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Archive for the ‘portsmouth’ Category

I was a kid at school in Portsmouth just after the Second World War. I grew up amongst burned out buildings, bomb craters and houses that clung to each other attached only by the wallpaper so far as I could see.  Like many post-war kids I attended not one but many schools around town because my mother had  ‘itchy feet’, as they called it back then – either that or she couldn’t always pay the rent and we had to do a moonlight flit out the back window in dead of night before the current landlord caught us.  We lived in one room at the top of some dark creaky stairs inhabited by ghosts and cockroaches, or in a basement ‘flat’ lit by gas-light, or an old house with an outside toilet reached across a cobbled court-yard and took baths on a Friday night in a wash-tub in front of the coal fire.  We lived in the slums sometimes and the better neighborhoods as interchangeably as our fortunes ebbed and flowed like the evening tide.  Now and then we had money and I was as likely to attend a posh private school with gardens one month as a rough back-street school with wall-to-wall concrete the next.  It was always necessary to fight to survive.  At the private school I had to fight off the stigma of the slums, at the back-street school the stigma of my recently acquired ‘accent’.  One minute I would be taking riding lessons dressed in my second-hand too-big jodhpurs and the next I would be thumping some backstreet kid before he could thump me.

 

Make no mistake about it –Portsmouth after the war was a rough place.  Many families had been displaced; entire tracts of housing had been razed by the bombing and in their place rose massive apartment blocks that resulted in over-crowding, crime and vandalism.  If you think graffiti covered walls and urine smelling hallways are a modern phenomenon think again.  Young men roamed the housing estates wearing their ‘Teddy-Boy’ outfits – long draped jackets with velvet collars, ‘drainpipe’ trousers and thick soled ‘brothel creepers’.  Many of them also carried ‘flick-knives’ and some even carried lengths of pipe and chain, the better to sort out their rivals on Brighton beach in the summer.  This was an annual event or ‘rite of Spring’  that was happening as far back as I can remember and may have been happening in the stone age for all I know – except in those days they probably used rocks and stones instead of blades.  Gangs of young men blind drunk on pints of lager and Watney’s Red Barrel would spill out of the pubs on a Saturday night and have at each other on the beach at midnight.  

 

If you’ve ever seen the old movie ‘Quadraphenia’ you will be familiar with the Mods and Rockers.  On the one side they were the sharply dressed Mods – who drove around on Vespers or Lambrettas and wore shiny tailored ‘skinny’ suits and ties with ‘winkle-picker’ toed ankle boots and short styled hair – and on the other they were the ‘Rockers’ who drove enormous Vincents and Goldwings.  They affected motorcycle gear, long hair and bandanas – something like Hells-Angels without the guns.  They would face-off on the beach amidst the scream of wailing sirens from the police-cars arriving from all directions.  Of course the policemen were also young guys and surreptitiously enjoyed the ensuing punch-up just as much as the rival gangs.  Much fun was had by all punching the shit out of each other down in the sand while the lights of the pier twinkled merrily and the music of the Stones drifted out over the water.  In Portsmouth of course it was British Sailors versus American Sailors, the Mods and Rockers having taken off to the more exotic climes of Brighton and London.  The fight was the main thing in any event.  What is it about young men and aggression?  There must be some sort of tribal ‘violence’ gene that compels them to give each other a good kicking at the first opportunity.  Some sort of cave-man ritual that still echoes in the genes many thousands of years later.  Nowadays this violence gene may perhaps be sublimated in iterations of Doom and Warcraft – either that or the police force of today fails to see the joke and are liable to get out the riot gear.

Too bad really – as Alex of Clockwork Orange fame might have said, a bit of mindless violence is always good for a bit of a laugh on a Saturday night

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Can you tell me why neighbors of a certain ‘low’ sort have to conduct their family arguments in loud screeching voices out in the middle of the back yard or on the street where everybody within a hundred miles can hear them? What is it about what the Brits would call ‘people of a certain class’ that encourages them to air their dirty laundry out in public as it were?

 

When I was a kid in England we lived for a time in neighborhoods that were not of the best – well to be honest, neighborhoods that were downright slums. After the Second World War there were pockets of these neighborhoods left standing – precariously – all over Portsmouth. Since Portsmouth is and always was a large naval town it was a prime target for the Luftwaffe on their way to Coventry or London, meaning that much of the city was reduced to bombed out craters and mounds of rubble where buildings once stood. The old Victorian slums hard up against the dockyard wall housed people displaced from jobs or the aged or the infirm or the bone idle, or the ill-educated or bloody minded, or the drunks, or ‘ladies of the evening’ or just about anyone really who was down on their luck. When we were also down on our luck we lived there in one room on the top floor of a rambling old house with peeling wallpaper, rising damp and a lively collection of bugs that scattered as soon as you turned the on the light. Down at the bottom of the stairs lived a man who plied his trade as a ‘rag and bone’ man. You don’t see them anymore, just as you don’t have ‘knife-sharpeners’ or ‘peddlers’ selling pots and pans pushing their carts down the middle of the road, or even home deliveries of milk for that matter. Of course when I was a kid they also had such things as brewer’s drays – carts with horses attached to deliver the beer, or similarly a man with a horse and cart coming around to fill up your cellar with coal.

 

The ‘ladies of the evening’, or prossies as they were called, would congregate down at the local public lavatories where my old auntie once worked as the attendant. She would give change and keep the place clean while the prossies smoked a quick fag and applied a pound or two more makeup before sallying out to meet up with the latest batch of sailors out on the town. One of them whose nickname was ‘Pompey Lil’ had no teeth and a false eye. The customers were abundant in Portsmouth, fresh faced young lads from distant ports around the world who evidently had not paid much attention to the training films and could be found all around the downtown area, especially around the Guildhall where they would have a skinful at the local pub and then try to feed fish and chips to the concrete lions on the steps. MPs the size of houses could also be found in great abundance bursting into public houses and tossing silly sailors out the back and into a waiting jeep before they could scatter. Fights were frequent, especially between the Brits and the Yanks. It was a matter of honour to defend the size of your guns, the length of your boat, the number of your lifeboats, the cut of your jib, just about anything really and none of it made all that much sense. All that mattered was that someone gave the rest an excuse for a right old punch-up hugely enjoyed by all until the MPs arrived to spoil all the fun.

 

Before the slums were all knocked down and were replaced by endless blocks of flats with urine in the stairwells and graffiti on the walls it was also hugely enjoyable to listen to a couple of ‘fishwives’ going at each other hammer and tongs out in the street while the neighbors stood around and gave points for the most creative insults. My own mother had a voice the size of a dockyard laborer despite the fact that she was only a little over 5 feet tall. I would cringe into a doorway when she got started over some real or imagined slight while watchers nodded in approval and occasionally joined in the fight with a few loud comments of their own. If you’ve ever watched ‘Coronation Street’ you can imagine the scene with lots of screaming and name calling loud enough to empty the pub on a Saturday night, which is quite some feat.

 

People of a more ‘refined sort’ don’t engage in such behavior – it’s all drawn curtains and closed doors and muffled voices. Pity really. Before people spent all their time indoors watching the box we made our own entertainment – much of it out in the middle of the road.

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