City of the Unexpected, Cardiff, Wales
The group of women, cackling, marches past me in the street in the centre of Cardiff. They’re rather grotesque in appearance – large noses, poor make up, broad shoulders, odd hair. They’re also unpleasant in demeanour – sneering like syrup at adults, encouraging them to follow with their children.
I decide to follow because I’ve recognised them instantly. They’re witches!
Not witches in the traditional sense – there are no black cloaks, broomsticks or pointy hats. These are the witches of Roald Dahl, with their clawed hands hidden by gloves, bald heads hidden by wigs, toeless feet hidden by shoes. And, as you possibly remember, they hate children!
The witches lead me – and the dozens of others who have joined the procession – to an amphitheatre formed by the stairs of a shopping centre. Here they begin their presentation, declaring their intention to turn all children into mice. They shout, they sing, they make a child disappear and – probably most shocking of all – they rip off their wigs to reveal they are all actually bald men.
Because, of course, these ‘witches’ are merely performers, taking on the roles of Roald Dahl characters and, let’s be honest, would any woman be committed enough to shave her head for this performance?
It’s all rather unexpected – from the initial chance encounter on the street to the performance. That’s the point of this weekend in Cardiff, though. The Welsh capital has been transformed into the ‘City of the Unexpected’ to celebrate Roald Dahl and the gifts he has left us with his books.
Roald Dahl in Cardiff
It was a hundred years ago this week that Roald Dahl was born in Cardiff. I feel like it’s a fact that has never been given much emphasis until recently, with the centenary of his birth approaching. Not that the people of Cardiff are ashamed – quite the opposite, in fact. I assume they’ve been very proud but just too modest to brag that one of the world’s greatest children’s authors came from here.
It’s a different city these days, though. That’s probably the thing that would be most unexpected for Roald Dahl if he could see it today. He was born at the height of the coal mining boom, when Cardiff was one of the busiest and wealthiest cities in Europe. But he also saw its decline as the industrial needs of the world changed. When he died in 1990, it was quite impoverished, struggling with unemployment and unsure of its identity within Britain. How all those things have changed in 25 years!
A city transformed
The Cardiff of today is perfectly suited to host a festival like the City of the Unexpected. Thousands of people have poured into the centre to discover what events are taking place. There’s no official programme and only a few tips on how to find the main attractions. Everything else seems impromptu to the crowds.
The weekend begins with the arrival of a giant peach that rolls through the streets and ends up at Cardiff Castle. Meanwhile, Fantastic Mr Fox is on the loose and the farmers are running around looking for him.
The arrival of the peach is one of the main set pieces and a choir of children sing to try to save it from the city authorities who want to destroy it. The action around Mr Fox is another main element and his story plays out on the wall of Cardiff Castle and culminates with him tightrope-walking across to an adjacent building.
But, for me, it’s the little things in the pedestrian malls and arcades that are more enjoyable. They don’t have the crush of the crowds and there’s much more spontaneity – they really do feel unexpected.
There’s the short show with the witches I’ve already described, which is aimed at adults and children (although I think it might terrify me if I was a kid!). At one point I come across a stage where George’s marvellous medicine is being made as part of a show, complete with gruesome ingredients that leave the crowd squirming in laughter. One of the decorative lampposts in the Main Street has been turned into a tree of books and young acrobats climb and do tricks on top of stacks of novels. A team of explorers pushes a sled past me at one point and I follow along, eventually realising it is Scott of the Antarctic and he is about to be beaten to the South Pole by a Norwegian team coming up a different street.
At night the festivities continue in front of the City Hall when Mrs Ladybug gets married to the local fire chief (you may remember in James and the Giant Peach that she marries the New York City Fire Chief). The gardens in front of the building become a large dance floor for the crowd – many of them families – as a band and a choir entertain them.
The following day, Sunday, is much more relaxed. The streets of Cardiff are back to normal but the city’s park, Bute Park, is busy. It’s a large piece of land (about 130 acres) and a decent section has been put aside for a picnic. It’s not just families with their children – I notice teenage couples, grandparents, school groups and more. Storytellers stand on top of enormous chairs and tell fairytales, dancers put on a show, and the giant peach rolls in again.
It’s all such wonderful fun, such a wonderful atmosphere. The weekend is clearly a success. Even when things don’t go quite right technically or the crowds get too much, there’s generally good humour.
I feel as though Cardiff is using this weekend to celebrate more than just a hundred years since the birth of Roald Dahl. It’s also a celebration of where the city has come over that period of time. There have been depressions but they’ve been survived. It says a lot about the fortitude of the Welsh and, as they’ll tell you, that is not unexpected!