The Ianto Shrine: The Cardiff landmark that commemorates a man who never was

Never forget. Image: Ed Jefferson.

Impromptu shrines to culturally important dead people are not unheard of. More than 15 years after the death of Princess Diana, I stumbled across a small collection of messages and flowers tied to the fences of Kensington Palace. The David Bowie mural in Brixton has been flooded with tributes since his sad departure last January. And a shrine to Marc Bolan, on the site of his fatal car accident in Barnes, has become a permanent memorial.

Much rarer are shrines to people who never actually existed in the first place, but they do exist. In Cardiff Bay, for instance, on an otherwise unremarkable bit of wood-panelled wall, are dozens upon dozens of tributes to a man who never was.

What fictional character could possibly merit this treatment? Surely one of vast impact, from stories that left culture changed forever?

It’s Ianto Jones.

From Doctor Who’s dubious “adult” spin-off Torchwood.

No, not that one from Torchwood. Or that one. The other one, who didn’t really even have any character traits apart from “being slightly sarcastic”.

Click to expand, if you must.

I came across it entirely by chance a few years ago and was mesmerised. There are photos, drawings, flowers, poems, essays. There are messages from all over the world – in just the ones I took pictures of, I can see mentions of Spain, Finland, Russia. Someone’s sewn a tiny version of Ianto’s suit; someone else has hung up a tie.

The results of a poll from Poll Pigeon Dot Com have been laminated: 55 per cent of respondents say they won’t watch the next series unless Ianto is resurrected. There’s a “Keep Calm And Save Torchwood” card. There’s Ianto as the Terminator saying, “I’ll be back!”. There’s a confusing reference to Paul McCartney’s alter-ego Percy Thrillington. All human life is here.

 

So how did a character who most people probably never knew existed in the first place earn this tribute? Thanks to the magic of the internet, it’s not hard to find obsessive fans of almost anything these days (there’s even Thomas The Tank Engine fan fiction where the trains turn into people and... kiss). But this stuff rarely spills over into the real world.

The one other recent example involved a far more famous character: Sherlock Holmes. When the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock fell to his death off the roof of Barts Hospital in London, a nearby telephone box became the site of tributes (you can still see some “SHERLOCK LIVES” graffiti on the phone box and the wall next to it).

This occurred even though it was made clear he hadn’t actually died within the episode where it happened – which suggests that at least some of the people behind this stuff are doing it with tongue very much in cheek.

But there’s something else going on with the Ianto shrine – something made clear by the number of “tributes” which rail against Torchwood’s creator, Russell T Davies. Though Ianto Jones may not have been a very good character, he did represent something important to many people: he was involved in a same-sex relationship with the series’ lead character, Captain Jack. That’s something that remains relatively rare in genre television, and, rightly or wrongly, there were people who felt that his death was something of a slap in the face.

The usual things that happen when people get angry about television happened. There were e-petitions. There was a “Save Ianto Jones” website. There was a campaign to send bags of coffee to the BBC (Ianto was often seen making coffee, you see) – albeit one which Davies claims that only nine people actually bothered to take part in. And then, perhaps most interestingly, in a part of Cardiff Bay used as a location on the show, some fans decided to leave tributes. And so Ianto’s Shrine was born.


The character “died” in 2009, but the Shrine’s still there. The owners of the wall it’s attached to appear to have taken it in good spirit, and at some point mounted an explanatory plaque to ensure bemused passers-by understand that the man who died fighting aliens wasn’t actually real.

The shrine has even got its own page on TripAdvisor, though not all the reviews are positive. “My daughter wanted to go here,” notes a visitor from East Hartford, Connecticut, “an absolute waste of time”. Others acknowledge that, while it may have had its moment, it is getting a bit “faded and jaded”, and that it’s time for it to go. These people are wrong.

I hope Ianto’s Shrine persists – not as a memorial to a TV character, but as a memorial to how brilliantly ludicrous people can be when they put their minds to it. Whether it’s the work of nine people or 90,000 people sort of doesn’t matter – either way, the point here is the hours put into the creation of something so essentially futile. This small, silly, human-scale stuff is as much of what makes places places as the grand-projets, garden bridges and gleaming towers. Ianto’s Shrine is a Cardiff landmark.

 

Click to expand. Honestly, it's worth it. 

May the Ianto Wall stand long after everyone has forgotten that there even was anything called Torchwood – has forgotten that there was even a thing called television. Thousands, even millions of years from now, when the sun sets on whatever remains of the human race, they should remember that there was an Ianto Jones, even if they have absolutely no idea what that means. Because it would be quite funny if they did.

It’s got three and a half stars on TripAdvisor, and is apparently the 67th best thing in Cardiff.

All photographs courtesy of Ed Jefferson, who you can also find on Twitter.

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This app connects strangers in two cities across the world. But can it tackle urban loneliness?

New Delhi, in India, where many of Duet-App's users come from. Image: Ville Miettinen

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people”. Olivia Laing, The Lonely City

Our relationship to where we live and the spaces we inhabit define who we are and how we feel. But how often do we articulate the emotional impact of this relationship, whether this be loneliness, frustration or even civic pride?

“When I moved to a new city, started living alone, wanted to drink less, stay indoors more, and when I realised that I cannot make any more best friends.”

A new social network, a simple app that connects two individuals from the UK and India, aims to counter some of these issues.  Over the course of a year connected pairs receive one question a day through the app and their responses are exchanged with each other. A simple interaction that gradually builds a series of one-on-one relationships and invites users to imagine, over time, the other person living their life.

Distant geographies are an implicit part of the experience, therefore many of the questions nudge users to explore correlations between their physical and emotional landscapes. The data shows us that many of the Duet-App users are located in populous urban cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Manchester, Leeds and London, places that can just as often discourage feelings of belonging and place-making as much as they foster them.

“I had thought I'd never be able to live here again. but here I am living again at home after almost a decade living elsewhere. Living in Mumbai is a contact sport, and I can't do without it's chaos and infectious energy.”

Mumbai, India. Image: Deepak Gupta

In general cities are getting bigger and spreading wider at the same time as our communications are increasingly being conducted online and via digital gateways.

There is a sense that much of our online personas project an idealised version of ourselves; we increasingly document and express our daily lives through a filter and we are not always comfortable with a spontaneous expression of ourselves. Duet-App seeks to foster alternative digital relationships that through their anonymity allow us to be more honest and free.

“I feel a lot of people assume that I always have a lot going on for me and everything's always happy and amazing. I wish they could appreciate... how much of my own anxiety I swim in every single day. I appear and behave “normal” on the outside, calm and composed but there are always storms going on in my head.”

In exploring the responses to the questions so far, those that often garner the most replies relate directly to how we feel about our personal position in the world around us. Often these questions act as provocations not only to share responses but to reflect and articulate our thoughts around how we feel about what we are doing in the here and now.

Manchester, another popular city for Duet-App users. Image: Julius 

“Sometimes I feel sad about it [getting old] because I saw how easy it would be to feel lonely, and the fact that the world is set up for able-bodied young people is a bit of a travesty.”

Although many social media platforms allow for distant engagement and access into the lives of others we are in the main still curating and choosing our friendship circles. Through Duet-App this is randomised (and anonymised) with the intention of bypassing the traditional mechanics of how we broker online relationships. While directly exploring the digital space as a place for intimacy.


“Where do you go for peace?

“Well the internet, really. I do some mindless browsing, peek into the fandoms, listen to a few songs. Calms me down.”

Snapshots into the lives of someone existing and playing out their lives remotely can highlight shared concerns that break down preconceptions of how life is lived by others. Prompted by the reflections of a stranger exposed to our lives, digital relationships can encourage us to address the physical space we inhabit and the effects that the cities we live out our lives in have on our own well being. 

Catherine Baxendale is director of Invisible Flock.

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