CREATIVE Richard J Parfitt

NWR Issue 121

Tales from the Riverbank

Newport has always been a terminus for the nomadic working class. Forever economically depressed and an unemployment black spot – the first township you hit coming over the Severn crossing and the last one heading out. Growing up in the 1970s, Newport felt like a cultural wasteland, isolated from the rest of the country and defined by a kind of benign sectarianism. You didn’t feel Welsh but you didn’t feel English either. Unlike Cardiff, it had no fashionable arts scene and no coher- ent mythology on which to base its identity. When the Welsh Language Act was passed in 1993, bilingual signs started appearing all over town. People who had lived there all their lives stared at them, bewildered and sometimes angry. Missing in action Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers articulated this sentiment in the (1994) lyric PCP.

Built to carry steel workers from west to east and back, the Newport Transporter Bridge stands over the town like a Meccano relic of the industrial age. There are books, websites, documentaries and countless school projects dedicated to it. At one point, an American businessman wanted to dismantle the whole edifice and re-erect it over Niagara Falls. But for my money, the most interesting bridge is not the Transporter, but Newport Bridge (Town Bridge), which connects Clarence Place to High Street – a span of perhaps one hundred metres, with a history that is as fascinating as the build is ordinary. The first known reference to a bridge in this location was from the Norman invasion. At the time of the Protestant Reformation in Wales, an Act of Parliament authorised some repairs ‘To a greate Bridge of Tymber called Newporte Bridge... of late fallen to greate ruyn and decay and likely dayly (not repayred) to become not passable’ [1529–1558].

Two hundred and fifty years later, JMW Turner sat on the east bank and painted a watercolour of the castle ruins, replete with sailing boats under a hazy sky. If you finger-frame the castle with your hands it would look much the same today. Although ring roads, roundabouts and office blocks may have come and gone, the bridge over the river next to the castle doesn’t seem to have changed all that much.

The first stone bridge was built in 1800 and stood for over a hundred years. That was when Newport was the boom town of Great Britain, a home population of 1000 at the turn of the century having, by 1900, increased to well over 70,000, with a working-class community of mainly English and Irish immigrants filling the pubs, music halls, and what was then the largest venue in Wales, the Lyceum Theatre. In 1913, Harry Houdini was doing a week’s stint at the Lyceum and jumped, chained and fettered, off Town Bridge into the River Usk, where he sank and resurfaced some minutes later –unshackled but on the far side – to cheering crowds of over a thousand.

There are three ways of reaching the bridge from the west side. Past the old Crindau slaughterhouse where the blood would run stinking on to the streets and pool up under the railway crossing. Or – if you’re heading from High Street – step down into the subway and past those holding out plastic cups sitting on folded cardboard under a smashed mural commemorating Newport’s rebellious past. The third leads from Pill. If you don’t mind running the gauntlet of gentlemen drinkers that gather next to the west bank of the river, this is the quickest route.

It is said that the eastward drift from the prevailing westerlies blow poorer communities together on the east side. This phenomenon is observable in cities around the world, and especially those with a dock industry. Something to do with pollution and house prices. Something to do with the clutter blowing into the corner of the room.

On the east side, stands TJ’s. Walk past the old art college and pass a few doors and there it is on the right-hand side. You might miss it except for the stink of piss and a fistful of DIY band posters taped up in the greasy window. Young people would gather at the entrance or sit on the kerbstone with their head in their hands while owner John Sicolo sat in a kiosk taking money and crossing backs of hands with a glow-in-the- dark pen. John wore a shirt that ballooned out around him, and when you entered through the doorway he’d rabbit punch you in the gut and call you a big poof and grimace so that you could see the green roots of his yellow teeth...

Richard John Parfitt was runner-up in this summer’s New Welsh Writing Awards 2019 Rheidol Prize for Writing with a Welsh Theme or Setting.

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