Thursday, April 16, 2009

The dogs on St Mary Street howl

Stag party the other week. Wales. Clay pigeon shooting in a backwater not particularly near to Port Talbot, then a night of good old British binge-drinking in Cardiff city centre, a hell hole.

There are so many stag and hen parties running about in fancy dress in Cardiff that, to an observer at a very great distance, St Mary Street on a Saturday night might look like a big fun carnival. Up close one is unlikely to make that mistake; the atmosphere is many things but not fun. Male tribes like dog packs eye each other as they pass on criss-crossing pub crawls. Squawking broken-hearted slags bussed in from the Valleys and the godawful death traps and suicide raps - the Bridgend Massiv – exaggerate their drunkenness.

The stag was a chap I play football with and most of the party likewise. (Generally the non-footballers were significantly overweight, whereas the footballers were merely slightly overweight, which is a neat little snapshot survey of the benefits of regular exercise as youth slips away). He was dressed as a giant Mr Potato Head and carried a bag of charlotte spuds. We, the Tribe of the Bristolian Potato, followed our mascot, our totem, through the throngs. But the real head of the pack was the Best Man. He was an ideal choice: a chain-smoking shoulder-rolling stalker, king of the practical joke and the one-line knockout; a pub accountant always knowing exactly who owes what to the kitty; and a natural at the bar, pivoting and elbowing through the crowds to bellow his round.

The streets boom and swell (the smoking ban has spilled pubs onto the pavements) and the riot vans accumulate. Tension peaks at about 11pm, after which the wave breaks and St Mary’s Street is a Hogarthian nightmare, rivers of hot blood and booze.

It is a buzz, of course, but the drug wears off with the years. Being a chameleon of indeterminate and malleable accent I am able to accommodate myself reasonably well to all manner of social groups from football blokes to dinner party sophisticates, but perhaps without ever feeling fully accepted in any of them. Nothing special about that, most people are the same. Think of England’s First Law of Social Interactivity states that: The character of a group is generally not determined by an aggregation of the characters of its individual members, but rather is set by convention and some obscure process of mutual agreement and, apart from a few hardcore types at the centre, the members adapt themselves accordingly.

Thus we dumb ourselves down or talk ourselves up to suit the occasion.

This has never been a problem for me because I’ve never felt the need to decide whether I prefer high culture (classical concerts, the brilliant and hilarious poems of Geoffrey Hill, Nigeness) or low (football, beer, the background threat of physical violence). But the strict limits on permissible conversational topics in the laddish set is such a bore. Sport, birds, booze. You open your mouth and realise you can’t say it. There’s nothing to say. Somehow, in one relatively quiet pub, I did manage to talk to a fellow. I’d previously known nothing about him except that he plays in midfield and has a ferocious right foot shot. Turns out he’s a Doctor of Chemistry and does full time research at a university. I confessed I had a BA. Our talk was furtive, it felt like we’d broken a social taboo.

Didn’t last, we were soon all following our leader and our tuberous mascot into a deafening madhouse. At least I learned that the appeal of the traditional Saturday night on the town – pub, very noisy pub, club, kebab, taxi home – has moved from zero, which is where it was before the stag party, into the negative. The pub and kebab bits are still all right, but I have, it seems, reached the stage in life where it is no longer possible to pretend that standing scrunched, swigging a pint and failing to have a conversation because the music has been deliberately raised to a volume where conversation is impossible and therefore swigging pints ever more quickly is the only possible pastime, is fun.*

What’s more, I’d been tricked into staying at a backpackers hostel. Frigging bunkbeds. Much worse, communal bathrooms! Next morning I woke horribly early and realised I would have to use one. I’m way too old and well, rich for this, I thought, as made my trepidatious way down the corridor, dreading what might await me in a Sunday morning toilet in a hostel full of stags. But for once my luck was in – the cleaning fairies had been and everything was virgin new and sparkling. The sun streamed in through the windows, bathing a pyramid of new loo rolls in sweet Welsh light. Nobody else in the whole place had stirred. A silence save for some low rumbling snores. I was so relieved and happy I decided to make the most of it and have a shower. Suddenly the prospect of going through the last few hours of stagdom (fry up, hair of the dog) seemed intolerable. I wanted to get back to my life and my wife. So I quietly got dressed, packed my bag and resolved to sneak out of there like Renton at the end of Trainspotting. And, after a quick lie down to let a tsunami of nausea and headache pass, I did.

I walked to Cardiff Central railway station, elated and carrying my hangover about three feet above my head. It was a completely different town. Sundrenched, quiet, washed clean. But Cardiff were playing Swansea in a lunchtime kick-off, and even at 8.45am the riot police were forming ranks again, and outside the Wetherspoons grizzly men with hate-pinched faces gathered in gangs, drinking breakfast from cans of Blackthorn. I was grateful even for the replacement bus that took me a long route back to Bristol, via Newport where Yates’s Wine Lodge is inscribed with the motto: “Moderation is true Temperance”. Ha bloody ha, I thought. Cardiff is bad on a Saturday night but I bet Newport isn’t far off.

What is it about? It’s something to do with the working week, and the blood running cold and finding somebody itching for something to start. Maybe the long absence of a military draft. Something to do with the inaccessible Promised Land. Probably I used to get it but I don’t really any more. But still, the dogs on Main Street howl, because they do understand...

*It should be obvious that the vast city centre pub/clubs like Walkabout and Chicago Rock are purpose-built arenas for binge-drinking and are at the root of the ‘problem’, if that’s what it is. The simplest way to combat the binge culture would therefore be to force these places to have tables instead of standing areas and limit the decibel level to background ambience. This would remove the obvious cause of the weekend free-for-all without infringing on the freedoms of the middle aged, who enjoy their liver-destruction and oblivion-seeking more peaceably than do the youths of this great and lonely nation. Bit of politics for you there.


Ben said...

Well said, Brit.

Recently I had 'VIP' tickets to a new club's opening. So myself and a mate, quite chuffed that we were to be treated as Very Important, went along.

Unfortunately everyone was a 'VIP' and we were all treated as common as muck. The mass of people didn't mind as they were ten or more years younger than me. Queuing at the bar to get a drink took at least 20 minutes. Everyone else looked estatically happy, particularly the whores, sorry I mean young ladies. The music, which wasn't too bad, was impossibly loud so any conversation was limited to text messages!

Still, a lesson was learnt and the importance of good chat with a good beer was highlighted.

gaw said...

Ah twas ever thus I'm afraid.

I remember market places full of brawling yokels 25 years ago (I was one of them). And me mam and dad told tales of when the flower of Taffs Well and the Ton would clash violently at dance halls 25 years before that.

I think this sort of thing just stands out more nowadays given that corporal and capital punishments and coppers hitting tearaways as a matter of routine are all in the past.

Take a look at my blog sometime?

malty said...

Brit, that is the finest ode to a Welsh piss up I, in my excessive number of years on this lump of rock out at the westerly end of the galaxy, have had the pleasure to read. You have just got to have a novel in you, no not the one you ate this morning silly, one in the offing.

On the subject of excursions of the stag variety, some years ago one of my scruffy employees had his stag night in Keswick, no, I don't know why either, on the way home in a hired van the next morning he was unceremoniously dumped in Haydon Bridge, stark naked, the van did not return for him.
The story of how he got home he would not relate, the perpetrators, including best man, were banned from the wedding.

Brit said...

Thankee Malty. I've started a few novels but it's finishing them that's the problem...opening chapters that is.

Bloody hellfire that Springsteen performance is good. He really believed it in 1978, they don't make em like that anymore.

(Also a great solo from Silvio off The Sopranos.)

Anonymous said...

Great piece, sir. i've only been out clubbing twice (hated it both times) but i recognise much of it in your words - the impossibility of conversation, all human interactions deliberately made as blunt and coarse as possible, the violence you can almost taste in the air, the dumb bitches shrieking at volume, the sense that you may not get home without a fight, or at least without stepping in a pool of vomit or blood.

Brit said...

Yeah, but I don't want to make out that there isn't a certain appeal to all that.

will said...

I concur with malty - you could write a novel, about the very themes you have alluded to in your great post above - being middle class yet a football player, thirty etcetc. you could spin out this stag party story into a whole opening chapter. Basically like Nick Hornby except good. you could be a miwiyonaire wodney

ps. and having spent more than a decade working on the 'club scene' I can empathise with that sudden feeling (usually somewhere around 29-30) that you just dont 'get' clubbing anymore. Although I would like to point out that I would never be caught dead in sticky-carpeted towny handbag club

Nige said...

Brilliant piece Brit - and true...

Kev said...

I'm only 26 and I've felt this way about clubs for several years already, I kind of dread what my opinion of them will be when I get to your advanced years.

When on a night out in Britain on previous occasions I have noticed that there is a definite undertone of violence that its absent at home (I live in Ireland). Is it just that I know the places to avoid here or is this something specifically British? I am not alone in saying this and would genuinely like to know what someone English thinks about it.

Brit said...

That's a good question, Kev, and one I have pondered.

I don't think Britons are unusually violent in general but the mainstream nature of townie boozing does seem to be unique. The violence tends to be brutish rather than nasty (people don't carry weapons out with them for example). I just think the young British male gets a buzz out of having a ruck with other young British males - a traditional national characteristic which these days you see on pub/club strips rather than at football grounds.

will said...

I wonder if british men have somehow just been imbued genetically with more punchable faces?

gaw said...

We do have some unconscious and deviant propensity to violence over here.

I remember this being demonstrated on the French exchange at school. When we went to France the older French kids wanted to quiz us on pop music and street fashion. When the French kids visited us everyone just wanted to beat them up. Distressing.

Having said this the French kids did seem to enjoy the generally greater edginess (as we didn't call it) of Britain. It seemed that it was worth putting up with a punch in the face if it came from a genuine punk.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful piece, Brit. You conveyed the sense of declining returns beautifully and I could almost hear Brit Jr. say: "Not to worry, Dad, I'll take over from here."

gaw said...

Mr Brit

Just started looking into this blogging thing earlier this year and have been trawling around the place, reading.

Having begun to explore your blog may I say how enjoyable it is? (Except for the football. I like rugby. But there 'ou are, i'n'it?).

It's a fascinating new form of writing, don't you think?

Brit said...

It can be indeed, Gaw, and thanks. Comments are the lifeblood so you're doubly appreciated.

John said...

What a sad loss it will be knowing that you won't be coming back to Cardiff.

How will we survive??

Brit said...

Dutch courage, presumably.

But seriously - don't take it personally, or patriotically, John. The post isn't about Cardiff, that's just where I happened to be. Could have been any town in Britain.

Hey Skipper said...


You have out-Lileksed Lileks.

Having spent some time on the mud-peanut, I am sort of familiar with the British version of clubbing.

Even when I was in my twenties I loathed it.

... death traps and suicide raps ... A snippet from Born to Run?Yes, I think it is.

The most amazing thing, though, is how the human brain works.

One instant prior to reading that, had you asked me to recite any part of that song (other than "Born to Run", I would have been slack jawed.

String those five words together, though, and within a quarter second I had the song playing in my head.

Stephen said...

I think any city centre would present a similar picture on a weekend, Newcastle certainly does.

I wonder if the smoking ban exacerbates the situation? People being possibly more likely to start a scrap in the open air, where there aren't any bouncers to kick the stuffing out of them?

I blame much of the trouble on lager, seriously. It's hard to get up the energy for a ruck if you've been drinking something heavy like stout or proper ale all night whereas lager is comparatively light.

Anonymous said...

A boxer friend of mine, 34 now, reported about a year ago of sparring that he no longer enjoys being hit.

Elberry: 'no longer'...?

Bonehead: When you're young you like being hit, if your blood's up, it feels good, it wakes you up. Now I just think, 'why is this guy hitting me? why am I even here? I'd better hit him back to make him stop'

i try to avoid places where there are more males than females - the aggression in the air is as strong as the lager. Also, to be honest anywhere with lots of young men - when they've had a few they like the idea of a fight and are undeterred by practical considerations, eg that you might hit them back.

And Malty's right, this is great novel-material. i was on the train t'other day and remembered your line about the Best Man - i hate people like that but realise others wouldn't - you manage to avoid pinning him down too neatly: so someone arty like me could detest him but many other people would like him. That's good writing, when you can give a clear sense of a character but without forcing the reader to share (or violently reject) your own reaction - that way the character becomes somewhat 'real', 3-dimensional. It's very hard, to write with conviction & feeling and then withold your final judgement so the reader feels he's not in a 2-dimensional pre-determined maze, with everything decided for him (eg "you will hate this character").

Brit said...

Indeed, Skipper, there's a few Springsteenisms sprinkled in there. Bridgend - a town near Cardiff, is, unfortunately, literally a suicide rap.

Elberry - I think violence is quite easy to avoid even in the Saturday night free-for-all unless you actively seek it out. It's a bit of a game, never quite total anarchy I don't think. I've only ever been in one post-club fight and that was 9 years ago - an unprovoked attack by a typical tosser on one of my friends. It was unpleasant but also undeniably a buzz.

Sport is much more dangerous than clubbing. In various competitive activities I have broken my nose, a rib, a couple of toes, had a horrible ankle ligament tear etc...

(Thanks by the way. Of course the problem with novels is that you can't put videos and links in...)

martpol said...

Superbly written piece, Brit - well done, and I echo Kev's premature rejection of the ear-splitting bog-standard all-the-lads night out, as well as the sentiments about novel writing (mine's based in a semi-fictionalised Cardiff, by the way).

You're right, Cardiff city centre (or at least 2 or 3 streets of it) is an absolute hellhole on Saturday nights. There is, however, one oasis should you ever dare to cross the St Mary Street threshold again - Floyd's bar, which sits above a clothing shop.

We'll have to get you back down here later in the year for an alternative (and good) Cardiff night out that avoids the centre and takes in the last word in laid-back entertainment right now, Milgi.

Brit said...

That's a good point, actually. Cities are not so bad because there are still good places away from the strip. The market towns are worse hit becuase the strip is basically the whole place.