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Return of a native: life on a Cardiff housing estate.

'NONE of us goes to town no more. Too violent.' Mark is referring to a fight in a club in the city centre called Panama Joe's, when a man with a cut-throat razor went berserk and slashed several people, seriously injuring them. All of the people injured were from Ely and personally known to Mark and the others.

I am spending Saturday evening with Mark and the others, all young, all white and nearly all conspicuously tattooed, on the Ely estate. We are sitting in Jason's front garden sipping beer and rolling joints. The house is in a small curving cul-de-sac just off Wilson Road where just a year ago there were four nights of serious rioting. It's all quiet now and though there will be several fights, muggings and break-ins tonight, the estate, apart from the gang of teenagers smoking and gambling outside the chip shop, has a suburban peacefulness.

I am here chatting and drinking beer by virtue of having been born and brought up on the estate and, though I've lived away for almost twenty years, I am still considered one of them. I am amazed at how much has changed. Ely has always been a problem estate, but a very British working class one. It would have been inconceivable to sit in the front garden openly smoking a joint and casually calling across the road to the dealer-neighbour asking about E or dope. Not while your five year old daughter played with her friends in the same garden. It would also have been inconceivable to be early twenties, unmarried, and with kids. However, what was beyond comprehension was to be in your early twenties and still at home on a Saturday evening!

It's not just the recession that has wrought the changes, though unemployment and the resultant lack of cash takes its toll, a whole system of social relations and values has been eroded. It feels more like an American ghetto than a council estate. It's not just the easy sex, easy violence, easy drugs, and the anything you order stolen goods. They were always there, (though all are more accentuated now); it's the attitudes to all these things that have changed. They're just a part of life. But to my mind the thing that stuns me is not just that they spend their Saturday nights at home but that they don't seem to mind. 'Well I suppose Saturday used to be special when you were single and looking for some action, but I don't know it's like any other day now. I know my old man likes to have a pint on a Saturday but he's old fashioned.' Jason rolled another joint and Lee chipped in: 'A few smokes, a few cans, we do that every night. That way the missus knows you're not out screwing some bird or some shop. Anyway, who wants to go out, do your bundle, and end up getting your head kicked in?' I shrugged, there's no answer to that. 'We got it all here.' Jason smiled. And they certainly do.

I've always regarded dealers as some kind of criminal lone wolf, a predator that profited from people's troubles and weaknesses. But nowadays they're the neighbours and they give good rates to the street and they're open all hours. And they've got kids of their own to feed. 'They only make a few quid out of it. They're not the big boys and they pass a bit on to the rest of us.' It seems to be the general opinion.

The whole street seems to be populated by mostly young, unmarried couples with kids and when the weather is fine, as it is this evening, there is an air of an informal and discontinuous street party, with people on their doorsteps, sitting on the bonnet of their cars, chatting, drinking, and smoking.

'I'm just going to see Carl about something for a minute. Coming up?' I accompany Lee up the road to a friend's. We pass a young black boy of about twelve carrying a rucksack. He stops and takes it off and asks Lee, 'Want to buy some tee-shirts? Got some good ones'. Lee says he's skint and we continue up to Carl's.

Carl comes to the door dressed in baggy shorts and tee-shirt. He is very large, tattooed and with a No. 1 shaved head. The effect is offset by both his friendly manner and the little girl of about three hanging onto his shorts. Lee wants to see if Carl has the video of 'Lethal Weapon 3'. That's going to be part of the nights entertainment; later when it gets darker and a bit nippy, we're going to go indoors and watch videos and listen to music. Nearly everyone has a video and CD player, whether bought on the weekly or, more likely, bought from a friend who acquired it (apparently there are people who will take your order, model, colour, etc., just like a salesman and get it on the five fingered discount for you). Rampant consumerism, thanks to twelve years of Tory discipline, lives even if employment doesn't.

Carl tells Lee that he didn't get it off his mate but he has another one that he'll bring down later. We pass a skinny nineteen year old with a joke of a moustache and Lee tells me that he's probably the best tea-leaf around. I begin to entertain thoughts of a complete change of wardrobe and an integrated home entertainment system.

It is nearly a quarter to ten when we get back to Jason's and Michelle, his girlfriend, is back from visiting her mother. Also there is Tony, a next door neighbour and his girlfriend. Tony says he can't stay late or get too wrecked as he's got a fiddle in the morning. I express surprise at him getting a day's work on a Sunday, but he just winks and everybody else smirks.

'The off-licence closes at ten, if you want some booze you better get shifting.' Michelle addresses nobody in particular but everyone looks at me. 'Anybody want anything?' I ask and strangely enough I'm the only one who wants more cans just in case. The others order chips and jumbo sausages, crisps and cokes. There's the difference between the drinker and the dope smoker.

Jason accompanies me to the chippy, as much to steer me through the crowd of bored-excited teenagers outside, as to help me carry back the chips and drinks. The group outside, about fourteen strong, are playing pitch and toss or play fighting or just acting tough. Both sexes give me the suspicious, predatory stare, but nod to Jason and make way. He gives one a not so playful punch in the chest, 'All right Spence?', 'All right Jase'. The pecking order had been established. Mark tells me later that the kids are 'like a pack of dogs, you got to give a slap to let them know who's boss', and that they've got no respect for the older people, beating and robbing drunks on their way home. I watch my alcohol consumption.

The video is on when we get back, so is the CD, and the sweet, heavy smell is enough to knock you over. Someone says I should 'drop a tab' and watch the video as its got some 'wicked special effects'. I decline and open a can. Nobody seems to be concentrating on the video, instead every violent, technicoloured incident seems to remind someone of a violent incident involving themselves or friends. Assaults with spanners, pool cues, tales of pubs being wrecked with hammers, people being deliberately run over and then slashed, merge with the realistic looking violence on the screen, and the stories seemed to be, well, normal. Even the two women hardly turned a hair. The Hollywood brand, so cosily familiar, made the real kind sound just as entertaining. That's the terrible thing, going out is expensive and violent, so people stay at home and watch it on video and chat about it. Perhaps most perverse of all is the fact that the video we are watching is a 'comedy'.

There is a tap on the window. I worry it's the police, but am reassured that you never see them anymore; (amazingly the local police station was partially closed down and only reopened after the riots). The others are more worried about the other end of the problem: car thefts and break-ins. It's Mark returning from an excursion to another house. He relates a story of a fight that he has heard from someone he'd just met. 'Jamesy? That's Rachel's boyfriend innit?' Lee asks. He always seems the most interested in the scrapping sagas. Mark shakes his head, 'Nah, you know Fatman's piece, Tracy, it's her brother. He got a right wicked wrecking from Pacey'. I go into the kitchen where Michelle is making a sandwich. She offers me one. I ask her whether she doesn't miss a good Saturday night out, and she looks at me as if I've just cracked a joke. 'Nuh! You always end up borrowing to go out and when you get in a group out there, there's always some prick who wants to have a go. It's not worth it.' Michelle, whose ears seem to be operating on a different frequency from mine, shouts into the room, 'Jase, the baby's crying, go and see to her'. Jason goes upstairs without a moment's hesitation.

Michelle calls out to ask if anyone else wants a sandwich. She makes the order. Back in the room Tony is sitting with his head back and a silly smile on his face. He is oblivious to the other's jokes and just grins even more when he hears his name mentioned. We realise that it is only 10.45 and that there is a need to get more cans in. Lee says, 'We can go over the Dusty and get some there.' Again I volunteer to go and Jason warns laughingly that I should watch myself with Lee, 'He gets chopsy when he's had a few and he'll be wanting to fight the pub'. The Dusty Forge is on the main road, the Cowbridge Road, which bisects the Ely estate. It's not that full when we get in there and there is a mixed age range. But there is an atmosphere, one of a sullen, suppressed drinker's nastiness that hangs about in the cigarette smoke and is underscored by the relative silence. Lee nods to a few younger drinkers and orders some take-outs, I give him some money and it's only then that I realise that I've got an idiot's goodwill smile on my face, whereas Lee's face is set into a watchful scowl. As are, I also notice, most of the faces of the drinkers in the pub.

As we walk out memories of the noise and sexual/alcoholic excitement of my youth that could be heard and tasted come back to me and I feel a wave of smug contentment. These are soon broken by the sounds of a scuffle outside the pub, all oophs and bumps and curses. Lee casts a glance at them but not too long. He tells me that it's just kids pissed up and not likely to be either dangerous or entertaining.

Later I glance at my watch and it's gone half past twelve and I'm quite merry. The others are either into another video, asleep or displaying a remarkable tolerance to drink and drugs. The images of a car screaming around a corner, careening off a parked car and then slicing through a crowded pavement sending pedestrians scattering everywhere reminds me that I haven't asked anyone about politics, raves, or riots which were going to be the core of this piece. Glancing around I feel the time has passed, probably was never there.

I am seen to the door and offered to be walked back, to be on the 'safe side', but I say thanks and decline. The air of suburban tranquillity clashes with the reality and the images of the night, but I remember it's Sunday morning and that Saturday has gone.

|Tony Sheppard is a freelance journalist working mainly for German television.~
COPYRIGHT 1993 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Cardiff, Wales
Author:Sheppard, Tony
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Previous Article:Police integrity: the moral dilemma.
Next Article:France and anti-Americanism.

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