Sunday, 13 August 2006

Newport. 11th August 2006.

I rolled into South Wales under louring skies. The weather suited the place somehow, as if grey was the default colour for the local landscape. I knew Newport was my sort of town as soon as I stepped off the coach. The first two shops within view of the bus station were a Poundstretcher and an Oxfam. It’s sometimes reassuring to know certain universals hold true in most places. The Oxfam was, as ever, frankly overpriced and the familiar scrupulous vigilance over shoplifting was in evidence. A sign in the window said, ‘Due to thefts we are only putting one shoe on display. Please ask at the counter for the second shoe.’ I resisted the temptation to hop inside with one leg tucked out of view just to see the look of panic on the faces of the staff, and headed instead for the town gallery and museum.
The museum was better than most of its type and size, and featured a temporary exhibition on the Home Front in Newport. I seem to have an endless appetite for stuff about the Home Front. Maybe it’s my age. It’s perhaps hard for people to appreciate if they didn’t actually live through it, but in the UK it was just after the War until at least 1979. As well as the powdered egg ephemera and the like, there were excellent sketches by local artist Stanley C Lewis. More of these were featured in the gallery, which impressed me by actually having a specifically local flavour. It’s amazing how each artist can find something new to see in a valley pit village.
They like their art round here. The leaflet I picked up from the tourist office, which gave all the information you could want about local attractions apart from their addresses, also listed the public art in the town. Public art usually proves to be a euphemism for statues that don’t look like anything but some of these were great. I particularly liked the one commemorating the Chartists who smashed up the Westgate Hotel, and the one dedicated to WH Davies, local vagrant author and self-styled Supertramp. There’s evidently some sort of statute of limitations that comes into play when local authorities erect commemorative sculpture, leave it long enough you get a statue for activities that’d probably be rewarded with an ASBO in the here and now.
That morning I’d woken with a cold and almost hadn’t bothered with the trip. I’d gloomily thought, see one municipal art gallery you’ve seen them all, but what got me out of bed was the thought of unknown charity shops. My gumption was rewarded on Commercial Street, where the Red Cross shop was having a clearance sale with everything at a pound. The shop was run with brisk efficiency by three tiny older women who could have passed for sisters, or pieces of the same freakish chess set. I listened in as I waited to pay. They reminded me of an observation once made to me that as you get further north the Welsh accent makes its speaker sound incredibly angry whatever they’re saying. I was just thinking I was far too far south for this to apply when I overheard one say to the other, ‘If she speaks to me like that again, I’ll hit her.’ She was probably joshing but I had half a mind to hang around and find out; how often do you get to see pensioners having a proper stand up scrap?
I headed for the Streets, a local history centre towards the docks. The nearby Londis was signposted at regular intervals for about a mile before you reached it, but the history centre seemed intent on keeping itself a secret. I eventually found the converted chapel that housed it and stepped into the gloom. I entered via the themed Quiet Woman’s Row café. The only person there was the woman who staffed it. It seemed a crushingly solitary job, like being a lighthouse keeper without the aura of romance and adventure. Behind her desk was a notice-board for forthcoming events, among which were regular ‘Tea and Telly’ sessions, where punters drop in for a cup of tea and to watch an old film on the TV of a Tuesday afternoon. I quite liked the sound of it, but even I thought it a bit of a stretch to class it as an event.
The café area aimed to recreate an old dockland’s street, but the displays had let themselves go a bit. The only reliable way I could tell if some of the side rooms were exhibits or storage areas was if there were blue plastic chairs stacked in there. Some displays replicated local shops since departed, but if the exhibits represented their stock accurately, it’s no surprise they went out of business. Fading Vesta curry boxes from the Seventies sat alongside Edwardian tobacco tins and plastic toys from the Eighties. The centre advertised itself as a learning resource for local schools, but this could have only usefully stood as a dire warning to business studies students about the dangers of poor stock control. The whole café area seemed as if somebody had gone through a car-boot sale sucking up everything they could with an industrial vacuum cleaner, then dumped the results here.
I reached a door which seemed to lead to the Streets museum proper. A sign stated there was an admission charge of £2. There was also apparently a £1 charge to view the café area I’d just been in, for those not eating. I reasoned that if the Streets was twice as good as the café, I could safely save myself £2. I mumbled my excuses and made my way outside, avoiding eye contact with the quiet woman as I went.
I had a better time at Newport’s transporter bridge, a bit further down the road. It’s a great gangly structure that manages to look both daft and impressive at the same time. One of only six in the world still working, the transporter bridge shuttles people and cars across the river in a gondola like a supersized shopping basket, suspended from cables. The bridge wasn’t operating due to repairs, but the helpful, enthusiastic assistant in the small visitor centre made up for it. She gave me a rundown of the history of the bridge as if she’d just found about it herself and was still excited. She got me to crank the working model of the transporter, then she put on a video about the bridge.
Watching the video and listening to the soothing tones of its voiceover, it struck me how much our impressions of groups of people are shaped by our first contact with them. My first contact with the Welsh was in my early twenties when I worked for a chain of DIY stores. When stores were revamped we would often be dispatched as extra labour to various corners of Wales and the South West. And of the bunch of us holed up in those cheap B and Bs in Torquay and Pontypridd and Exeter, the Welshmen always seemed the most intent on copping off on nights out. So for years I had a vague stereotype of the Welsh as hornier than the average Brit. But listening to the voiceover on the video I realised that actually this preconception was partly a response to the South Wales accent. There’s something in the well-modulated lilt of it that means that whatever’s being said, the speaker will sound thoughtful, intelligent, and a bit dirty.
I had a final wander before the coach. I think my ideal daytrip involves going somewhere that hasn’t quite got enough on offer to fill a full day. I’m somebody almost incapable of relaxation, and one of the few ways I can do it is to trick myself into a kind of enforced mooching about in places like Newport. For that reason, the town suited me, but there was more besides. There’s something self-deprecating and unpretentious about the place. It was there in the florist’s sign that said, ‘Are you in the shit? Say sorry with flowers.’ It was in the name of the local ale commemorating the landmark bridge, Piddle Under the Transporter. In the pub, I pointed to the pump handle and mumbled, ‘Pint of that please.’ When the barman breezily announced, ‘Pint of Piddle? Right you are,’ his face lit up like the novelty of the name still hadn’t worn off.
The coach driver on the return journey was the same gentle, kind and conscientious man who’d driven me up at 8 o’clock that morning. I just about got my head round the maths involved and concluded that either he works a straight thirteen hour day, or a split shift over the same length of time. Just as I was trying to decide which would be worse, he elevated my respect for him even more by a Tannoy announcement that endorsed my long held conviction that the instructions in coach toilets are completely mystifying. Patiently, he announced, ‘Whoever’s in the toilet, can I just point out the button for the hand-wash is the white square one. The red one you’re pressing is the panic alarm. My dashboard’s lit up like Christmas!’