A travel writer stays at home

The central idea in all of my travel writing is that you can find home elsewhere. A simple faith in our common humanity informs both my worldview and the methodology. Go somewhere. Do something. Make observations, take notes about the strange. Seek out the familiar, make comparisons with home. Write.

I have perfected the method, if not the writing itself, to the extent that I felt confident enough to finish my first slim volume of essays with a promise: ‘flying or driving, I intend to [continue to] find beautiful fragments of home elsewhere, and in the lives of others’.

And then this happened. I was supposed to be in Japan right now, a country my wife lived in for three years – long before we met – and through which I hoped to glimpse a part of her I had never known. We would retrace her steps there with our daughter, get to know each other and the country better, and I would apply my tried and tested travel writing methodology. Flights were booked, itinerary planned, numerous old friends and contacts put on notice of our arrival.

At first it looked like the trip was in jeopardy because of coronavirus in the far east; now it is  our own health board – named after the founding father of the National Health Service, Aneurin Bevan – that has the most cases per head of population in the United Kingdom, itself fast becoming one of the world’s worst affected countries.

So, what does a travel writer write about when forced to stay at home? Now that I’m confined not only to Wales, but to Chepstow Road, Newport and its immediate environs, if I’m serious about home as muse, I’ll have to apply my usual method. Here goes… 

*

Sydney harbour in the dying days of the second world war, and the plaintive cry of a hiraeth-stricken man of Gwent: ‘I want to go to Newport!’

This was in fact my introduction to the city where I live, thirty-five years ago and thirty-five miles away. For my visiting grandparents, Newport was the nearest bus terminal. Granddad – a Liverpudlian who had served in both the merchant and royal navies during the war – would arrive at our bungalow in the shadow of the Brecon Beacons, adopting his best attempt at a lilting south Wales accent as he repeated the wistful shout. Newport bus station was a far cry from Sydney harbour, but for Granddad Alec it brought memories rushing back. Long gone days and that lonely soul for whom New South Wales was no substitute for the original.

A consummate raconteur, Alec would bring to life this penniless Welshman, stranded on the other side of the world in the aftermath of war, haranguing anyone he could find for a passage home. He cut a pitiful figure, with his exaggerated lilt, enquiring about Newport while people boarded ships for Bombay and Mombasa, San Francisco and Valparaiso.

Something in the romance and pity of this story has stuck with me over the years, and I am pretty sure that at some point my grandfather's man on the harbour wall became tangled up in my imagination with Newport’s most famous poet, W.H. Davies. After all, Davies’ most famous book is The Autobiography of a Supertramp, and – despite the scant details Alec provided – the Newportonian in question seems to fit Davies’ description (notwithstanding the anachronism that Davies died in 1940, five or six years before the famous cry).

Davies, of course, was one of the most popular poets of his era, born in the docklands Pillgwenlly district of Newport in 1871. After his father’s death and his mother’s remarriage, he was brought up by his paternal grandparents in the Church House Inn pub in Portland Street (still there, with a blue plaque) with what he described as ‘an imbecile brother, a sister... a maidservant, a dog, a cat, a parrot, a dove and a canary bird.’ Following delinquent teenage years, Davies left Newport, taking casual work to fund a passage to America, where he became the self-described ‘supertramp’ of legend.

Long before the Beat Generation rolled writing and vagrancy into a lifestyle choice adopted by thousands, Davies was blazing a trail. Drinking, begging, singing, playing cards, smoking, reading and swapping tales with fellow travellers became the way he lived, funded by work on cattle ships back and fore across the Atlantic. (There is something of my grandfather’s story, too, wrapped inside that of Davies).

Rough but free, it seems somehow fitting that Newport’s iconic poet – criminally overlooked when compared to, for example, his counterpart in Swansea – was a tramp.

The figure of the beggar, the rough sleeper, looms large in public perception of our city. In fact, for many years, if you arrived in Newport by bus – as my grandparents used to – the first person who would greet you would invariably be somebody asking you for something (not to go to Newport, of course – he was already there) but for a cigarette, a coffee, spare change toward the next fix, or a pasty.

They have tidied up the bus station now. It’s part of a retail and leisure complex called Friar’s Walk, centred on a square named after the city’s former mayor and hero of the Chartist Rising of 1839. John Frost led the last armed insurrection against the state on the British mainland. The pistol found on his person, and used as evidence to transport him to Van Diemen’s Land (modern day Tasmania), is available to view in Newport’s small museum, upstairs in the library. I am unsure what Frost would have made of the new Debenhams department store, outside of which the supertramps remain.

For a city of its size – just 150,000 – Newport does have a significant problem with homelessness. Often but not always, and as elsewhere, the city’s numerous beggars and rough sleepers are also struggling with problems of addiction to alcohol and hard drugs.

But it is remarkable how many social problems can be seemingly cleared up quickly when rich people’s lives are at stake. For the six years I have lived in this city, I have been surrounded by the fallout of austerity politics and decades of industrial decline. Hunched and sleeping figures in shop doorways have long since given up asking passers-by to fund a bed for the night. Sadly, for many their needs are more immediately pressing; the evening is a long way off.

Now, suddenly, during this period of lockdown, a few previously homeless people have been moved to a guest house a few doors down. There is usually one man who bases himself in the immediate locality; he sits alternately outside the kebab shop, or among the cardboard boxes and wheelie bins outside of Spar; a decrepit figure, withering away behind a straggling beard and wooly hat. Now he has the company of others, including a ghost of a youngster with sunken cheekbones, stumbling up and down the pavement like the rising and the setting sun.

What we’ve discovered in this crisis is that the homeless can be housed. We’ve also found out, if we didn’t know it already, that Newport is a city of key workers. I live on the city’s main eastern artery and it’s almost as busy during lockdown as it is in normal times.

While television shows footage of silent streets in major cities all over the world, here the special bus laid on for workers at the Amazon warehouse still collects and disgorges its passengers, warehouse operatives who comprise the human algorithm of modern life.

Chepstow Road is thronged not only with emergency vehicles, but with lorries delivering to the supermarkets, trucks collecting recycling and the myriad vans of plasterers, plumbers, and painter-decorators. We are a people who clean windows, unblock drains, dig graves, fix engines, control pests; we work in classrooms and canteens, wards and workshops, beauty salons and power stations. Here it seems the sirens wail a call to prayer for a city that’s not only key worker and public sector heavy, it’s full of people who work with their hands. 

*

All over the world I have found little pieces of home. But here the pieces make a picture. It’s a view best related through some lines from W.H. Davies, the supertramp himself:


Can I forget the sweet days that have been

When poetry first began to warm my blood;

When from the hills of Gwent I saw the earth

Burned into two by Severn's silver flood


These are the opening lines from a nostalgic poem in which Davies recalls his youth in a litany of local villages. But since Davies’ day, at least for locals, the poem has taken on an even greater bittersweet resonance. Many of the places he describes as ‘villages so green’ have become much-maligned inner city areas, swallowed by the creeping urban sprawl that has characterised most British cities in the century since it was written.

Looking out today at that same view – earth burned in two by the Severn’s silver flood – I find it impossible to imagine that Davies could not have known Liswerry’s terraced streets, the Middle Eastern barbers of Corpa, the tower blocks of Ringland or Old Barn, the wind turbines that line the foreshore, or the Bettws council estate that rings ‘the banks of Malpas brook’. No longer is Newport, Monmouthshire the bucolic idyll that Davies describes.

But neither is the city – its own local authority area now, not subject to some ancient county town – the hell-hole of stereotype and the popular imagination. In these extraordinary days that have seemingly emptied cities of their people, we have all begun to see things by a different light. And here, beyond industrial ugliness we see the beauty of industry; the gratification of graft, the wonder of the working class, the joy of the ordinary.

This is a city of creosote fences and pot plants on pebbles; of uPVC windows, soffits, fascias and guttering; it’s a city of red brick and white-grey pebbledash; terracotta chimney pots and black mesh satellite dishes; grocer’s apostrophes and hearts of gold; wicked laughs and authentic tears; cannabis growing in lofts and dandelions growing out of cracks in the pavement; footbridges over the motorway and concrete staircases zigzagging through housing estates. It’s a place of half-hearted graffiti and the sadness of smashed glass; cooked breakfasts, pink custard and cans of lager; conversations at bus stops and kids pulling wheelies; cheese and chips and chicken shawarma. 

It’s a city where the social fabric hangs on rotary washing lines and uniforms are folded neatly over the back of the sofa. They belong to postmen and bin men, nurses and paramedics, delivery drivers and security guards, checkout workers and warehouse operatives, shelf stackers and baristas, taxi drivers and lollipop ladies. People who are finally getting some of the recognition they deserve; people I am proud to live among. Everyday superheroes who call this city home.

Yes, it’s true; a traveller needs a place to call home, too. I want to go to Newport!

Dylan Moore is editor of IWA's the welsh agenda and was Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow 2018/19. His debut collection, Driving Home Both Ways, is out now.