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.