Cardiff: The new kid in big school

Has Cardiff become a great city, or great big mall?

Thousands of houses and apartments have been built in what are now trendy areas of Cardiff, the Bay, the city centre and Roath, but why is there a demand for apartments in Cardiff?

Has the population of Cardiff grown? Are more people naturalising here? According to census figures, no.

And if they were, why would they come? Is Cardiff a cultural mecca? No, we have an opera house, some small theatres, and one exception to that rule, Chapter.
Is Cardiff a foodies paradise? No, we don’t even have one Michelin starred restaurant – it’s mostly chains, with a few good independents thrown in.
Is Cardiff a place where music grows up? Not really, but only because the live music scene isn’t allowed to thrive in Cardiff – I think because its councillors are grumpy old men, banging on the wall shouting “Turn down that racket!” – every time a venue license in granted the venue is put under pressure to soundproof, an expensive process. We almost lost The Globe on Albany Road this year for that reason, and two years ago the The Point in Cardiff Bay had to shut after they spent £10,000 soundproofing, a cost that they would later find they could not recoup.

What does Cardiff have? A hell of a lot of shops and way too many bars, are people really given good reasons to come to live in Cardiff?
Oh sure, a lot of people come here for events at the stadium and the Millennium Centre, and even more come down for the nightlife, for a stag or hen party, but I can’t imagine why anyone would come here to live day-to-day, over somewhere else like Bristol, Bath or Manchester.

Cardiff councils’ local development plan is a shambles, it’s been thrown out more times than a used Kleenex and now I can only imagine that it’s a crumpled up piece of paper with “GET MORE BIG CHAINS TO OPEN SHOPS” scrawled on it.
Cardiff city council seem to have got an idea from somewhere that the sign of a successful city is that brands like Hugo Boss, TGI Fridays, Starbucks and John Lewis want to open stores, and that developers want to build houses and bars, and for this they are given all the support and some.
Where others would have to go through years of consultations and the rigmoral of dealing with the planning department, developers like Land Securities Group (St David’s developers) are given all the assistance they need to get their applications through successfully and above all, quickly.
It took my parents 8 months to successfully apply to have the extension on their house widened by 4 feet; by that standard, to demolish half of the city, rework traffic routes and rebuild, the application for the new St David’s shopping centre should have taken 25+ years to go through.

What is this fascination with big business that makes the heads of Cardiff councillors swell? Is it some kind of foolish playground notion that “if the cool kids talk to me, that makes me cool too”?
Cardiff needs more centres of cultural activity, and by that I don’t mean a firework festival that’s sponsored by McDonalds. We need more Chapter arts centres, more independent restaurants, more street activities, more meetings of minds, more creative opportunities.
There is only so much that individuals or groups of like-minded people can do. Rent and rates in Cardiff city centre are too high for independents to survive, most of the time, this is why we have seen closures of restaurants like Bali; and bigger projects are given too much power to affect the city as a whole, as seen during the St David’s project where most of the city’s arcade shops almost went bust because of the size and impact of the works. Cardiff city council need to sit up, think of its citizens and not the travellers that they could possibly attract. We live here, they don’t.

Not a hint of sarcasm

Having been online for 14 years, and having a active websites detailing my day-to-day life and thoughts for 13 of those years is a long time, I recently wrote about the history of my online life – the different iterations of those websites, the birth of the “blog” and how I had grown up, and how so had my writing.

There have been periods of controversy in response to some of the posts, times where I have had to seriously consider ethics before writing and some serious lapses of judgement, which I regret.

In the early days, when I was still a child, I was handed something that kids these days take for granted – the gift of being able to express oneself to everybody with a modem. It wasn’t as easy as it is today, where a blog can be created in seconds, in the case of Tumblr, by filling out three boxes on a website. I had to learn how to code in HTML and work out how to upload the files to webspace, but I was enthusiastic so it didn’t take too long.

Before long I had notoriety amongst other young teenagers in Cardiff, not just in my own school, as the kid who had a website and wrote about a school life like they had, they could identify with me.

Miss Jeffries almost had a breakdown in class today, she wants us to achieve but we aren’t interested. We are, but we’re teenagers, we have other things on our minds. We can do it and we’ve promised that we will, but I can see us not living up to her expectations somehow. This saddens me.

I had my picture up on the site; I was stopped in the street, I was occasionally pointed and laughed at, I made some friends that I still keep in contact with today. This was all pre-2001, before I left high-school and before blogging was popularised by people like Jason Kottke. Word of mouth was key at this time, Google was still really in its infancy and any kind of directory of people who wrote online was still a little-way off – I was in the minority, and this is why the website was popular.

As the years went by and website names changed, until I arrived at “Hint of Sarcasm” in 2003, my writing style changed from diaristic to columinst but I still use these back-posts to track my personal development.

I feel that I have come a long way, the last 10 years have been remarkable in places and at points so dire I seriously attempted to no longer continue. After many years of erratic behaviour – where one week I’d go out of my way to organise parties and to make new friends and the next I would lock myself in my bedroom, skip school or work and not switch the lights on, followed then by months of self-destruction with booze, drugs and week long parties, I was diagnosed with a condition called Bipolar disaffectedness disorder. This was after two life-threatening personally afflicted hospitalisations, and many more serious abuses of my own body, which I am still struggling to comes to terms with.

Writing has helped me along the way, having a blog can sometimes be seen as hedonistic, self-absorbed or self-appreciative but when I started, although consciously I may not have known it, writing was a form of therapy – therapy I so badly needed, like the therapy I would later seek from a professional when my real internal issues were realised.

Looking back at some of these posts help me to remember some of the critical and often catastrophic events that let to many of my eventual breakdowns, there is a clear pattern of depression and mania that proves to be a stern indicator of what was later to be officially diagnosed – sometimes I wonder how I could have missed the signs, but I wasn’t aware of such a disorder until a psychiatrist spoke to me; I’m not a worrier, I don’t head to the NetMD symptom checker for every little thing.
There are posts about power, paranoid delusions, thoughts of suicide and a significant post where I seem to not care about what had happened after I was discharged from hospital following one such episode. For me, it’s scary reading, and most of these memories have been repressed in my mind – I read them as if I hadn’t written them, they have been pushed back into my subconscious, I simply don’t remember.

I’m well now, most of the time. I don’t take prescription medication – against doctors advice, but I feel that I have learned to control the worst of  the disorder. I can tell when “episodes” are coming on and have routines to stave them off, although this isn’t always the case, and a break in routine can prove detrimental – I found that whilst I was living with my father this year, back in the family home, I could find a comfort zone and this threw everything off balance, I was acting very erratically.
Now that I have my own home, with Misia and very soon with our child, I am rapidly coming to terms with that and my balance is returning, for this I am glad.

This has been somewhat of a rambling post, let me assure you I do know this. It’s been more for me than for you, the reader. It started out as a history piece for Guardian Cardiff but as I was paging back through the posts I made a lot of realisations and it became something very personal. I don’t ask that you forgive me, only that you understand.

Thank you.

Ruby Tuesday: Part deux


We decided to revisit Ruby Tuesday, after-all I had been anticipating its arrival for months – so to only visit on the opening night and to take that as a representation of their usual quality of experience would be silly.

I tried their “triple prime cheddar burger”, which apparently has been said to be “the worlds best burger”, and it certainly ranks up there – it looks good too.

I finally got to experience the “endless fries”, every time I ran out I was asked if I wanted more – awesome, except when the waiter asked I expected him to round off the sentence with “…you fat bastard”.

8/10, good dinner and good times. We spent over two hours there, which is not too bad.

Bristol for beginners

“You must hate the commute” they say to me, my friends. “I walk 5 minutes to the train station, sit on my arse in a semi-comfortable seat for an hour, I get off and walk 10 minutes to the office” I reply, “It’s not exactly strenuous”.

I left the company that I started in May 2009 to experience more new things, that and the working relationship between me and my business partner had become strained through all the late night working and creative differences. I took the choice to start working a regular job again, doing what I do best, being a developer. A perfect opportunity at a perfect company came up, but with just one drawback – the company is based in Bristol.

They offered to pay for my season ticket on the train, I accepted with the notion that I would give it a try. I like trains, I find the time “in transit” to be serene and in a way quite gainful. I can write, I can read or I can just watch the countryside go by – I find it less stressful that being sat at a desk where my only prerogative is to write.

So I’ve been travelling to Bristol every day for about 12 weeks up ‘til now and the city has really grown on me. It has some of the best eateries I have ever been to, the people are generally friendly and it is certainly more established than my home city of Cardiff.

Cardiff is a city in transition, a city that is finding its identity, building its repertoire – it’s a young city and it’s still finding its place in the world, and in my view it’s being taken on the wrong course by city planners who are too eager to maximise profit. They have this freaky idea that “big chains means big reputation”, but it doesn’t, there needs to be a good balance of the two – this is the biggest failing in Cardiff’s much fought-over development plan.

Bristol for food

As I just mentioned, Bristol has some of the best food outlets that I have come across anywhere in the world. I would never have guessed it, it’s certainly not something that people say to me when I ask them their views of Bristol.

St Nicholas Market in the Old City is a haven for independent small restaurants, a model that could so easily be brought to Cardiff. In their indoor market there is space set aside for an avenue of small cafes and in it you can find food from Morocco, Jamaica, south-east Asia as well as pies and sausages from a range of different themed open-fronted stalls, each with a small area to sit and eat.
My absolute favourite is the Moo Pie from Pieminister, but the tajine from Al Bab Mansour is to die for and some of the vegetarian curries from Spice Up Your Life are definitely not to be missed. It’s a real treat to work so close to such a place and if I haven’t gained a few pounds since June I would be very surprised.

As well as St Nicholas Market the harbourside also has a large cache of eateries, a few of which I’ve tried and would wholly recommend including the Olive Shed (awesome burgers) and Bordeaux Quay for which you cannot beat for early morning coffee and toast with the summer sun beating down on you.

Bristol for nightlife

Having friends who live in Bristol, formerly from Cardiff is something that I’m lucky enough to have and we’ve had a few nights out – both raucous and civilised.

I am totally, absolutely in live with The Apple on Welsh Back. I love cider, I love cheese – who doesn’t? The Apple is a boat, it primarily serves cider and they won Strictly Come Ploughman’s last year, which means a bloody good range of cheese, crackers and pickles are available too, we’ve spent many nights outside on the terrace sampling some of the dozens of different ciders and cheeses – always go home happy.

Bristol for entertainment

The Bristol harbour festival was held over 30th July – 1st August, I went up on the Saturday to sample some of the things that were going on and was surprised at the turnout, there thousands upon thousands of people spread over the entire site – which appeared to be the entire city. In each corner of the city there were different things going on, two stages, street theatre, food stalls, boat trips, you name it, they had it – think of Cardiff’s harbour festival, plus the International Food Festival and the Big Weekend all rolled into one three day event and you will have some idea of what the Bristol Harbour Festival is like, all put to bed with 30 minutes of continuous, very impressive fireworks. Put it in your diary for 2011.

It’s safe to say that I’m smitten with our west-country counterpart, but I won’t be leaving Cardiff just yet.

A decade later…

10 years is a long time, especially for a young person. In my case, 10 years is 40% of my life.
Let’s stand back and think about that for a moment – for 40% of my life I have been keeping a record of my thoughts, feelings and inner-goings on. This would be quite an achievement, if I had managed to do it properly, which unfortunately I have not.

There have been quite a few lapses, where posts were few and far between for one reason or another. Sometimes I find it hard to think of anything to write, I’m not a professional writer so I’m not always fully engaged. I also have mental health issues which have not been discussed here yet, but which one day soon I plan to. Also, in the past two years my life has been in a state of upheaval, both the personal and professional aspects – both things which would probably have made quite interesting blog posts but were hindered by time and motivational constraints. Retrospective posts could be a possibility though.

A short history

[The headmaster] didn’t see the funny side to the “List of Alcoholic Teachers” section that we did…

My career of posting random thoughts to the internet started in 1997. I had some free webspace from my ISP, Freeserve and took the opportunity to get to grips with web programming and set about learning HTML, I was 13 at the time. Once I had a site designed I had to decide what exactly I was going to populate it with and thought that it would be a good idea to use it to keep my school friends up-to-date and entertained, dropping in the odd anecdote about a teacher or put into writing the details of whatever funny rumour was currently doing the rounds at school.

In 1998 I bought my first domain, my internet “handle” at the time was “Toasty” so this became my domain, Toasty.co.uk. I have the HTML somewhere on my hard-drive – I’ll dig it out and tweet it at some point, we can all have a laugh then at the horrible orange and green colour-scheme.
I wasn’t using a CMS – as they largely didn’t exist at this point, so updating was a chore – manually writing code with text blocks was time-consuming.

In 1999 I made the dumb move of buying another domain and attempting to expand the “school news” section of the site into its own entity, at www.willows-high.co.uk (the name of my school). I received a telephone call during a half-term from the school head teacher, Mal Davies, he threatened to expel me from the school if I did not take the site down – of course I did so immediately, I didn’t want my parents getting wind of our escapades.
He didn’t see the funny side to the “List of Alcoholic Teachers” section that we did, and neither did the named teachers I bet.

At this point the site was still all about me, it was more of a diary than a blog, the term “blog” hadn’t even been coined yet, that was still a year or so off, in the heady days of the dot-com boom and bust.
In the meantime I decided to become a rocker and setup a new website at Mosha.co.uk. This was by far my most popular website – it dealt with biographies of the hottest nu-metal, punk, heavy metal and goth bands, a trend that was very popular at the time.  This helped me to hone my writing skills, keeping the biographies free of personal influence and on-topic.

In 2000 Toasty.co.uk became Cheesetoasted.com. This incarnation of the website would last for two years before the name was dropped altogether. IRC was dead and so was my “handle”, gone to the depths of internet history, I was now just “Nathan Collins”.

It was in 2001 that an application called Movable Type came onto the market – a free to download and install “blogging platform”, it allowed posts to be made to your website with the greatest of ease. This was a massive turning point, I was now able to update frequently and keep a database backup of everything – no longer was everything hard-coded in HTML, I consider this to be the real birth of the blog.

It was another two years before Hintofsarcasm.com was born. It was created out of necessity, a few different reasons, 1) cheesetoasted.com was up for renewal, 2) the name hadn’t really grown on me, 3) the great server crash of February 2003, where my hosts server failed and everything was lost.

I was devastated, I had put all of my eggs into one basket and everything had gone wrong. All of the websites that I had created from 1997 to 2003 were on that server and it failed, hard-disc corruption, and there was no backup. I had some copies locally on my computer, but the backups weren’t extensive, a lot of the older websites were gone forever.

I took this as a chance to reinvent myself, the weird days in 1998-1999 when kids from other schools would recognise me on the streets of Cardiff and say “Hi” were over and I was now out of school and working a full-time job – this is where things changed and I actually started “blogging” in its truest form, writing pieces akin to articles or columns in a newspaper, topical and opinionated. And that’s what we see today, a body of work, both good and bad, that has been built up over the past 10 years.

“But that’s 13 years”, I hear you cry. I don’t consider any of the writing that I did pre-2000 to be counted towards my “body of work”, it was all teenage diary writing. In fact, I’m not even that impressed with anything from 2000 to 2005 if I’m totally honest, and after that it’s wishy-washy at best, but still – as I’ve said previously, I’m not a professional writer and I don’t pretend to be. It’s a hobby, it’s not even meant to be for people to read really, it’s more for me to look back on, to help me to recollect my moods and thoughts at any given time, something that I find hard to do otherwise.

So, here’s to another 10 years.