Under the Same Sun

When Butetown was being built up, as it hoisted itself up on steel, flexed its muscles on the back of coal, and dipped its toes into the sea, it took pride in a population formed from over fifty foreign nations.  This was certainly the case by the time Archduke Ferdinand took the bullet, blasting us into World War One.

The cutting of the Suez Canal, completed in 1869, had connected the lip of the Red Sea in a Mediterranean kiss across Egypt’s heart, cutting the journey time between Britain and Asia, and bringing Somalian sailors to the coal-quick port of Cardiff.  Some came, some went.  Some never went home, feeling, as it happened, quite at home in Cardiff, settling in between the Greeks and the Arabs, the Chinese and French, the Yemense and Irish and dozens more besides.  In a sea port, significant throughout the world, with imports and exports, pubs a foot apart, cultures were crammed together, rubbed shoulders, held hands.

Religions worked it out between themselves, laying foundations in the soil and in society.  The first Mosque in Wales first peeped its head onto Peel Street, a make-shift mosque made from a trio of houses.  Bombed during the next World War, a new Mosque took shape in 1947 only to be replaced in 1988 by the Mosque of today.  Across the way in a now non-existent East Terrace, the Jewish shopkeepers and pawnbrokers of Bute Street brought the first synagogue to Cardiff in 1858, having outgrown the rented rooms of Trinity Street.

There were Welsh speaking chapels and Huguenot churches churned out by French exiles, and the beautiful byzantine Greek Orthodox Church, breathing in the air since 1906, boasting the name of Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors.  At the head of West Bute Dock was St Paul’s Roman Catholic Church, crowded by Irish immigrants, slowly squeezing out the Welsh speaking Anglican Church of All Saints all the way across the bridge to Adamsdown.  It was, for a while, a daughter church of St Mary’s whose own memory had been resurrected in 1843, and which stands, twin towered, at the top lip of Bute Street.

Race relations weren’t always rosy.  In the sailors strike of 1911, Chinese laundries and lodging houses were set ablaze, and some white people felt their living threatened by ‘blackleg’ labourers who stepped across the picket line.  There are always cracks.

Life was different then, of course, and much the same.  Different times, but the same stubborn human nature, naturally inclined to difference, yet inquisitive, open minded, fascinating, frightening. It’s not the same Butetown that some people speak of today, that some seem to remember.  But what kind of community worth its weight stands still, stands back?

The “immigration question” juggled about today, and which has become Referendum rife, wasn’t so much a question then, it seems, but a statement of fact, an answer to the need, a natural response to the way things were, the way things were going, the way things needed to be in order for a community to grow, for a town to become a city, for a city to become the capital of a country which is surrounded by sea on three sides, and shares a border which hasn’t itself always experienced a happy coming and going.  The UK, for a while, appears to be divided. There is nothing new under the sun.  Not whilst we all live under the same sun.

The Bells of St Mary’s

Some years ago, my late morning sleep was somewhat spent as I woke to a constant, distant, thud, thud, thud.  It happened every few seconds, and it echoed round the place where I live, puncturing the day, every day, and I had no idea where the sound came from or what it was.  I blamed it on the industrial units nearby, known for the bang and clatter of metal, though not as mentally taunting as this particular din.   Frustrated by the pure Chinese Torture of it all, I contacted the council who couldn’t help and then, disappointed by their lack of success, I walked the beat to find the beat, seeking out the sound.  It simply turned out to be a building site on Dumballs Road where piles were being driven into the ground for the foundations of Cardiff and Vale College, digging, driving deep down so that the city can grow up and out.  As soon as I knew what made the sound my frustration was allayed, and lay simply with the fact that the contractors hadn’t prepared us (me?) for the noise.  The sounds have now returned again, each day from eight ’til four, as the further foundations of Dumballs Road and Tyndall Street and the site of Central Station are prepared for more growing up and growing out.

Some years ago, my predecessor priest and friend, Fr Graham, had received a phone call from the council.  Someone had complained about the Sunday morning bells, beckoning the faithful to Mass in one of his other churches across the River Taff in Grangetown.  Did it need to be as long, as loud, as lingeringly early?  The priest put up his case, that the bells had rung each Sunday for as long as the church had been there.  Thirty three rings, each year of the Lord’s earthly life.  The conversation came to an end.  The bells still ring. I remember my Great Aunty Pat, now long dead, had made the same complaint of the church near to her home in the Rhondda. That was before her illness, her elderliness, had taken her to hospital.  One day, I received a call that she was close to death.  By the time I arrived, she had died, and so all I could do was stand by her bedside and offer the prayers for her journey home, whispering words over her, hoping that they helped, knowing that the words, in life, would have made no sense to her.  Perhaps.

Some years ago, one of the towers at St Mary’s was equipped with digital bells.  The tower took some clearing out.  Decades (a century?) of pigeon poop, a foot, two foot, three foot high.  The bells, a gift in memory of Fr Jordan a previous parish priest, couldn’t have been installed under a better custodian than Fr Graham for whom the bells gave great delight. In addition to the horde of hymn tunes which could hit the high notes, each day at 12noon and 6pm the Angelus rings out, three sets of three chimes, followed by a nine.  The bells accompany the praying of a litany of love which remembers the Incarnation.  They puncture time, they measure time, to remember the moment when God the timeless One took flesh and blood from Mary, saving us from where we are with all the matter and the mess we make.

Sometimes, depending on the weather and the wind, the sound of St Mary’s bells can be heard across Lloyd George Avenue, and deep down into the heart of Loudoun Square and perhaps, on a good day, at the edge of the city centre, where the Hayes spreads out.  The other day, as I walked home from the local shop, carrying a pint or two of milk up the length of Lloyd George Avenue, I found myself reciting the Angelus, even before I consciously realised the mid-day bells had stirred me into prayer.  For some, the Angelus ring may be a distantly irritating sound, sub-consciously heard, brushed to the back of the mind, misunderstood.  But someone, somewhere, is praying the Angelus, whispering words that may or may not make sense to those who happen to hear, remembering the time when the matter and the mess we make is met by the Incarnate God.

And so the city digs down in order to grow up and out, puncturing the day with its rhythmic sounds heard between the city and the bay.  Between the beats of metal battling with rock and soil, the Angelus still rings out on Bute Street, puncturing the air, each day at noon and dusk.  Perhaps, as the city grows up and out, the pile-driving offers another litany of its own, secular, seeking something better, bigger, brighter, not knowing that the earth into which it drives has already felt the touch of the divine, and feels it still.