Sharing Newport with NATO

posted in: South Wales, Wales | 0
Newport's iconic Transporter Bridge
Newport’s iconic Transporter Bridge

As the final day of the NATO summit comes to an end, I’ve been thinking what an extraordinary week it’s been here in Newport.

While President Obama, David Cameron, Angela Merkel and other leaders of the 28 NATO countries have been involved in crucial debates about the Ukraine and the threat of the militant group Islamic State, those of us who live in Wales’s third city have been going about our daily lives, still not quite able to believe it’s all happening here, that Newport is the focus of the world’s media glare.

When I popped into the city centre on Tuesday morning, I barely recognised the place. For a start, there were people everywhere – including large numbers of police officers – and most seemed to have a definite spring in their step; the anticipation and excitement in the air was tangible. The floral displays – always excellent – seemed even more abundant and there were people sweeping the already pristine-looking pavements.

The cashier who served me in Iceland thought everyone was out shopping today so they would then be able stay at home for the next few days, but I don’t know… after years of industrial decline and disparagement (often from those within) I wondered if Newport citizens might at last be ready to reclaim a little pride in their city.

Westgate Square, scene of the Chartist Uprising
Westgate Square, scene of the Chartist Uprising

It was reassuring to see how peeved everyone here was last week when the UK’s national media (Channel Four, the Mail and the Guardian among others) kept referring to the summit as taking place ‘near Cardiff’ or even more vaguely ‘in Wales’. After being thoroughly chastised by several Tweeters, Radio 4’s Justin Webb interviewed Eggsy of the (in)famous Goldie Lookin Chain who once again did a grand job of promoting Newport. (You’re not from Newport – the band’s response to Newport State of Mind – is hilarious and absolutely spot-on… Shirley Bassey is most definitely NOT from Newport!).

But back to this week and the NATO summit. Whoever would have imagined that we’d all become so accustomed to seeing helicopters overhead? Or would be driving past armed police officers so nonchalantly, as if it was perfectly natural to see groups of them posted at Newport’s various motorway bridges and junctions.

I was enjoying an evening out with friends at the end of October when I first heard NATO was coming to town. My mates were at the bar ordering food and my eyes had strayed to the large-screen television as tends to happen however hard you try to resist.. Suddenly there it was filling the huge screen… Newport’s towering Celtic Manor Resort. When the other two returned to their seats, I couldn’t wait to share the news; however, they wouldn’t believe me. Not a word. My friends were convinced I’d misheard, that the NATO summit was being held in another Newport, somewhere else in the world. Newport, Rhode Island perhaps. Their reaction reflected a sad truism, i.e. that Newportonians have an unfortunate tendency to ‘dis’ their home city, often even more than outside detractors (and there are plenty of those)..

And yet, over the past week, I’m certain I’ve detected a subtle change in people’s attitudes, the green shoots of something resembling pride. The (possibly grudging) acknowledgement that NATO chose to come to Newport and Newport lived up to the challenge.

Despite loudly expressed concerns about its original location, the Peace Camp at Tredegar Park has remained peaceful and the various demonstrations by anti-war protesters went ahead with only a few isolated incidents of aggression.

Tredegar Park
Tredegar Park – site of the peaceful Peace Camp

Last Saturday – the day of the first protest march – our weekly Newport parkrun took place in the grounds of Tredegar House, watched by several groups of on-duty police officers (apparently about 10,000 officers have been drafted in). By Sunday, several officers decided they too wanted to join in the action and ran alongside children at Newport Junior parkrun, much to the youngsters’ amusement and delight.

Yes, things have definitely been a little crazy around here this past week.

Our local newspaper – the South Wales Argus – where I once worked as a humble reporter – has been having a blast! We’ve had non-stop tweets for days, plus some amazing photographs, including one of a tank on the perfectly manicured lawn of a Celtic Manor golf course. And as if there hasn’t already been carpet coverage of the summit, tomorrow we’re being treated to a 12-page colour supplement.

This morning there was great excitement when local people congregated at various high points east of the River Usk to watch 22 military aircraft from nine countries flying overhead – the so-called fly past. The Red Arrows took to the skies too, trailing an array of red and blue plumes.

Newport was looking good this week
Newport was looking colourful this week

Of course, Rhiwderin is situated about as far away from the Celtic Manor Resort as is possible while still being in Newport, so we’ve missed out on much of the excitement (I kept my eyes peeled while I was out running but didn’t see – or hear – a thing).

Yesterday, a 22-car convoy swept into the quiet residential suburb of Mount Pleasant, where Obama and Cameron were visiting a local primary school… actually my youngest daughter’s former school. Local people are reported to have lined the streets seven deep and there were photographs of many risking life and limb by standing on the roofs of single storey garages, including the BBC reporter Nick Robinson. The ‘surprise’ visit was announced in the Argus the previous day but apparently Downing Street didn’t inform our local member of parliament, Paul Flynn, until the last minute.

He was justifiably displeased by the oversight and tweeted ‘Just officially informed by 10 Downing Street that Obama and Dave will visit a school in my constituency. Details already in the Argus.’

Unfortunately, the presenters of the Today programme hadn’t talked to their colleagues at Radio Wales because to Mr Flynn’s consternation they were soon plunging into another geographic muddle..

Oh dear! Radio Wales reports Mount Pleasant School is ‘just outside Newport’. It’s IN Newport. Give ’em a map someone,’ he tweeted. 

Newport, Wales - just across the Severn Bridge from England
Newport, Wales – just across the Severn Bridge from England

What, we Newportonians wondered, is so difficult to remember? If the NATO summit was being held in Llanfair­pwllgwyn­gyllgo­gery­chwyrn­drobwll­llanty­silio­gogo­goch (it’s in Anglesey), I could understand journalists’ reluctance to say it but surely it’s not that hard to get your tongue around plain old Newport?

As one of Newport’s councillors pointed out, Newport council didn’t ask NATO to come to town, but they came anyway.

On the whole, the disruption hasn’t been as bad as we were led to believe it might be. The majority of primary schools were closed on Thursday and Friday, an inconvenience for working parents (my daughter included), but perhaps verifying that it doesn’t really matter if young children occasionally miss a few days of school (something I hope Newport Education Authority will care to remember when less well-off parents ask to take their children out of school for a week’s holiday).

Commuters were advised advised to avoid the M4 between Cardiff and Newport during certain hours (generally when most people are trying to get to and from work); however, I don’t think the actual tailbacks were as bad as people imagined.

Here on the sleepy western outskirts of the city, there were few clues that anything out of the ordinary was happening, other than those helicopters passing overhead.

Newport's River Usk
The River Usk has made Newport a city of bridges

Soon NATO leaves town and it will all be over. Those 10,000 police officers will return to their own forces and Newport will settle down to business as usual.

What I’d like to happen – or at least hope – is that all this razzmatazz will restore a sense of pride in our city.

After all, this is the same place where, in 1839, the radical leader John Frost and 3,000 Chartists risked their lives to demand many of the rights we take for granted today, i.e. the secret ballot, no property qualification to become a member of parliament and the payment of MPs. The Chartists’ petition demanded universal suffrage for men, setting in place the changes which ultimately led to every man and woman having a right to vote. That’s something we should all be extremely proud of, you people of Newport!

Newport's Transporter Bridge is still operating
Newport’s Transporter Bridge is still operating

We have one of the only working transporter bridges in the world, the stunning Tredegar House, the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, stunning Victorian parks (particularly Beechwood and Belle Vue), gorgeous, undulating countryside and a fascinating industrial heritage (Newport docks was once far larger than Cardiff).

It’s been great to see Newport people standing proud these last few days. I can only hope the buzz and excitement that the NATO summit generated doesn’t dissipate as rapidly as those red and blue plumes.