I went home to Portsmouth a few days ago. No, let me correct that sentence. I returned to visit Portsmouth a few days ago. That's better.
People have peculiar relationships with their university towns and cities. If you're a slightly left-of-centre kind of person and hated the place you spent your teenage years - which I most certainly did, no question about it - they become like surrogate hometowns, places students identify with far past the point they probably deserve. Never mind that if they'd gone to the local comprehensive schools in their adopted city along with all the other locals they would have suffered the same anxieties about fitting in. All this is usually conveniently overlooked as the city is treated as a new surrogate parent. However much you might think you exist within the ordinary day-to-day environment "just like everyone else", the truth is that like all students you live in a bubble, a theme park filled with cheap booze deals, a lot of people your own age in the process of reinventing themselves, and the occasional few people who would actually welcome discussions about topics you happen to be interested in, most of whom won't be locals. "Sounds like intellectual snobbery to me" - a voice. No, it's the truth. People in office jobs in Portsmouth are generally speaking no more amenable to discussions about art, literature, music and politics than people with office jobs in London. Out in the world of academia, on the other hand, that's naturally not going to be the case, and nobody should begrudge awkward, obsessive and bookish young people their chance to blossom and fit in, however uncomfortably close that sounds to a Belle and Sebastian styled philosophy.
It's difficult to pinpoint an exact moment when Portsmouth first stopped feeling remotely like a "hometown" for me, but it was probably roughly around 2002, when I'd spent two straight years living in London. By that point I'd cemented a reasonably reliable social circle, knew a lot of people who were as fascinating as the people I studied with (if not more so) and had watched as steadily my Pompey mates either drifted away from the place or fell off the radar. Plenty of ex-students stayed behind, but most fled in the end in favour of better opportunities elsewhere - it was tough to advance your career in a city which only had a few major employers. The choices seemed to be working in IT, working for Zurich Insurance, working for the Navy, working for Royal Mail, working for Southern Electric, working for a call centre, or working in retail. I stayed in Portsmouth for two years after I graduated just because it felt cheap, cosy and comfortable (not as prohibitively expensive as That London, where I'd spent an uncomfortable six months working for a pittance in 1996) all the time mindful that it probably couldn't last, knowing that I was in some way limiting my options, and every month seemingly regretfully waving goodbye to somebody else who was leaving for pastures new.
Anyway, back to the present... I checked into the Ibis hotel on Wednesday night, and found that the bathroom window housed a nautical porthole window in its wall. "That's neat!" I thought, and opened it to this view:
Aha. We have weighed the anchor, cap'n, and touched down into PO1 where the Somers Town Council Estate be! This is what a great deal of central Portsmouth looks like. Bombed to smithereens during World War II, the city suffered the same kind of rush-building and rehousing projects that Coventry did, ensuring that the memory of Hitler was forever etched on the place in the form of these damp grey monuments. It is possible to visit Portsmouth and not see the urban rehousing projects, if you focus your attentions on the old Port area and the seafront at Southsea - but if you live there and live in cheap student accommodation, these feel like a constant presence on the skyline.
The Tricorn Centre, a building many consider to have been far uglier once stood here. A grey maze of a shopping centre with a feel so post-apocalyptic that it was actually the set for a number of Science Fiction programmes, I personally was always torn about it. On the one hand, I felt it fantastic that something so complicated, unwelcoming and brutal could even exist, and would frequently break into the boarded up structure to take pretentious black and white photographs. On the other, I felt sorry for the people who had lived in the residential complex there, some of whom lived in flats which never saw daylight due to the building's uncompromising design. On balance (dur - of course!) I'm naturally inclined to think that the welfare of people is far more important than any visual statement, and the drawbacks of the mugger's alleys and the stinking living conditions far outweighed the benefits of the peculiar, disorientating nature of the place. But seeing it gone and witnessing its remains as one single, solitary footbridge connecting a branch of Argos still can't help but make me feel sad.
I have no doubts at all about this place, though. This once was "The Pink Elephant", a store legendary in certain parts of the city for its oddness. Run by a scruffy, long-haired bearded man who saw himself as a community worker, you could buy packs of broken biscuits really cheaply, huge hunks of meat from slaughterhouses somewhere in the Hampshire country, and dirt-cheap bits and pieces of canned cupboard filler. It played the local chat radio station endlessly, had a damp brown carpet, political and social leaflets pinned to corkboards, and several sloping, gravy-coloured aisles. At any time of the day (and usually the evening) you'd see friends hunched over the photocopier in the corner copying bits of information from text books. Here it is now, chopped in half with a change of name and owner. I doubt it's the same, or will ever be again. The Pink Elephant really was like a relic from the sixties, an independent mini-mart which lasted long into the nineties before it was allowed to die. It was more right-on than the Co-op ever will be, man.
The Festing, a pub which became my local for no other good reason than it happened to be based quite close to the house of a friend of mine. It was, in retrospect, quite nasty - the kind of place where men sell you objects they've either acquired illicitly or smuggled through customs, and local alcoholics managed to stay all day purely by charming anybody who happened to come through the doors into buying them a pint.
The two main characters that spring to my mind now are a gentleman who had served time for drug dealing - he was a heroin addict himself - and now spent most of his days sat in the pub trying not to become an alcoholic instead. "Hey, geeeee-zer!" he'd greet you as you came in. "Can you buy me a drink? Here, I can give you my rings as guarantee!" He'd say this with a beaming grin knowing damn well you'd just buy him the drink and wouldn't take him up on the offer of his jewellery. Oddly, he's somebody of whom I was actually quite fond, a cheerful and optimistic soul who never publicly seemed to let his long-term unemployment get him down. He loved his "Rrrock" music and had spent some time in America during his youth, and he'd frequently talk about the marvels of Proper Rock in a gravelly, Tommy Vance voice, fibbing ridiculously about famous people he'd supposedly met. I hope he's OK.
The other character was Evil Bobby Brook, a man who was a demon on the pub's pinball machine until the landlord decided to get rid of it, at which point he'd spent every waking breath complaining. I don't think he actually was evil, he simply had the appearance of a rather angry goblin, and would regularly shake his fists at anyone in the pub who once beat him on the pinball machine, promising them that one day vengeance would be his. Once he even appeared outside at the pub's window glaring angrily at his victor, rising up into view slowly above the window ledge in a manner that made me nearly collapse laughing.
The pub looks scrubbed clean and much more run-of-the-mill now.
Mr Rothery's. There was no reason we should ever have found out about this man, but he was (is?) the only right-wing person who has been so eccentric that I've tolerated him - and that includes Boris Johnson. A well-spoken man, he had the Basil Fawlty-esque habit of insulting people in a stiff and formal fashion. Once, he said to a friend: "I've had this shop for eight years, sir, and may I say, sir, that the issue with Portsmouth... the primary issue is that people here are c__ts, sir, c__ts if you don't mind me saying so sir! Ah... here comes another one now!"
As an angry, tattooed military gentleman entered the shop and rang the bell, he beamed toothily "Good day to you sir!" at him as if none of our discussion had occurred.
This withering sarcasm is neatly summed up by this sign I noticed on his door a few days ago:
The sign at the bottom is a piece of arch contrariness typical of the man. I also noticed that the store appears to be closed "until further notice", so I do hope that Mr Rothery is OK, that he's decided to simply retire rather than hit upon hard times. He was such a local character that a journalist who lived in the area once won a prize for producing an article about him - a piece I can only assume wrote itself.
And this is the street I lived on during my last year in Portsmouth as a student. It's barely changed at all.
I realise that when you return to a place where your formative years were (mostly positively) spent, you're supposed to feel pangs of nostalgia and even an aching to return. In this case, though, all I felt was a kind of curiosity, and the slowness of the place and the impression of continued narrow horizons made me feel as if it shouldn't be a part of my life anymore. Whilst I was irritated by some of the changes, I was irritated for selfish reasons. I wanted the Tricorn Centre to be there just because it fitted my memories of the city, not because it would have been of use to anybody who lived in Portsmouth. Ultimately, Portsmouth felt as if it belonged to my early twenties self, a man (or boy?) who thought he loved the place but ultimately only really loved a lot of the people he knew in it and the skint but generally cheery lifestyle he briefly enjoyed. Those moments could not be repeated again however hard I tried.
At the risk of sounding hackneyed, buildings may remain, but people drift away - and what we're left with is a slightly scruffy town with the usual provincial amenities. Portsmouth felt like the right place for me at the right time, not as intense and expensive as London and filled with an earthy weirdness which actually seemed reminiscent of the London-gone-by my parents frequently told me about - but I was right to quit when I did and come back to my real home, the city I was born in. Nobody can begrudge me that. But whenever somebody mentions Portsmouth on the radio, my ears will always prick up, and I'll always be listening out for good news about the place.