As the sun was shining on the south coast and things were grimmer than usual in my part of the North, I took myself down to Portsmouth to see what the old town looked like since I left.
For the first three days of my visit, the weather was not much better. A succession of cold fronts sweeping down from the North West, most of them carrying rain, all of them redolent of the snowfields of the North. August for God’s sake. It felt like March or late November.
The town itself was much as I remember it. I have never known a place that I was more grateful to leave, which I achieved when I was twenty years old. I moved from the Portsmouth Evening News (the News, as it is now more trendily named) onto the Daily Herald, and discovered a whole new, bright new world.
A world of clubs, and drinking, national stories that made much of my work in Portsmouth seem trivial, and Northern girls who seemed to me vibrant, sharp, sophisticated.
I realize now that I was the unsophisticated one, and remain so, in many ways even today. But Portsmouth still seems lost in a race to mediocrity. It’s ugly, desperately poor, and reeks of violence.
All seaports, I have learned over the years, are different from most other places. Portsmouth was/is a naval seaport, and has suffered more than most. The dockyard used to employ 20,000 men (I was always told), most of whom cycled. At 4 o’clock each afternoon, if you were in the wrong street, you would be overwhelmed by a flood of men on bicycles. Hell for leather had nothing on it. It was a tsunami.
Now, give or take, the dockyard is asleep, an unemployment desert. It has the heritage, it has Nelson’s flagship, it has the Mary Rose, it has the Warrior, it has museums and trips around the harbour to see the vanishing handful of warships we have left. Stand outside even the main gate at 4 o’clock on any afternoon, and you won’t be run over by a man on a bike. You won’t be run over, period.
I suppose there are industries in Portsmouth still, and around the top end of Portsea Island there is definitely a smattering of high-tech modernity. And in the summer months – please God for Portsmouth this summer finally arrives in earnest – there is the holiday industry.
|Matti and Eric heading for safety|
In my memory, Pompey was always a dog-rough place. I sometimes wonder if my reaction to it as a child was not what set me on my course of writing grimmer than the average books for children. The first one, Albeson, tells the story of a slum kid who is almost driven to the bad, and saved from disaster by the kindness of Germans. Since Brexit, I can only live in hope!
But because of the Sea Scouts, it also gave me my enduring love of the sea and sailing, so I’ll never be able to give the place up completely. My sister still lives here, and her husband Eric still looks after my gaff-rigged sloop Badsox. We had a wonderful day out yesterday, and expect more tomorrow and the next day.
On Sunday, I will be meeting my first long-term girlfriend for a catch up. She, like me, got out as soon as ever she could and, like me, rarely returns.
When we meet at a mutual friend’s house on Sunday, I must ask her. What is it about our dear old home town Pompey? Was it really such a dump, or was it us?
Sort of PS. On Saturday, son Matti came down from London, and we had an entirely idyllic day sailing to the Isle of Wight in glorious sunshine, with perfect breezes. Didn’t see any signs of inbreeding, either. Make of that what you will!
Albeson and the Germans:
Albeson and the Germans: