Patti Flynn (1937-2020)

All you need to know about contemporary Cardiff is encapsulated by the 2016 closure of the Butetown History & Arts Centre (BHAC) in Bute Street. Founded by African-American Glenn Jordan in 1988, BHAC was a vast archive of oral history, documents, films, photographs and art works pertaining to Tiger Bay, as well as an exhibition space, a library, a gallery, a publisher and a vital social centre. This unique and important cultural gem, created and sustained by the people of multicultural Butetown, was universally acclaimed as a shining example of a successful neighbourhood regeneration, a thriving community arts project and an enlightening educational resource. Yet both Cardiff Council and the Arts Council of Wales denied this authentic Cardiff treasure the paltry £40,000 it needed to survive. The archive has subsequently been deposited in emergency storage with the ‘Heritage & Cultural Exchange’ and is currently inaccessible while vague plans to digitise the material and open an exhibition space in the half-abandoned Coal Exchange are kicked into the long grass.

Meanwhile, the Arts Council pumps millions annually into the nearby Wales Millennium Centre so it can (should the pandemic ever end) continue to stage inessential and derivative middle-brow British fodder. Worse still, Cardiff Council has recently given permission for the construction of something called the ‘Museum of Military Medicine’ on the Bay’s last remaining scrap of green space. The Museum, which boasts a collection of wooden legs and Nelson’s grubby eye-patch, was homeless after being evicted from its long-time premises in Aldershot, England’s quintessential army town. It was then cold-shouldered repeatedly by other cities across the UK until Cardiff Council humiliatingly volunteered and, as a last resort, the Museum trustees agreed to honour us with its presence – mainly because the land would cost nothing and “it’s no more than a two-hour drive from London and the Midlands”. This big blot on the copybook of council leader Huw Thomas was made worse by his pusillanimous, Pontius Pilate response to criticism (it’s nothing to do with him – he’s only leader of the council after all – and anyway it’s cheap).

For the capital of Wales to whore itself so pitifully and shamelessly for an extremely uninformative, utterly irrelevant and deeply offensive militaristic British/English Museum with no connection whatsoever to Cardiff or to Wales, yet allow the fantastic BHAC asset to die is simply astounding – particularly in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and Butetown’s extraordinary and inspiring example of Black/Welsh multiracial harmony and integration, the very antithesis of Britain’s violent imperialist warmongering that will be celebrated by this ridiculous Museum. In today’s patently dangerous, corrupt and dysfunctional UK, where a man of the calibre of Boris Johnson can be Prime Minister, Cardiffians cry out for the city to stop endorsing and collaborating with odious rightwing British values and start standing up for the people, traditions and progressive outlooks of Cardiff and Wales. When will the Welsh Labour Party rid itself of closet Tories and fanatical British nationalists?

It upsets me to think that Patti Flynn, who died in September, had to witness these fresh assaults on her beloved Tiger Bay in her final years, but I console myself knowing she would have stayed strong and defiant. From Sophia Street (demolished 1968) in the belly of the Tiger, she was proudly black and Welsh (never black and British – she knew her history) and fought the good fight for her community throughout her eventful life. She was a singer of distinction, mentored and encouraged by Cardiff’s jazz guitar legend Vic Parker (1910-1978) and part of an extraordinary post-WW2 flowering of young, black Welsh women singers who melded jazz, calypso, gospel and blues into a distinctive sound made entirely in the bars and nightclubs of 1950s Tiger Bay like the Pineapple, Frenchies, the Casablanca, Kerrigans and the Rainbow. Shirley Bassey attained mega-stardom and came to personify this sound, but others of her generation such as Patti Flynn, Mahala Davis, Maureen Jemmett, Rohima Ali, Rosie Roberts, Irene Spettie, Selina Duncan and Humie Webbe, though equally special and talented in many ways, were unjustly neglected coming from ignored Wales and had to settle for low-key singing careers. Patti made a living, honing her craft in clubs and theatres across the UK and becoming an expert cabaret performer.

She spent some years working in Spain in the 1980s before the irresistible pangs of hiraeth called her home to Cardiff, where she developed further skills as a writer, social campaigner and advocate of the teaching of black history. She was instrumental in establishing the Bay Jazz Festival, was one of the founders of Black History Month Wales, and spearheaded the eventually successful campaigns to have black servicemen and women commemorated on the Welsh National War Memorial in Cathays Park and black history incorporated into the Welsh curriculum. Her dynamism and determination to right wrongs never waned, and even in old age in 2018 she was one of the most compelling Welsh voices speaking out against the wicked British government’s nakedly racist treatment of the ‘Windrush Generation’.

Throughout, Patti kept singing and entertaining while always drawing attention to the social, environmental and urban planning catastrophe of the ongoing Cardiff Bay development. In her 2003 book Fractured Horizon/Gorwel Briwedig, a photo-text collaboration with photographer Mathew Manning published by BHAC, she movingly lamented the loss of dear old Tiger Bay, conveying her anguish and outrage in beautifully spare prose. Of the Barrage, she had this to say, turning Britain’s bone-marrow racism on its head in the process: “You are the alien in our waters”. She knew that ‘Europe’s most exciting waterfront’ was actually a crime scene. Let the lasting legacy of brave, brainy, beautiful Patti Flynn be a new generation of Cardiffians emerging, to pick up the baton and continue her noble struggle for a better world.