Inspired by Nobel Prize-winning Polish-Lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz, whose memoir, Milosz’s ABC, combined personal reminiscences with an angular view of the history of twentieth century Europe, Wales Arts Review’s Senior Editor Gary Raymond looks back at life in his hometown of Newport.
To begin at the beginning, I suppose, is wise. My beginning, on one of the estates of my hometown. The modern reputation of Newport is more coloured by the council estates that make up most of its urban landscape than any aspect of its history or culture. Few are more disdained than ALWAY. Alway is an amber-trapped cliché of social disengagement. But at its edge was – and is – a small house where my grandparents lived, and where I was first introduced to the wonders of creative culture; Holst and Mozart and Poe and Melville, Toad of Toad Hall and Sherlock Holmes. My grandfather’s collection of books was the beginning of my life, and his 78s of Caruso and Handel and Roy Rogers marked my introduction to music. My grandfather passed away when I was ten, but his influence has been integral and is as strong today as it has ever been. The shame in the stereotyping of areas like Alway is not that untruth prevails, but that humanness is forgotten. Creative culture does not just belong to all people, but it belongs to all areas, all streets, to palaces and council estates. It is the forgetting of this that turns estates into ghettos, and towns like Newport into self-perpetuating parables of social failure.
I look back on my obligatory state education with fondness, although I doubt I was quite so enamoured at the time. BASSALEG COMPREHENSIVE SCHOOL, situated on the middle-class brow of the Newport experience, gave me some valuable formative lessons. My A-level teachers, Chris Hamlet (Classics), Malcolm Summers (English Literature) and Selwyn Morgan (Religious Studies) were three of the most important personal influences of my teenage years. They made information bubble and bristle, and formal education, for the first time, was exciting rather than an invasion into my own interests – books, blues music and football, namely (and probably girls, of course). But Bassaleg School, through whose cavernous arteries we daily moved, was an institution guilty of the sin of pride as well as one honoured by the power of proudness. The sin has always left a tacky taste in my mouth. As a chronically average student I was victim of this myself, ignored sometimes, and derided sometimes (I remember specific occurrences). I was acutely aware of the burden those even less average than myself seemed to be to the school. My Newport has, consequently, always been born of the tug and push between the minority middle-classes and the majority working-classes. Bassaleg, fashioning its own enclave, was no less a ghetto than Alway.
The village of CAERLEON provides an eternal connection to a cultural past and future for Newport from its Roman heritage. But for some time it was also the home of Newport’s University, now The University of South Wales, shod of its nominal connection to the city that built it. An amalgamation of a well-respected teaching college and a world-renowned art school, University of Wales, Newport can now stand as a symbol of the calculated erosion of Newport’s identity as anything other than a failed situation, stripped of the medals that made it a city in the first place. The merger of Newport’s University and Glamorgan University leaves Cardiff with its name attached to two institutes of higher education, and its neighbour with none. It seems a powerful symbol for the fractious on-going relationship between Newport and its parent country.
Newport’s creative impulse has always been linked to its DRINKING. The first great, mature conversations I ever had were in the pubs of Newport. One learns young that the people of Newport take their drinking very seriously. There was a time when the smoky wooded alcoves and bar tops of its pubs was the beating soul of a town that lived for the sake of living. The reputation for violence is unfair, although not untrue. All of life is in the pub and violence, unfortunately, is a part of life. There is also sadness and euphoria in there, the illness and the light, the anger and the joy. But never the boredom. It is in Newport’s drinking dens that I learned to respect people for the quality of their character, not for their clothes, their background or their persuasions. It is where I abandoned my teenage relationship with boredom, and promised myself a life of ‘interest’, of conspiracy, a life of living, and, most importantly, of ‘getting things done’.
Newport, in many ways, is as defined by its relationship with ENGLAND as it is by that of Wales. And just as much by its lack of a relationship. Until recently, if you worked at a warehouse in Chepstow, your employer paid you a higher hourly wage if you lived in Bristol than if you lived in Newport. Newport was subject to a curious mixture of English and Welsh law until 1972’s Governance Act which moved its then mother-county Monmouthshire under Wales’ exclusive auspices. Wales has never seemed particularly grateful for the donation, it must be said. The significance of this almost Dickensian story of orphanage has had its effect on the people within the walls, and has had its effect on me. I have always felt quite strongly a Newportonian, more so than a Welshman, and only slightly more so again than an Englishman. For over twenty-five years I called myself British. Newport is the child that neither parent wanted in the divorce, and Newport, in the main, has responded by resenting both parents.
I have now, and have had since my school days, an extraordinary group of friends, all creative. We were lucky to have known each other, thrown together by differing whims of interconnected school systems. Now we are dotted around the world. We have amongst us diplomats, entrepreneurs, executives, families; but we also have theatre directors, award-winning playwrights, editors, novelists, authors, builders of virtual space. We all became creators of worlds. So the story goes, in our mid to late teens, we would gather at the FERRIS HOUSE, home to Al Ferris (now a theatre director in London) and his famously understanding parents, every Friday night to drink, smoke cigarettes, play guitars, opine on Kerouac and Vonnegut and Douglas Adams, fall over, fall in love, write, dance. Every artist needs a family of like-minds, and every artist needs halcyon days to look back on, in order to remember why it is we ended up doing what we’re doing.
One of the most visually and vocally recognisable exports of Newport in recent years has been the hip hop group, THE GOLDIE LOOKIN’ CHAIN, a collection of pantomimic quasi-satirical troubadours who extol the nature of Newport’s stereotyped classes. I have known many of the members since schooldays, and they are a complex bunch, peopled with creatively vibrant and astute storytellers. That their stories are filled with the characters of Newport’s streets makes them far more culturally significant than many would be prepared to admit, in a richer vein than the folk nostalgia of William Morris or the carnival myths of Nick Cave, The Chain are the documentarians of Newport’s now, the Cecil Sharp of chewing gum and concrete, the Alan Lomax of tracksuits and sour faces. Always funny and frequently musically interesting, it is not always easy to tell whether The Chain is exploiting the people they mimic or are paying homage. They stride the line between irony and sincerity, observation and gonzo. They have equally enhanced and harmed the reputation of the town, mind you – they have highlighted its sense of humour, its grit and glorious idiosyncrasies, whilst also playing up to the destructive prejudices people hold (from within and without Newport): the drug culture, the stupidity of the working classes, and the inherent lack of ambition of the new underclass. But, like true artists they are not providing answers, and they are not obliged to; they are Newport’s camera obscura.
In the late nineties I was involved with a theatre project that visited the schools in and around Newport. This was the first and only time I have been inside the grounds of HARTRIDGE HIGH SCHOOL, the school my father attended. My lasting memory of that day was standing in the entrance hall and looking up at five or six portrait photos of teenagers whom I took to be Hartridge pupils. I asked what they had done to deserve a place on the wall. They were the pupils who went from Hartridge to university the previous year, I was told. It was a shock to me, as a former Bassaleg boy, as someone who had once (along with a friend) been ridiculed in front of a full class of sixth formers by a deputy head for my GCSE results (which were, as was everything I achieved in school, nothing less than average). I felt strangely proud of the faces on the wall, people I would never knowingly meet. I also felt ashamed for having taken my school for granted. And I felt thankful for the uncomplaining hard work of my parents (my mother went to an even more downtrodden secondary school, Ruffwood, in Liverpool’s Kirkby district) who ensured I got to go the snotty school on the opposite side of town.
And there will come a time when children will sit on the knees of their grandfathers and ask, ‘Grandpa, what did you do in the twentieth century?’ And Grandpa will answer, ‘Well, little ‘un, I worked in the steel works.’ ‘What’s a steel works?’ ‘It was part of INDUSTRY,’ Grandpa will say, ‘We don’t have industry now.’ And the grandchild will look confused at both the sound of the unfamiliar word, and at the unmistakeable melancholy in grandpa’s voice. I am not going to write in nostalgic terms about Newport’s industrial past, ignoring, as so many do, the abhorrent physical conditions of these workplaces, and I’m not naïve about the modern viability of collieries and refineries in Wales, either (these things are gone and are not coming back); but you find me a single adult who would prefer not to build something – anything! – but instead to fester beneath the anaesthetised florescent bulbs of a Call Centre, and you will begin to understand the decline of modern Wales.
Newport, like most other towns, likes to hold on tight to its claims to fame. In the folklore of rock ‘n’ roll, Newport has its place, and its places, and in these places myths were born and still breathe. JOE STRUMMER has his place in these annals; a blue plaque is nailed to his old doss house. He came to Newport and formed a band with art school students whilst working as a gravedigger and going by the name of Woody (in homage to Guthrie, his idol). Strummer took something from the streets and the sounds of Newport, from the influx of Caribbean beats that came in through the docklands, and the punk ethos of the town’s nightlife. Strummer was a middle-class boy, and in his journey to become lead singer of The Clash Newport was to become a vital ingredient in the working-class social conscience of the band. It is a shame that in Julien Temple’s fast-paced documentary on Strummer’s life, The Future is Unwritten, that the only footage of Newport that the director could find from the 1970s was of two old men in overcoats fighting outside a pub. But it was ever thus in the national attitude to Newport.
Getting out of Newport has often been a hot topic of conversation amongst its young inhabitants. Many of them go. Few of my school friends are still here. I am familiar with the tones of pity from people I knew at school who, now no more than acquaintances, when I cross paths with them now, discover I still live here. For many years it was difficult not to at least feign shame at one’s own home; for many Newport will be the boat that dropped them off at the place they ended up. I have learned to have more respect for it than that; and less respect for those of that opinion. I did get out – several times. And at first the symbol of escape to many of us was KEROUAC, ti Jean, the Dharma Bum, the firewatcher, Sal Paradise. I travelled and opined and swirled and danced and watched the sun come up. I stood straight up out of the sun roof as the car hurtled and rattled toward San Francisco and I yelled, ‘We can’t go no further! We can’t go no further ‘cuz there ain’t no more land!’ But I came back, I always came back. I came back because Newport has a consistent sense of community, and its people have a profound (if sometimes dormant) sense of its root. Kerouac, the Beats’ St Christopher, didn’t have that; and he drank himself to death.
Newport has much in common with other working class industrial towns in the United Kingdom. It is rough into the centre as well as around the edges. It is ‘colourful’ in the ways that make the more sensitive wince. Not least in this colour is the ingredient of LANGUAGE. Newportonians are the only people I know, as a race, who use expletives mid-sentence in place of an inhalation. You can even be treated to it mid-word, like a brightly lit flair wedging the syllables apart. But it is absolutely no sign of degeneracy. It has nothing to do with intelligence, nothing to do with kindness or character. I remember once hearing praise that Sartre’s introduction to Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers was ‘un-fuckin’-believable’. Not all that long ago. It has something to do with rhythm. It is poetry and it is comedy and it is drama. It is expressive, of course; and it is also partly an unfortunately intimidating verbal tick. And it is unpleasant in the mouths of babes. Of course it is crude. There used to be a theory that if everybody in Newport said ‘fuck’ at exactly the same time the Earth would swing off its axis, but this happens at least once every three months, and there is no evidence of any cosmological upheaval as yet.
I was born and raised on a council estate. (A cliché in itself for most ‘leftie’ writers, and hardly a record of boast). I spent the first five years of my life in an area of cutely narrow roads lined with what are still affectionately referred to as ‘the tin houses’, small three-bedroom abodes made of corrugated metal. MALPAS, as I remember it then (and it is only a few minutes’ drive from where I live now), was, in the eighties, split into the nice and not so nice, bisected by the main Malpas road. I may have grown up on the ‘not so nice’ side, but the foggy memories I have from back then are extremely happy ones, of neighbourliness, of playing in the streets, of pop vans and mobile Betamax libraries, of tree swings and swing ball and long warm evenings. My three older sisters used to dress our dog up in baby clothes, complete with dummy in chops, and wheel her down the street in a pram. Sheba was utterly complicit. I know this happened, but I don’t know if I remember it or if the family anecdotes implanted the cinema in my brain. It may have been before I was born. But it fits entirely with the cinereel of the community I grew up in; very working class, very Welsh, very Newport.
When I have lived in Newport (I’ve also live in Bath, Brighton, Cyprus, America, West Wales, and probably some other places) I have always resided in NP20, west of the river, where the grey is flecked with greenery, and the sky is blue and white, and the blood is red. We have been served in Westminster by Paul Flynn since 1987, and regardless of your opinions of the man, his politics remain naturally associated with his conscience, and his conscience is built up of intellectual engagement with the issues. That his values are of the left is important to me, personally. But that he has remained of the left while the Labour party of which he is a member has drifted to a mumbling fumbling grey centrist gabble of headscratchers, indefinable in their aimlessness, an uninspiring lapdance club of boondoggles and bicycle-chasing, is a truly remarkable thing. When Flynn does step down (he is 78 now), watch out for the PPE-puffed blue suit who replaces him, and try and remember their name.
It would be disingenuous to write about Newport and not mention its current standing. That Newport is a grim featureless urban error seems to be the common narrative stuck to by the national media. Newport only ever appears in the press if a negative story can be commented upon. Negative stories are available, of course, and the state of the town centre is undeniable, although the blame for this lies not with the inhabitants of Newport as is often presented. The word OVERSIGHT often seems apt in relation to the current perception of my town. It is seen over by those who are perfectly in tune with the prejudices that are driving the town into a nadir. It is largely overlooked by both the media and the governing establishments of Wales and the United Kingdom beyond. And the town is where it is due to a litany of mistakes, misjudgements and incompetence. And its fair share of wilful contempt and disregard. Newport has often been a town headed by small people in big suits, and ‘oversight’ is the saddest epitaph I can think of. The people of Newport are worthy of more, and better, attention.
Perhaps the most significant living symbol of Newport’s heritage is the area of PILLGWENLLY; it has all the roots, the richness and the degeneration of what human culture means at the most common (by which I mean ‘usual’) level. Pill has been a swarming noise of ethnic diversity and the soul of Newport’s industrial working classes for centuries, built around the docklands as it is. It gave us W.H. Davies. Pill’s library bore the inscription, ‘Knowledge is Power’; a powerful socialist message and the stick in the craw of those who wish to close them, a reminder that we know what they’re doing, and they know that we know. Pill has an aggressive and defiant socially conscious spirit that can be summed up no better than the legend above that library door. Pill is Newport with the volume turned up; its radical working-class heartbeat reverberates through the ages as well as the streets.
My three older sisters went to QUEEN’S COMPREHENSIVE SCHOOL, as would I have done had it not closed down in 1990. I remember the foiled anticipation when I was told I wouldn’t be going there. I looked up to my sisters. They were intelligent, beautiful, street-wise, and very very funny. (Not to say they are no longer any of those things). The denial of my entrance to Queen’s must have hurt, but I don’t remember that. I look back on it now for the first time in twenty-odd years and I wonder what kind of sticky bomb that disappointment was to me as I went on through life. I must admit I am not as close to my sisters in adulthood as I was in childhood. Big decisions, we all know, have effects in the smallest corners. Books that were handed down to me from the Queen’s classrooms when I was a nipper include As I Lay Dying and A Clockwork Orange. I pondered for years the meaning of ‘my mother is a fish’ and read Burgess’ masterpiece three times in as many weeks in order to understand nadsat without thumbing the glossary. In my unconscious there is a connection of excitement between literature like this and the deep red brick of that school. Queen’s was on a hill, mostly out of sight from the road behind its high fence, like the Castle of Otranto to a ten year old kid hooked on Corman-camp horror. And it remained that for me. The closure was a financial decision I recall, and the building, in my mind, became as overgrown and dilapidated as anything in a Corman movie, until it returned to house educators and became a PRU a few years ago.
Newport, of course, has a rather famous historical relationship with RADICALISM and with revolutionary activism. Chartism had its most dramatic episode outside the Westgate Hotel in the town centre. Newport played a significant part in the long and uphill fight for universal suffrage. If culturally Newport has slipped away from its country over the decades, becoming very much its ‘own place’, politically it is as solidly linked to the flesh of Wales as it could be. Newportonians went to Spain in 1937 to fight Franco, and Cambria House in Caerleon became the home of a troupe of thirty child refugees crossing the other way, escaping the same war. Socialist democracy is not a posture in Newport, (as it is not throughout Wales), it is its nature – and it could be the passion for this that infuses the town with the power to progress from the doldrums in which it currently finds itself. Newport is full of impassioned fighters; it is the defining characteristic. Look at history.
There was a Dark Ages in Newport around the turn of the century. It was dark because the joy of conversation became shadowed and muddied. There were several years when there was not a moment that went by that somebody was not talking about the transition of Newport from town to city. It was impossible to avoid, difficult to fathom, and not all that easy to give a shit about. Debates about Newport’s STATUS have been forced upon us, the people, by the grey-faced powers that be. It is the most gaseous of topics, insubstantial, omnipresent, and because it ultimately has had only a smell. The truth is that twenty years ago Newport was a town that felt like a city – it buzzed and bubbled and crackled and fizzed like a city does: (it did so certainly more than Cardiff did in those days before the capital’s ‘90s renaissance). And it seems that, since City status was bestowed in 2002, Newport has become the most meagre of towns; the feeling of the place has shrunk, small-minds have prevailed, snideness, greyness, the litter on the streets falls from the highest tables. Status only matters to those who chase it; and the rest are left to do the actual work. When Newport was a town it was mocked from all quarters for not being a city, and now it is a city the title is used as a stick with which to beat it. So Newport is a city in status and a town in heart, but really, let the councillors and politicians and grubby millionaires scrabble over titles. The people will get on with the work.
One legacy of the fleeting nature of the vulgarity of wealth is the house and park that have been left Newport by the Lords of TREDEGAR. Industrialists and profiteers, like many others of the Victorian era, the Tredegars came from a long line of landed gentry, and lived in the lap of luxury at the edge of what is now the Duffryn estate. To most people in Newport, certainly of my generation, Tredegar House is associated with bank holiday events, fairs, Eisteddfods, and civil war re-enactments; and the park just over the way is memorable mostly for its communal outdoor paddling pool and the ‘spider’s’ climbing frame, a fifty foot (as I recall) rope webbing that small children would scale throughout the summer days as their parents ate ice cream and hoped the kids didn’t plummet to certain death on a thin carpet of bark shavings. My grandfather used to tell me stories of Captain Henry Morgan, one of the Tredegar clan, famous pirate who ended up Governor Lieutenant of Jamaica under Charles II, gave his name to a popular rum, and a career to Errol Flynn. In 1854, Godfrey Morgan survived the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, as did his horse Sir Briggs. Sir Briggs lived at Tredegar House to the ripe old age of twenty-eight, and was buried with full military honours. A monument to his martial accomplishments still stands in the grounds of the house. The Morgan dynasty ended in 1962 with the death of the heirless John Morgan. What happened to the immense wealth the Morgans built up over centuries I have no idea. Rumours that they invested it all in MySpace seem chronologically unlikely. The house is now under the stewardship of the National Trust.
The reason for Newport, really, is the USK river on which it is built. It was the reason for the Bronze Age settlement, the reason for the Roman fort, the reason for the trade, the Monmouthshire canal system, the building of the immense Alexandra Dock, and the prosperity of the town for hundreds of years. The wonderful architecture of Newport is down to this prosperity, and the development of the town by the merchants and businessmen who invested in and around the river. Pill is lined with marvellous examples of Victorian architecture, and it spreads up, through and out of town as the homes of merchants make up some of the most attractive suburban landscapes in all of South Wales. The common term I hear about Newport nowadays is that it is a ‘shithole’. My answer to that, as the human vampires of our economic downturn swoop through the streets of our town and board up its windows, is to look up and see what the river gave us.
One afternoon, many years ago, my father came home from walking our dog in St Woolos cemetery. (My parents’ house looks out over that joyful vista still). He had come across a solitary army grave, away from the designated military area in the cemetery, which was marked crediting the occupier of that plot with a VICTORIA CROSS. At first we thought Colour Sergeant John Byrne may have been Colour-Sergeant Frank Bourne of Rourke’s Drift, played so memorably by Nigel Green in Zulu. When my father came across this grave Google did not exist, and real detective work was needed. John Byrne had served with distinction in the Crimea (winning his VC at Inkerman, and fighting with valour at Balaclava and Sebastopol) before fighting with the Durham Light Infantry in the war against the Maoris in 1863. Byrne, according to sparse records, was an exemplary soldier and a tragically lamentable civilian, exemplified in the nature of his ultimate demise. There is no record of the reason for his court martial in 1872, but we know he was allowed to keep his Victoria Cross. After losing all of his possessions in a fire in London, Byrne turned up at lodgings in Maindee not far from Newport’s town centre, destitute, in 1878. One afternoon, whilst drinking in the Cross Hands pub on Chepstow Road, a nineteen year-old lad named John Watts insulted Byrne’s Victoria Cross, and Byrne shot him with a pistol in the shoulder. Byrne returned to his lodgings on Crown Street, where police laid siege. On breaking into his room after hours of stand-off, Byrne put his pistol into his mouth and pulled the trigger. Byrne’s death certificate recorded that ‘he had shot himself when in an unsound state of mind’. Byrne lay buried, presumably with his VC, in St Woolos cemetery in a pauper’s grave for over a century, until members of the Durham Light Infantry tracked it down, paid for its restoration and new headstone, and on 4th November 1985 a small ceremony was held at the graveside. Attendees included Newport’s mayor, representatives from the DLI, and a single bugler from the regiment, to commemorate Byrne’s services for his country.
There must be few towns in Britain more unfamiliar with the origin myths of the ground beneath their feet than the people of Newport. It may have something to do with WOOLOS being actually a corruption of Gwynllyw. I’m not sure how many awkward corners that name had to navigate to become the other, but there it is. Gwynllyw gives the twisted English variant of his name to various iconic Newport landmarks – the cathedral, a hospital, Wales’ first and largest municipal cemetery (the one mentioned above, that is backed-up-to by my parents’ house, and it is the place where, as a child, but old enough to know better, I used to play football, the south-facing wall of the chapel making the perfect goal-mouth). Gwynllyw, so the story goes, was a warrior king, an ally of the historical King Arthur, and father of St Cadoc. He retired from the war business and became a religious hermit, settling a church on Stow Hill, the place that now holds the marvellous St Woolos Cathedral. Legends continued surrounding St Woolos for centuries after his demise, believed to be in 523 AD. My favourite is the story of King Harold storming into the Cathedral after a victorious battle against the Welsh, preparing to burn the church to the ground. Just before he gives the order, he sees on the altar a huge cheese. Cutting it in two with his sword, blood spurts out of the cheese, and Harold flees, along with his men, taking it as an omen of his own death (to come, without the cheese course, at Hastings in 1066).
No ABC would be complete without the compiler’s sleepless nights, long glassy stares, and mild panic at the thought of how to address our language’s most pointless figure: X. I chaired several conversations, at the bar, around the dinner table and on social networking sites to see if I could unearth some fascinating anecdote that would open that letter up for me. The hope that the xylophone was invented in Newport became, predictably, beyond the reach of even my already modest admiration of ‘hope’. One friend suggested Newport was twinned with Xanadu (untrue as far as I could find out – it’s Heidenheim), and another wondered if anything interesting had ever happened in the x-ray department of the Royal Gwent Hospital. Not to me, I answered. There was a genuinely interesting story of a church group picketing the old ABC cinema opposite the Cenotaph in the early 1970s when they showed Emmanuelle, the most famous X-rated movie of the era. But it became apparent that it may have not been Emmanuelle, but could have been Midnight Cowboy, or maybe Confessions of a Window Cleaner, and we couldn’t be sure which cinema it was. Google is a little thin on Newport’s social history. Anyway, it appears that Newport has absolutely no connection to the letter X. Apart from the Roman numeral. And that’s, well, a numeral.
The beating heart of my Newport, from the tip of my youth through all my adult years, is YE OLD MURENGER HOUSE. The Murenger – as in Salinger, harbinger and derringer; not as in malinger, gunslinger or even humdinger. The Murenger is the ship that sails come hell or high water. It was established in the 1530s, in the building of the Murenger, the officer responsible for the upkeep of the city walls. It has been a pub ever since. When the Samuel Smith’s brewery came to rescue the building from collapse in the early 1980s, propping it up with oak buttresses, they unwittingly roughly replicated the technique used to prop up the massive cargo boats that for centuries had balanced precariously at the dock just down the way. The Murenger is a satisfying metaphor for all the lives that Newport has lived, and it has always felt the sympathy pains of the town around it. For the first few years of its rebirth the Murenger remained a den of iniquity. The soul reason for its standing now is that in the last twenty-odd years it has been fashioned in the image of its creators, Rob and Julie Jones. The pictures on the walls are of Orwell, Dylan Thomas, Billy Bragg, John Charles and Desmond Llewellyn, and it is the only pub I have ever known to have The Redskins on the (now retired) jukebox. The Murenger is a place of cultivation, but a place, importantly, of no airs and graces, of staunchly socialist values, but inclusive (as true socialism is, of course), unreceptive to condescension or the worship of idiocy alike. It is honest, from floorboard to rafter; it is and always will be the spiritual home of Wales Arts Review. And it has been the spine of my education – its atmosphere, its punters, its beer, its conversations; I have fallen in and out of love within its walls, and done much more falling besides. It is the reason why the people who don’t understand us will never understand us, because the only thing that cannot thrive and grow in there is ignorance. The Murenger is a living breathing essay on the creative ebullience of Wales’ working classes, and is a place and a people I am proud to know.
Originally coined by a local skate shop, ZOOPORT has become a term of endearment, not mockery, for the human menagerie that peoples the life and streets of the town. It is perhaps a fitting fade out for this personal reflection of Newport because I feel Newport is a town strong on personality in an age when personality has become devalued, when character is sneered at, and people who perhaps put experience above materials are derided and looked down upon. It has its problems, its villains and wasters; but so does every other town. It has a melee of characters the like of which you could find nowhere else. The term Zooport always brings to mind Pete Shelley’s record from 1984, ‘Homosapien’, and its climactic lyric: ‘I don’t wanna classify you like an animal in the zoo/ But it seems good to me to know that you’re homosapien too.’ It’s a song that often rattles around in my head when walking through my hometown.
Illustration by Dean Lewis