Saturday, November 29, 2008

"From Despair to Where?"

With the news early this week that Richey Edwards had finally been declared dead after almost 14 years, my mind drifted back to my one and only trip to Wales.

I was in England for almost three weeks for work in early 2000, a trip that was rapidly souring me on all the things that I had loved about England only a year earlier.

The only bright spot of this working trip had been one night when I had gotten lost walking around Croydon in the rain. I had money for a cab but was trying to save my my money for more CD's -- not that I had seen any cabs where I was -- and I finally stumbled into the first establishment I could find: a pub, naturally.

But it was a great pub. It was as if someone had read my mind and given me a brief glimpse of the England that I loved; it looked vaguely like the bar in Fawlty Towers (!) for a very quick and easy reference point.

And as I sipped my bitter in that pub with the train-motif, amidst a bunch of older British guys, I felt a bit out of place; I was this sweaty and wet American who had obviously just kind of wandered into the place, lost and looking for my way back to my hotel.

But, almost nine years later, my bitterness about the "working" part of my trip to England is forgotten now that I remember that 20 minutes or so I spent lifting my glass in that pub, savoring the kind of "Englishness" I always loved.

Now, on to Wales.

Since I was in England working, I didn't have a lot of time to spend travelling around. A year earlier, in 1999, my friend and I had spent our vacation seeing London, Liverpool, Manchester, and Wolverhampton (that one only for a concert).

And, now, I was determined to see Wales since it was the only ethnic heritage I could claim as my own.

I can't trace my ancestors back to the pilgrims like someone I once worked with.

And it's really boring being a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant in the American suburbs so I kind of clung to the fact that I'm only four generations removed from something else: Wales, in this case, with my mom's father's grandfather probably being the first off the boat from Wales with the very common Welsh name Davies (good luck playing Alex Haley with that).

So my friend had come over to enjoy England again since I had a free room in Croydon. And I was determined to make it to Cardiff if only for a day.

And it was only for a day -- my birthday, actually -- and we got there late on Saturday, March 4, 2000 riding a National Express bus, me listening to the latest Oasis CD on my Discman.

My first impression was that Cardiff was a bit like Baltimore with a castle. Take that as an insult or a compliment as you see fit. We hit the pubs, expecting to hear Welsh bands being played like the Manics and Catatonia but we only heard Shania Twain and, I think, one Stereophonics song as they were still a bit new at the time even for their home turf.

Then, hung over the next morning, we had breakfast at a Burger King within sight of a castle on suddenly clean streets that only hours before had been covered with broken bottles and vomit. And then we caught a bus and headed back for London.

Not much of a trip but at least I had gone there once on what was largely a very personal symbolic trip.

I didn't try to retrace Richey's footsteps, or lay a wreath at his home or something. No, I just wanted a sense of where so many great bands that I loved had come from.

I did suddenly feel the weight of history in Liverpool when passing the school where Lennon and McCartney met and I suddenly realized how real the Beatles were -- not just magical cartoon Englishmen in "Yellow Submarine."

And I know some people probably look up every Morrissey reference in Manchester.

But in Cardiff I just wanted to breathe the air and walk the streets and, somehow, I feel like that was good enough for a start.

And it's not simply the Welsh bit that made me want to be there; there are deeper reasons that I locked onto the Manics -- I can't imagine anyone going to Cardiff because the Stereophonics were so inspiring -- but those are things I can post about later.

A few photos

The castle is the sometimes mocked Cardiff Castle which is a bit disconcerting to see upon stumbling out of a hotel room, a bit hungover, early on a crisp March Sunday morning.

In this photo, I think our bus was on the main Severn Bridge going back into England and the pictures are of the Second Severn Crossing.

This photo below was taken right as we were getting on the bridge from Wales for England with the end of Wales on the right there, near where the spot that Richey left his car and left this world?

(And, yeah, the two bridge photos aren't great *but* they were taken from inside a moving bus using a cheap, disposable camera so, all that considered, they're not that bad.)