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Victorian Cardiff – the world’s busiest port, booming on the back of the coal mined in the Welsh valleys – is vividly imagined through the eyes of the speaker of Damian Walford Davies’s new poetry collection, Docklands: A Ghost Story.
It is 1890, and three dark terraces down the docks are to be levelled to make way for a new square. The commission is given to the chief partner in a successful Cardiff architectural firm – a man supremely sure of himself. Yielding to docklands’ temptations, he becomes ever more estranged from a wife tormented by the death of their child. As the square rises from the ruins of the terraces, the louche architect encounters ‘the girl’.
A disquieting fin-de-siècle ghost story in verse, Docklands explores grey worlds at the edges of the eye, conjuring late-Victorian Cardiff’s hustling, booming, sullied docks – and the horrors they conceal. A study of the violences perpetrated against wives and daughters, and of patterns of grief and longing, this disturbing sequence summons lost children and dark desires.
Seen through the architect’s eyes, the well-to-do streets of an expanding Cardiff and the shady spaces of the docks become the stage for a haunting play of presences that threaten to unravel his uneasy bourgeois world. Among his designs – churches, neo-gothic villas and gargoyles – is a mermaid-figure fountain that becomes a totem of dark desire.
The architect’s broken wife, Eleanor, is a central and unsettling presence. Among the architect’s acquaintances – conjured as characters in their own right – is the Irish cabbie, O’Driscoll, who regularly ferries him to dark assignations and who confirms rumours of a ghostly girl; the ‘ladybirds’ or street walkers with whom the architect consorts; and Cardiff’s trade magnates. Also making an appearance in the architect’s social circle are the Dahls –the parents of the famous Cardiff-born children’s author.