Friday, 26 February 2010

Red Dragon (ddraig coch) and the Sights of Cardiff

After the reading in Shotton, a small town near Chester just across the border into Wales, I now have a red dragon, protector and companion. Horatio might be his name, because he clearly has a heroic nature, being willing to travel out of his native valleys into the Scottish countryside which is, once again, lightly carpeted with snow. Horatio is a good traveller, uncomplaining, colourful and ready to leap to the defence. I suspect that he's allied with the Dragon Ways of Chinese geomancy, lord of the currents of energy that can enhance or dissipate according to the sweep of valleys, the winding of rivers, the native guardian spirits of place and the way we interact with them. The fundamental principle of Feng shui is the removal of clutter. I'm hoping that Horatio's fiercely benign presence will at the very least, remind me to keep my desk tidy, get rid of clutter on a regular basis and maybe even help me to organise my life better.

I always enjoy reading at Shotton, for the people are so very friendly. The next day Maureen and I went for a walk in Wepre wood, which has a small lake, home to many ducks, an ancient ruined castle where battles were fought in the dark days when Welsh and English princes clashed, and a few resident ghosts. There used to be an old manor house which was sadly demolished in the 1960s, and old photographs show grand staircases, marble fireplaces and gorgeously carved furniture.
Red and gold stained glass dragons above the entrance of the Prince of Wales pub in Cardiff. It rains, a bitter drizzle, egged on by a slanting wind. The covered markets remind me of Parisian passages - Verdeau, la Madelaine. A huge stuffed bear in the window of a tobacconist's. I wander into second hand bookshops, catch snippets of conversation from a retired gent who reminisces about his teaching days.

In the food market one of the stalls sells baklava. I wait while the stall owner shifts some things around on the floor, only the hat-covered top of his head visible to me. When he stands up it becomes clear that we are wearing twin hats, or almost, mock fur with warm ear flaps. There is something so funny about this that we beam at each other as if we were old friends. You want two baklava he says, anything else? He insists I try a dried strawberry. I pay him for the baklava and he gives me another strawberry. He wants to know if I live here. No, Scotland, I say. And you, where are you from? Where do you think he asks. Greece? Turkey? Greece, Russia, Iran, he says. You like it here? I ask. Very much. I come here to study and I sell these things to make money, but I want to stay here always. And you, how long are you here for? I'm leaving the next day. Ah, a pity, he sighs. He then tips yoghurt-covered sunflower seeds, raisins and cranberries into a small plastic bag and hands it to me. I try to pay him for these but he refuses to take it.

The opera house in Cardiff is close to the bay. Over the entrance it has a huge overhanging roof made of copper plates stitched together, which gleam gold in the evening light. This massive roof is supported by a small glass structure, like the slender stem of a wine glass. It looks fragile, near to impossible, a slip of a glass thing under this imposing metal structure, like an inverted pyramid. Across the copper overhang in Welsh and English, is written In These Stones Horizons Sing. The outside walls bordering the illuminated entrance are of layered slate, in various shades of dusky purple, reflecting their origins in different slate quarries of north Wales. These horizontal lines of slate striations copy the old walls of Constantinople, and are deliberate echoes of these walls, parts of which are still standing, so Peter, personal tour guide and consultant historian, tells me. So that the singing horizons referred to stretch from what was I imagine, the most westerly province of the Roman Empire, right across the landscape of Europe, to resonate in The City, as Constantinople was known. So these layers of subtle slate shades reverberate through time as well as space.

A quick crossing of wet flagstones takes us to the Senned. It gazes out across the bay. Its structure is a little like Yggdrasil, the trunk rising up in the middle, inside, and its curving branches forming a solid wooden hood – protective, knowledgeable, who can say, but a covering for sure, of slatted wood. Inside you can peer down below and gain a glimpse, through a visible outer rim uncovered by the tree canopy, of the assembly members, or their desks. We spy one, working at his computer. It's possible to get a better view of them all, by sitting in the public gallery, surrounding the assembly like an amphitheatre – though there are panes of glass between you and them. The view out over the bay is magnificent, with the lights turning pink and an old red brick harbour master building adjoining the Senned, turned into a miniature verging on fairy tale castle, misplaced and slightly dreaming.

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