The smell of hops brings it all back. My childhood.
The excitement of coming to Cardiff with my parents, tempered by the dread of having to spend the day with my hand covering my nose: the sickly sweet smell from Brains brewery being the first sign that we had arrived in the big city from Newport, where we lived.
But I’ve still spent most of my adult life in the city in which I was born (albeit often living in other places at the same time); it has always been home to me and, I suspect, always will be.
Now, I’m back full time for real, and the smell of hops is still here, admittedly not as strong as it was to my young self but still a smell that resurrects the past with ease.
There is plenty that has not changed, and to walk through town is to remember so much and, for the most part, smile with the memories.
My first meal “out” as a child was at The Louis – still there - in St Mary Street. Its green awning with gold lettering (or have I imagined the gold?) is as glamorous as it ever was to me, and I can never walk past it without remembering my Big Day Out.
I had just been to David Morgan, where Mum bought us two coats and told me we had to hide them in the boot of the car so that she could break the news slowly to my dad. She can’t remember why she did that, as he was a placid man and certainly not someone who held the purse strings. She now wonders if she bought them on credit, of which he would have disapproved.
The coats were both cream: Mum’s had a fur (fake, of course) collar and mine was imitation lamb’s wool with brown buttons. It smothered me. It would have taken a week to shear me in order to get to my flesh, but I loved it and had never been so excited about anything as that first grown up coat.
It was rare for the whole family not to attend Mum’s shopping expeditions. Normally, she would park Dad, my brother Nigel and me by the Lancome counter in Howells and disappear for three hours, goodness knows where – other make-up counters, probably - but on this occasion it was just Mum and me. In The Louis, I had chicken chasseur and peas and thought I was the luckiest child in the world.
Howells I remember from my student years. I lasted two days working on the sweet counter, where a woman called Mrs Brown used to corner me between the truffles and the chocolate bars and admonish me for the smallest misdemeanour – breathing, topping the list.
It was the early days of credit cards and I used to dread people handing over their sliver of plastic and my having to negotiate this JCB of a machine, when all they were buying was 4oz of fudge. To escape the torture, I quietly told them to go to David Morgan, where they would find everything they wanted, sweeties included, for a darn sight cheaper. It was always the case, and I was sad to see the poor man’s Howells disappear in one of the many changes to the city.
The Philharmonic is still there, too. When I was a teenager living in Bridgend, I endured my first rugby international post-match drinking there and sampled rum for the first time. Lots of it. Rum that sprayed the fields travelling back to Bridgend, as I hung out of the train window, praying for death. I’ve never even been able to smell rum since without retching.
Wally’s delicatessen in Royal Arcade is now a much bigger and far more upmarket affair (so many lentils now. In my student days, I swear they sold nothing but red ones and white rice) and remains an institution. But the Chapter and Verse bookshop, where I bought the complete set of D.H. Lawrence letters, has gone, another victim of the Waterstone’s conglomerate.
Chapter Arts Centre is in the same place, but unrecognisable after its £3.8m makeover in 2006. It was converted from a school in 1971 and I used to watch Woody Allen films there on Friday nights. Afterwards, alone and depressed (my student days were not happy ones), I would ring the Samaritans from the pay phone on my way out. I never had enough money to get past “Hello”. One night, they didn’t even answer and I went round to their headquarters. They didn’t come to the door, either.
The Sherman, on the other side of town, is also still there. I was less suicidal at this venue but recall only that The Seven Swords of the Samurai seemed to be showing on a loop in the cinema – for four years.
So much has changed in the city. The plethora of cafes and restaurants lends a European air to the centre; the dominating feature is the Millennium Stadium, where once I stood queuing with my towel to get into the Empire Pool; Cardiff Bay is one of many jewels in the city’s crown and, on a hot day, a place buzzing with tourists and locals alike.
Change is good for us, and in Cardiff we are lucky in that the old continues to exist alongside the new – the indoor market, the Angel Hotel and, yes, The Louis. I wonder if the chicken chasseur is still on the menu. I might just pop in and find out.
People keep asking me if I am missing Los Angeles. To be honest, not a bit. I was there for nearly three years, enjoyed it, and had a wide variety of experiences. I even took an ex-landlady to court when she withheld a chunk of my deposit and provided no receipts to indicate on what it had been spent. I won my case and was especially proud, as she was a lawyer. I never got to hear the judge say “Judgment for the plaintiff”, but I can at least say that my horizons have been irrevocably broadened.
I made some good friends who I will miss and, come January, I will probably miss the sun. But as the rain beats down on my window as I write, and the wind howls, beating the trees to complete baldness as the last leaves of autumn fall, I still know that I have come home.
And it feels right.