59. A Window on Cardiff
Ms Keogh, my cherished companion, and I have moved. The distance between flats is less than half a mile. Because we are moving from a furnished apartment to a better furnished apartment, there has been no heavy lifting. We have been able to walk everything over piecemeal. It’s been mostly me, my wife’s beast of burden. At this point in time, little of ours remains in the old apartment. A few items of clothing, two or three dozen books, all will be brought over in increments. We have plenty of time. We have changed wards, passing under the Great Western Railway overpass to leave Butetown and enter Cathays.
We had been living nearly ten months in the old Edward England Potato Warehouse, an attractive stone edifice that in the last decade had been converted into modern apartments. The West Bute Dock formerly came to its front door. The dock is gone and there is a small, private parking area for cars in its place. I came out the front door dragging a large upright suitcase by its telescoping handle, had it cocked onto two of its four wheels. It was jammed with Ms Keogh’s clothes and shoe collection. I also wore on my back a rucksack stuffed with more of her clothes. Out the door I was confronted by the horror of a beastly black column of billowing smoke scudding horizontally across the blue sky. It was precariously low and close. I saw where it was rising just on the other side of the raised track that carries the shuttle service between Queen Street and Cardiff Bay. At its source, it twisted like an opaque tornado.
It was exciting, but I didn’t have time for it. I rushed to be away from the toxic cloud before the wind might shift and the black horizontal column engulf me. I did get caught in its peripheral haze and recognized the stink of burning rubber. I later learned it had been deliberately set. The fire trucks were just arriving as I dragged Ms Keogh’s packed garments against the flood of voyeurs making their way to the rubbish fire.
I have never felt safer or more comfortable than here in Cardiff. In my homeland, the USA, it is, for many, fashionable to appear aggressive and threatening. The Welsh are a friendly, talkative, and egalitarian people. In the USA, my secularism, my being an Atheist, was too often regarded a form of evil. Christians could preach their tiresome gospels to the disinterested and it left me feeling imposed upon, yet a call for secularism was by many condemned as infringing on their religious beliefs. There is a movement in the USA to establish the Christian equivalent of Sharia Law. In Cardiff my views are tolerated, even, surprisingly, commonplace, and Christianity seems a decorative historical backdrop. There is no pressure to convert here. There are no threats of fire and brimstone.
With Ms Keogh’s belongings in tow, I made my way into City Centre. Past the new library and the new John Lewis department store, I entered the bottom of The Hayes. It is a street that has been paved over and restricted to pedestrian use. Converted into a plaza, it forms the heart of the city. On the right as you walk north is the new St David’s Shopping Centre, a modern mall with an apartment complex on the higher floors. On the left is the original row of Victorian buildings pierced with shopping arcades. Throughout The Hayes, in addition to shops, are eateries and cafes. Halfway up The Hayes are the David Morgan Apartments.
We are living in the former David Morgan department store, a retailer still as beloved by Cardiffians as R. H. Macy & Co is by New Yorkers. I have met plenty of folks who miss the David Morgan store. It was only eleven years ago they closed, having resided on The Hayes for over 125 years. And this is where I was headed, the David Morgan Apartments, now occupying the top floors. I feel if you stick a thumbtack into a map at the heart of Cardiff, the market district of City Centre and the busy vortex of life in cafes, restaurants, and high-end stores, that tack would pass through our new apartment.
The new apartment already feels like home, even if we’re not sleeping in the bedroom. The estate management had recently installed double-glazed windows in the bedroom to block the noise from The Hayes. After the installation, the old vertical Venetian blinds would not fit the bedroom’s bay windows. New measurements had to be made and new blinds have been ordered. For the time being, to preserve privacy, we have placed the bed in the living room. But I am at my new desk in the bedroom composing this essay.
From those bay windows, I can see up and down The Hayes. I have a clear view down at the statue of John Batchelor, Cardiff’s famous liberal mayor. Engraved on the plinth is the epithet, “THE FRIEND OF FREEDOM.” Often there is a seagull perched on his head, a frequent target for amateur photographers. Batchelor’s right arm is extended and the hand is presenting. I happen to know, although I’ve not seen it for myself, in times past a pint of beer, specifically in the twenty ounce nonik glass with its bulge, has filled that hand.
John Batchelor, holding his invisible pint.
Viewing past Batchelor, I see the St David’s Hall. Our first week in this flat coincided with the Welsh Proms, which were held at St David’s Hall. Excellent acoustics! It began on Saturday, 16th July, with Verdi’s Requiem. Ms Keogh and I were in the fourth row listening to the Welsh National Opera Orchestra being conducted by Owain Arwel Hughes – born in the coal mining village of Ton Pentre in the Rhondda Valley. Before beginning, Maestro Hughes turned to the audience and announced he was dedicating that evening’s performance to the lives lost in the terrorist’s attack on Nice.
I was at the Proms again Tuesday night, usually my night for listening to the music at Café Jazz. It was Ms Keogh’s ticket, but she was not feeling well. I was there in her place, surprising our friends in adjacent seats. It was the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, again conducted by Maestro Hughes. The principal pieces were Holst’s The Planets and the world premiere of a mass to commemorate the Battle of the Somme, The Shadows of War composed by Paul Mealor – born in St Asaph, Northern Wales. It was an excellent piece. And I was still able to catch the second set at Café Jazz.
My third night was the Jazz Prom on Thursday. The very talented Claire Martin sang from the Great American Song Book. The sound system did not do her voice justice. When she stepped away from the microphone, I could hear what an accomplished singer she was, but when she sang into the mike, it sounded like a PA system. She was backed by Cardiff’s own Capital City Jazz Orchestra.
The fourth night, Friday, we attended in shifts. It was my ticket to hear the Cory Band conducted by Maestro Hughes, who, like Maestro Hughes, also hailed from the Rhondda Valley. Ms Keogh argued that she should have my ticket, since I had her ticket on Tuesday. It didn’t seem fair since she had insisted on my taking her ticket. We settled with a compromise; everything is negotiable in our relationship. She heard the first half while I waited in the lounge drinking. At the interval, she handed the ticket back to me and I went to sit with our friends for the second half while she crossed The Hayes to our new home for an early night.
Both Ms Keogh and I were there for the Last Night of the Welsh Proms. Maestro Hughes conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The hall was packed. They launched into Bernstein's Overture for Candide and I was in tears. Music often brings me to tears and this was a piece I loved, but it was also a piece loved by my dear friend Alan, recently deceased. I realized, having made this association, I would never again be able to listen to Candide and not feel the gap, not think of Alan, but there is everything right about that.
After the interval, the Maestro returned in a festive red vest decorated with Welsh dragons. He faced the audience and conducted them as they sang to the accompaniment of the orchestra. And in this brief account of the extraordinarily marvelous Welsh Proms, sitting among people given to singing their hearts out, I have failed to list all the soloists, all the fabulous choruses, all the works performed, but I’m merely a scribbler unable to recreate the sounds. I can only write of the effect it had on me. Music needs to be heard firsthand. Even though I’m an Atheist, I find myself thinking music is the best evidence of a god. Even though I can’t sing, I want to be a Cardiffian.
Selected Suburban Soliloquies, the best of Mr Bentzman's earlier series of Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an ebook, from Amazon and elsewhere.