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Cardiff: my personal geography, by Neil Badmington

A new series here on We Are Cardiff, where locals and those who live nearby let us into their key locations around the city … and tell us a little bit about themselves in the process. First up – Neil Badminton, lecturer at Cardiff University. 

Penarth by Helia Phoenix

In Cardiff, home is…

Not in Cardiff at all, actually: I live in Penarth. (As Staten Island is to Manhattan…) There’s something fatally reassuring about living at the end of a railway line. All things terminate here. No passing through, no going on. For other destinations, go back the way you came. We have reached the end of the line and are waiting quietly for the sea to claim us.

Favourite Cardiff eatery …

Mission Burrito on The Friary has been seducing me recently, but I have long carried a torch for the garlic aubergines at the Riverside on Tudor Street.

Ideal first date in Cardiff …

A first date in Cardiff would have been my dream as an unloved and unlovable teenager marooned in the Welsh borderlands. These days, as an unloved and unlovable adult, I’d choose for a first date the ink display stand in Pen and Paper, in the Royal Arcade. If you can’t embrace my love of ink and fine fountain pens, this relationship is going nowhere.

Tell us something that most people don’t know about you

I was one of Cardiff’s buskers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’ was always a money-spinner, although on one occasion a man put £5 in my guitar case and then took it back out again when, on a giddy whim, I segued from ‘Gloria’ into M’s ‘Pop Muzik’ via an ambitious harmonica solo. ‘Same chords! Same chords!’, I yelled, hoping that he’d change his mind and put the money back. ‘Different shit, mate’, he replied.

Earliest Cardiff memory

I grew up about forty miles away from Cardiff, so many of my weekends involved escaping on the train from small-town narrowness to the unbound promise of the city. I have countless memories of Cardiff, then, but one goes back further than the others. I’m standing on the pavement of Queen Street before the road was pedestrianised, holding hands with both of my parents. The traffic seems impossibly fast, loud, and dirty, and I’m wondering how we are going to make it to the other side of the road without dying. One of my parents tells me that the street is soon to be paved over. ‘And the cars will go away’,  I say. The pedestrianisation happened in 1974, so my memory must be from around that date, when I would have been three years old.

What was the last film you saw?

David Lean’s Brief Encounter. This is my favourite film, and I need to watch it every few weeks or I become worryingly optimistic about the universe. I crept back to it late last night with a cup of lime blossom tea and the promise of reviving gloom. When I was staying in Lancaster a few years ago, a friend took me to nearby Carnforth railway station, where much of Brief Encounter was filmed. In many ways, the station has been modernised beyond recognition, but the clock and the underpass are still there, and there’s a charming platform café which has been designed to recall the one in the film. I wanted never to leave.No, no, I don’t want that time to come ever. I want to remember every minute, always, always to the end of my days.’

Favourite Cardiff shops

Wally’s delicatessen in Royal Arcade has been a world of wonder since I was a child. Pen and Paper, further down the same arcade, satisfies my endless desire for ink and paper. Troutmark Books in Castle Arcade always contains something surprising, as does The Pumping Station on Penarth Road.

Best Cardiff-based leisure activity

The word ‘leisure’ suggests rough games to me, or possibly outdoor activities. I detest sport and nature. If ‘leisure’ can be stretched to sedentary film-going, I’d single out the cinema at Chapter, although I make a point of avoiding anything by my beloved Woody Allen there, as audiences tend to take the screenings as competitions to see who can laugh loudest at obscure Kierkegaard references, thus drowning out the dialogue. That’s the only bad thing I can say about the wonderful Chapter, though. I will never forget my first visit there in 1988 to watch, for reasons I can no longer recall, Mississippi Burning. I had never seen so many effortlessly cool people; I knew even then that I would never be one of them. To this day I feel inadequate whenever I step through the doors. (Shouldn’t I have a piercing? A tattoo? A tattooed piercing? And shouldn’t I be on my way back from photographing a DJ in a Gabalfa garage?)

What was the last book you read?

The Days of Anna Madrigal — the ninth and final volume in Armistead Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’ series. I was bereft when I reached the last page. I spent a lot of time in San Francisco and the surrounding area when I was a student in California in the early 1990s. I’ve never been back, but these books, with their perfect sense of mischievous place, have been a constant connection.

Best Cardiff pub/s

I hate pubs and the dim place of alcohol in British life, so I can’t answer this question. If Temperance Town still existed in Cardiff, I’d be one of its secular inhabitants, banging my dry drum on my high horse. (A colleague tells me that I spend my life on my high horse, to which I say: better a high horse than a Shetland pony.) St. Mary Street should be a wonderful, elegant boulevard (look at the architecture, the built possibility), but instead it’s a valley of vomit. Sentences from Tolstoy’s ‘Why Do People Stupefy Themselves?’ ought to be carved into the paving stones … if the latter were visible beneath the grease, the jilted thongs, and the caked bodily fluids.

Favourite Cardiff discovery

At some point in the second half of the 1980s (probably 1986), word began to spread around my secondary school about a place known only as “Jacob’s”. Hidden away beneath a dark and dripping railway bridge near Cardiff Central, the myth whispered, this was an indoor market on several floors which sold second-hand clothes capable of transforming the wearer into an authentically angst-ridden teenager. Ordinary kids disappeared there over the weekend and turned up in school on Monday looking like they’d shuffled out of a Anton Corbijn Joy Division photo-shoot. I saved my money; I made the trip. I came back with a long black Crombie coat which was heavier than I was, and which transformed my keen posture into a defeated hunch. With the help of this magic cloak, I spent the rest of the 1980s being disaffected in various locations in south Wales, always staring solemnly into the distance for something lost, something better.

I’m delighted to see that Jacob’s is still there, although the surrounding area is unrecognisable when I compare it to my memories. The place no longer has quite the same appeal, but the mere sight of the building from the passing train transforms me instantly from a tubby middle-aged man back into a skinny teenager. I discovered by chance a couple of years ago that my favourite trader from those distant days, Tails and the Unexpected, still exists, but now operates from a house in Penarth, just around the corner from where I live. Mark, the owner, sold me that original Crombie coat, and these days he oversees with elegance and charm my desire for hats.

Jacob's Antiques by Walt Jabsco

Old gramophones in Jacob’s Antiques

Last album you listened to

Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece. I listen to this most days with a sense of wonder.

If you had friends coming to Cardiff for a weekend, what would you recommend they do?

There’s unbearable ethical pressure in this question. I’m never comfortable showing people around or making recommendations: no one’s going to be interested in my fancies. (It was once put to me, rather wearily, that a romantic weekend in Paris should contain more than an artisan ink maker’s studio and Proust’s grave.) All I’d recommend, then, is structuring the day around two seductive views of the city. Start the morning at the top of Cardiff University’s towering Psychology Building, near the top of Park Place, from which you can see for miles in all directions. When day is done, when darkness has fallen, look back over the water at the illuminated city skyline from Paget Road in Penarth. In between, well, I’m not getting involved.

Neil Badmington teaches English Literature at Cardiff University.

Photo of old gramophones in Jacob’s Antiques by Walt Jabsco on Flickr