Sunday, December 21, 2008

Lovely dark and deep

Today was the shortest day. It was a bleak, wet and miserable day; the kind of day that this island of Britain is so adept at producing. If miserable days were a commodity to be bought and sold, soggy Albion would be surviving the global economic downturn with aplomb.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, this place is also quite capable of manufacturing days of perfection; days that fill you with life and hope. And most strangely, these days -- the glorious and the miserable -- can often run consecutively. One day, the meteorological stage is set for you to finally win over your One True Love. The next day, the cold, wet and dark hang unrepentant as she dies tragically in your arms.

My arms remained corpse-free, but it was a miserable day nonetheless. The sun never shone. The weak grey mist of morning failed to become anything more. The novelty of sunrise and sunset running so close together was made irrelevant by the absence of sun. It was a day to fit my mood.

As the grey was starting to bleed to dark purple and then black, I decided to go for a walk. Or, Rachel decided for me.

I have been sick all this last week, I think as penance for my failing to stand up for Wales at the Jones wedding last weekend. Amid a 786-hour stretch of wedding speeches, I had decided to sneak out of the room and into the bar of the hotel where the wedding was held. Therein, I came across a member of the Skerries crew, who looked at me wearily and, waving a hand in the direction of the Room Of Perpetual Wedding Speeches, said: "I haven't been to Wales before. Please tell me this isn't representative of a nation."

"Well, actually, it kind of is."

"Make that a double," she said to the bartender.

OK, yes, they have an obsession with reality television and a tendency to never rise above seaside humour (a), but that doesn't mean the Welsh are in any way a less wonderful people to be around. But in the face of the coolness that I have, for some reason, allocated to Irishness I couldn't live up to my affiliation. So, the next day, assisted by the several gallons of Guinness, Carling and Gordon's consumed the night before, the Welsh gods made me deathly ill.

I have been relegated to sleeping on the couch because my all-night coughing fits were preventing Rachel from getting any rest, and she herself recovering from a kind of cold. Indeed, one might suggest the blame for my illness rests on her shoulders and not on the duwiau Cymru. But for the fact that whatever I have is so much worse. This is always the way, isn't it? Women will get sick and then show no sympathy when their partner does the same -- not realising that the man has received some sort of terrible mutated killer version of their paltry cold.

So, my past several days have been spent lying on the couch, wrapped in a duvet, trying to come to terms with the fact that I have contracted incurable tuberculosis. Or lupus. Or luperculosis. The house has become my sickbed.

"If you are waiting for me to listen to your diatribe against American automakers, you are going to be waiting for a very long time," Rachel said today, shortly after I had mentioned my displeasure with the bailout plan and looked at her with that sort of expectant pause that says: "Ask me why!"

When did we become this? When did Rachel and I become a modern version of the mother and father off "A Christmas Story"? Me pontificating into the air and she not paying attention. Or, when she is recovering from a cold, not having any of it.

"Have you got out of the house today?" she asked, eyebrow raising slightly from her romance novel. "Maybe you should go for a walk."

Down Llantrisant Road from the roundabout that leads to our house, the roundabout that, on the misting grey death of a Sunday afternoon, somehow feels like the last roundabout of the civilised world -- I imagine one of those old white mile markers on the northern edge of the roundabout stating: "UNKNOWN 1/8" -- and left onto Greenwood Road. Past the houses that are average by American standard but so large in Britain that I cannot realistically imagine what it would be like to live in one. Down the Highfields Steps and to the River Taff.

I have been so tired lately. Physically, emotionally, mentally. Endings and beginnings and place and belonging. All these things are swirling around in me and I can't figure any of it out. I don't have the energy.

Just beyond the playing fields of Ysgol Glantaf, on a bench, looking out across the weir toward Llandaff Rowing Club, sat a man with the hood of his coat up -- drinking cider and looking very much the physical representation of my mood.

If (and there is great emphasis on "if") I can turn in all my essays and pass my exams in January I will have one semester left of university, a semester that will inevitably speed past. And then? I will have a degree but what will have actually been achieved in these three years? What will have been built? And what next? And why?

Passing by the antiquated "NO FISHING" sign that I am always amazed has yet to be stolen, I suddenly thought of Astrid and when she came to visit last Christmas. On that Christmas morning, after we had opened all our presents, she and I took a walk along the Taff. She in her woefully inappropriate shoes. And it was the first time, I realised, that I had ever really gotten to talk to Astrid. A strange thing, perhaps, for a woman who was staying at my house. But that appears to be the modern way. Things work in reverse. I stay at the home of Chris and Jenny, or Donal and Is, and then I get to know them.

When Astrid stayed at our house she ran around in scandalously sexy underpants, but even without that particular happy memory, the thought of her, the thought of my having a friend on this island, served as a sort of "dust of snow" (b). I felt lightened. Warmed.

But Britain can at times feel a snowless place. Wales especially. And Welsh speakers? Oh, sure, we're all friends, aren't we? But in a way that perhaps an outsider might notice? I won't put a number on it, but less than I would have anticipated after three years. And in terms of friends that I feel are close? Friends that I feel I could really talk to about any of this, if I could be arsed to talk about it? None. One?

Under the Western Avenue bridge and looking at my watch, seeing that total darkness would come before completing my intended route up through Llandaff Fields and past the crossroads where characters sold their souls in the Llwyd Owen novel, turning and walking up to street level. Over the Taff and then back over Western Avenue on the rickety UWIC footbridge. Past Llandaff RFC's clubhouse and along the dark, narrow footpath that leads to Llandaff Cathedral.

There is something immensely lovely about the cathedral. It is hidden there, sitting at the bottom of the hill for hundreds and hundreds of years, with its uneven overgrown cemetery of cracked and eroded headstones and tombs. That doesn't sound all that cheery or welcoming, but it is.

Our friends the Germans blew out a number of the cathedral's windows (and a wall) as part of their elaborate scheme to force Britain to build a load of really ugly buildings. The scheme was successful in Portsmouth and Swansea but in Llandaff, at least, aesthetics prevailed and the new part of the building looks more or less like the old part, save the absence of old stained-glass windows. Through the new windows flow a light that is so incredibly warm and welcoming, especially in the dark wet cold misery of the shortest day, it is as if this one place has turned against the Church of Wales' apparent insistence on making Christianity as lifeless, boring and unappealing as possible.

I walked across the churchyard and stood at the cathedral door, considering walking in. The door is seemingly always open, light streaming out. Sometimes I step in and I feel a strange something that I suppose might be connection or perhaps just a respect for whatever it is that has served to console and fortify and rebuild people who have sought and found those things there. Atheists always annoy me in failing to identify that simple fact. Even if it's not true, why do you care? It gives someone purpose and hope and centre. Without it, "X-Factor" becomes their moral core.

I didn't step in. I am always afraid that someone will tell me I don't belong there, which would tarnish the affection I hold for the place. I walked up the Cathedral Steps and along Bridge Street, past the houses I always wish I lived in and then past The Heathcock.

Warm light streamed from the pub and looking in I saw it decorated for the season. A man talking to a woman. Two men playing pool. These quintessential miserable days are in themselves an explanation of Britain's pub culture. Almost every time I pass that pub I want to go in, but rarely do because it is that kind of small that a person cannot walk into without being noticed by everyone else. I don't really like the massive pubs but tend to go there because I don't have any friends in the small pubs I wish I could frequent.

Up Llantrisant Road, past the BBC, the large houses, the petrol station and back into my little neighbourhood with its cats and reasonably priced automobiles and its people who always seem to back away when they see me coming. To my house, with its drapes shut -- looking empty and alone.
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(a) FTYPAH: Seaside humour is hard to properly explain. It's a bit like blue-collar comedy in its intellectualism or lack thereof.

(b) The only two poems that I really know are both by Robert Frost, both take place in the snow and both deal with the same subject (by my interpretation). As such, I tend to run them both together -- hence my use of a different poem as this post's title.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

45 minutes in my life

Walking up through Danescourt's cookie-cutter 70s white and brown Tuesday afternoon I picked up the strong and distinctively skunk-smelling odour of a certain kind of smoke. I am a boring person that I have never actually partaken in the aforementioned activity, but I can identify its aroma easily thanks in part to my years of living in Southern California. Rounding onto Matthew Walk, I saw a man in his 70s or 80s drawing on a hand-rolled cigarette.

Well, as you do, I thought.

"Hello!" he shouted at me with a perhaps understandably hearty cheerfulness.

"Alright."

"Miserable, this weather," he said. "Ah, but there you are. Not going to change for my complaining. Here, have you got any proper fags (a) on you?"

"'Fraid not, sir, no," I said.

"Ah, well. This young chap just gave me one of his. But," he said, pausing to check if perhaps the chap in question might still be within earshot, "I have to say, it's bloody awful."

He paused, looked at the cigarette suspiciously and, resigned, took another long drag. I made a guess as to who had given him the cigarette; probably that dude who looks like Eggsy off Goldie Lookin Chain (b). I debated telling the man what he was smoking but decided against it.

"Something tells me you'll warm to it," I said.

"Yeah, well. Sure you haven't got any proper fags on you?" he asked. "I'm happy to pay for them."

"No, I don't smoke."

"Ah, one of those sort. Healthy bastard," he smiled, swatting my shoulder lightly with his copy of the Echo.

"Unfortunately. But the shop's just by there," I said, pointing my thumb in the direction of the Somerfield.

"Nah. Wife'd catch me, you see. Having tea with the ladies," he said nodding across the green toward the 750-year-old parish church that sits so inconspicuously in centre of Danescourt's seemingly un-historic housing estates, across from a pub that looks so terribly unexceptional that I have never set foot in it, despite the fact that the building dates back to the 1300s. "I'm not supposed to be smoking. If she spotted me up there buying fags she'd have me head. But, there you are. I'm alright with this."

He took another drag of the cigarette and coughed.

I carried on across the green, up to buy stamps from Danescourt's perpetually miserable post mistress. Then to the chemists, ostensibly to get something for this stupid cold but also because I have a kind of crush on the young pharmacist and her Northern Irish accent. Walking back toward home, I passed the Parish Hall; I peaked through the windows and saw several tables of old ladies sipping tea at festively decorated tables. All of the ladies looking particularly dour.

I wondered which was the wife of our man on Matthew Walk. I wondered what her face would look like if she knew what her husband had been up to.
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(a) FTYPAH: cigarettes. One of the great etymological mysteries is how Americans and Britons ended up with such different definitions of that word

(b) Hell, it may actually be Eggsy. What else is he doing these days?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

And yet we're the ones with street lights

At Starbucks today, when the barista asked the name of the university-age bloke ahead of me in queue -- so as to write it on his cup -- he cheerily replied: "Oh, uhm, it's Matthew Rhys Davies. That's 'Davies' with an 'e.'"

There is something inherently beautiful and Welsh about that.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Never out of season in a Christian land

"Just because you're older than the rest of, Chris, it doesn't mean you know more," Fflur said as we staggered our way through the surreality of Saint Fagan's at night.

Pause.

"Oh, dear," she said. "That's going on the blog, isn't it?"

"Most certainly."

We were there -- along with several other members of our Folk Studies class (a) -- to partake in the museum's Christmas Nights festivities, a hodgepodge of random Christmastime things packed into the museum's sprawling grounds.

For those of you playing along at home, or indeed anywhere that isn't Cardiff, "museum" is a misleading term when referring to Saint Fagan's. In American parlance a museum is a largish, boring building filled with boring things. Americans only ever go to museums when we are visiting other places. We do this because we are told this is the thing to do. And we feel the need to somehow vindicate the cost of our having travelled to wherever it is that we've gone by doing things that we perceive to be cultural before doing those things that we would be doing at home, which is usually getting drunk and hitting on the waitresses at TGI Friday's.

Saint Fagan's has a largish, boring building. And indeed, there are a handful of boring things contained within -- incongruous bits of farm equipment, random old "Popeth Yn Gymraeg" propaganda and so on. But for the most part the building is consumed by a restaurant, a cafe and a gift shop. Stretching for acres outside the building is a collection of houses, buildings, chapels and churches from the various corners of Wales that have been disassembled, transported and painstakingly restored on the grounds. This is the actual "museum."

Rather than a museum, it is more of strangely authentic Thomas Kincade-ian village. For Minnesotans, it is slightly reminiscent of the Renaissance Festival site in Shakopee, except that these buildings really are several hundred years old and sadly no one shouts "Huzzah!"

(Equally, since Saint Fagan's was partly established as a political statement of Wales' unique and separate identity from the rest of Britain, it is extremely unlikely that anyone will shout, "Twenty pounds for the king!")

I am a strong proponent of Saint Fagan's and find that it is a great way of quickly showing visitors to Wales that they were a bit silly in scheduling so little time for the place. Wales doesn't carry any real traveller cred; almost no one, including the Welsh, is impressed if you tell them you've visited this small nation on the western edge of Britain. Getting people to come out to visit me is often a tooth-pulling process because the person feels that they won't be able to brag to friends about having come here. And what's the point of going anywhere if you can't brag about it? More often than not they will allow themselves just 24 hours. Once the very heart of Celticism, home to the legends of Arthur and Merlin, populated with more castles than any other place on the planet, with a language tradition that is older than Christ -- yeah, 24 hours should cover it.

Actually, Saint Fagan's doesn't really address any of those things but is still usually enough to make friends audibly regret deciding to give Wales so little attention. It is one of my favourite places to spend an afternoon. It's safe to say that I am there, wandering about, at least once a fortnight.

Because it is in Wales, where people understand the value of a hard day's work and, equally, the value of not working, St. Fagan's promptly shuts at 5 p.m. So generally I only ever see it during the day. In the dark of night, when the Christmas celebrations are held, it becomes surreal. The familiar paths and buildings suddenly become twisted in my head and people seem to appear and disappear into the darkness. Everything swirls in the torchlight.

"This is the perfect setting for you to perform a few stories," said the head of my department, who had appeared behind me on the path.

She had not come with the group of students but suddenly there she was.

"This is Chris," she said to a young boy I presume to be her son. "He told us a story about a monster in Bute Park."

"Chris can tell all kinds of stories," Fflur said, perhaps with a hint of sarcasm.

I turned to look at Fflur, turned back, and the Welsh department head was gone.

In the 1963 holiday song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," Andy Williamstells us:
"There'll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And carolling out in the snow.
There'll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories
Of Christmases long, long ago."

I have always heard those lyrics and thought: "Scary ghost stories?! The fuck? What does that have to do with Christmas?"

But wrapped in the cold and darkness of St. Fagan's it is easy to see how tales of the supernatural would spring from one's everyday experiences. And indeed, ghost stories are a tradition -- just not one that I was raised in. In the same way that the lyrics to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" are not a part of Fflur's tradition (b).

For some reason, I am trying to immerse myself more fully in Christmas this year. I've got the nigh 90 holiday-themed songs on my iTunes on constant rotation, Friday I'm heading to the Bath Christmas Market, next week I'm going to a Christmas concert, I am stuffing myself with mince pies and brandy and so on. Some part of me is grasping at these "traditions" (some of which are being created on the spot), trying to root myself.

And so this is how I've ended up purchasing A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Books,a collection of Charles Dickens' Yuletide works. I had had no idea there was more than one.

The story of Scrooge has slowly become one of my favourites over the years, I think because I can very much relate to the idea of being grumpy and hating the world. And also, I think the scene in which Scrooge's girlfriend "releases" him of his obligation to love her -- stating it in financial terms for him to understand -- is the saddest thing in the world. In one of the productions of the story that I have seen (I think the one starring Patrick Stweart), Scrooge's modern self screams in vain at the visage of his former self: "You fool! You fool!" And I imagine that if ghosts wanted to haunt me they could do so far more effectively in showing me failed loves than my grave.

It is in productions -- films and stage -- that I have previously encountered A Christmas Carol. This year is the first time that I have endeavoured to sit down and read the actual words of Dickens. It has taken me this long because I formed a deep and gilded hatred of all things Dickens back when I was in Mrs. Morgan's classroom at Jefferson High School. We had to read Great Expectations, and its failure to be anything at all like Dave Barry meant that I had no interest whatsoever. Add to this my pro-Texas (and inherently pro-America) upbringing and I despised being required to read the pompous old words of a long-dead pompous old Englishman. I rebelled by not reading a word of it. In the classic American tradition, I formed a vitriolic opinion of something foreign based on a complete and utter lack of evidence.

When I lived in Portsmouth, where Dickens was born, I used to gleefully get drunk and go piss on his house.

But now, here I am actually reading Dickens. And I find myself shocked, dismayed and pained to discover that I really like it. This throws my world off its axis. I like Dickens. What the hell is going on? I may need to re-evaluate all things in my life. Does the desk I'm sitting at even exist?

Clearly, Christmas is having a very strange effect on me. Or, perhaps it is simply that, as Fflur says, I am old.
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(a) Apologies, my friends in the Home Nations, for using an American term here but I continue to struggle in certain academic definitions. I'm still not sure how to refer to a single set of lectures and seminars that one attends as part of his or her degree programme -- "module"?

(b) Can you believe that?! The girl doesn't know the lyrics to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer!" I feel that the British state has failed her somehow. Is it any wonder the children in this country are feral?