‘The miasma above Cardiff’: Notes on Wales’ Book of the Year

A picture of one of the My City My Shirt murals in Butetown, where the plot of The Fortune Men takes place.

Dylan Moore says the judges’ – and people’s – choice of The Fortune Men makes for a vital reckoning with history – and with the present

Now that the dust has settled – the hanged man exonerated, his remains exhumed from an unmarked grave near the vegetable patch in Cardiff Prison and reinterred in the Muslim section of Western Cemetery; the author garlanded with prizes, shortlisted for the Booker and the Costa, and the hat-trick winner of the Rhys Davies Trust Fiction Award, the Wales Arts Review People’s Choice Award and overall title of Wales Book of the Year 2022 – let us begin at the end. 

In her acknowledgements, Nadifa Mohamed writes: ‘This is a story that belongs to Butetown’.

Early in her multi award winning novel The Fortune Men, Mohamed paints the necessary history of the district with a few deft strokes: ‘The docks and Butetown cover only a square mile but for [Mahmood Mattan] and his neighbours it’s a metropolis. Raised up from marshland the century before, a Scottish aristocrat built the docks and named the streets after his relatives. Mahmood had heard a rumour that the world’s first million-pound cheque was signed at the Coal Exchange.’

This last sentence is one of contemporary Wales’ most cherished factoids, repeated so often that everybody believes it. Less cherished, but increasingly well known, is the true story of Mahmood Hussein Mattan, the central figure of Mohamed’s novel, victim of a miscarriage of justice and the last person to be hanged at Cardiff Prison.

Wales loves a factoid. So much of our culture is built on the places where history collides with myth. From the ground rising beneath Dewi Sant and the disappearance of Owain Glyndwr to  the red flag raised above Merthyr and the bullet holes in the pillars at the Westgate Hotel through Dylan Thomas’ eighteen straight whiskies to Kurt’s proposal to Courtney at TJs, we do not like to let truth get in the way of a good story.    

To a degree The Fortune Men exists at this junction, where facts end and fiction begins. 

It is therefore no criticism of the author’s commensurate skill to say that the book’s most moving passage comes not within the first substantive 365 pages of what Michael Donkor, writing in the Guardian calls Mohamed’s ‘delicate and perspicacious prose’, but in the juxtaposition of Mahmood Mattan’s imagined final words – of repentance and declaration of faith – and the stark reality of a newspaper clipping headlined ‘Woman Weeps as Somali is Hanged’.

The pathos of this brief report is largely contained by the bare facts: ‘Mahmood Hussein Mattan was executed today… less than 200 yards [from his home]’; ‘[a]n hour before the execution took place a woman dressed in a blue raincoat, her head covered by a headscarf, was seen weeping outside the entrance to the prison’; ‘[h]is appeal was dismissed by the Court of Criminal Appeal, and a few days ago the Home Secretary announced that he could find no grounds on which to interfere with the course of justice’.

One cornerstone of The Fortune Men is Mohamed’s impressive literary evocation of 1950s Cardiff

But it also seeps out into the bigoted language of the Counsel – ‘this half-child of nature, a semi-civilized savage’ – and the casual racism of the report itself: ‘There was a small group of people present outside the main entrance to the prison at nine o’clock [the time of Mattan’s execution], including several coloured persons’. The final paragraph is subtitled ‘The Shadow’, in reference to a name used about Mattan ‘because of the silent way he moved’ – a subtle but classic media demonisation of a supposed killer, and a dehumanising racist trope to boot.

It would be tempting to make the lazy assertion that the racism dates the report, but if we examine media coverage of the still unexplained death of Mohamud Mohammed Hassan, another young Somali man who died just last year following contact with police in Butetown, we see that Nadifa Mohamed’s novel speaks to the intolerable present as much as it excavates the unacceptable past.

One cornerstone of The Fortune Men is Mohamed’s impressive literary evocation of 1950s Cardiff – beginning in Berlin’s Milk Bar, where ‘Tiger Bay’s Somali sailors’ gather, somewhere between gangsters and dandies in their cravats, pocket chains and trilby hats’; another is the material context within which this romanticised idea of old ‘Tiger Bay’ is sited. 

The talk in Berlin’s is of ‘independence any day now’ – as the British Empire crumbles and its subjects arrive from all corners of the world, terrorised and exploited for centuries by a ‘mother country’ that has a queen so new she is still mistakenly referred to as ‘Princess Elizabeth’.

That that same woman is still on the throne of a country that the denizens of Berlin’s Milk Bar understand to be a place that has ‘got you by the balls, darkie!’ reminds that the days ‘[w]e own your land, your trains, your rivers, your schools, the coffee grains at the bottom of your cup’ are far from over. ‘You see what they do to the Mau Mau and all the Kikuyu in Kenya?’ says Berlin himself. ‘Lock them up, man and child.’ 

What Mohamed’s novel subtly demonstrates is how the industrial scale injustice of Empire is played out on a personal level in what Akala has called its ‘ruins’.

And as in Trezza Azzopardi’s – also Booker-shortlisted – novel The Hiding Place, the geographical reach of The Fortune Men goes far beyond Butetown. 

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Rather than being hemmed in by tropes about the Taff Vale Railway as a kind of Mason-Dixon line, a psychogeographical demarcation between the ‘Cardiff Bay’ of the Red Dragon and Wales Millennium centres, Mermaid Quay and the Senedd estate, and Butetown proper – as the infamous graffito would have it, ‘Independent Tropical Wales’ – the novel depicts the real and diverse lives of the area’s residents (and here ‘diverse’ means ‘different’, not a poor shorthand for ‘not white’). 

The murder of Lily Volpert occurs at 203 Bute Street, but Mahmood Mattan’s address is in Davis Street, Adamsdown, a literal stone’s throw from the prison. Mattan, a keen gambler, frequents the Somerton dog track in Newport, and the horse races at Chepstow. 

Nadifa Mohamed’s achievement is to harness the power of the true story that is, in the words of the familiar cliche, stranger than fiction. The novel’s power resides in its artful management of the confluence between literary symbolism and journalistic attention to detail, the two combining to produce a powerful monument to truth.

Mohamed is not Welsh, but she brings with her the outsider-insider perspective of a Londoner born in Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland – a country whose diaspora forms Wales’ largest single ethnic minority group. An estimated 8,000 people of Somali heritage live in Cardiff, Newport and Swansea, a majority in the south Cardiff communities centred on historic ‘Tiger Bay’. 

There is something of Mersault, the protagonist of Albert Camus’ novel The Outsider, about Mattan’s character

‘The night skies in Hargeisa made you think of God,’ writes Mohamed, as Mattan lies on his back in his prison cell, ‘while here they are worldly, contaminated by men and their ceaseless chimneys and bright lights.’

Replace the chimneys of the fag-end of industrial Cardiff with the chrome and glass of the contemporary reinvented city and its myriad minarets to Mammon and it’s clear Mohamed’s book also serves as a barometer of the spiritual temperature of modern Wales. In a sentence that powerfully captures the atmosphere of incarceration, Mohamed writes: ‘The miasma above the prison, above Cardiff, suffocated Mahmood’s faith and separated him from God.’ 

But Mohamed does not present the innocent Mattan as a saint. Far from it. ‘Alcohol, music, drink, gambling, women’ are described as ‘the five pillars of his old life’. 

There is something of Mersault, the protagonist of Albert Camus’ novel The Outsider, about Mattan’s character, a sense that in being made to stand apart from society, one gains a clarity of perspective, not just on our immediate circumstances, but on the universe. Camus ironically called Mersault ‘the only Christ-figure we deserve’, but the difference between Mersault and Mattan – apart from one being a fictional character serving as a vehicle for existentialist philosophy and the other a fictional character based on a real person – is that Mattan did not commit the crime for which he stands trial.

Mohamed has Mattan describe Christians, to his doctor, as ‘funny people… your Lord die for your sins, so why you need prisons?’

Mattan’s tragedy, in Mohamed’s story, lies in the forgiveness he receives – from his wife Laura, as well as the Almighty – for his minor indiscretions, while the cold hand of the state takes his life for another man’s crime. Cardiff prison is described as a ‘sterile womb’ within which Mattan can be reborn, ‘start to atone for some of his past sins’, but of course it is a uterus from which he does not even emerge stillborn, buried within the confines of its walls.

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Cruel ironies abound, not least that the Home Secretary who refused to reopen Mattan’s file when new evidence came to light in the late 1960s was James Callaghan, MP for Cardiff South and future Prime Minister, in honour of whom the vast square that now separates Butetown from Adamsdown and the city centre is named. 

Perhaps it says much about Wales’ complex and uncomfortable histories that while squares in Merthyr Tydfil and Newport are named after victims of injustice – working class martyr Dic Penderyn and pro-democracy campaigner John Frost – the names of Cardiff’s streets and squares celebrate the relatives of the Marquess of Bute and other establishment figures: aristocrats Wyndham, Romilly and Mackintosh and prime ministers Callaghan and Lloyd George.

Imperialists and slavers are celebrated in the names of places that now find themselves in districts with Black, Asian and minority ethnic majorities, with Robert Clive lending his name to a major thoroughfare in Grangetown, and Herbert Kitchener the name of a primary school in Riverside. Meanwhile, Thomas Picton – recontextualised in a cardboard box – continues to bestride our National Museum.

After the murder of Lily Volpert, Mohamed describes the ‘housewives of Canton, Penarth, Ebbw Vale, St Mellons all coming to gasp at the street gamblers, half-caste children and tumbledown bars with tumbledown women chatting outside’. 

The Fortune Men offers a challenge to every one of us, about who and what we remember, and who and what celebrate, and how we live. 

Today they might come to marvel at the ‘My City, My Shirt’ mural, on the wall near where Lynette White was murdered and the chain of events set in motion that led to yet more unjust incarcerations of Black men from Cardiff, or to admire the lighthouse with its ‘Ballast Bank’, a Peter Finch poem piled in stones outside Cardiff Bay Police Station, from where 24-year-old Mohamud Mohammed Hassan was released without charge, dying within hours of mysterious injuries. 

And so let us return to the book’s ending and concede, together, that the story of Mahmood Mattan is not finished. As Nadifa Mohamed writes in the final line of the novel: ‘The murder of Lily Volpert is still unsolved.’ 

The book, the author claims, belongs to Butetown. But its status as Wales Book of the Year also means it belongs – whether Wales likes it or not – to the whole of Cymru. 

We must now learn to own the consequences of adopting Mattan, and not as a neatly packaged historical factoid like the proverbial million pound cheque (for when, by the way, did the people of Tiger Bay in any meaningful way see the wealth that was passing through the Port of Cardiff?). 

The Fortune Men offers a challenge to every one of us, about who and what we remember, and who and what celebrate, and how we live. 

The dust has far from settled, but thanks to Nadifa Mohamed, the miasma above Cardiff is beginning to lift.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Dylan Moore is Editor of the welsh agenda. He writes this in a personal capacity.

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