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 the astounding view of the huge Port Talbot steelworks out of our window.
Burping out smoke and flames, Blade Runner pipes twisted and contorted, chimneys glowing in the Glamorgan gloom, the all-prevailing look of some low level of Hades. It’s an arresting sight and even more astonishing 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”) and walk through the graveyard of ambition.
So little is happening here it might as well be nothing.
Of course it’s not the place’s fault, nothing like something happens anywhere, as we all know, but nothing 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. They could even think about selling Swansea as a new age retreat.
We’ve arranged to stay with another old friend from school who years later I found had become a councillor in this town.
I’ve visited 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 and I made small talk with pompous deluded old fools – constituency chairmen and the like.
I met small-town dignitary bores and flirted with the Lord Mayor’s wife. I was then taken to the club ‘Hush’ (“South Wales’ Premier Gay Nightspot”) by my friend and found myself talking to burly but statuesque Welsh drag queens – No.8s in perfect 10 dresses – still decked out in my evening suit costume.
One time the two worlds of my friend met when the middle aged secretaries of the town hall on the Christmas do thought it would be a laugh to “Go to one of those gay bars. Just to see! Can you imagine what it’d be like!” they cackled, unknowing, unsuspecting, to my friend, looping his arm and dragging him in. “It’ll be fun!”…
“Oh here he comes!” screeched the huge cackling drag queen behind the microphone as the door opened “Hide the gin and hands up who hasn’t been had the Councillor!”
The secretaries, clad tight in their Marks and Spencer cardigans and conservative predilections, stood stock-still, faces slowly dropping as they uncoiled their arms from his with a gradual realisation. My friend made a great show of looking round the building as if for the first time. “You know, it does seem familiar…”
Nothing like this seemed to be on the cards for today. So Passepartout and I take the 3A bus out of town towards the Mumbles.
A half hour ride along the bay, past the university, but a million miles difference from Swansea town centre, as we alighted at Oystermouth Square.
The bells of the church ringing, civil drinkers in the Antelope, an afternoon ice cream from ‘Joe’s’. The expansive crescent bay open in front of us, the ridged water shining white in the afternoon light. The two breast-shaped hills in 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 a pleasant walk out on the paths.
Heading back to town though – past the redoubtable Singleton Park with strolling black-stockinged nurses, through respectable Uplands – I 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 the evening revellers are out.
The Greek stands dumb-still watching the plastered stag and hen dos weaving in and out of the cavernous, pumping 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, Passepartout 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 looking all dipped in tea. Booze and sex, shouting and kicked bottles wheeling down the street.
But it is Britain, as much as anything else I have seen on this tour. Perhaps a scene from Swansea nightlife should have been included in the Olympics opening ceremony.
Anyway, we leave the centre of this ugly, lovely town and repair instead to a quieter pub for the evening. The pub apparently frequented by native Dylan Thomas. As all seem to have been. Frequently. There really must be something in the Swansea water.