“The Devil in Cardiff”
In “The Devil in Cardiff,” we meet Robbo, a bailiff and a snitch. The narrator, presumably a friend of Robbo’s, tells how Robbo met up with Devil and ended up in prison, or as he calls it, Hell. Set in Wales, this poem touches on the ways a community tries to restore order and fights against corruption. Perhaps one reason Agbabi chose Wales as the setting for a story that deals with community is because she spent some of her childhood there, and she would be familiar with the people and dialect. Another could be the sometimes turbulent history that exists between Wales and England.
Wales is sometimes referred to as England’s first, and likely last, colony (Wales-England: Where is the Love?). As members of the United Kingdom, the two nations are interconnected politically and share the same parliament, Wales still remains fiercely loyal to its separate identity and the Welsh language (Welsh referendum). The difference in language is a large part of the tension that exists presently between the two countries. Although they share a border, English is a Germanic language and Welsh is of Celtic origin. Linguistically, they are not closely related at all (Hargreaves). Historically, there has always been pressure on the Welsh to learn and primarily speak English. In the 1960’s, school children were punished for speaking Welsh in school. The Welsh language was seen as inferior and vulgar. As the language declined, the risk of cultural degradation grew. However, Wales has worked over the last few decades to strengthen the status of its native language. The country is officially bilingual and much of the stigma around speaking Welsh has dissipated (Quinion). The country is taking steps in being more vocal in its own rule. The National Assembly of Wales was created in 1998 to counter English superiority in Parliamentary representation. Today, the Assembly has its own law-making powers, allowing the Welsh people to legislate without UK parliamentary approval (Welsh Referendum). Reclaiming the power of the Welsh national language and the subsequent resurgence of Welsh pride seems to lead to an increased power politically, pointing to the strength that language has in community.
“The Devil in Cardiff” alludes to the ways that the law polices community belonging. Robbo says he is a bailiff, an officer who enforces court orders, often to seize property in payment of debts. Yet, private debt collectors who do not hold an official legal position often refer to themselves as bailiffs, presenting the impression that they are backed with a court order–when, in fact, they are not. Both Robbo and bailiff he encounters at the bar claim this legal status as a tool for crime, rather than its remediation. For instance, Robbo presents the old woman with a fake summons, despite her protest that she “owe[s] nothing.” Agbabi’s references to ASBOs, or Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, further supports this reading. Used across Britain until 2015, the ASBO was a way for communities to decide what types of behaviors they would tolerate and how to deal with transgressors, outside of formal court systems. The community and the victims could decide what remedy to impose and what recourse would be necessary in order to restore community order. They were meant to be a deterrent to smaller, petty types of behavior and crime, in the hopes that if these smaller behaviors could be eliminated, they would eliminate the atmosphere that fostered larger criminal types of behavior (Anti-Social Behaviour). Yet, in practice, ASBOs targeted marginalized members of communities, effectively granting intolerance of difference legal credibility. The targets of ASBOs, often young people, were compelled to adhere to community standards or risk fines, jail time, or eviction–a property seizure likely to be enforced by a bailiff. Thus, “The Devil in Cardiff” suggests that Robbo’s criminality is both an effect of his own marginalization through ASBOs and an echo of the long histories of nominally legitimate property seizures in which he operates: English occupation of Wales (an act that also policed cultural and linguistic norms) as well as community-enforced evictions. Thus, the dark humor final line of “The Devil in Cardiff” suggests that Robbo seek eviction from Hell by getting an ASBO.
The law’s complicity in corruption also recalls Chaucer’s The Friar’s Tale. Here, Chaucer critiques the role the Summoner. As an officer of the ecclesiastical court, a summoner would deliver citations to appear before court, collect fines, and act as a bailiff during court proceedings. Historically, the position was prone to corruption and extortion in the line of duty was commonplace if not expected (Bryant 181). The Friar tells the story of a corrupt summoner who, while on his way to extort money from a widow, encounters the Devil. The two travel together, trading stories of their misdeeds and sinful behavior, with the Devil eventually revealing that he is a demon. In the end, because he refuses to repent his sinful behavior, the Devil takes the summoner away to Hell. The Friar tells this story to expose the summoner and his corruption and to show that he can do what the summoner can’t — offer true forgiveness. Friars, who were answerable only to the superior of their order and not the ecclesiastical court, were given the ability to hear confessions, thus eliminating the need for the summoner to exact fines for sins and crimes. This created an atmosphere of competition and dislike between the two types of men (Chaucer and Benson 874-875). Friars offered a type of regulation and rehabilitation through repentance that a Summoner did not. A person could pay to a Summoner to make their crime appear to go away, but a Friar could do more than appear to forgive you your sin. He could grant absolution.
The Devil, posing as a sympathetic and like-minded character, gains the upper hand over Robbo and whisks him off to Hell. Notice the Devil only takes what is intentionally and expressly given to him, “when the curse means business” (Agbabi, line 36). The intention has to be present or else the words have no meaning. This is similar to the way a confession works – if the sinner doesn’t express true contrition, absolution can’t be given. Notice that the Devil and the Friar both focus on intention as the important part in enacting their justice, be it absolution or damnation. Intention in this tale then, both saves and condemns.
The Devil in Cardiff
Huw Fryer Jones Note that Fryer is a homophone of Friar.
1 sent down Sent to prison, convicted.
2 snitch A person who turns someone in, gives info to police to get someone arrested
5 div Stupid, an idiot
10 bailiff In Chaucer’s time: a magistrate or authorized administrator, often appointed by the king, who collected fines, issued warrants and performed arrests, and maintained public authority in a particular district. Today: an officer of the court concerned with the service of the court’s processes and the enforcement of its orders.
10 sly A pun on the phrase “helluva guy.” Used a noun, a sly is someone who is duplicitous, clever in doing something, skillful and willfully underhanded.
12 bevvies Alcoholic drink, “beverage”
15 nain Welsh for grandmother
16 Pint of bitter for me Traditional British beer with a bitter flavor due to its content of hops.
20 I was the devil in Cardiff A pun on “incarnate” and “in Cardiff”. Cardiff is the capital city of Wales
21 ASBO Anti-Social Behaviour Order. These were civil sanctions that allowed communities to enforce and prosecute “anti-social behavior”, or behavior that would make community life unpleasant and foster an environment that would encourage harsher forms of crime. In practice, ABSOs targeted marginalized members of communities and were criticized as tools of intolerance.
23 Robert Owen Welsh social reformer, he campaigned against the abuses of the industrial revolution and a proponent of communal ownership and co-operative living. He founded a utopian colonial society in The United States named New Harmony.
27 Thick as thieves Idiom meaning a close, intimate alliance or friendship
27 Ta! Short for thanks, a simple way of saying thank you.
28 Lada Inexpensive Russian make of car, meant to allow users to drive on a budget. Extremely popular in the UK in the 1970’s, they are not currently imported.
48-50 Pay up or pay the price… an old joke Robbo is pointing out the difference between paying the fine in monetary value versus the various form so punishment that may await the individual if they fail to respond to the extortion. The devil laughs at this, possibly, because he knows that the monetary value that is asked of each person, though it seems large, is actually a much smaller price to pay than what he will exact from them.
54-55 Mine, he says…on a street corner Robbo is possibly accusing the woman of prostitution here, implying that he once paid for her services on a street corner, and is now taking back the money he gave her. Essentially, he is accusing her of being an unfaithful wife.
58 Dai A Welsh first name. Today, a pet name for DavId, but also originally from the Old Celtic word meaning “to shine”
64 bloody One of the most useful English swear words, used as an exclamatory word or for emphasis. Similar in usage to the word ‘damn.’
65 Bitter for me A play on words. A reference to the earlier phrase “a pint of bitters for me,” but also a play on the phrase “better for me.” This raises the question, is the narrator better or bitter at the loss of his friend Robbo? Is he relieved he is in hell? Or sad to see him go?
66 fiver Five pounds sterling
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