Monday, 6 September 2010
I love the sounds of the city. More precisely, the sounds of Cardiff. I'm in my fourth month of living here and alert to the surrounding new-ness. The place as a whole doesn't feel shiny new, as the roots of my social life have been embedded here for years. I've trodden the cobblestones of Womanby Street hopping over puddles betwixt bars, watched countless bands good and bad, celebrated over a decade worth of birthdays, and wandered the windy walk of the arcades on many a Saturday shopping afternoon. But my bed was in the valleys. So, before I could lay down my head after whichever activity I'd partaken in, a Hirwaun bound drive was necessary. A tedious, curse-littered, usually late-night, sometimes red-bull fuelled Hirwaun bound drive. There are worse things in the world, I know. But there are also better. Like the fact the long car journey has since been swapped for a very short walk; the terraced house a third floor flat. And the sounds of the valleys for the sounds of the city.
Mine is an old school valleys street. Where the homes were built for housing miners and iron workers in the 1800 -1900s and their proximity perfect for gossiping in the 2000s. I loved it and sometimes loathed it in parallel parts. My place was my own, decorated with care, had a mountain view and was two minutes walk from my family and/or the pub. It'd score well on Location, location, location. But sometimes it felt like those surrounding mountains were closing in, their grassy slopes slipping forward at night, seemingly shrinking the space available to move, to live, to be myself - slowly stifling. The street itself also seemed to whittle down in width each day, the neighbours' houses advancing, their eyes fixing closer to my windows. And oh, they watched. Eyes were upon me as I got into my car every morning, and on my meeting them the owner would scurry to arrange a picture frame or adjust curtains. As I mowed my lawn, I'd be observed from upstairs windows, and told the length of time it had been since my last grass cutting. Good of them to make a note. The most audacious neighbourly encounter occurred when a request was made for my apple tree. "Because you aren't much of a gardener, are you love, and them are the best apples I've ever tasted. Ever. In my life." Not a request for the fruits of my tree. A request for ownership of the whole thing, roots and all. It was not granted.
I'm positive I wasn't the subject of fascination, that there was no intrigue as to the person I am, what makes me unique and makes up my every day life. It's just a small street, in a small place, where many inhabitants live small lives in the sense their footfall, their mileage travelled, is minimal. Some rarely leave the village. So, those who exist within this small world are subject to scrutiny. The people within the hundred year old stone terraces provide the stimulus, a live soap opera for fellow residents with little else to do but watch.
There are plus points to living in a goldfish bowl. When I locked myself out late one night and stood shivering on the doorstep waiting for my dad to deliver a spare key, I received several offers of cups of tea and shelter from neighbours who emerged from their houses bearing help, obviously having viewed me on Street Soap Opera Live through their crystal clear HD windows. Early one morning I was attempting to bundle a tumble dryer into my car that I'd sold to a work colleague. I tried to hug it with both arms, heaving it millimetre sized distances along the pavement. I'd been struggling just seconds when three blokes, probably instructed by their wives, came rushing out and completed the job with ease. I can't fault the friendliness, the willingness to help. But at the same time, these acts were born from being observed, the need for help identified under a life size magnifying glass. I felt the squeeze of the small world. The valleys don't have to be restrictive. If you employ an open mind and seek your stimulus of choice elsewhere, it's possible to appreciate their beauty, the characters, the warmth, the history. That had been my strategy for a long time, but sometimes an open mind can only stretch so far before you feel the valley family inadvertently wrap their reptile-like, scaly lengths around you, constricting ideas and freedom of thought. I really felt the squeeze of the small world.
Surroundings are best listened to whilst in bed. As night time lays its blue-black blanket down, and tucks in the cities and villages and streets and hills, the sounds which exist outside of sleep become pronounced. There is a comfort in being enveloped in warm duvets and cwtshed amongst plump pillows within a quiet room, whilst the world still awake gently whirrs on outside. It's a pocket of safety and solitude whilst being connected by the sounds seeping through an open window. Lying in bed in Hirwaun, I'd hear the voices so familiar. The voice which asked for my apple tree as if asking for the traditional neighbourly favour of a cup of sugar. There'd be the fleeting blast of a 200 bpm dance track escaping from the tarted up Citroen Saxo of a boy racer, squealing tyres indicating departure after depositing his girlfriend next door. Inebriated men stumbled home from the pub, half-heartedly fumbling with keys before loudly rapping front doors, receiving sharp words from their wives whilst being ushered inside. Each sound was identifiable to an owner, linked to their image and stories and an entire history I couldn't help being aware of.
Riverside is different. My street is wide and the buildings tall. There are terraces and blocks of flats and terraces split into blocks of flats. There is a Muslim school and mosque on one side of the street, and Bangladeshi Centre on the other. It is punctuated by hostels and b&bs and guesthouses. It's en route to town, Bute Park and Canton, the River Taff and Riverside Market. Tens, maybe hundreds of people live in this street and hundreds, maybe thousands pass through. It would be virtually impossible to pinpoint a sound to an individual, unless they had an exploding car or spoke only with the aid of a megaphone. It is immediately bordered by water, not mountains. There is a sense of the wider city and suburbs beyond. It is moving with a moving people, who, at least on the surface, have interests outside of what their windows expose.
I now explore the city as a resident rather than a guest, and I absorb it. I feel the energies and histories and souls of the Cardiffians gone by; and the stories and passions and secrets and longings and evils and regrets of the contemporaries. I feel like a fragment of the place, like the tiniest jigsaw piece imaginable. The impact of my absence would be infinitesimal, but I feel I belong. As I lie in bed at night, a hush settled upon the flat, windows ajar and wooden blinds pulled closed, I hear a distant hum of late night traffic on rain slicked roads, interposed by the boisterous pull of the train as its horn accents its passing through the city. Rain is glugged greedily by flooded drains, joining fat rain drops to make a watery pavement percussion, the beat becoming less pronounced as puddles swell and cushion the rainfall. A mishmash of accents and languages join in conversations throughout the night, at 12.30, 2, 4, 5am. The Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, calls out a summons for Fard Salah. Sirens and clock chimes are a background soundtrack. The hums of Riverside are anonymous, they reflect diversity. My street is 24 hour noise, it is anti-silence, yet I feel at peace.
Whilst lying in Bute Park recently, I pondered the effect of city sounds. The hum of traffic and sirens and clock chimes were again background music, a distant layer of noise. Yet peace prevailed in the park. I imagined sounds as layers, as if a sense of quiet can only be pervaded by noise of closer proximity to our ears, a few layers in. When we are protected by large expanses of grass and trees, all iced by a pale blue frosting laced with wispy white clouds, the serenity is safe, the clatter and noise many layers away. People lounge languorously on blankets, chat in hushed voices, they read, they write, they kiss, they sleep. And perhaps, as a wise man recently pointed out to me, people in cities are able to feel calm because they hear city sounds. City sounds are a comfort, a reminder of both connection and anonymity, a reminder of the fact the mountains are not closing in on us.