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Book Review: Cardiff Dead by John Williams

9 Aug

As you may have seen in my post My Inspiration for July, John Williams is an author I discovered in July. Being very enthusiastic about his book Cardiff Dead, I decided to read his book Five Pubs, Two Bars and a Night Club, and since I really loved his style in general, I decided he needs a shout out. Also, Williams is an editor and a contributor of a collection of short stories Wales, Half Welsh which I’m currently reading and enjoying it, at least stories he wrote.

Cardiff city centre at night, photo by Maciej Dakowicz

Cardiff city centre at night, photo by Maciej Dakowicz

John Williams (b. 1961) is a Cardiff based writer, and therefore some of his books and stories are set in Cardiff and often feature the same characters, so we could say that he really created a whole new world and aesthetic. I was blown away by his style of writing. I’m not going to lie, he is not the new Jack Kerouac, but is his prose modern, funny, honest, fast paced – yes it is. He’s not really poetic and descriptive, but somehow I instantly get the picture, so whatever he’s doing, it’s working, because his characters and their lives bring you back to 1990s Cardiff, Butetown specifically, and I kind of liked being in that little world for a while. His characters are rock and ska musicians, or ex-rock musicians, prostitutes, thieves, gangsters, ex-revolutionaries, drug dealers – people from the edge of society. Williams doesn’t portray them as malicious and dangerous, but rather as likeable people who are willing to put their past behind and start fresh.

Novel Cardiff Dead takes its title from these lyrics:

I’m Cardiff born and Cardiff bread

And when I dies I’ll be Cardiff dead.‘ (Frank Hennessy)

I was drawn to this novel from the first page. The introduction is nostalgic and strangely poetic. It’s 1999, and the main character, thirty-nine year old Mazz is returning to Cardiff after eighteen years. Williams slowly reveals Mazz’s past, his character and details of his life, at the same time introducing other characters such as Tyra, Charlie, Bobby, Kenny Ibadulla etc. Some chapters are set in 1981 which gives us a view of Mazz’s life when it was all at the beginning. He’s from the Valleys, and moved to Cardiff in summer of 1979 with a bag of clothes and his Fender guitar, and soon formed a ska bend called The Wurriyas. These chapters are very interesting to me because some political events such as Hunger strikes and IRA, miners crisis and death of Bob Marley form the background of their lives.

Thematically, this book is very layered. It deals with Mazz’s return and everything that goes on in Cardiff at the moment such as the building of the Millennium Stadium, but it also deals with many other things – Mazz reflects on the life he lead, search for the missing bend member Emyr (which strangely reminds me of the disappearance of Richey Edwards, and being a rock fan Williams is no doubt aware of that), Mazz and Tyra’s love story, as well as the sad disappearance of old Cardiff and its transformation upon entering the new millennium.

All in all, I truly enjoyed reading this book; it was intriguing, passionate, dynamic, warm and full of hope. I randomly picked it up at the library because I liked the title and I thought I’d enjoy reading a Welsh author and a book set in urban Wales because I love Manic Street Preachers after all.

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