Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Writing on the Wall

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Writing on the Wall

Article excerpt

In Newport folklore, there's an apocryphal tale that the pillars of the Westgate Hotel on the high street still bear the bullet holes of the Chartist rebellion of 4 November 1839. It's a suitably ghoulish anecdote, held dear by inhabitants of the site of the last serious armed rebellion in Britain. Chartism--the 19th-century workers' movement for political rights--is at the core of this industrial city's history, taught in primary schools and commemorated in a mosaic mural that leads to John Frost Square in the city centre, named after the ringleader of the rebellion.

Some of my earliest memories involve being dragged past the 35-metre mural on rainy Saturdays as I accompanied my mother on errands, and gazing at the top-hatted angry men, waving scythes and brandishing placards. Two scenes stand out: the beginning, which depicts two women staring at a poster advertising the "Chartist Insurrection" (an exciting term to an impressionable young mind), and a later one that shows the Chartists being shot at by men in uniform for demanding rights we now take as given.

Now, however, local people are fighting with developers over the future of the mural. Plans are in hand for a new Debenhams in the centre and they state that the mural must go. The council has said it would be too difficult, and too costly, to relocate or incorporate it into the new structure.

Campaigners argue that it's just the latest in a series of cuts to the cultural heart of a community under sustained attack--first from the economic crisis, now from austerity measures. The art gallery in John Frost Square also faces cuts, and the clock that stood there for a decade is being moved to a housing project only after developers made a donation towards the cost. The nearby Stow Hill Library faces closure and many shops in the centre of town lie empty, leaving Newport feeling increasingly desolate. …

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