Out Now!

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Forays into Swedish

I enjoyed Sweden. I enjoyed Swedish, and Dick’s patient lessons in what I came to see as a jigsaw language. I mean that as a compliment. For example I learnt that sick was sjuk and house was hus, so hospital was sjukhus. A mental hospital thus became mentalsjukhus. Hmm, so Huvud was head…where could I go from there?

I tried it one miserable night after trying to get drunk on two beers. A blond giant bumped into me. "Dumhuvud," I snarled.

He looked down at me, puzzled and benign.

"Did you mean to say that?" he said

I looked up at his chest.

"No," I said. "I don’t think I did."

The key to all this stems from the Scandinavian Diaspora of the C9th and C10th when much of North East England was ruled by Viking warlords with exotic names like Ivar the boneless and Harold Bluetooth – (who devastated the North with his Wi Fi axe.)

The Swedish words for Beer is Öl. The umlaut over the O gives it an ‘erl’ sound, and then and now, a thousand years later, a northern pub will sell you a pint of ale, the word pronounced much as it is in Sweden today. Skalle and skull are pronounced much the same, and I still prefer blek to bleak.

The two weeks went quickly and I ate well, but drank little. On the one occasion I bought two bottles of beer from an off-license I felt like a pervert. I carried them gingerly in their brown paper bag. On the bus I nestled them close to me but still the damn things clinked. A Swedish face can be both bland and disapproving, a very neat trick.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Eat when there's food


I was visiting my friend Dick, and learnt two important lessons, one I should have learnt already.

Dick Skinner lives in Sweden. He went there to teach English as a Foreign Language but somehow got side-tracked. He became a doctor through the medium of Swedish, married a beautiful woman called Asa and then, to cement his happiness, invited me over.

I took the ferry to Copenhagen. Searching for my cabin, I caught a glimpse of the dining-room, its tables laden with plates of ham and fish and all manner of food that made me weak in the stomach. I salivated, wiping the dribble from my chin, and made for the bar. A drink first, maybe.

At the bar a middle-aged lush grabbed my attention, well, he bought me a drink. He was a man that would make anyone standing near enough drunk, paralytic if you breathed in his fumes. ‘The buffet’s always there,’ he said. ‘Have another drink.’

Oh, easily led man, gull and buffoon. I believed him until my stomach rebelled. I had to eat! Five strong lagers on an empty stomach, rolling on the swell of an equally hungry sea…I had to eat!

I burst through the dining room door to find it empty and dark. It had a savoury smell, taunting me, rubbing home my foolishness. ‘Just think of breakfast’ the guy said when I returned to the bar in search of crisp, a fragment of nut. I did, going to bed and dreaming of cured herring and whole hams, salmon and white crusty rolls.

At first light I dived out of bed and raced to the dining room. Things looked good. It was open at least…only instead of the feast that had been there that night I was offered five different kinds of cereal and a choice of two fruit drinks.

I spent a day in Copenhagen, which is a very pretty city, but cold. A thin strip of water separated me from Sweden, more particularly Malmo where Dick then lived. There was a ferry that would take me over, which I just managed to get on. I couldn’t believe it. How could any ship be so packed? People were hanging on to gunwales, ropes, life-boats…clinging and drinking at the same time – some of them vomiting – managing all three. It was like a scene from hell, a circle that Dante had never got round to describe, and there was me, clutching my suitcase in case anyone tried to steal it for a seat or a bed.

The Malmo ferry

What I found out, too late, was that there were only five ferries to Copenhagen and everyone wanted the last one back. Denmark may have been cold, but Sweden was ‘dry’ and thirsty Swedes went to Copenhagen where they followed a circular route from bar to bar until, by the end of the day, they found themselves back at the dock in time for the last ferry.

Dick explained all this to me. Sweden had a reputation for permissiveness that stopped at alcohol. Very high prices turned a pint into a considered luxury, and though off-licenses were allowed, there was usually only one to a town, and drink, once bought, had to be hidden in brown paper bags.

Just then however, I would have been happy to find solace in a brown paper bag - live there - gnawing cured ham, salmon and crusty white rolls.

Friday, 14 August 2009

How do you lose a tunnel?

Newport has a rich underground life with cellars, many interconnected stretching from street to street.

None of these cellars, basements and tunnels are as yet inhabited by werewolves, vampires or ghouls but the premises are there, desirable and vacant to let.

One of the more interesting and persistent legends are those focused on the supposed secret passages in and around Newport Castle. One went under the river Usk to the parish of Christchurch. Who built it, or why is not explained, nor has the tunnel been found.

One tunnel was, however, and then subsequently lost. Only in Newport could you lose a tunnel.
Between 1890 and 1899 Newport castle was a Lloyd and Yorath brewery. Its water came from an old well in the old castle grounds but by 1891 its water had all but disappeared.

Harry Jones, the brewery foreman, went down the well to investigate, and there he discovered a stone-walled tunnel heading in the direction of Shaftsbury Street. With only a candle to guide them, Jones and another man explored the tunnel, wading through a fast flowing stream to its source at a well in Thomas Street.

In 1901 the last of the town’s wells (Baneswell) was closed and sealed. The water would have had a meaty taste because the well was clogged with dead rats. Rats not ghouls infested Newport’s underground. In 1920 16,000 rats were trapped or killed in the town. Three years later several babies were bitten in their prams by rats, probably in revenge.

But that didn’t stop the search for the ‘lost tunnel’.

In 1931 an employee of the Borough Engineers Department rediscovered the tunnel whilst draining an overfull well. His tunnel forked, with one branch going on to Thomas Street and the other going left towards the Old Green Hotel which then stood on the corner of High Street and Dock Street.

Again, who built the tunnels and why, have never been discovered, but at this point the question becomes academic because the tunnels were once again mislaid. Busy roads now surround the castle, but during their building no tunnels were found. In 1951 eighty five year old Harry Jones was asked to relocate the tunnels, but too old perhaps, he failed.
For those interested, Haydn Davis has written several interesting chronicles on Newport's history, all available in Newport Library. But my brief survey has now ended, probably not before time. Its only validity in what is essentially a record of one baffled spirit is that History is a consuming interest, along with the arcane. In Newport you have both.

Find the tunnel!

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Where the ghosts are placed

If I live in a place, I like to know where the ghosts are placed. If I lived in anyone of the three houses numbered, 27 to 29 Stow Park Avenue I’d like to know I was drinking my coffee on the site of the Motte and Bailey Castle that Robert Fitzhamon first built there shortly after 1093; look out my window and see my fifteen serfs and cottars cultivating my surrounding 150 acres of arable land. Further down I’d glimpse the brown river that periodically engulfed the land, dismal mudflats and marsh as far as the eye could see.

Walking down Stow Hill I’d join the ghosts of C19th Chartists who, without any clear plan of action, allowed themselves to be dispersed by gun fire from the West Gate Hotel, remember that Eddy Curran’s grandfather was working on the newly build St Mary’s Catholic Church as the Chartists passed.

In the main street I’d imagine the 247 burgages, cattle pens, fish ponds and allotments; see the more substantial castle guarding a ford on the River Usk along with the four major roads leading to it. Now it hums with traffic, then it held five watchmen, six mounted and ten un-mounted soldiers with a larger force of three hundred men held in reserve. Without buildings to hinder my vision I’d see Robert de Hais’ estate at nearby Basseleg and my other knight’s estates at Maesglas, St Mellons and St Brides, know that each of them along with others owed me forty days of castle service, mounted and in full armour.

Despite a population of less than 600, it would have been a busy place. Protected by a castle and positioned at an important crossroad, Newport was a natural market town. Pedlars were encouraged to set up shops which in time became the present High Street. The main market was held once a week, each stall holder paying a tax to the Lord of the Manor, and an annual 15 day fair was held the 15th of August – the Feast of the Assumption.

As the market became more established the Normans decided that the ford, the main access point to the market, was no longer good enough. A bridge was needed.
The first bridge was very narrow, just wide enough for two carts to pass. The timber would have creaked and groaned along the full length of its 500 ft span under the tremendous tidal stresses it faced. It also seems to have been burnt or damaged on a fairly regular basis.

In 1377, Hugh, the second Earl of Stafford granted land between Stow Hill and the River Usk shoreline to the Hermits of St. Augustine. They were called the Austin Friars and from that time on the people of Newport got used to the black gowned and hooded friars wandering around their streets. Pastry, shoe, and sportswear shops, the occasional pub, now occupy where their small abbey once stood. It was a place of refuge for the sick and blind, the homeless. The ghosts of the friars are still there amongst the pushchairs and shopping bags, the nightly drunks.

Perhaps, too, is the ghost of Henry II, Henry Plantagenet, ruler of an empire stretching from Scotland to the Pyrenees. Originally Duke of Anjou he inherited England and Normandy from this maternal grandfather William the Conqueror, swallowed up Brittany, and after snaffling up Eleanor on Aquitaine in marriage, controlled more of France than the French king himself. On hearing the legend that a freckled king who lost his freckles in the River Usk would one day rule all of Wales, he put the legend to the test, washing his face vigorously in the turgid river. His freckles remained but he seemed fairly philosophical with the result and Wales remained relatively free.

Ghosts however don’t have freckles so it seems unlikely that the turbulent king is still cleansing his face in the river, not when he has the Occitan to haunt. Newport is magical and seedy. It is also often wet and over crowded with ghosts.

The dispersal of the Chartists in C19th Newport