Cardiff: A Different Man

Posted by in Culture, Travel


March 12 1983 is the date I left New Zealand to return to the UK and Wales so this date has historical significance. Time and resources dictate swift action so London is lost, exchanged for the M4. Three decades later, ten years after leaving, seven years since my last visit and five years in China it was time to press reset. Before long the familiar view of the two Severn crossings lay before me.

Cardiff is modern but at the same time feels a little worn and a bit like going to your granny’s house after the gleaming towers of new town Guangzhou. The changes are most dramatic around central station where the new BBC building is taking shape, the bay (Gloworks) and parts of Cathays (again new – to me – Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, the CUBRIC university buildings on Salisbury Road and the Sherman Theatre for starters). 

In my Helsinki piece I mention not knowing the cities we visit intimately and only being able to digest what we see in that moment. With Cardiff there is a personal history. It is my capital. It is a city I’ve lived in and a city I’ve been coming to since 1984!


The Virgin store on Castle Street (where co-incidently I first saw Wang Chung’s Points on the Curve in all its shrink-wrapped vinyl glory, resplendent in graphic grey and jade type  – perhaps an inkling of my future Oriental life) which morphed into comic book haven Forbidden Planet had again changed face to Mountain Warehouse.

The old British Gas building near Queen Street Station (itself revamped) is now a Premier inn. The Primark (British UNI QLO) has moved from one side of Queen Street to the other. St Mary Street has been transformed into a part pedestrian zone flanked by Welsh flags. The biggest shock of all though is the once thriving Capital Centre is now more or less deserted!

Where the old Virgin megastore stood (it had moved there from Castle St) is now a TESCO and this brings me to my next point. Cardiff now appears to be little more than a city food court. Greggs, Starbucks and supermarkets make up a big percentage of what is currently on offer.


I see how expensive my country is compared to China, the middle kingdom. When I left a standard sized Snickers was 45p. It’s now around 80! Incredibly, the same meal deal I tell my students about still exists at YATES pub on Greyfriars Road; Fish and Chips for £3.75? You bet.

Better still not only has the Chinese place Papa Panda on St Mary St survived it’s joined by Wok to Walk and another – CHOPSTIX – on Queen Street. No Chinese staff that I saw so not exactly authentic but westernized oriental food never is. *Since writing this the Yates meal deal has stopped and the Panda has also ceased business. In both cases it’s almost as if they were waiting on my return before calling it a day.

The other pleasant surprise is how warm the people are. I’d heard this previously but as my experience during my Cardiffian days in the noughties were solely British and never noticed. Now returning from many months of international travel it’s resolutely clear. ‘Alright my lovely’ from complete strangers seems crazy though positively and gratefully received!

Best of all though is the change in me. No longer letting trivial things get the better of me. Suddenly everything is as I thought it would be. China seems like a strange dream – did it really happen? At the local Chinese take-away I attempt a clumsy and slightly embarrassing ‘Ni Hao.’ Although oriental in appearance the woman stares back at me and utters a definitively Kairdiff ‘alright, you been there is it?’ 

At TESCO one of the cashiers asks me if it feels strange to be back. I give an affirmative. Where language had been reduced to a wash of sound I could once again understand what people were saying. Titbits of urban life, fragments of other people’s worlds and lives. I could order a coffee or go to a movie without using a dictionary or translation app.

Now I appreciated English, the language I am fortunate enough to speak more than ever. Was there a time when reverse culture shock kicks in or did it not apply to me? Or to put it another way, having undertaken so much travel was I immune?

One thing I was keen to avoid was the British winter. I took due diligence returning via surface transport through France, Luxembourg and Belgium but my plan spectacularly backfires when a miniature snow storm sends temperatures plummeting. Not good. I was in for a late spring in more ways than one.


Across Blackweir bridge, Pontcanna fields are scanned from wincing eyes in the icy chill as I ferry myself across surprised they have not yet become more houses. In the village itself the coffee shops have diminished. Only Brava is left standing as are the exclusive members clubs down the end. The Italian consulate is still a house on Kings road.

Canton remains as busy as ever and reigns supreme as hub to many of Cardiff’s charity shops (or op-shops if you’re reading in Australia). The Ivor Davies pub stands proud and on this day might as well have been an ICEHOUSE (pun intended).

These days it’s framed by chic eateries like Bangkok Cafe, Dubai Nights and the Eurasian Tandoori. Chapter arts center has also been transformed. More space and while it was often a salvation for notices there are slim pickings. Most are for community events or to give blood.

A Chinese woman in thick yellow puff jacket arrives with her offspring and I manage a proper Ni Hao! Aside the incident above, it’s the first time I’ve spoken Chinese in the ‘diff. Perhaps it really did happen. She (a genuine Chinese) responds but is otherwise busy with her purchase while her kids look up silently bemused who this world weary traveller could be.


My return coincides with the final six nations game (against France), the China Cup and Easter though it’s so cold you could be forgiven for thinking it was Christmas. Walking back to Rhiwbina on a cold rainy night may not sound like much to write about but for the air scented by toasted hot cross buns, the wet shiny streets reflect traffic lights and the stark leafless trees are lit by streetlight. This was magic Cardiffian style.


Whenever I return to Cardiff I think about where else I’ve been and weigh up the similarities. Some years ago I wrote about ‘seeing the city through a new set of eyes’ and that still rings true. Could the bay be a mini Barceloneta? Yes it could. Does the creative quarter rival Helsinki’s design district? Of course. Is Roath or Bute park be as good as any other in Europe? Yep.

We have it all, though are still living with the blinkers on, lax in promoting our capital which in some ways is good. Hopefully we will never see the foot fall of London, Paris or New York. And in turn, will hopefully never see the tourist fuelled hate scrawled on walls that Barcelona has.    

While China and the east basked in the 20s, Cardiff was still chilly, struggling to break into double figures. Normally by now my winter garb would’ve been washed and packed away. This year was different and I had no option to wear the same few tops day in day out, grateful I’d kept them and my seldom used sleeping bag.

Magic or not, Cardiff wasn’t going to come easy. It was the right city but like Paris, like Shenzhen it may never be home. Even in my own country I was forever the outsider; a dreamer, a poet from the past, it might have been winter, it should have been spring, one thing was for certain I was a different man (and most definitely the eternal nomad).


Visit the UNIVERSITY page for my teaching philosophy, and the ATLAS for more culture articles. Buy my books on the Gumroad. Visit Cardiff official site here.

*Songs I’ve either heard or purchased in the ‘diff over the years.
Points on the Curve (album) – Wang Chung
Wot’s It To Ya (Single) – Robbie Nevil
Something Got Me Started (Perfecto Mix)(Single) – Simply Red
Sorry and Glad Together (from Umbrella) – The Innocence Mission
Loveblows and Lovecries (album) – No-Man
A Different Man (from A Different Man) – Peter Kingsbery
Through the Hill (from Through the Hill) – Andy Partridge Harold Budd
Path Not Taken (from Things Buried) – Richard Barbieri
Mending a Secret (from Tender Extinction) – Steve Jansen
Cardiff Afterlife (from Lifeblood) – Manic Street Preachers

Photo Credits: KH except the Wang Chung image from

*this trip home would not have been possible without the aid of a friend whose generosity knows no bounds. I remain in his debt and ever grateful.

**for anoraks, A Different Man as mentioned on the PLAYLIST above, is of course the debut recording by Peter Kingsbery and I mention it as it was purchased in Cardiff HMV in 1993, a couple of doors up from its present site.

***view the Cardiff snow over on my You Tube channel.
Rhiwbina Snow