The 11.59 train from Cardiff takes us towards Swansea with the soft 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, and an all-prevailing look of 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 Abertaew” says the railway sign) and walk out to see what really happens in this supposed graveyard of ambition.
Nothing is happening.
Of course, nothing, just like something, happens anywhere – 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 almost fall into some zen-like state among the 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 guy 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 retail parks have spirited all the people away from the centre of cities like this. The clean, convenient shopping experience a tourniquet for the lifeblood of a city centre of places like Swansea. And we’re no better – 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 what it’ll be like in there!” 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 put your hand up if there’s anyone in here tonight lucky enough never 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 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 ring. Civil drinkers sit outside the Antelope pub. Old chaps with bald heads sit on folding stools and fish with rods and lines under a great wash of sky. People are 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.
We head back to town afterwards – past the redoubtable Singleton Park with its black-stockinged nurses pacing their way through to start work at the local hospital; through respectable Uplands with its housemartins brooding under the eaves of the sturdy houses. It’s a tranquil scene.
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”) however, as we close-in on the centre.
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, shouting and kicked bottles wheeling down the street.
It’s Britain, and 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.
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 was in trouble. Maybe someone had passed out. But the legs start moving. I hear a rhythmic puffing noise, like someone doing exercise or straining to screw in a high light bulb. I stop, as I realise two people are fucking. Just off Swansea Square.
We are to meet up with my old friend – who said he will put us up for the night – in the Queens Hotel bar. A bar, so I’m told, was frequented by native Dylan Thomas. As many were. The congeries of Wind Street carry on behind us. 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.
And the lager and white wine spritzer drinkers dance into policeman’s arms.