The Four Elms
Lloyd George Ave
Mount Stuart Square
The Parks of Roath
of the Bay
and the City
St David's Hall
Check Your Accent
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If you look at John Speed's 1610 maps of Cardiff you'll see a walled
town hugging a meandering river. To the east and west are great marshes
open to marauding floods and tides. To the north the disenfranchised
Cymry; southwards the still clean waters of the Bristol Channel, and
the open sea. At the bottom end of town is the great church of St
Mary. Cardiff is tiny - fifteen or so streets - a castle and two monasteries.
These, flanking the battlements, one to west and one to the east,
are the poor and holy houses of the Black and the Grey Friars. In
medieval times Christ was still strong.
Today both monasteries are gone, long gone. You can walk the foundations
of the Dominican Priory, Blackfriars, at the Castle end of Bute Park.
The walls were largely collapsed by the late 1500s and it was the
Marquis of Bute who rediscovered the foundations when he was creating
his great park in the mid-nineteenth century. Greyfriars, to the east,
stayed the course for much longer. After the dissolution the buildings
were turned into a town house by John Herbert and used by his family
for two centuries until internecine dispute, decay and inevitable
collapse set in. In terms of local history they were long lived. The
walls, or some of them, were still there as late as the 1960s; a seven
hundred year monument to how the city had once been. Developers, however,
have no heart, no soul, no sense of the past. Why should they? Money
is a matter for today.
When Pearl Assurance House, Cardiff's first genuine high-rise, was
built in 1967 the builders arrived wearing white contagion suits and
carrying oxygen. The JCBs had uncovered mass grave pits from the time
of Black Death. The Plague could still be there, waiting its chance,
still alive in the ancient bones. But there was nothing to fear. Cardiff's
damp had seen the evil off. The trenches went in, the dust and debris
and came out. Llywelyn Bren, leader of the Welsh revolt of 1315 and
whose wooden tomb was here when Rice Merrick visited in 1578, was
excavated with the rest. Lost. Glass and concrete were all that was
At 26 stories the Pearl was high. Given over to offices with terrific
views - the Welsh Development Agency and the Crown Prosecution Service
both relished their sea vistas - the building had lights on top to
warn passing aircraft and became a marker for Cardiffians everywhere.
You could see it from Bristol, from the Vale, from far out to sea.
At Christmas they put an illuminated star on top. Yet as a structure
the building was hated. Ugly. Inappropriate. Damaging. Unwelcoming.
Inessential. Unwanted. Uncalled for. Built despite. In your face.
You're having it. Screw you.
Around its base were multi-storey car parks for users and a large
expanse of paved court. Sky buildings require space in which to flex
themselves where they touch ground. Over the years there have been
a million bright ideas for the use of this pedestrian bonus. Excellent,
many of them. Make it a cafe quarter, put out tables, chairs, sun
umbrellas. Let it for open-air art. Paint the slabs. Run a market.
Kids play ground. Make music here. The ideas arrive from the mouths
of out-of-town developers, wizz kids, impresarios with an eye to demography
and foot traffic. Never from those who live and work on Greyfriars
and who know well that the tall Pearl pulls down wind and spins hurricane
where once the sun simply shone. From the bookshop that for a time
occupied a ground story here shoplifters were regularly seen losing
their prizes as the gusts shook their coats from them and blew their
lifted paperbacks like leaves. The space ended as an irregular spin
for Skateboarders and a place where drunks tried to lie down, but
found they couldn't.
In our literature the Pearl is one of the least mentioned of Cardiff
landmarks. In the flurry of novels and short fiction with a Cardiff
background that have appeared in the last thirty years no one appears
to have plotted the high rise in. Duncan Bush, John Williams, Dannie
Abse, Lewis Davies and Sion Eirian give the block scant coverage.
Great writers, however, regularly visited, read-at and launched their
works in the Oriel Bookshop which took over the ground-floor premises
when it moved here from Charles Street in the mid-nineties and sold
lit, crit, po and fic until the space was rebuilt as sparkly Ha-Ha's
bar and eatery in 1999. Literature flourished against the sounds of
ducted air conditioning, slashing rain and distant car alarms.
In 1998 the building changed hands and was rechristened Capital Tower,
a name almost all locals have decided to ignore. The incoming venture
capitalist developers have reclad the car parks and re-hashed entrances
and walkways to bring the Pearl into the Twenty-first. The bookshop,
galleries and job centre which occupied the lower levels during the
80s and 90s have been replaced by wood-laminated and chrome-embossed
café-bars where the food looks like art work and is served
on oversized plates by slim black-clad waitresses with towels folded
neatly into the backs of their belts. The money flows from the pockets
of the new-gen young whose target of regular alcoholic oblivion differs
only in the matter of scale from that of the gin palace and skunky
pub clientele who came here through the centuries before.
On my most recent visit I sat in Ha-Has with a lager and a plate
of multi-plex sandwiches and felt utterly dislocated. In a former
incarnation I sold poetry here. Hard to imagine. Then I noticed the
woman at the next table had a copy of The World's Wife in her
bag. Carol Ann Duffy. The acceptable face but still the real stuff.
The world still on track.
back to the top
Chew string. Make it as wet as you can. Lay it along
the gutter of your chosen book Put it next to the plate you wish to remove.
Replace the book on the shelf. Leave quiet for five minutes to enable
the saliva to penetrate the paper. Return and slide the plate out. It
will rip soundlessly. Art for free.
Wear a greatcoat. Large, scarf, double breasted, flap
and hang. Books can slide in easily from shelves at waist height.
Bags. Never underestimate the two handled tote, open zip,
half full of compressible clothes. Drop in the paperbacks. Crush them
Fall over, diversion. Accomplice clears the shelf.
Fall over, diversion. The stock you shower from the shelf
with you ends up under your coat.
Fall over, diversion. The books you have in your briefcase
they help you carry to the door.
Insult the counter staff. They will not want to continue
eye contact. Help yourself.
Take the book to the cash point and insist it's yours,
given to you as a present in error, you have it anyway, you don't want
it, it's a mistake, can you have a refund, this once, no receipt sorry
but you are a regular customer even if you are not, smile, yes yes, they
flicker, the money comes at you, take it and go.
Take the £80 art coffee table
masterwork from the display shelf and boldly march with it out through
the entrance. Such audacity. Half the time no one will notice you've gone.
Complain. Makes you innocent.
Run. You are usually faster.
Not at closing time or first customer. Join the crowds
mid-morning, lunch-time, 3.00pm Saturday afternoon.
Oh the brilliance of Christmas and heavy rain.
Oriel prosecuted. The manager could manage 6 minute miles.
Someone once made off with 400 postcards showing the grave of Dylan Thomas.
Oriel got them all back.