When Cardiff is like a Film Noire

THE TRAVELODGE that I stayed in was wonderful. Or it would have been if I’d been on a Stag weekend (that’s Bachelor Party to North American readers). It was not the right choice for a business trip.

Cardiff is great city. Friendly people, good shopping, great nightlife, beautiful surrounding countryside. A good place to hang out. I know all this because I have been there before. And for that I am grateful, because otherwise I would have a very dim view of the city indeed. A dim view based on limited factors it’s true, but when travelling to a new place sometimes all it can take is a friendly smile or a snide remark to shape your view of a place. Even with an open mind, a catalogue of these things can turn you into a falling domino-line of judgement, seeking the swiftest escape possible from a place. Frankly, if the quickest way to leave Cardiff had been, through some weird timewarp, to paradrop over Normandy in 1944, I’d have given it some serious consideration.

Red leaves, reminiscent of the red scales of the welsh dragon… a tenuous link? You bet it is. I have no photos of my 24 hours in Cardiff, because a) I didn’t have my camera with me and b) I wanted to forget it. So instead, you have these calming pictures of autumn taken in Oxleas Wood, Welling, London, yesterday. As my blood pressure was rising in Cardiff, this was the happy place I went to in my mind.

So. The Travelodge. I arrived in Cardiff at about 8.45pm. I was initially misdirected by a taxi driver (“you don’t need a taxi, it’s that building right in front of you.” No it wasn’t. But you can’t go back to the taxi rank once you’ve been given directions, never mind how wrong they were. You’ve just got to forge ahead regardless. Otherwise you’re not just a clueless tourist but stupid too. I’m pretty sure that’s the law). It was raining.

I tramped through the centre of Cardiff to my hotel. I passed takeaways and pubs, clubs and bars. Sure, there were loads of other shops, but it was nearly 9pm and they were all closed, their shopfronts dark. Through the drizzle, it seemed like the only thing in Cardiff was booze. As I passed girls in six inch heels and six inch skirts, I felt like an extra in a government sponsored binge-drinking awareness advert.

Autumn leaves are highlighted by a shaft of October sun, slanting down exactly like sunshine doesn’t in Cardiff.

I arrived at the hotel, which was situated “in the heart of Cardiff,” i.e. on the busy main street packed with pubs and clubs, Queen Street. It was raining. I was wet.

How convenient, I thought, this would be if I were in a drinking mood. Not only is Cardiff’s vibrant nightlife literally on my doorstep, but the reception also doubles up as a bar. There were beer taps right there on the reception. Food was served 24 hours a day in a little room next to the reception (“it’s not just a restaurant, it’s like a takeaway place at the end of the night – all in the comfort of your hotel”). There were clear signs about how to behave, in several different languages (“WE WILL NOT TOLERATE ANY ABUSE OF OUR RECEPTION STAFF”). And when I’d checked in and arrived in my small, sparse but functional room, I was naturally overjoyed to discover that there was a bottle opener screwed onto the desk, so that I could enjoy some pre-loading in the comfort of my own room before heading on my fictional night out. And from the sounds of things I wouldn’t have to move far to experience the noise and atmosphere of a pub. In fact, I could enjoy these things sitting on my bed: the shouting was distinct and music spilled in from the window, ready to fill any uncomfortable silences.

I quickly changed and headed out into the rain again. The bright neon lights of a noodle bar dragged me through the darkness, its warm glow promising respite from the constant drizzle. I wasn’t eating alone in Wagamama’s, I was Deckard out of Blade Runner, moodily fuelling myself up before running down some simulants. I read my Murakami book (Kafka on the Shore, in case you were wondering), stared at my fellow diners and devoured a plate of yaki udon.

Then I headed back to the Travelodge. Since I had last ventured onto the dark streets of Cardiff, the heels had seemed to get higher, the skirts shorter, the walking more unsteady. Time for bed, I thought, to dream of electric sheep.

But as I sat in my room and listened to the music which had started up in the club next door, along with the serenading of “Surfin’ in the USA” which I was receiving from a Karaoke who-knows-where, I began to think that sleep may prove a little elusive…

…calming autumn colours in the sunlight. My Happy Place. There’s no stress here in the woods, no anger, only sunshine. No anger. No anger…

…so I went and complained. There was nothing they could do about the noise. Did they have any earplugs? A cursory glance in a box full of electronics gear ascertained that they didn’t have any. Not headphones, earplugs. Oh. No, they didn’t have any of those either. But wait! They did have some cotton wool. They bought it for the hoover, apparently (I never got to the bottom of why). But I was welcome to two cotton wool balls. Being British, I naturally thanked them for their time, apologised for troubling them and then retreated to my room.

THE COTTON wool balls didn’t work. The thing that they couldn’t stop was the way that the room shook with the bass from the club. That would have taken a lot more cotton wool, more even that they’d bought for the hoover. I was in a quandry. The thing is, the reception staff were actually really nice, helpful, and polite. But they couldn’t help me. This wasn’t their fault, I was just in the wrong hotel. What did I expect for £34 per night? Little men in bowler hats opening the door for me? I’d already complained once. The British thing would just be to put up with it, not to cause a fuss. The room shuddered in time with the beat. Rain splashed down the windows. What would Deckard do, I wondered?

So I did the most un-British of things. I packed my bags, told the reception staff that I was leaving and headed out into the night. What would Deckard do? He’d clearly book another hotel on Laterooms.com. And as I walked through the rain for the fourth time that night, I passed a group of about ten students standing around a busker, singing Champagne Supernova at the top of their voices:

Wake up the dawn and ask her why
A dreamer dreams she never dies
Wipe that tear away now from your eye
Slowly walking down the hall
Faster than a cannon ball
Where were you when we were getting high?

Amidst the darkness and the wet of dystopian Cardiff, the singing brought a smile to my lips, and I was happy that someone was having fun. I just wished that they’d do it a bit quieter. So I resolved to do that most British of things, and to write a strongly worded letter.

It’s a funny thing the way strange and beautiful life is found even amidst damp, darkness and decay.