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, pipes twisted and contorted, chimneys glowing red in the Glamorgan gloom, the plant looks like some lower level of Hades. The biggest shock though 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. Giristroula and I walk out to see what is happening in this supposed graveyard of ambition… Nothing much 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 car park grey, the closed down grey all along the High Street brings on an almost hypnotic state. Meditative. You could fall into a zen-like state amongst all this grey. Perhaps someone will even end up selling central Swansea as some new age retreat one day. We walk past the empty faux-Italian chain restaurants and the Vue cinema that looks like it could be a multi-story car-park or a warehouse if it wasn’t for the pick and mix in the foyer. A rake-thin adolescent in a Burbery cap with a thin moustache penciled in over his cold-sore lips rises up from behind a parked car. He’s pretty much the first person we’ve seen. His eyes are ringed and red and there’s a strong marijuana fug all around him. He asks us for the ludicrously exact figure of one pound and twenty 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. Now, just to buy a tin of paint or a multi-pack of socks, you need to head to some retail park set behind a dual carriageway somewhere a few miles outside of town. It doesn’t seem right, but 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 a grand boozy affair at the Guildhall, set regal amongst the mouldy flat roof new-builds. I remember the man on the Guildhall door pointedly and officiously making me wait before telling me they had NO record of my name being down on the list. But letting me in anyway. Summing up the very best and worst of Britain. They wrote my name in on a tatty scroll and a short man in a dirty, threadbare, military red tunic read it out, wrong, as I entered the hall. I’d made small talk with pompous old fools. Local constituency chairmen. Small-town dignitary bores. Swansea big-wigs in crested blazers. Short-statured men with little white moustaches and plum-red faces and tall thin wives towering above them, looking like surprised race horses. Brains Bitter farts hanging in the air. There was no proud, passionate, Welsh nationalism here. More Ever Decreasing Circles. Lots of talk of business and trade and ideas that Britannia might still rule the waves. Toasts to “The Queen, The Queen.” I’d drunk too much, found the whole scene ludicrous, flirted with the Lord Mayor’s wife. Later I was taken by my friend to ‘Club Hush’ – ‘South Wales’ Premier Gay Nightspot’ lied the sign outside – by and found myself, unsteady on my feet, still in my evening suit, talking to burly Welsh drag queens: rugby No.8s squeezed into perfect 10 dresses with feather boas.
One time these two worlds of my friend’s collided when the middle aged secretaries he worked with in Swansea’s town hall, on their Christmas do, thought it would be a laugh to “Go to one of those 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 drag queen behind the microphone as the door opened. “Hide the gin, and hands up if there’s anyone in tonight whose never been had by the Councillor…”
The secretaries, clad tight in their Marks and Spencer cardigans and conservative predilections, stood stock-still, their faces slowly dropping and gradually uncoiling their arms from round my friend’s. He 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 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 an unrecognisable 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 things on display here. We cross over one breast 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 stroll out on the late sun-streaked paths.
We later 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.
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.
As we walk by the tiny scrap that is all that’s left of Swansea’s broken castle, I can see the yellow streetlight 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 short as I realise two people are fucking, just off Swansea Square. We stand around and wait to meet up with my old friend, who said he would put us up for the night. The congeries of Wind Street continue behind us. The night 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, piss runs down the gutters in the street and the lager and white wine spritzer drinkers dance into policeman’s arms.