No place like home

Getting old has many disadvantages, primarily the consequences of cell death and physical decline. It’s an appalling process, made worse than it need be due to the complete lack of psychological preparation for the shocks in store. Nobody properly warns us what lies ahead when we are young – unless you count a few lame “best years of your life” lectures. However, now that I’ve got a bus pass (victory!) I begin to grasp why generation after generation of dotards have been so unforthcoming about such an important matter. They look at it this way: the young will find out in their own good time, it’s somehow wrong to shatter their happy-ever-after illusions, the gory details are horrific and unrepeatable – and who wants to either talk about or listen to that stuff anyhow? Don’t worry, I too am going to join this conspiracy of silence and will never mention the topic again. What I will say though is this: all the ghastly indignities are somewhat mitigated by a few significant advantages ageing can bring.

The invisibility that comes with age is a huge bonus for someone like me. From very early childhood right through to quite recently I always felt that I stood out like a sore thumb, when all I ever wanted was to meld into the background. Now, at last, I can go about my harmless business in peace. No more unsolicited gropes from grotesque queens! No more suspicious looks from shopkeepers, security guards and neighbourhood watch co-ordinators! No more being randomly stopped and searched by community constables! No more being collared by chuggers, drunks and that bloke selling AA membership! Phew! Made it! An unnoticed, indeterminate, shrivelled old geezer sliding in plain sight through your peripheral vision! And, to pull off the vanishing trick, I’ve even taken to wearing a flat cap, the ‘Dai cap’ of Welsh working-class culture, rendering myself even more eminently ignorable. Let me tell you, when you resemble a bookie’s runner from Beddau you can get away with murder!

Another undoubted plus, presuming you haven’t joined the ever-increasing ranks of the irreversibly infantilised, is genuinely not giving two hoots what other people think of you – the polar opposite of youth’s fixation with popularity, appearance, image and status. Then there’s the accrued wisdom which all but the thickest or most damaged geriatric git can hardly fail to acquire, if only because of the sheer weight of accumulated experience.

But even that wisdom is a double-edged sword. Sure you know more, but as the remorseless tick-tock of time unmercifully removes scales from the eyes, and the benefit of hindsight combines with a growing awareness that one’s late-life reality is in all likelihood the only reality you’re ever going to have, there is no avoiding a chastening stock-take of one’s whole life, leading to rueful recognition of underlying patterns, sub-conscious motives, latent drives – and mistakes. Especially the mistakes.

Of all my multitude of mistakes, from the ultimately inconsequential (chucking a pint over some inoffensive nerd in a pub in Nottingham) to the seismically life-changing (giving an envelope containing £15,000 in cash to a ‘builder’ I never saw again), I reckon my worst was the silly decision, based on romantic, pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, to leave London in my 30s and return to Wales. London’s complexity, anonymity, urbanity and liberality suited me well, whereas Wales has been a crushing disappointment. When I came home again to Wales the hillsides and vales didn’t keep a welcome – it bore more resemblance to a cum well! Don’t get me wrong; there is no more committed and passionate Welsh republican breathing (well, I’ve not met one anyway) and I’m intimately intertwined with virtually every nook and cranny of my beloved Cymru; the problem is simply that it BREAKS MY HEART.

Contemporary Wales, for anyone who cares about it, can only demoralise, depress and HURT. To show what I mean, look at three recent issues in Cardiff:

There are now nearly 500,000 people in the UK registered as homeless or in temporary emergency accommodation. The figure has doubled in the last ten years to reach 1 person in every 120, an unprecedented level that even the Luftwaffe’s bombing campaigns in WW2 didn’t achieve, and that doesn’t include the multitudes of unrecorded ipso facto homeless who are sofa-surfing, or relying on family, or ricocheting from relationship to relationship to keep a roof over their head, or having to endure harmful overcrowding, or just of no fixed abode, improvising daily on a wing and a prayer. This outrage, a direct result of government policy, is a scandalous crime committed against its own people by the far-right Tory government of the 9th richest country (by GDP) in the world. The housing market, the very touchstone of the barbaric ‘free market’ ideology that has ruled the UK for the last 40 years, has failed so spectacularly that the “affordable” is now unaffordable to 90% of the population, the better to further swell the over-inflated land values and massive unearned profits of corporate vultures making a mint out of scarcity. Meanwhile, the systematic privatisation of the once abundant public housing stock has resulted in a chronic shortage of social housing, allowing the unregulated and generously subsidised private sector to move in for the kill, pauperising millions with crazy spiralling rents and making eviction, precariousness, insecurity and transience a way of life in a cruel, exploitative orgy of greed, landlordism and rack-renting not seen since the Victorian era.

On top of this has been the Tory’s never-ending ‘austerity’ programme, now entering a ninth year. To bail out the bankers, fat-cats, spivs and speculators who caused economic melt-down, punitive welfare reforms and vast cuts to housing benefit, sickness and incapacity benefits and unemployment benefit have all but destroyed the UK’s once-envied ‘safety net’, homelessness prevention services have been ditched as local council budgets are pared to the bone and the ‘gig’ economy of non-contract workers without rights has left millions in work yet still in poverty. This, then, is the UK: a broken rogue state of food banks, massive personal debt, low incomes, hand-to-mouth survival and staggering inequality. No wonder homelessness is rocketing.

The street homeless are the visible, ever-growing tip of the homelessness iceberg. Cardiff, with 10,000 effectively homeless, has become a Tent City. Clusters under canvas, huddled together for safety, are appearing all over the city centre. As public consternation mounts, what has been the reaction of Cardiff’s Labour council? Here it is: “Rough sleepers are deciding against taking up offers of support to come off the streets to get the specialist help they need to turn their lives around.” So, it’s nothing to do with Tory policies – it’s just a matter of individual inadequacy and personal problems: the victims are to blame! The council is dancing to the tune of the powerful business lobby, only bothered by the detrimental effect “street nuisance” might have on till receipts. Instead of concentrating on fighting poverty, they fight the poor.

This homelessness crisis in Cardiff is happening while contemptuous, half-unoccupied student tower blocks, already superfluous before they’re completed, mushroom everywhere; while huge estates of sterile, identikit, off-the-shelf, repulsive mock-Georgian generic ‘executive’ boxes with stick-on bricks, priced at £¼million each, are covering the precious green belt around the city; and while soulless piles of steel, glass and concrete trash the city at the behest of tax-dodging offshore billionaires…this is my home town, and I’m ashamed.

After a BBC Wales poll, it has been decided that the first statue of a woman in Cardiff will be of educator Betty Campbell (1934-2017). When completed – and a sculptor has yet to be appointed so this could take some time – it will be erected in Central Square, close to BBC Wales’ unsympathetic, domineering new headquarters, looking more and more like an ugly multi-storey carpark or airport terminal as it nears completion.

Although she wasn’t my preference, and truth be told hadn’t occurred to me (see,       I can’t help but be pleased that luminously intelligent Tiger Bay girl Betty is to be memorialised. Which is not to say that the other candidates, a closed list drawn up in the usual unaccountable way by the BBC, were not equally deserving. Elizabeth Andrews (1882-1960) from Hirwaun was a fearless socialist reformer and champion of working-class women’s rights who made a real difference in her life mission to “educate, agitate, organise”. Writer, poet, mariner, temperance campaigner and pioneering homeless activist Cranogwen (1839-1916) from Ceredigion was an extraordinary pan-Wales force. Bold Elaine Morgan (1920-2013) rose from a Hopkinstown mining family to break through glass ceilings galore in the male-dominated worlds of Oxbridge, TV script writing and evolutionary science. And Lady Rhondda (1883-1958) from Llanwern had a life that cries out to be made into a blockbuster movie – I won’t repeat myself here, see Margaret Mackworth entry (Cranogwen, Sarah Jane Rees, is also featured) in

Betty Campbell was the first black headteacher in Wales and she went on to draw up the blueprint for multicultural education. It is those outstanding achievements that will no doubt be proclaimed on the statue. What is unlikely to be mentioned is her decades of articulate opposition to the whole Cardiff Bay project, from the destruction of Tiger Bay through the environmental crime of the Barrage to the tawdry moronic consumerism and grim gated enclaves that encircle embattled Butetown today – that wouldn’t fit the narrative dictated by the unaccountable corporations that control Cardiff.

The fly in the ointment is this: as Betty Campbell was the only Cardiffian among the five short-listed, it looks awfully like the self-selected voters who went to the BBC website and picked her were doing so because she was a Cardiff woman – when the stated purpose of the competition was to choose a Welsh woman. Campbell was unequivocally and proudly Welsh, but because her specialisms were so utterly fixed in a specific place – Butetown – her reach and influence did not extend much beyond Cardiff into wider Wales. Therefore the “thousands of people” who voted (the BBC won’t be more precise and won’t give details of where they live) have pulled off the difficult trick of making a statue intended to underline Cardiff’s position as the capital city of Wales merely emphasise its hyper-local provincialism…this is my home town, and I’m embarrassed.

Plans by the Rapport family to demolish the city centre’s last segment of mid-Victorian buildings south of Queen Street, the lovely curving streetscape of Guildford Crescent, have been temporarily delayed thanks to mass opposition. This atrocious, indefensible attack on Cardiff is absolutely par for the course for the Rapports, a dynasty that seems to know the price of everything and the value of nothing and has been treating Cardiff as a cash cow for decades. Answerable to nobody, they don’t even have any planning permission for what they might decide to do with the land – we can safely assume that it will be whatever maximises profits for the Rapports.

The people of Cardiff have mobilised to defend the Crescent, for architectural, environmental, historic and aesthetic reasons and also because Guildford Crescent’s enticing parade includes two venerable independent Cardiff restaurants – the 33 year-old Thai House and 20 year-old Madeira – and the fantastic independent music venue and bohemian social hub Gwdihŵ. Protest marches, a petition signed by over 20,000 and general indignation across the city have, for now, forced the dithering council to get up off their knees and wheedle a reprieve out of the Rapports while Cadw, the Welsh government’s historic buildings quango, looks at whether Guildford Crescent should be granted Conservation Area status. Council leader Huw Thomas, in office for less than two years yet already shaping up to be one of Cardiff’s most ineffectual leaders ever, has intoned some vacuous soundbites about being “committed to support live music in the city” and the “importance of these businesses to the identity of the city”, while admitting that he is powerless because “the tenancy arrangements are out of the council’s hands” and, in any case, as his administration is quick to point out, the granting of Conservation Area status “doesn’t mean that development cannot take place.” Was it really just over a year ago that Huw Thomas was trumpeting Cardiff as ‘Music City’ and promising to “protect the future of music in Cardiff”? How time flies!

From all this I think we can be fairly certain that, as in previous examples of the Rapport strategy such as the Vulcan on Adam Street, the demolition gangs will move in just as soon as token lip-service has been paid to other alternatives, the furore has fizzled out and Cardiff’s default grovelling to casino capitalism can reassert itself – unless the people of Cardiff protest in enough numbers to both deter the Rapports, who have grown accustomed to always getting their own way, and inject some courage, steel and principles into the abject council.

Like all the Welsh government’s quangos, Cadw is grievously underfunded and understaffed, so I will assist them in their deliberations with a potted history. Guildford Crescent was originally laid out in 1862 on land owned by the Bute Estate, a c-shaped curve between the 1839 Dock Feeder and the 1841 Taff Vale Railway, which bridged the Crescent at its south-east corner where it becomes Sandon Street. Originally it comprised 14 neat, perfectly proportioned domestic terraced houses bending round onto Guildford Street to the north. Slightly damaged in WW2 air-raids, this northern section was left to rot, pulled down in the 1960s and turned into a private carpark. The Crescent featured a fabulously atmospheric and still really useful pedestrian alleyway alongside the railway embankment, Cardiff’s first public baths (unforgivably demolished in 1985 and replaced by an invidious Ibis Hotel – there’s nothing new about Cardiff being run by short-sighted stooges), and, completed in 1864, an elegant neo-classical United Methodist Chapel, which became a Masonic Temple in 1895 after being taken over by the Freemasons.

As was the case with every street on Bute land Guildford Crescent’s name had a Bute family connection, in this case George North, 3rd Earl of Guilford (1757-1802) and son of a notably inept 18th century Tory Prime Minister – the Bute link being that the Earl was father of Maria North (1793-1841), the first wife of the 2nd Marquis of Bute (1793-1848). And no, I didn’t make a typo in the previous sentence: the Surrey town of Guildford where the Norths had their stately home had been ‘Guilford’ previously and although the Earldom preserved that antique spelling the Bute Estate opted for the contemporary version instead.

Cadw might well come up with their usual line about the buildings not being distinguished enough to merit conservation (the Masonic Hall is Grade II Listed so has some protection). If so, they would be wrong, because Guildford Crescent has plenty of high quality mid-Victorian detailing, plus, most unusually in a city centre of monotonous and homogenous straight lines, the exquisite rhythm of the sinuous Crescent itself. Moreover, because so very little survives of anything more than 30 years old in the entire south-east city centre (some facades along one side of Churchill Way, the southern part of Charles Street and a remnant stub of Frederick Street), Guildford Crescent has far more historical importance than mere architectural tick-boxes can grasp.

All the arrogant, rapacious vandals who are destroying Cardiff will not stop until the people of Cardiff stop them. Please join the struggle before it’s too late…this is my home town, and it makes me so unhappy…