Cardiff, Wales – The Richard Burton Diaries (2012)

23 Nov

I’m in Cardiff for a couple of days. I’ve often been to Wales, but only the north, and mostly as a child. This is the first time I’ve been in the south, and there’s clearly been a great deal of investment here in recent years. A lot of the architecture is shiny and new, and just a little bit – well, sexier than I was expecting.

Cardiff also has a lot more people dressed as superheroes and characters from Japanese animation than I was expecting – this is due to a comic convention taking place just over the road from my hotel. There’s a queue to get in around the block for most of the day, so whenever I go by there’s something new to see.

I’m staying at Radisson Blu – good, though some strange decor choices – lots of sharp corners (the desk is quite uncomfortable to work at for any length of time). There’s a little table in my room that’s such an eye-wateringly bright shade of orange that I eventually have to hide it behind an armchair just so I can get to sleep.

There do seem to be a lot of strange design choices in hotels these days. This room has what looks like a pink soft foam seat suspended below the television – but there’s a sign on it saying it’s not a seat – it’s to put your luggage on. Why? Why have it suspended, and make it out of something soft, if its sole function in life is to have heavy (and probably dirty) luggage put on it? And why have a luggage rack at the foot of the bed, rather than near the wardrobe?
But these are minor quibbles compared to some. It’s a good hotel, and all the staff are very helpful.

Not a lot of spare time this trip. I could take a city tour, and see Cardiff Castle? Or I’m a twenty minute walk from Cardiff Bay, and the Doctor Who Experience – maybe I can fit both in.

I get to the Doctor Who Experience at 11:11am, which I find quietly amusing (for those who aren’t drooling fangirls, the current Doctor is number 11). Honestly, this is the best money I’ve ever spent. An interactive adventure, with filmed sequences where you go through a crack in time! Fly the Tardis! Scream as weeping angels try to grab you – in 3D! Have your picture taken on a alien world! Operate a dalek! A building the size of an aircraft hangar filled with costumes, props, sets – and merchandise. Lots and lots of merchandise. My mental age drops rapidly. I’m happy as a hyperactive five year old, yet somehow I manage to stay within my budget in the gift shop – just.

The website said to allow an hour and a half. to go around the exhibition. After three hours, I’m still there. But that’s not all. Today there’s also a location tour – an hour and a half wandering round Cardiff Bay spotting locations used in Doctor Who and the spin-off show, Torchwood. The older buildings have stood in for Victorian London, while the more futuristic ones have been used for other planets.

My favourite location? The Millennium Centre – I’ve always liked the look of this, but it’s even more impressive up close. The building’s metal dome, gleaming in the sun, has huge words (made from windows) at the front. The Welsh reads “Crev gwir fel gwydr o ffwrnais awen” (Creating truth like glass from the furnace of inspiration) and in English there’s “In these stones horizons sing”. Clearly a place with a love of language.

The most bizarre location? The shrine to Ianto Jones of Torchwood. Originally set up on the waterfront for the show, but then added to by fans, it now has a plaque commemorating him giving his life for Earth – with a little disclaimer underneath pointing out that he’s not actually real…

The location tour ends near Eddie’s Diner, which was used in a Doctor Who episode set in Utah. If you go down to the end of the diner, by the toilet, check out the storeroom door – it was painted for filming to look like the Tardis. I have to go in and have a burger. I don’t normally like burgers, but these are delicious – I don’t know whether it’s because it’s made with Welsh beef , or because I’m sitting at the table they used in the show. It is, of course, number 11.

Sorry, Cardiff Castle! Maybe next time.

So, what’s on my reading list that has a Welsh connection?
The Richard Burton Diaries (edited by Chris Williams). I’ve been wanting to read this for a while. I first came across Burton as the narrator of the classic War of the Worlds album, so I knew him as a great voice years before I ever saw him in a movie, though I’ve seen him in several since. This is bigger than the books I usually travel with (600+ pages) but as I’ve got at least four hours travelling each way, it should last the whole journey.

It does. The whole journey – and every spare minute after I got back. Unputdownable – it has it all – romance, tragedy, travel, excess – and books. Lots and lots of books.

I’ve never read anyone else’s diary before, but this is simply fascinating. The places he went, the people he met – the books he read! That’s the one good thing about insomnia – you can get a lot of reading done. I can relate to a lifelong insomniac – especially one who believes “Home is where the books are”.

The gaps in the diaries are frustrating – sometimes he stopped writing for years – but he lived such a big life, there simply wouldn’t have been time for him to write about all of it. Most of the diaries cover the 1960s and 1970s, but there are also some from as early as 1939, which allows you to see the contrast between the teenager collecting dung to sell for a penny a bucket, and the movie star wealthy enough to buy a jet plane on the spur of the moment.

And of course, there’s his relationship with Elizabeth Taylor. The original Hollywood celebrity couple – how can any relationship survive under that constant scrutiny? And yet it did. Even after they divorced (twice!) they stayed in touch, and were there for each other.

Yes, there are days where the only entry is simply “Booze”. There are times when it’s depressing, partly because you know how it’s going to end, and some of the entries (mostly at either end) are of the more mundane ‘what I had for tea’ type. But it’s also moving, absorbing – heartbreaking in places. To call him a complex man is putting it mildly – sensitive, intelligent, often unhappy, and aware of his failings. On the whole I really enjoyed his writing style, especially at the points where I could almost hear that voice reading it aloud.

My only gripe (besides wanting more) is with the footnotes which, despite their size, are frustrating (also, after years of reading Terry Pratchett, I now expect humour in footnotes). Some of the detail seems unnecessary (surely anyone who’s seen enough of his films to be interested in Burton would be likely to know that Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar?). Strangely the footnotes don’t explain or convert references to pre-decimal currency, which aren’t going to be very clear to anyone under fifty, or not British. Translation is inconsistent – some French phrases are translated, some aren’t. Family members are mentioned in the footnotes, but only the first time they appear in the diaries. The book is too big to read in a single sitting, so family trees might have been more helpful, just to keep track of people – Burton was the youngest of twelve, so he had a large family already, even before you add his children, and Elizabeth Taylor’s children from various marriages.

Most of what I’ve read about Burton has focussed on his drinking, and how it was a shame he didn’t do more theatre. Personally, after reading this, I think it’s shame he didn’t do more writing. I don’t normally recommend books to people, but if you’re interested in theatre, film, books, fame or booze – read this. It’s a book that will stay with me forever.

1 Comment

Posted by on November 23, 2013 in United Kingdom & Ireland, Wales


One response to “Cardiff, Wales – The Richard Burton Diaries (2012)

  1. Heather-Anne

    November 24, 2013 at 12:36 am

    What a neat combo of experiences! A neat mix of the old and new.


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