chandler, Paris has Zola – but no author yet has written the Great Cardiff Novel. There have been a handful of heroic efforts, like River Out Of Eden by Jack Jones (1884-1970), an ambitious but ultimately unsatisfactory historical potboiler from 1951, Dat’s Love by Leonora Brito, a lucid but overly constrained collection of short stories in 1995, and cardiff cut by lloyd robson, 2001’s far too difficult avant-garde, stream-of-consciousness prose poem in the dialect from the sage of Sapphire Street (who shares e e cumming’s antipathy towards the capital letter).

Perhaps John Williams has got closest with his explorations of the city’s underbelly in 5 Pubs, 2 Bars And A Nightclub (1999), Cardiff Dead (2000) and The Prince Of Wales (2003), repackaged in 2006 as The Cardiff Trilogy by his giant London publishing house Bloomsbury (had they included the very similar Temperance Town [2004] we might be talking about The Cardiff Tetralogy – but that doesn’t trip off the tongue so well at awards ceremonies). Williams larded his entertaining works with the Cardiff vernacular, meaningless fucks and hilarious druggy mishaps without quite dispelling the impression of a posh boy slumming it before returning to his agreeable Victoria Park villa, and what starts as a daring counter-blast against Tourist Board Wales ends up rubber-stamping those very values with soapy caricatures, cosy fatalism and tacit acceptance of the Bay project.

At the very least John Williams’ sheer enthusiasm in considering Cardiff worth so many words set the bar higher. He was actually expanding on a default setting already established where Cardiff as fictional territory is rarely an attractive, prosperous or contented city; serious modern writers just can’t seem to stop themselves portraying a bleak, shabby, unhappy place. With hindsight it can be seen that Duncan Bush’s Glass Shot of 1991, with its lone, dislocated, deranged male anti-hero, was the forerunner of what has since become a distinctive sub-genre: Cardiff Noir.

Apart from Williams, Desmond Barry and Dennis Lewis have developed it further, and none have painted a darker canvas than retired surveyor Allan Bush (no relation to Duncan). In his out-of-nowhere first time novel of 2008, Last Bird Singing, narrator Tommy Oliver moves through the morose, inhospitable streets, perfect metaphors for alienation and loss. It’s always night, it’s always raining, and it all ends in tears in Nora Street. It remains to be seen how long this interesting post-devolution association of Cardiff with violence, pessimism and death will last, and where it will go next after Bush’s dissection of the city’s pitiless black heart.

Whatever the tone, mood, politics or period, one thing virtually every literary representation of Cardiff is almost obliged to include is the geographical area that became fertile ground for writers almost as soon as it was built: Tiger Bay. This network of streets branching off Bute Street, the long drift down to the docks that was once the most cosmopolitan thoroughfare in Europe, was first dubbed Tiger Bay in the 1870s by some hack on the Cardiff Times. ‘Tiger Bay’ had been a widely-used generic term for rough ports everywhere, so it was something of a coup for Cardiff to appropriate the name as its own and get it accepted and used by mariners throughout the world (later explanations that it was the title of a song dedicated to Butetown by minor band-leader Harry Moreton [c1850-c1920], or Portuguese sailors’ description of the raging Severn currents around Penarth Head were merely retrospective attempts to supply some historical authenticity). The wildness and exoticism implicit in the name fitted the unabashed racism of imperial Britain, and it wasn’t long before sensationalist headlines and penny dreadfuls were building the Tiger Bay reputation as an infamous sink of depravity.

By the 20th century, as Cardiff’s docks reached their pinnacle of importance and every race on earth crammed into the terraced houses – overcrowding caused by the Bute Estate’s high rents which forced widespread sub-letting – Tiger Bay reportage was well established. The multiracial melting-pot inspired lurid descriptions replete with crude stereotyping. Try this from the Western Mail in 1917: “..you pass a long train of coolies wearing curious round caps…a cluster of swarthy Greeks smoking cigarettes at a doorway…a group of midget Mongolians wrapped in rough sheep skins…a mate from a Scandinavian ship with fair hair and massive frame…the Chinese standing in crowds round their laundries looking out with lacklustre eyes…Japs chattering together, all keenness and animation…numerous noisy Italians singing and laughing…Arabs and Armenians in gay dress, giving a touch of the gorgeous East to the otherwise drab surroundings…negroes parading in white spats, velveteen suits and light hats…Danes, Swedes and broad-built Dutchmen keeping to themselves…onion boys from Brittany with picturesque wide-brimmed hats…a Jewish Rabbi walking in the solitary seclusion of his office…and short, thick-set men, as dark as Spaniards, the broad Welsh of Cardigan and Anglesey sounding clear from their lips..” (treating the Welsh as ‘foreign’ in their own land is an attitude still prevalent at ‘the national newspaper of Wales’).

From the 1920s onwards, as the docks began their decline and publishing developed into a mass-marketing industry, pulp novelists used Tiger Bay as a default location for nautical yarns and romances. William Townend (1881-1962), best known nowadays as the lifelong friend and correspondent of PG Wodehouse (1881-1975), had a best-seller with Once To Tiger Bay, a far-fetched tale of the high seas with lip-smacking portrayals of Bute Street. Prolific Australian-born writer James Morgan Walsh (1897-1952), who would watch the lights of Cardiff docks from his home across the Severn at Weston-super-Mare, churned out three popular page-turners for the thriller market, Once In Tiger Bay, Return To Tiger Bay and King Of Tiger Bay. Hungarian David Martin (1915-1997), real name Ludwig Detsinyi, cashed in with the atmospheric melodrama Tiger Bay before emigrating to Australia and becoming a pillar of antipodean literary and political life. And Ernest McKeag (1896-1974), who pounded out hundreds of trashy paperbacks under scores of different pen-names, got in on the act as Roland Vine with the ludicrous white-slave shocker Girl From Tiger Bay.

What all these writers had in common was that none were Cardiffians or had ever lived in Cardiff. Local representations of Tiger Bay were restricted to the non-fiction memoirs of Howard Spring (1889-1965) in Heaven Lies About Us. Although still obsessed with race (“Chinks and Dagos, Lascars and Levantines slippered about the faintly evil by-ways”), the Cantonian was the first to sound a note of appreciation for the area’s unique qualities: “It was a dirty, smelly, rotten and romantic district, an offence and an inspiration, and I loved it.”

It wasn’t until the 1970s that local authors began to grapple with Tiger Bay, by which time it had been raised to the ground.   Forensic pathologist and Old Illtydian Bernard Knight, using his Bernard Picton alias, set one of his early crime novels Tiger At Bay in the bereft, pauperised demolition site that the City Council’s ‘plan’ had delivered. Not at ease with the contemporary, Knight would go on to find his niche with his ‘Crowner John’ series of murder mysteries set in medieval Devon. Alexander Cordell (1914-1997), an adopted Welshman whose magnificent ‘Welsh Trilogy’ Rape Of The Fair Country, Hosts Of Rebecca and Song Of The Earth did so much to raise awareness of Welsh history, brought his trademark pathos and knowledge of old Cardiff to the subject with Tales From Tiger Bay. Tom Davies, who converted in middle-age from boozed-up hell-raiser to born-again maiden aunt, added Fire In The Bay to the library catalogues – tripe, but redeemed by the powerful sense of place evoked by self-styled ‘Tom the Book’.

The increasing pull of Cardiff for young Welsh speakers saw the beginnings of a change of approach to the docklands. For writers like Dafydd Huws with his humorous Y Dyn Dwad series and Siôn Eirian with Bob Yn Y Ddinas it was class struggle and anonymous sex, not murder and mayhem, which got creative juices flowing, coming as they did from the tight but controlling communities of rural Wales. Then in the 1990s, just as the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation was erasing Tiger Bay from global consciousness, the better to attract spivs and speculators instead of pimps and pushers, a new wave of English-language writers picked up the Bay baton. The sea had been banished behind the Barrage, making maritime themes redundant, but nefarious behaviour remained the dominant leitmotiv. Bill James, writing as David Craig, produced four novels with a Bay setting: The Tattooed Detective, Torch, Bay City and Hear Me Talking To You, all shifting focus away from the crimes of the pilfering poor to take a long overdue look at the crimes of the merciless rich. Becoming confident enough in this Cardiff backdrop to start putting it at the centre of his primary works under his Bill James nom-de-plume, Grangetown’s fine prose stylist then further tapped into the zeitgeist with a corrupt Bay overrun by shady land deals in Middleman. Sean Burke’s Deadwater and Trezza Azzopardi’s Booker-nominated The Hiding Place continued the process of taking Bay writing in a more literary, high-brow direction, while still characterising the area as somehow intrinsically violent and vicious. A counter-balance to this trend came from writers of escapist pop-historical romances like Rosie Harris and Catrin Collier, who sanitised the sleaze and sepia-tinted the squalor for a Botox generation that needs happy-ever-afters to quell lurking regrets. Pontypridd-born Collier in particular unashamedly varnishes the past with titles like Tiger Bay Blues and Tiger Ragtime.

Meanwhile, the autobiographical memoir from those actually born and bred in Tiger Bay increasingly rendered the century of fictional representations irrelevant. The long reign of the dominant narratives – poverty, crime, immorality and racial conflict – was challenged by something even stranger than fiction: truth. Neil Sinclair’s The Tiger Bay Story reclaimed Tiger Bay from the mythmakers by emphasising the strong sense of community, the harmonious multiculturalism, the mixed marriages which created new definitions of Welshness and the rich depths of working-class life. The mind-blowing facts need no embellishment: Tiger Bay was an accidental experiment in racial integration that worked wonderfully well, where children could play outdoors all day in complete safety, where there was assimilation not ghettos and respect not tolerance; a model from which the whole world could learn until wantonly destroyed by Cardiff’s leaders in an unforgivable act of class and race war.

Sinclair’s work was published by the Butetown History & Arts Centre (BHAC), a project started in 1987 by Californian Glenn Jordan who came to Cardiff to teach Cultural Studies and, thankfully for a city where apathy rules, stayed on to grace us with his humanist intelligence and activist politics. Based in Bute Street in the Dock Chambers that were once the offices of the shipbroker father of Roald Dahl (1916-1990), BHAC collects oral testimonies, photographs and documents, holds exhibitions and organises community education, ensuring the people’s Tiger Bay is preserved for posterity in an encouraging example of cultural enfranchisement and a direct response to the Tiger Bay concocted by literature. Sinclair also wrote Endangered Tiger, a damning indictment of Bay ‘regeneration’, and BHAC has published many other important Tiger Bay studies, including Cymru Ddu Black Wales, edited by poet Alan Llwyd, twice winner of the bardic Crown and Chair at the National Eisteddfod; Down The Bay, an album of the powerful and tender black and white photographs of Tiger Bay taken for Picture Post magazine in the 1950s by Bert Hardy (1913-1995); Cardiff And The Spanish Civil War by Rob Stradling, an eye-opening account of how most docks’ people, with their close links to the port of Bilbao and their innate sense of solidarity, threw their weight behind the republican International Brigade in the 1930s – except for Cardiff’s Irish Catholics who, to their shame, supported Franco’s Fascists; and Fractured Horizon/Gorwel Briwedig, a profound and moving photo-essay by local singer Patti Flynn and photojournalist Matthew Manning.

Today this most written-about part of Cardiff is the home of a putative Welsh democracy as well as the best place to observe the chronic failure of the policy of using economic growth as a political sedative; the challenge for future novelists is to let go of the stale clichés and to start mining the boundless fictional possibilities happening now in front of their eyes. The Tiger may have been stuffed and mounted and left to rot in a display case – but the dear old thing had many cubs, and they can grow fangs.