Wednesday, March 11, 2009

real swansea

Some time between my departure in July 2007 and my return in July 2008, my former poetry tutor Nigel Jenkins wrote Real Swansea, one of a series edited by Peter Finch (which includes Real Cardiff, Real Aberystwyth, and Real Liverpool). It’s taken me ages to catch up and read the book, but it’s another one I’m going to have to put in my pile of “to own.” I’d read Nigel’s prose before—he gave me a copy of Gwalia in Khasia, about Welsh Presbyterians bringing Christianity and Welsh culture to this area in northern India, for my 23rd birthday—but if anything, Real Swansea is an improvement. It’s readable, comprehensive, clearly backed by research performed both first-hand (the section of Swansea’s prison includes Nigel’s being incarcerated there for 4 days because he had participated in a protest) and in the more secondary sense. Nigel’s character of course runs through it all, with special emphasis being placed on favorite pubs (including a walk down Wind Street guided by his daughter Branwen, since he’s too “old” too appreciate it), but with a special love reserved for Mumbles (his residence of 20 years). The writing is vital, whimsical, and broken up here and there by snatches of poetry, mostly his own (haiku and haibun) but other poets ranging from David Hughes to Vernon Watkins. The book is interesting in its own right, but since I now have intimate knowledge of many of the locales—including three of my places of work being mentioned in fairly good detail!—it’s a fascinating, heartwarming look at the “ugly, lovely town” or as it’s more recently been called, the “pretty, sh*tty city.”

If you enter Swansea from the train station in the High Street, you will no doubt see the enigmatic words: “Ambition is critical.” This is the work of poet David Hughes, as a response to what Dylan Thomas is supposed to have called Swansea (he didn’t), “the graveyard of ambition.” It’s as good a place to start as any, so Nigel starts there, and I’ll just point out that it’s a good example of the identity crisis Swansea has, a sort of uncanny ability to shoot itself in the foot and then recover.
“Britain’s wettest town, the city of broken umbrellas, may not know exactly where it’s going . . . but it’s going there anyway.”
Swansea’s Roman origins are mostly conjecture (other than a tesserae of pavement discovered in Oystermouth); the story I’ve been telling people when they ask, that the name of the place comes from a Viking named Sveinn, is not altogether accurate I find out, though the area has been referred to since at least 1140 as “Swensi.” (The Welsh name is much less complicated. Abertawe, meaning estuary (aber) on the Tawe (the name of the river).)

Despite the fact there are swans in Swansea (though they have nothing to do with the name), it’s an osprey that’s the city’s emblem (I always thought the city and council logo depicted a phoenix!), which is a comment on the vital importance of the river Tawe to Swansea’ coal-faring past. A bit of a frisson always gets me when I see photos in the book of things I see on a regular basis, including
“on walls and garage doors all over Swansea in 2006 there appeared a chalk line with the caption ‘sea level in 2059.’”
I knew nothing about the “great flood of 1607,” which killed 2,000 people and could have been a tsunami (story idea there, if someone else hasn’t yet grabbed it). Another story idea that occurred to me concerns Swansea’s first airport, from the early decades of the 20th century. There’s something boisterously visual (and very Nigel) about the image of “working girls” at the old pub Cuba (closed in the ‘60s), which catered to sailors; the girls would sit around the bar with the prices for their services—£3, £5—written in chalk on the bottom of their shoes. Girls from the Queen’s nearby would occasionally come over, and fights would break out. There’s also an amusing anecdote related to the old pot-bellied fire in the middle of the room.

Nigel describing his complimentary stay at Morgan’s Hotel (Swansea’s only 5-star hotel, and where “Voyage of the Damned” was filmed; indeed, Nigel even mentions that!) is some of his best writing, hilarious, satirical, honest, and spoken true (though he calls Margot his “compaƱera,” which is a bit . . . well, if you knew Margot you’d know what I was talking about). The “Lehjer,” Swansea’s Leisure Centre, was apparently one of Wales’ top-ranking tourist facilities, though last year it was revamped (which is when and where several of my friends met the Queen). It’s on Oystermouth Road, which has what I like to call “steps to nowhere” (Nigel calls them “two ghosts of bridges”), “the railway bridge that used to cross the road just west of the Museum.” I like to imagine Swansea’s past in the late 18th century as a second Brighton, thinking of stories of bathing machines (many bathed or swam naked, so men and women were segregated and a policeman patrolled so no one got into the wrong area!). This ties into the story of Gabriel Powell, the Duke of Beaufort’s steward who until his death in 1788 prevented harbor improvements and therefore retarded Swansea’s industrial growth. Nigel speculates briefly on if Swansea had taken that other road, ie, styling itself as the Brighton of Wales. Again, a good idea for fiction.

Nigel revisits one of the most poignant sections of Gwalia in Khasia when he talks about Walter Savage Landor and his trysts with young Rose Aylmer before she was whisked off to Calcutta where she died in 1800 at the age of 20. (Landor’s famous ode to her was composed, apparently, while he was cleaning his teeth.) There’s a wonderfully detailed look at the genesis of the Dylan Thomas Centre. Housed in the old Guildhall Building, which dates from the 1840s (built at the same time as Swansea Museum), the Dylan Thomas Centre started as the Ty Llen (“house of literature,” which it still is; our paystubs have that written on them) in 1995 during UK Year of Literature and Writing. Control for the building piddled back and forth between artists and writers, the council, and various factions. When it was finally launched, it saw luminaries such as Allen Ginsberg, Seamus Heaney, Denise Levertov, Rita Dove, Michael Ondaatje, John Berger, Van Morrison, R. S. Thomas, and Jimmy Carter (though I think local attitude is still fairly well summed up as Lloyd Rees did, “Ty Llen was far too Welsh for visitors to enter / so now they call it the Dylan Thomas Centre”).

The second time I ever met Nigel, he was taking those of us starting up the new course on a walking tour of Swansea. We went up to Cwmdonkin Park (with its Dylan Thomas associations) and ended, I think, at the pub (I didn’t go to the pub, whichever one it may have been—possibly No Sign Bar, possibly the Queen’s). What I’ve never forgotten was the Palace Theatre, empty and long boarded-up, in 1888 a musical hall but quickly converted to a cinema in 1908, and now rotting away, an architectural treasure and one of only two purpose-built music halls left in Britain. I learned on this tour from Nigel that Swansea has a reputation of not taking care of its past. Another Grade II listed historical building, with which I have intimate acquaintance, is the Windsor Lodge Hotel. Not long ago I was working and was asked by some tourists about Allen Ginsberg. I had had no idea he’d stayed at the hotel; they’d found it out in Real Swansea. The hotel’s history is unfortunately very obscure at the moment, but we hope that will change. (Also in this section is a great illustration of Dylan Thomas’ daughter Aeronwy Thomas.)

There’s a tribute to the Uplands Tavern (“the Tav”) which has hosted the likes of Kingsley Amis and Dylan Thomas (there’s now a Dylan Thomas snug there that’s on this side of kitsch, but we love it). King Edward Road gets its own section as representative of Brynmill (called Brynnemiskil in the 14th century)—Nigel calls it the architectural equivalent of a shrug. It was a beautiful Edwardian block that’s now host to some of the ugliest houses in Swansea due to HMOs (Houses with Multiple Occupancy, ie, student residences such as the one in which I live) and absentee landlords. I’d love to know more about this house and to have it restored. Unlikely to happen.

Besides being an entertaining read, Real Swansea proved to me to be a validating one. Tons of people have asked me “why Swansea?” and sometimes I just have to shamefacedly mumble something about it being a fluke, or it’s where my friends are, Cardiff and London being too big for me to come to on my own. But this book proves that the history, the quirkiness, the art, the ghosts, are in the city, making it unique in ways good and bad.

No comments: