Neil Sinclair (1944-2019)

One of Cardiff’s abiding characteristics, ever since the 1888 Local Government Act enabled the creation of the first elected borough council, is the reliably deplorable quality of its governance. Appalling blunders have come thick and fast over the decades, courtesy of the peculiarly inadequate types who always seem to control Cardiff, drawn to the city’s moribund apology for local democracy by the plentiful opportunities for easy pickings, juicy perks, preening puffery, score-settling, back-scratching, backhanders and bootlicking. I am not going to catalogue the disasters here – they would fill a book and, as it happens, I’ve already done that job in my 2014 opus Cardiff The Biography.

Without doubt the most monumental of all the calamities inflicted on the people of Cardiff by our rulers was the destruction of Tiger Bay. Planned by the Tory council of the 1950s and then implemented by the Labour council of the 1960s, the complete eradication of Cardiff’s supreme urban, social and cultural achievement was civic vandalism on a mind-boggling scale. It is so important never to forget, or forgive, what was done to Tiger Bay and its people, a thriving, precious, highly advanced and integrated community that was never considered or consulted by the disastrous mix of the venal and the stupid who made the decisions in City Hall. It is important, not just because the wrongs remain to be righted or because the perpetrators and all their subsequent apologists have never been punished for their crimes. It is important because precisely the same sort of anti-Cardiffian, anti-working class and pro-big business policies are being pursued by precisely the same sort of spivvy bastards ruling the roost in Cardiff today – from the speculative ‘executive’ boxes that no Cardiffian can afford marching across the city’s green girdle to the superfluous student towers of rabbit hutches sprouting everywhere at the behest of off-shore hedge funds as a scam to get round planning regulations. Nothing has been learned – and that means all Tiger Bay’s suffering has, so far, been in vain. I add that “so far” because, and this is always necessary to assert, if damage can be done it can also be undone.

Neil Sinclair, who died earlier this month, was the man who almost singlehandedly drew attention to, and kept the searchlight on, the scandal of Tiger Bay. Cardiff feels a diminished, poorer place without his cool, clinical righteous anger, his sharp critical faculties, his lyrical evocations of what was lost, and his brave, principled refusal to ever join the dumb, compliant chorus of corporate capitalism’s cheerleaders peddling the glib myths and brazen lies of Cardiff Bay’s ‘success’. Through the much missed Butetown History & Arts Project (founded 1988, closed 2016 after council funding cuts) he published two seminal books, The Tiger Bay Story (1993) and Endangered Tiger (2003), which established him as the chronicler in chief and remembrancer of old Tiger Bay as well as the conscience of the city. They stand both as his lasting monuments and his priceless gifts to Cardiff.

From Frances Street (demolished 1962) in the deep belly of the Tiger, precociously intelligent and charming Neil was the only actual Cardiffian to speak lines in the 1959 film Tiger Bay, squabbling with Hayley Mills down at the Pier Head. Today it is unbearably poignant to watch the film, an atmospheric pinnacle of black-and-white cinematography by Bristolian director J Lee Thompson (1914-2002), and see the extant Tiger Bay just before the council first sent in the bulldozers in 1959. A straight comparison with the same area today is a damning celluloid indictment of Cardiff council recorded for history and in perpetuity. The fact that Neil Sinclair, Tiger Bay’s future historian and champion, actually appears in the movie is a sublime synchronicity beyond the outermost reaches of coincidence.

Neil watched as his magical city by the sea was razed to the ground; beautiful, proportionate, high quality, stuccoed streetscapes of solid, spacious, mid-Victorian housing with their own back gardens, a wealth of original features and the elegant retro-Georgian stylings of Bute Estate architect Alexander Roos (1810-1881). He was a witness as it was all flattened from Greek Church Street to South Loudoun Place, from Bute Street to Canal Parade, and replaced by a grim, drab, alien council estate of hideous multi-storey blocks that was being universally condemned as a sociological, architectural and town planning disaster as early as 1967. He didn’t waste that experience: he turned it into knowledge.

He left Cardiff in his twenties and travelled the world before hiraeth called him home. With graciousness, humour and persistence and without ego-trips and monetary motives, he evolved into a great writer and a pioneer of ‘Afro-Celt’ consciousness in his home in one of the looming tower blocks of Loudoun Square. The monstrosities had been plonked on land that had previously been Loudoun Square Gardens, a substantial ‘town square garden’ with shrubberies, flower beds, a fountain, a park-keeper and a bracelet of statuesque sycamore trees where, like all the kids of Tiger Bay, Neil had played as a boy. And it was here, as an old man, that he died; one of the good guys, a true Cardiffian, drifting away to the westerly winds whispering through the silenced sycamores.

C’mon Vic, play Neil out…

Tiger Bay-ee, Tiger Bay-ee,
It’s just like a fancy-dress ball,
When you get to Loudoun Square
Turn to the right and it’s not far from there.

Tiger Bay-ee, Tiger Bay-ee,
It’s not very far from the Docks.
Unless you can say
You’ve been down the Bay
You haven’t seen Cardiff at all.

Audio: YouTube: Vic Parker (1910-1978) in The Quebec, Crichton Street, 1960s