14 June 2014

Portsmouth and Southsea

Man Overboard

Old Portsmouth and Spice Island from the Spinnaker Tower, St Thomas's Cathedral and the High Street left of centre, above the Isle of Wight Ferry.

In 1513 King Henry VIII had a hit with the song Pastime with Good Company. It had a catchy tune, and was performed widely. Evidence of its popularity lay for centuries in the hulk of the Mary Rose, and now is on display in the eerie new exhibition centre in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

Pastime with good company

I love and shall until I die
grudge who lust but none deny
so God be pleased thus live will I

Remnants of the band on the Mary Rose

Thus, perhaps, will live I, with good company, and no denial, but the Mary Rose was a war ship, and the story of Portsmouth is inextricably linked to the navy, and warfare.

Long before the wreck of the Mary Rose was discovered, I surfaced from the waves of childbirth somewhere by the Southsea Canoe Lake (even though the Italian authorities would later insist I was born in Southsea Castle!) my nautical, naval and warfare connections pretty tenuous at that stage....

Somewhere here there should be a blue plaque......

My father, at the time, taught at Portsmouth Grammar School, 

and we lived just down the High Street, on the top storey of Number 16.

No 16, circa 1985

Portsmouth had for hundreds of years been a densely populated city, with courts and alleys in the area around the naval dockyards (Portsea) packed with tenements lacking running water or sanitation.  

The Dockyards: HMS Warrior in the foreground, Victory and the Mary Rose Exhibition Centre above

The writer Walter Besant, who was born here in 1836, recalled the scenes along the Hard:  The Royal Frederick had been paid off that morning and a thousand Jack Tars were all together chucking away the money in a few days which it had taken three years to earn..... There was a tradition that being ashore meant drink as long as the money lasted.  It sometimes lasted a week, or even a fortnight, and was sometimes got through in a day or two.  There were harpies and pirates in every house which was open to Jack.....

1 of 5 starsReviewed 12 April 2014
booked into this hotel because i remembered it fondly from when i used to live in portsmouth, it used to be a very nice place to eat. my god how things have changed.
my husband was quite appalled at the exterior of the hotel. things did not improve on the inside. we had booked 2 rooms for 2 nights, which we very quickly changed. the carpets were threadbare, the walls were filthy, the wallpaper was peeling off, the ceiling was falling down in places and that was just on the stairs

At the beginning of the twentieth century Southampton Row was 627 feet long and seven and a half feet wide; King's Bench Alley was 586 feet long with an average width of three to four feet. Portsmouth is the only city in the UK on an island, and is also the lowest above sea level  - global warming will turn Portsmouth into first a Venice and then a memory - but in the meantime, when in 1918 there were 23,000 men working in the dockyards, reformers and inspectors were busy with improvements.  In 1927, at Number 9, Blossom Alley, a family of ten lived in three rooms, the largest of which measured 13ft 6ins x 10ft x 6ft 8 inches.  Of course that was luxury compared to conditions on the ships: at the time of the battle of Trafalgar about 800 men lived on HMS Victory.....

And HMS Warrior (1860) was not much better,

Though Officers and Gentlemen lived in a slightly different world:

And if you were Admiral Nelson, you had the very best:

Even if he did have to sleep with a canon at the foot of his bed!

Portsmouth is still an important working dockyard, and there is a constant traffic of warships, supply vessels, and, in the background, ferries.

And local artists still cater for the flow of sailors, with their questions of identity.....

Across the island, past the War Memorial, past the D Day museum, past Henry VIII's Southsea Castle, at Eastney, there are the Barracks of the Royal Marines (which for years I believed was a project one of my forebears had a hand in, though I can no longer find the evidence.....)

Where a museum now inhabits the Officers' Mess.

War, whether Napoleonic, Crimean, World, Cold, or Falklands, has been part of the business of Portsmouth, since whenever.  As a child I remember my mother producing her ration book in the butcher's; we played in air raid shelters and bomb sites.  Much of the High Street had been smashed, families crushed and burnt in the rubble, the nave of the Royal Garrison Church still stands roofless since a fire bombing raid in 1941. The Cathedral, dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury, was only completed in 1991, as plans to extend it, following the creation of the diocese in 1927, were halted during World War II.  

As a child I remember sitting on my mother's lap during incomprehensible sermons, the temporary brick wall behind me of more interest than the liturgy. But then, with David Stancliffe as Dean, the west front, with its towers and rose window, was consecrated in the presence of the Queen Mother in November 1991.

I remember, or imagine I remember, tottering on the roof outside our flat, my mother hanging washing, while grey ships hooted their way in and out of the channels. I can see my mother laughing with a Russian sailor as he showed us round his cramped quarters. On 18 April 1956, the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze, in company with the destroyers Sovershenny and Smotryaschy, had arrived at Portsmouth Naval Base and berthed on South Railway Jetty. This is the VIP berth immediately in front of the distinctive Semaphore Tower. Ordzhonikidze carried the Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev and Premier Nikolai Bulganin for talks in London with the Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden.  The following day the public was allowed to board at least one of these ships, and, possibly at the very same time, war hero Commander Lionel 'Buster' Crabb, who had stayed the night at the Sally Port Hotel under the name of Smith, slipped into the waters of oblivion somewhere beneath us.

Family and friends (Molly and Freddie Howe) on the Camber
in the mid '50s

Fourteen months later a headless and handless body was found in Chichester Harbour, wearing the same wet suit that Crabb favoured.  The bodied was identified, and subsequently buried, as Crabb's.

Theories, at the time and since, have been broadcast, though official documents are not due to be released until 2057.  One of the most interesting accounts is that of novelist Tim Binding, contemporary and friend of my elder brother, in Man Overboard, which was published in 2005.  Subsequently Tim wrote that he had met Sydney Knowles, the man who was called to identify Crabb's body, who claimed that Crabb had been about to defect to Russia and so MI5 had rigged the events in Portsmouth Harbour and killed him.

Delightful Brutalism - a derelict building in Southsea

On February 7th this year, which would have been Charles Dickens's 202nd birthday, the first full scale statue of the author in Britain was unveiled in Guildhall Square, Portsmouth, not very far from his birthplace museum.  Dickens did not stay long, nor for that matter did Peter Sellers, another famous Portmuthian.  But if my experience is anything to go by, those first salty breaths, the toddling steps in earshot of the sea, the press of history combined with the holiday air that scuds across the shingle and round the shelters along the esplanade, all remain ingrained in the soul, engraved on the cortex, imprinted on the heart.  The bric-a-brac of first impressions must help shape the soul?

Me and Fiona Reid, Ladies Mile, 1952

We moved from the High Street to Drayton, up the hill on the mainland, and then away all together, but I still remember the trolley buses in the town centre, the butcher's St Bernard, and the tiger skin on our dentist's waiting room floor.  I can also recall my father being launched in a glider on the playing fields, a team of boys running with the rope, and the ultimate child's toy, a Link Trainer, somewhere within the darkness of the school. Years later, a teenager, I returned to stay with my godmother, and wandered into a nightclub in Eastney to hear Victor Brox.  The streets then were all in black and white, and somehow the grey sea seemed to be leaking into my mind.

Later still, in the 80s, Amanda and I returned to arrange our wedding with the Dean of Portsmouth, who had become a friend.  Around the same time I witnessed a diminutive coffin being nailed shut in the cathedral crypt.  It was the coffin of a sailor from the Mary Rose, chosen, I believe, to symbolise all those who died.  Also present was a descendant of that sailor.

I've been back on other occasions - taking one of my daughters to see the dockyard, passing through to the Isle of Wight, visiting the Mary Rose, but I have no contacts there now.  The war did its damage, but so much more has changed since then.  Shopping at Gunwharf Quays is the attraction now, with the bold landmark of the Spinnaker Tower,

the University populates the boarding houses with students, the Mighty Mouse is a rusty shadow of its former self.

The Pier is closed, awaiting a millionaire to restore it, or perhaps the arsonist's kiss.

There is something about the British seaside.  On a good day it can shimmer with the abandoned fun of escaping from the daily grind.  But it is not what it once was.  It is not really well.  Rust persists through the thick paint while weeds push up through the cracks in the pavements.  Henry VIII may have enjoyed sunbathing on top of Southsea Castle, strumming his lute and warbling one of his hits, but even the stones of that hefty building seem tired today.

Where did the time go?

On my recent visit I purchased a Captain's Boarding Pass to the Historic Dockyard, which entitles me to many benefits (though curiously would not get me in to the Royal Marines Museum) and would readmit me at any time for two years.  

However, though I feel that, in a strange way, Portsmouth and Southsea are a part of me, I guess that I am no longer part of them, and I am not sure I will ever go back now.  Truth is, despite the pastime, or the times passed, with good company, I am now more of a man overboard.  As Henry VIII sang:

youth must have some dalliance

of good or ill some pastance

Company methinks then best

all thoughts and fancies to digest

The door is firmly closed.....

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