I am from Ely. A lot of people don’t believe me when I tell them this. They listen to my polite, merely Diff-tinged accent, and think – she can’t be an Elyite! Elyopian? No way! They think I am telling fibs. I would like to drag them by their slender wrists to the house I grew up in, a tiny dwelling the size of a tooth. It’s not a fairy tale, I’d like to say; this is the garden in which my father used to shoot cats; this is the kitchen with women instead of appliances…
I didn’t like Ely. Some people seem to have a Grand Avenue of a time but, as fairy tales go, I found it a bit Grimm. I escaped into books at an early age, then I escaped to private school – Howell’s, in Llandaff. I had an assisted place. Getting on the crowded bus in my Harry Potter-esque uniform, with its crest-chested blazer, pinstripe blouse, and straw boater in summer, attracted some attention. But I was glad to get away. As soon as I was over the bridge, I began feeling better. When I think back, now, I realise it isn’t Ely I dislike – it’s poverty. Ely is a large council estate, and the stain-glass windows and red-carpeted entrance of Howell’s School were a luxurious balm to the cracked glass and bare stairs of Home.
Ely had such a powerfully negative effect on me that, by extension, I also disliked Cardiff. Caroline Street, with its porn shops, chippies, and army surplus stores seemed to summarise life as far as I could see it. Sex, food, and death; the gutters full of misery and fag ends. My mother came from a long line of housewives, a slave to her husband, her ovaries, and the kitchen sink. She got pregnant with me when she was 17, and that was considered a late start. I wanted more, but Cardiff didn’t seem to have the thing I was looking for.
I was the first in my family not to have a kid in her teens, and the first to finish school. I even went so far as to do an MA. However, I was also very overweight, and very withdrawn. For a period of about 8 years, I hardly spoke, a condition that was only later diagnosed as Selective Mutism. Then, aged 23, I escaped to Japan… The rich pink cherry blossoms and deep red maple leaves were an even greater balm than the décor of high school. I lived in an artist house next to a mountain, and began speaking again. But by the end of three years, I felt like returning…
I went to London, with the intention of moving there, but came back to Wales after one day. Cardiff was as grey and dull as I remembered – but things were beginning to change. I remember the Arms Park being taken down, and I didn’t feel sorry. I took pictures of the Millennium Stadium being built up, and I was glad. This new building was bigger and brighter – it had ambition. I saw the Bay transform itself from grey sludge into sparkly shops, eateries, boat tours, and buildings. To me, it felt like the dingy city of my childhood was suddenly sparking into colour; as if the dowdy, drab-haired housewife was finally putting on her glad-rags, painting her nails, getting a perm… Monotomy and monogamy were set aside, as Cardiff became – well, a bit of a tart.
Cardiff began selling herself. The stadium drew in the visitors, more than ever before; the Bay was a draw, St David’s 2 was built… The people of the city have cashed in, with Cardifferent T-shirts, I Loves the Diff badges, those fab place name cards that were launched just the other day. I bloody love it. There’s more going on here, it seems: less of the boring Male Voice Choir stuff; more of the South Wales Gay Male Choir stuff. There’s spoken word, comedy, and burlesque. Cardiff Identity Festival. Cardiff Design Festival. The Cardiff Story. Cardiff has become the Diff – that long, moany ‘keaar’ sound dropped. Good riddance, say I.
The only problem with the flirty bird the city has become is the possibility of over-sell. Prostitution, instead of promotion. Casinos, strip bars, Hooters. Sometimes I worry the city is going to turn into a massive Caroline Street…
Not that much of this has spread into Ely. It’s still as poor as it ever was. My sister lives on Snowden Road, where the Ely Riots took place. The price of bread is what caused it. Now there is a Greggs. My nephews tuck into ring doughnuts as they walk home from school, mattresses springing from front gardens. The brightest thing in the grey suburb is, as it ever was, the orange bus – bendy instead of double decker, but still there, to take you – fortunately in my case, unfortunately for others – away.
Mab Jones is an award-winning comic and performance poet. She often uses the Diff dialect in her work, and is member of B.A.D. (British Accent & Dialect) Poets, who translate famous poems into their native tongue. She performs all over the UK, and has two anthologies forthcoming with Parthian Books. Please check out her website for details: http://www.mabjones.com/
Mab was photographed in Splott by Adam Chard