A city of stories

Portsmouth, or as it’s affectionately known, Pompey, has so many stories. 

Of course, everyone has heard of Charles Dickens, born in this city, and Arthur Conan Doyle, who invented Sherlock Holmes while practicing medicine near Elm Grove. Everyone knows their novels and short stories and, I suppose, it was inevitable that I'd base one of my own stories here. The Wretched is that story, a creepy and horrifying tale of a malevolent and evil force rising up to affect and change the lives of two teenage boys. 

Growing up in Stamshaw, with friends next door and across the road, and enemies a little farther out, was largely a happy time. Pushing an arm through a mound of building sand - dumped in the road for a nearby house renovation - to make tunnels to drive my Matchbox cars through; cycling to Hilsea, Foxes Forest, and around the island; and setting up ‘dens’ in trees that overhung the garages at the end of our road:

Childhoods past

Climbing through the railings underneath Clarence Pier is a particular memory. Memories of a time when, unlike today, children largely played outside, in the streets, shouting ‘car!’ at the occasional interruption to whatever game we were playing in the road, forcing us to suspend our activity and wait for the vehicle to pass:

I was nearly struck by lightning during a storm as myself and a friend made a run for it from the Monkey House (there were no monkeys) in Alexandra Park, only returning there to wait it out after the bright flash and incredibly large ‘bang’ stopped us in our tracks. 

‘We thought it had hit you,’ one of the people taking shelter told us. 

Pompey explorers and the scrapyard

I would explore the locale, especially areas ‘prohibited’ unless you lived there. Like the back of the flats in Winstanley Road, or sitting and chatting with Joey Noble in the uppermost landing which led to nowhere of the large block of flats that stood between Winstanley Road and Newcomen Road. 

I, and sometimes my friends, would jimmy along ropes to get onto barges that allowed access to Harry Pounds’ scrapyard. We’d explore the military tanks containing empty ammunition shells hidden under giant concrete weights used for mooring ships to and enjoy the intense heat within the abandoned hovercraft that waited to be stripped of its useful wares upon the beach: 

It’s hard to convey a true sense of the wonder of it all to boys of our age:

Pompey spectres

We'd hear tales of hauntings. Of boats in the harbour, awaiting the same fate as the hovercraft, that had lost crewmen whose spirits roamed their narrow corridors, engine rooms and decks, cursing all those that they encountered:

Relatives or parents would relay stories behind the Mother Shipton statue that adorned the frontage of the pub bearing the same name. Folklore, that I would share - and which would scare my sisters to the point where they'd run to my mother screaming and I would suffer a beating by horse crop for upsetting them - that suggested whatever fate befell the statue would fall upon the residents of the public house:

These and many other tales found shape in The Wretched, a story partly based on real events from my life and partly on the legends and myths behind some of the spookier tellings that have been handed down from one generation of Pompeyites to the next. This blog, I hope, gives a flavour of all of that.

A legendary city

Portsmouth, Pompey, is legendary for many things: its history, its people, its football team, among them. 

But, for all those that visit, or have grown up there, the memories of the island, its influence and its own unique language (you will very rarely hear the words ‘squinny’ or ‘dinlo’ uttered outside its borders) are, along with its unique topography, what make it what it is. 

Portsmouth, Pompey. Forever. 

David E. Gates is the award-winning and prize-winning author of Access Denied, The Wretched, The Roots of Evil, The Ghost of Clothes, Omonolidee, First Words, and Unzipped: The Mind of a Madman and The Deeper Roots of Evil, along with numerous short stories, poems and articles.

I’d lived in Portsmouth my entire life. The city was different back then, during the seventies and eighties. The place was an urban sprawl but there were still places to explore. It had yet to develop into the built-up and student-saturated island that would extinguish the places where a teenager with a sense of adventure could go and explore.
David E. Gates, , The Wretched, 2016