Miss Marple's home

Miss Marple's home

Straight from the book

Postcard: Swansea by the bay.photos by authorThe first inkling I had that I was part of a dog-eared novel was when not one, but two Miss Marples knocked on the lionhead door knocker of the house I was staying in and one of them greeted me with, “Oh dear! Am afraid we are disturbing you, are we not?” My nod could have been both a yes and a no, but she took it as a vigorous negative.

“It is very, very kind of you, my dear. I must say quite splendid, quite splendid indeed.” She broke off to rummage in her large printed bag, fished out a few books and looked up at me, beady eyes twinkling — exactly the way Miss Marple would have if her nephew Raymond had distracted her from her knitting.

Of course, I was not part of any novel; it is just remarkably easy to feel so in Swansea, a town on the southern coast of Wales.

Swansea’s most famous luminary (some might argue it is Hollywood beauty Catherine Zeta Jones), the wild boy-poet of Wales, Dylan Thomas, called his birthplace ‘an ugly, lovely town’ and sealed its destiny for ever. Swansea charms and exasperates at the same instant, and no one but its most-feted son could have pinned down the baffling nature of this Welsh town better. There is much to exult and regret here, on the edge of the Atlantic.

If there is the stunning bay that begins in a deep curve and ends in the fairy-tale village Mumbles, complete with jagged cliffs and a lighthouse, there is also the yawn-inducing city centre with its pretend-modern and wannabe glass and concrete structures. Indeed, there is an unsightly building to counter every lush green space, and it almost seems like Swansea is trying hard to prove Dylan right.

Fictional backdrop

But what Swansea becomes easily, without even trying, is that long-lost, ‘somewhere-in-Britain’ town that you and I have grown up reading in countless much-thumbed pulp fiction novels. On some extraordinarily sunny days, it is that unspoilt seaside town the Five Find-outers went on summer holidays to; where they ate warm crumpets without a care in the world and surreptitiously fed their dog, Buster, ice-cream.

On other days, when the sky heaves with grief, Swansea could well be the secret rendezvous of World War II spies that Jack Higgins wrote so often about. On most days though, it is content to be plain cloudy (with optimistic forecasts of ‘sunny intervals’ that never arrive) and Agatha Christie’s imagined village, St Mary’s Mead.

Many Christie fans have speculated that St Mary’s Mead might be a fictional name the author gave to a village somewhere in south-east England. No one remotely considered Swansea to be her inspiration, and understandably so. Swansea is not a village, however lovely it is, and who knows if Christie ever managed to pay it a visit.  Moreover, it is on the coast, which St Mary’s Mead certainly wasn’t.

But, looks are deceptive. Swansea’s even more so. Appearing just as sweet and innocent as St Mary’s Mead for outsiders, Miss Marple would surely vouch for me when I declare that it is hardly anything but. Swansea, just like St Mary’s Mead, has more than its fair share of Miss Marple’s understated ‘human nature’, some of it neither human nor natural.

Take its Wind Street, which literally winds its way around the city centre. Mornings, it is your usual British pub street, slightly worse for wear after the previous night’s excesses and empty. Once the sun sets, the weird walk out of the woodwork — every night, unfailingly. Dressed in the most outlandish clothes you can conjure up, the young of the city rush to the street to, well, wind down after the day’s hard work. Pink feathers, wet salmon for headgear, rabbit frocks and skirts made of straw are just some I have seen.

For further amusement and lazy imaginings, you only have to take a stroll every evening and keep an eye out for the afternoon newspaper’s splashy headlines. They routinely portray Swansea as a hotbed of juicy scandals — from the relatively mild story of masked men stalking college students in the town’s biggest park to the mysterious series of typed letters a man received.

Then, there’s the more worrying love affair that ended with one of the lovers being pushed off a convenient cliff. I will refrain from going to details about other intriguing headlines that involved, among others, a couple who went for a stroll along the bay and never returned, and a doctor suspected to have faked a burglary – the kind of stories that would have Miss Marple rubbing her rheumatic fingers in glee.

If her spirit was around in Swansea that day when I opened the door so enthusiastically, she would have told me in her soft voice to be cautious and always suspect the worst. And like always, she would have been right. The two dear old ladies turned out to be terribly zealous evangelists cloaked in trademark Marple mittens and pink sweaters. And they had a lot of time on their hands.