Some places sprawl. Some cities have bleeding edges. Portsmouth doesn’t.
It has thickly-drawn borders that alter only by a few feet daily with the tide and if you aren’t inside them when the moon rises, you might find yourself referred to as a ‘northerner’. To be quite honest, I’ve heard many long term Pomponians say that if you don’t live south of Fratton Road, you are essentially a northerner. It’s a deceptive island that no one really acknowledges as an island; perhaps because it floats above the Isle of Wight on the atlas – now that’s a proper island right? I mean, you can easily see the blue bits all around it.
But when you look more closely, you can see the blue bit, or sort of smudgy greeny-brown bit cutting Pompey off from the mainland. This is the unbroken boundary of water that makes Portsmouth a bit of a swirling plughole, leads to well-trodden routes and circular stories that link figures from the past to prospects of the future. That’s the creek, that is. That’s where my aunt, as a small girl, once fished out a stuffed crocodile that someone had put there for a laugh, and which she then carried around delighting in the exoticism of this peculiar and foetid artefact.
You follow the smudgy line around to the east and you find Langstone Harbour where my teenage father was once rescued by the coastguard, and Milton Common where with my sister, I watched a kestrel dismantle a great green bush cricket. Further still around the shore, Southsea seafront, the place where I first saw a beautiful 16-year-old boy who would (much) later become my ’im indoors. Follow right around and you will get to the Hard Interchange and the dockyard where my (long since separated) parents met in the drawing office at Brunel House, and the ice cream hut that was my very first job, giving me free access to the Mary Rose, the Warrior, and errr…. Flakes.
And inside that line, both my grandmothers were born. Their Portsmouth stories, covering the last hundred years, breathe extra colour on to all the corners of this city, and some of those corners aren’t even there anymore. Existent or not, those corners are always bellowing at me when I write, for the personal and family history that mists up the streets for me is, more often than not, in my poetry.
When I came to write this, I started with that thought and then wondered if I was exaggerating for the purposes of this blog. Nope. Turns out I’m not. I just looked at the poems I have written for my latest book, What Sort of Bird are You?, and so many of them feature specific locations in Portsmouth, probably mostly recognisable only to me though I do wonder if reading residents might identify any places. I also experienced the clanging realisation that I didn’t always deliberately include those places: rather, they just ate into the writing as and when they felt like it, mythologizing themselves.
And it’s a bit scary when I think about it. When I was seventeen, with a lacquered wall of Domestos-blonde hair rising six inches from my forehead, and looking with the one eye that could still just about focus into a steamy mirror, I never really thought that those lavs in Scandals (a much-lamented skanky cellar bar for Thursday night weirdos) would take on a life of their own and keep prodding at me with their unsanitary fingers till the day I died. Yet, there those loos are, popping up in my work, then disappearing again, like soggy phantoms. They’ve appeared in more than one poem which makes me wonder how deeply they are ingrained into my psyche.
It’s the same for most of the Pompey places, historic and present, that haunt my writing: they are not significant on some kind of grand scale, but they are important nonetheless. Portsmouth has plenty of sites heavily-laden with cultural or historical importance, but, thus far at least, few of them have littered my lines. It’s always the funny little anonymous spots that seem to surface; Portsmouth has many of them too. Like the back door into the Guildhall, the alleyway behind the former Handleys store, and the park on Waverley Road that seems only to be used by unconscious middle-aged men.
And the football lanes (still partially in existence) which were certainly in my head when I wrote a poem called ‘Bad Things’: when I re-read it, I felt almost as though I were trotting from one end of the lanes to the other from the bridge end where the brambles would snake through the fence and you wouldn’t dare pick blackberries in case someone had peed on them. That long walk through could be treacherous, quiet (because you wouldn’t bother trying to squeeze through on match day) and peppered with industrial fragrances. The poem for me is that walk, starting out with the innocence of mundane childhood, thinking positively and then getting to the middle of it all and suddenly thinking everything could turn to shit. And then, then you would emerge at the Fratton Park end, back into those normal streets and feel relief that not everything was as ghastly as you imagined in the darkest sections of the lanes.
One poem ‘I’ll not want’ from my first collection Chalet between Thick Ears about grief, I had written with one particular experience in mind. It was intended more as a portrait than as a landscape but then again when I looked back, there was Milton Cemetery, St Swithun’s Church, the Lawrence Arms. Likewise, the ‘shoreline’ which was undoubtedly the piece of beach between Eastney and South Parade Pier. The streets are very much the streets from Copnor all the way to Old Portsmouth. And they are never the most exciting streets, just those grids of terraces that go on and on and on.
I even wrote a poem for Portsmouth once which announces none of the grand points of this island. Just all those bits in between that have recurred and become legendary in my own mind. I suppose many of the bits that pop up are ones that never meant anything until they weren’t there anymore, like the hints of the boozer I used to work in on Fawcett Road, which ended up in my 2015 poem, Heaven’s Light Our Guide. The Royal Exchange isn’t there these days but I spent over two years pulling pints of wastage and drawing novelty willies in the Guinness foam in there. Those little things are always going to haunt your art. Especially when you’re on an island.
Tessa Foley’s latest collection, What Kind of a Bird Are You? (LiveCanon, 2021) offers ample evidence of the development of a major talent, and has been widely lauded by leading figures in British poetry: