The 11.59 train from Cardiff takes us towards Swansea with the sing-song voice of the Welsh buffet car lady in our ears and an astonishing view of the huge Port Talbot steelworks out of our window. Burping out smoke and flames, steel pipes twisted and contorted, chimneys glowing red in the Glamorgan gloom, looking like some lower level of Hades. It’s a shock, and even more surprising are the small residential houses directly underneath – trivial against the steelworks. People living right there, below the fumes and furnace glare.
We arrive at Swansea (“Welcome to Abertawe” says the sign in the station) and walk out to see what is happening in this supposed graveyard of ambition… Nothing is happening. Of course, nothing, just like something, happens anywhere, we all know that – but the nothing here in Swansea, with the endless grey, the empty multi-storey car park grey, the closed down shops along the High Street grey, brings on an almost hypnotic state. Meditative. You could fall into some zen-like state among this grey. Perhaps someone will even end up selling central Swansea as some new age retreat. We walk past the empty chain faux-Italian restaurants, a rake-thin adolescent in a cap stands up from behind a parked car and comes over to ask us for the ludicrously exact figure of one pound and seven pence “To catch a train, like.” I can see how the huge out-of-town shopping centres have killed places like Swansea, spirited all the people away from the centre of the city. The clean, convenient shopping experience a tourniquet for the lifeblood of these places and how, just to buy a tin of paint or a multi-pack of socks, now you need to get out to some retail park set 900 meters behind the dual carriageway somewhere outside of town. We’re no better of course – we look to leave the centre as quickly as we can too.
We’ve arranged to stay with another old friend of mine, from school, who years later I found had become a local councillor in this town. I’d visited Swansea before and been taken for grand boozy affairs at the Guildhall, set regal amongst the mouldy flat roof new-builds, where a short man in a threadbare military red tunic read out my name – wrong – from a scroll as I entered. I’d made small talk with pompous deluded old fools – local constituency chairmen and the like. Small-town dignitary bores. Swansea big wigs in crested blazers, lordy in their vainglorious worlds. Short-statured men with little white moustaches and plum-red faces and their tall thin wives towering above them, looking like surprised race horses. I’d drank too much, flirted with the Lord Mayor’s wife, disgraced myself, and was then taken to the club ‘Hush’ (‘South Wales’ Premier Gay Nightspot’ lied the sign outside) by my friend and found myself, unsteady on my feet, talking to burly but statuesque Welsh drag queens – rugby No.8s in perfect 10 dresses and feather boas. One time the two worlds of my friend collided when the middle aged secretaries he worked with in the town hall, on their Christmas do, thought it would be a laugh to “Go to one of those funny gay bars. Just to see! Can you imagine?!” they giggled, feeling naughty. Unknowing, unsuspecting, looping their arm round my friend’s, dragging him in. “Oh here he comes!” screeched the huge drag queen behind the microphone as the door opened “Hide the gin, and hands up if there’s anyone in here tonight lucky enough not to have been been had by the Councillor…” The secretaries, clad tight in their Marks and Spencer cardigans and conservative predilections, stood stock-still, faces slowly dropping and gradually uncoiling their arms from my friend’s. My friend then made an enormous performance of looking round the building as if some dim memory was slowly coming back to him. “You know, it does seem familiar…”
Nothing remotely like any of this seemed to be on the cards for today though. So Giristroula and I take the 3A bus, sat at the back on our own, out of town towards the Mumbles. A half hour ride along the bay, past the university, but a million miles difference from Swansea’s town centre as we alight at Oystermouth Square. The bells of the church ringing in the background, quiet drinkers outside the Antelope pub, old chaps with bald heads sitting on folding stools fishing with rods and lines under a great wash of sky. People having an afternoon ice cream at ‘Joe’s’ parlour. The expansive crescent bay opens in front of us, the ridged water shining white in the afternoon light, the two breast-shaped hills on the other side of the bay the only lascivious thing here. We cross over one breast to get to the sheltered Langland Bay (79 Edwardian green and white beach huts in a row. Picnicking Indian family on the beach) and take an early evening walk out on the late sun-streaked paths.
Later we head back towards town – past the redoubtable Singleton Park with its black-stockinged nurses pacing their way along the paths to start work at the local hospital. We judder through respectable Uplands, with housemartins brooding under the eaves of the sturdy houses. It’s a tranquil scene. But I start to reconstitute my view back to fit with old local resident Kingsley Amis (“…there’s a terrible smell of anus about the city”), as we close-in on the centre. And by the time we hit Wind Street, Swansea’s night revellers are out… Giristroula stands dumb-still watching the stag and hen dos weaving in and out of the cavernous bars and clubs lined up next to each other along the thronged, snaking, drink-soaked street. I am set upon by a tiara-ed bride-to-be clutching an inflatable penis. Giristroula is mooned at by a bearded man dressed as a nun (no nuns dressed as bearded men, as far as I could see). It’s brilliant and awful in equal measures. Men all diamante t-shirts and biceps; fake-tanned women all looking dipped in tea. Booze and sex and shouting and kicked bottles wheeling down the street. But it’s Britain, and it sums up the country just as much as anything else we’ve seen so far on this tour. Perhaps even a scene from Swansea nightlife should have been included in the Olympics opening ceremony. We get a drink in the one old pub seemingly left on this street, the No Sign Bar, and then make tracks again to leave the centre of this ugly, lovely town.
As we walk by the tiny scrap that is all that’s left of Swansea’s broken castle, I can see the yellow light reflecting off a pair of legs. I start to go over, thinking perhaps someone has fallen or passed out, but the legs start moving. I hear a rhythmic puffing noise, like someone doing light exercise or straining to screw in a high light bulb. I stop as I realise two people are fucking, just off Swansea Square. We carry on, we are to meet up with my old friend – who said he would put us up for the night – in the Queens Hotel bar. The congeries of Wind Street continue behind us and the night has really set in now: newly made couples lock closer on the club dancefloor, friends shout louder into each other’s ears in the bars, shirts get striped open wide, and the lager and white wine spritzer drinkers dance into policeman’s arms…