Sunday, April 29, 2012

Du côté de chez Swan

"What are you staring at?" Annette asked the pair of blurry-faced soaks across the bar. "Ewer tits, luv," one grinned. He raised his glass and returned to the pleasures of the contemplative life.

"Swansea," I said, "is another country, they do things differently by here."

Annette had been a student at University College, Swansea (formerly Sketty Anglers Club) long enough to have shed her Saxon, secular resistance to the direct and deeply spiritual sensibility of the Cambrian aesthete. And Swansea is where you are most likely to encounter this Epicurean approach at its most expressive:

  • Cardiff's twin tongues are caught between the bump of business and the grind of ambition,
  • Llanelli's cheeks are still pinched by the chapel pew, and
  • all points between are hobbled by proletarian piety.

Swansea, however, is Wales's Casablanca. Bohemia sups with the picaresque in the curved and shingly Rick's Bar that is the bay. High above, Mumbles maquisards lead thirsty refugees from Calvinist Carmarthenshire through the Rosehill Quarry corridor. And there's no Major Strasser to spoil your good times, although the local Captain Renaults retain a professional interest in bribery and Bulgarians.

Just as Ray Liotta in Goodfellas always wanted to be a gangster, I've endlessly yearned to live in Swansea. My father used to drive the Trawscambria coach down there from Dolgellau, and it was a regular treat to accompany him. We told the school I was off gelding shepherds or something suitably rural.

Our day out in Swansea began with an early lunch in one of the bombsite pubs near the bus station, a rummage in Ralph's Bookshop, then a Bond film on the Kingsway (first watched, then acted out) before herding our day-release Yetis back to their Snowdon sanctuary.

That first descent into Swansea stirred my Manichean soul, for the town is bisected by two axes (NB "Welshisms" will steadily creep into my copy. There's a prize for the reader who spots them all. For an explanation, follow this link from Madame Boyo).

At the end of one axis pearly Mumbles bobs in a cornflower sea, while at the other Port Talbot steams in the sulphurous Sun. Between them curls the Bay, a drunken proscenium for the cast of local strolling players.

The other axis of diametrically opposed opposites gifts the town a sunny, palm-strewn esplanade that makes Cannes look like Clacton, while simultaneously and at the same time drawing a veil of widowed rain across the Swansea Valley. This shields our Shangri-La from the hairy-handed hordes beyond Cwmbwrla.

The fulcrum around which these twin axes revolve is the Swansea Jack pub on Oystermouth Road. They say the flâneur draped across a chair at Les Deux Magots will see le Tout-Paris pass by.And if you crouch beneath the boarded windows of The Jack for long enough, all the town's burglars, fences, cock-wrestlers, shapeshifters, amateur apothecaries and punch-up paramours will whirl before your eyes on a fist-shaped carousel.

The off-yellow omphalos of The Jack was, in my day, ringed by the bus station, magistrates' court and jail, like the crust on a teenage self-piercer's navel. Its patrons would spill out of the station into The Jack, wake up in jail, drag their truncheoned pods across to the magistrates' court, return to jail, get released, back down The Jack, wake up in jail, and so it goes.

I am convinced that it is this very perpetual motion that agitates the Earth's polar axis, rather than some fancy science talk about gravity, the Moon and ley lines. The Blind Watchman sets his Seiko by the opening times of The Swansea Jack, and you knows it.

Like every downy-bearded blow-in, I dreamed of becoming a latter-day Kardomah Boy. All that's left of these efforts is some unusually bad verse and a draft screenplay. Provisionally named "It Happened By Here", It toys with motifs from Astérix in a Britain occupied by the Nazis in 1941:

The King's in Canada, Churchill's in his cups, and the sole beacon of resistance is The Swansea Jack, which has held out against what the defenders call "them fucking Frenchies" since the Battle of Muswell Hill. It ends with what my co-writer Sioba Siencyn dubbed a "brimstone barbecue of the Boches", and would have done for Oystermouth Road what Twin Town did for Dunvant.

S4C were interested, but saw problems with getting European Union funding.

Then the dam of life burst, and cast me on the lower reaches of the Thames where I wallow still. Yet Swansea moments recur even here, like a madeleine dipped in oyster water.

Siencyn and I were enjoying a pint of Felinfoel, the force that drives the green fuse through Gorseinon, at the Reading Real Ale Festival some years back. The juxtaposition of beer with Englishmen - and this alone - naturally bade us speak Welsh.

A young fellow sidled over and asked whether we were from Wales. We were. "Can I ask you a question?" he ventured. "No doubt," we replied, nodding that he should first prick our tongues with hops. He returned with three more pints, and proceeded:

"I was at a stag weekend in Swansea - you know it? - a month ago, and we'd just drunk our way alone the Mumbles Mile to the pier. We were merry but hardly boisterous, let alone lairy. Just waiting for the last cab back to town.

"Then a bunch of local lads come up and say 'scuse us, but, fancy a fight?'

"We pointed out politely that if it was all the same to them we'd rather not, when they began pleading. 'Go on, mun, just a quick scrap!'

"I was about to explain that we were social workers who work at returning mental cases to the community, and therefore had full respect for Wales's unique and endangered culture, when each of them launched himself at one of us, and we rolled to the ground.

"I expected the worst, but was surprised to find that I was on the receiving end of little more than a gentle kneading, like a patty of breakfast laverbread. I parried in kind, then after a few minutes one of the locals yelled 'hey, they're letting us in at Cinders!'

"With that our opponents stood up, dusted off their stonewashed jeans, beamed 'magic scrap, mun, cheers!' and were gone."

"What was all that about?"

Ah, where do you begin to explain the Friendly Fight, Wales's most potent yet unsung contribution to world culture? We're not talking about Khrushchev and Bulganin stopping their limos at Kuntsevo for a drunken rumble in the tundra, or some John Wayne saloon-bar blarney. This is the altruistic sharing of theatrical violence, with the aim of fostering the Welsh Classical unities of "closing time", "two-fisted action" and "any place will do".

A Welsh night out - or "sesh" - cannot whimper away on a wave of "see-yas" or drown in a repeat kebab's chili sauce. It must soar to new heights of purpled-panted passion at the Pontarddulais bus stop, or else vault slag-heaps of convention with a slow-burn scrummage.

Only then, all split-lipped, slapped-up, sung-out and spent, can the Welshman return in peace to greet his waiting wife, whose silhouette already arches like a curler-crowned Medusa amid the wheelie-bin pillars of his home.

Swansea's genius for geniality cushions the cosh of conviviality as it cracks your coccyx on a warm West Cross night, I expanded to our rapidly retreating guest.

Nothing sums this up better than one of my last sights of Swansea on a college visit many years ago. Some kindly councillor had put up a concrete island in the middle of Oystermouth Road to help civilians flee to the safety of the beach. As we drove by, a vest-clad veteran had commandered the island in the name of The Jack. Girdled with cider, he swung his septic fists at the cars flying by on both sides, spinning and roaring like a Cambrian Caliban.

The drivers ploughed on, sure they had just missed a glassing. But the Man of the Jack wasn't warning them off. He was inviting them in for a few jars, some seaweed, and a chat with his friends dead and living. This sawdust-stubbled Cyclops will endure when all the marinas dry up. And while guests from the future puzzle over our cryptic cycle paths, he will still be drinking down The Jack. And it will always be your round, mun.


52 comments:

jams o donnell said...

My only stay in Swansea was to stay at said angler's club while on a zoology school to the Gower. To give an idea of the date of that trip Don't Stand so close to me was number one...

Otherwise it was always the place where we got the ferry to Cork every summer...

Gorilla Bananas said...

I had initially thought "cock-wrestlers" was a rather broad classification, but now I see it might refer to the gentle kneading of someone else's rooster.

Gadjo Dilo said...

I've only ever heard good things about Swansea - indeed, a good (and totally Anglo) friend was pleased to regard himself 'adopted' by it. Glad you mentioned Astérix in Britain (I'm sure it's only an unfortunate accident of geography that we never got Astérix en Les Pays de Galles where everyone's a druid and they all feel well at home) as maybe only René Goscinny can now preserve this European Union of ours in its correct form.

No Good Boyo said...

As a wise man once said, Jams, "Wales is the best place in the world, and Swansea is even better". The Cork ferry was very popular with stout-legged Swansea drinkers back in the day, as it afforded hours of duty-free drinking. Not sure any of them bothered to get off at the Irish end.

Swansea's Oceanography Dept was legend. It had its own ship, where pale Modern Languages girls would sometimes wake up in a storm of beards and sweaters.

GB, Wales has no homosexuals because we get all that curiosity out of our system early through rugby, which is essential bath-house bawdy with some clothes on.

You'd think Asterix au Pays de Galles would lack dramatic tension, Gadjo, but never underestimate the Celtic quest for disunity.

Gadjo Dilo said...

The Celt's quest for disunity is one of his major charms, Boyo, but I fear that it may be as nothing compared to his quest for opportunities to abuse the English. Now, personally I'm happy to take it from all members of our glorious United Kingdom, but I recently copped it from a Breton working in a shoe shop here in Cluj. I wasn't ready for his opening pleasantry "Ah, English? Then you are my enemy!, but I shall be next time. Oh yes.

No Good Boyo said...

The Bretons talk a good Celt but rarely deliver the goods. Gadjo. We can snipe at the English - it's the French he should be against.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Yeah, I don't know what he problem is, though I guess it may be something to do with Mr & Mrs Jones buying his grandmother's pigsty, giving it a lick of paint and selling it on, thereby raising house prices in his village, but he didn't elaborate, which was a shame as he might have found that I had some sympathy with him. At it was I decided to grab the moral high-ground by interlarding my conversation with bits of French, by not mentioning the war and by buying a pair of shoes.

Gareth Williams said...

Marvellous indeed. Been to Swansea but never got drunk there. I may invent a friend whose stag do will be by there.

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

You've almost made me want to break the habit of a lifetime and set foot in Wales. Almost, but not quite.

No Good Boyo said...

You showed that prodigal Cornishman, Gadjo. My hometown was twinned with Guerande in Brittany, in the hope that our school penfriends would speak the whorehouse dialect of Welsh you often find down there. Guerande, sad to say, is in the firmly Francophone part of the country and our chainsmoking, shrugging contemporaries were baffled by our mayor's opening address in Welsh. Their mayor responded by speaking French very slowly and backing towards the door.

Not sure how you visited Swansea without getting drunk, Gareth, unless that's the state you were already in when you arrived. There are by-laws, you know. And forget stags. Stand alone on Kingsway of a Friday night and you'll soon be the main source of entertainment and relief for any number of hen parties.

Same goes for you, Daphne.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Ah, town twinning was such a great notion, and surely resulted in more Galoise smoking and sexual frisson than all of Alain Delon's and Brigitte Bardot's films put together. Thanks for letting me use your blog to vent my (momentary) spleen, Boyo, and I promise that I'll get back to the subject of your posts in future. And I do hope I meet this Breton again so I can find out what he's on about and hopefully heal our curious little rift.

Daphers!!! You must you must! Ystradfellte Waterfalls, the Ffestiniog railway, and then there's all the pubs that Boyo's mentioned.

No Good Boyo said...

I've quite forgotten what my post was about, Gadjo, and I'm happy to have any activity in my comments that goes beyond trying to sell me unguents to make my member more rank and veiny that it already is. Plus it might encourage you to kick-start the pimped Dacia that is your blog.

Does twinning continue? I'd love Dolgellau to twin with the Borgo Pass and swap Rrom/revenant antics.

I blogged about one school exchange in the context of the Evil That Is Esperanto - it's here if you fancy a trip down memory hole:

http://alfanalf.blogspot.co.uk/2008/10/i-was-teenage-esperanter.html

I can also recommend an outing to Bethesda to Daphne. The residents of the Royal Oak will show you Le Pays de Galles Profond.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Thanks, Boyo - yes, I want to start blogging again, right enough, but I'd have to cut something else out of my day, like eating or listening to the wife. Borgo Pass, it seems, was made famous by Bram Stoker - who of course never set foot in the country - as "the gateway to the realm of Count Dracula". Actually it's just the road from here to Suceava. Your Evil That Is Esperanto is indelibly printed on my long-term memory.

No Good Boyo said...

And Suceava is imprinted on mine:

'Mrs Boyo eventually found a soul at the ghostly terminal who called us a taxi. As Mad Iancu ferried us across the acres of murk that surround Suceava, he muttered "zona industrială". Little did we know we'd just past the city's chief attraction.'


http://alfanalf.blogspot.co.uk/2008/04/zona-industrial.html

invest in bamboo said...

That's it - next holiday will be in Wales!

No Good Boyo said...

Good man, Invest! I wear socks made out of your esteemed panda fodder, and very comfy they are too. While in Wales try out excellent slate.

Jon said...

Thanks for that. I've often wondered where Port Talbot was. Not enough to get the map out, you understand, but enough to be interested when All Is Revealed.

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