Bombweed, by Gillian Fernandez Morton, is an absorbing story set against the backdrop of World War Two and seen through the eyes of Vivienne, one of three sisters growing up in wartime Portsmouth. The novel is, in fact, an edited version of a manuscript written by Gillian’s late mother, Margaret Smith, who was clear that it was not an autobiography, but an amalgam of events that happened to real people.
The novel was never published in Smith’s lifetime and was found on top of the wardrobe by her daughters after her death. They carefully and lovingly edited her work, and it was finally published for the world to read and enjoy. I think they have done justice to their mother’s writing and produced a well-paced, interesting story with fleshed-out characters who provide considerable insight into the lives of ordinary people living through extraordinary times.
The enigmatic Bombweed refers to the pink Rosebay Willowherb which flourished amongst bombsites in WW2. As a Pompey girl, I remember playing on the city’s remaining bombed-out wastelands during my childhood in the 1960s, so this novel holds a particular nostalgic appeal for me.
A country at war
Morton has crafted an intimate portrait of everyday life during a frightening and traumatic time. The shock and sadness of unexpected civilian deaths, including the sisters’ mother and Vivienne’s husband, John, are portrayed in devasting detail. Fear and trauma juxtapose daily anxieties, discomfort, and inconvenience giving a realistic flavour of what life was like during wartime Britain:
I thoroughly enjoyed Bombweed and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys an absorbing story, a family saga, and a wartime setting. It is particularly relevant following a pandemic, an era of lockdowns, personal restrictions, and rapid social, economic, and political change. I plan to hand a copy to my Mum, a Portsmouth wartime baby, who also played amongst bombsites overgrown with willowherb. I think she will enjoy the nostalgic sentiment of the novel and a journey back in time. In the meantime, I eagerly look forward to reading Gillian Fernandez Morton’s third novel – please!
Tina MacNaughton was born and brought up in Portsmouth, a city that means a great deal to her. She now divides her time between Crowthorne, Berkshire, where she works as an acupuncturist, and her seaside flat in Southsea, where she walks, goes to the beach, and writes poetry. She belongs to the Portsmouth Writer’s Hub and Words Out Loud based in Chichester. Her frank poems about menopause and women’s issues have resonated with many readers. A fine collection of Tina’s poetry On the Shoulders of Lions was published by The Choir Press in July 2021.
Everyday details of local life pertinent to wartime Portsmouth, a city by the sea, are vividly described, giving a sense of freedoms lost and day-to-day personal sacrifice at civilian level:
Pastoral threads: city versus country life
Bombweed provides a fascinating snapshot of what it was like to live in different parts of Britain during the war. As in the author’s second novel, Kissed to Death (Silverwood, 2021), which I reviewed on this blog site, physical travel is part of an emotional journey through the loss and grief that war brings. All three sisters travel away from Portsmouth, and I enjoyed learning of their new experiences and responses in epistolary form which creates realism and frames a sense of time and place. When cousin Martin’s ‘lawful wedded’, Biddy, is evacuated with her little daughter, Kathy, she has no idea of where she is going and relates the practical details of her train journey:
The emotional impact of evacuation is portrayed in tender and moving human terms:
A female-centric perspective
I appreciated that Bombweed is narrated from a woman’s viewpoint, particularly as war stories are often told from a male perspective. Indeed, the novel seems ahead of its time in terms of attitudes expressed and I wonder whether this is due to the length of time between the original draft and the much later editing and publication. Editing with historical distance and fresh eyes has, I would argue, given Bombweed an extra layer of meaning and richness, making it more accessible and relevant to a contemporary reader.
As she matures and moves through her journey, Vivienne begins to challenge the status quo of women’s conventional behaviour and the novel charts changing expectations, as familial and social constructions are questioned and challenged:
Changing times for women
Vivienne, the grieving widow, is judged for having sexual needs and acting on her desires, as are Audrey and Caroline. Controversial, stigmatised issues of the day are aired and open for discussion, as characters discuss miscarriage, abortion, sex outside of marriage, and divorce. By the end of the novel, there is perhaps a ray of light regarding changing perspectives and a nod towards the ongoing emancipation of women:
Imagery of The Snow Queen
The novel reflects Gillian Fernandez Morton’s significant background in educational psychotherapy and her interest in using stories as a tool to help children come to terms with trauma and loss. ‘The Snow Queen’ analogy, also present in Kissed to Death, threads through Bombweed, as Vivienne moves from the constrictions of pent-up grief through to greater self-awareness and emotional freedom:
Dealing with grief and loss
The difference between the way sisters Vivienne, Julia and Audrey deal with death is explored. Julia indulges her secret love for Kenneth by hanging onto him (or her version of him), obsessively collecting his letters and photos. Audrey tries to totally negate Kenneth, missing presumed dead, destroying all evidence of their marriage and his very existence, whilst Vivienne is scared to hold onto her good memories of John. She tries to blot them out through hard physical farm work and affairs with the equally lonely, kind Mart and cold, critical Dan.
Again, childhood literary figures help to chart Vivienne’s journey from the shock of John’s death, and almost denial of the love they shared, through to acceptance and understanding of past and present. Nursery rhyme and fairy tale imagery gives the novel a richness of language and heightened perception of both the pain and pleasure of love and death, that is part and parcel of human experience:
Caroline Henton has produced a fantastic and inspirational book for children and young adults who may have had difficulty coping and/or understanding the Covid lockdown which gripped the world in 2020/21.
It's her second children’s book, following on from Little Creatures, a delightful WWII animal story set in northern France. Caroline Henton, Pandemic Pete (London: Olympia Publishers, 2021), pp. 37.
Animals and Humans: coming together
In Pandemic Pete, as coronavirus kicked in, the Animals in Nature show their affection for the plight of their human friends, whilst also highlighting the historic connections between them in times gone by, referencing birds that were made famous for their war time efforts and reflecting on those who influenced songwriters and inspirational singers.
Charlie the Crow caws, “Us creatures live in the now but humans are designed to think about and plan the future” (p.19). Charlie reflects on why the humans around Pete and the others are so sad, why they are staying in and watching the news, and becoming more disconnected from their natural surroundings and the little things that had previously made them happy. This encapsulates the manner in which we, as a society, for those first few days and weeks, felt dumbfounded and confused by the news of such a fast-spreading disease. This Dis-Ease, in turn, led to difficulties in adjusting to the new norms of staying in, protecting ourselves and our loved ones, and not being able to attend work, school, and social events. Henton has kept it simple in her analogy but is correct to highlight that humans were at a loss because we had forfeited much of our autonomy to make our own plans and decisions, and were forced into living in the “now” day by day – not something we are at all used to.
Emerging from our cocoons
However, it was not long before we humans began to emerge from our cocoons and reintegrate into and with nature, many of us making new environmental connections that they may not have had for several years. Now that the restrictions of the pandemic have eased many continue into new healthy habits. Henton appears to have intended for readers to adopt these new healthy habits, and this might be seen as a contagious virus, in a positive way, like the park keeper (on page 28) who was able to affect Pete’s mood by his own. When the park keeper shows happiness, Pete ‘caught’ that happy feeling from him, a different kind of virus!
My favourite part of the story was Pete’s thoughts on him being a ‘sign’ to the humans. It made me smile when we are made privy to Pete’s naivete, despite his obvious intelligence: “Pete didn’t know why [people] called him a sign, but if it means he got his photo taken and he might become famous he didn’t mind” (p.9). Pete did not understand that the ‘sign’ referred to was popularly that of good luck, happiness or rebirth – but it made him happy to be seen as a ‘sign’: ironically he became that agent of happiness to the humans throughout the story, which kept me smiling throughout.
I work with many young adults with learning difficulties, promoting their wellbeing through creativity, as well as running a children’s entertainment business. Both audiences have enjoyed this story, and agree that in the years to come this book will be great for helping to explain some of what we went through throughout the pandemic, and reflecting that the story gave a positive spin on the lockdown and explained how many of us returned to pleasing habits of mindfulness!
Charlie Reilly graduated from the University of Portsmouth with an English Literature degree in 2014, and is remembered with great fondness by staff here. Her multi-award winning business, the Reilly Enterprise, is a credit to her energy, determination, and kindness.
Today, 10 December, is the International Day of Human Rights. The significance of this day, always high, is of particular importance in a political climate that across the world sees a worrying rise in anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiments that often comes at the expense of safeguarding human rights. The day is also an opportunity to once again consider and celebrate the important literary connections in Portsmouth, and recognise the enormous contribution of H.G. Wells to the conception of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.
The Author (and Portsmouth)
Herbert George Wells (1866–1946) is now mostly remembered as one of the principal creators of the scientific romance, and as the author of science-fiction favourites as The Time Machine (1895) or The War of the Worlds (1898) as well as his realist fiction such as Kipps. The Story of a Simple Soul (1905) or Tono-Bungay (1909). Born in Bromley, Kent, he lived in Southsea between 1881 and 1883, where he was apprenticed at the Southsea Draper’s Emporium on the corner of King’s Road and St Paul’s Road, a time and location he regards with considerable distaste, recalling, both in novels (in particular in Kipps) and, as featured on the Portsmouth Literary Map, in his autobiographical work Experiment with Autobiography (1934), the dreariness and drudgery of his apprentice years.
The Rights of Man
While Wells has, over the decades, attracted millions of loyal readers and is well-established within popular culture, his considerable contributions to human rights are little-known and deserving of much greater recognition. In 1940, Wells published The Rights of Man, a tract inspired by the beginnings of the Second World War and his fears for the future. Always politically progressive, Wells fearlessly argued for the protection of equal rights for every man, woman, and child irrespective of background, race or creed. In 1940, Wells was also one of the most important contributors to the Sankey Declaration of the Rights of Man under the chairmanship of John Sankey, first Viscount Sankey, a British Labour politician, judge and legal practitioner who was Lord High Chancellor between 1929 and 1935.
A Declaration of the Rights of Man
The Declaration established eleven fundamental human rights: the right to life, the protection of minors, the duty to the community, the right to knowledge, the freedom of thought and worship, the right to work, the right to personal property, freedom of movement, personal liberty, freedom from violence and the right of law-making. Although the creation of the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights is generally credited to the Canadian John Peter Humphrey and the Frenchman René Cassin, Humphrey himself, in his book Human Rights and the United Nations: A Great Adventure (1984), admits that the Sankey Declaration and a document by Wells were among the sources he consulted for his own draft of the declaration.
The Universal Declaration for Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948 in Paris in a response to the destruction caused by the Second World War and the horrors of the Holocaust. It promised to uphold and protect the rights of every human being that could not be taken away by any other individual or state. Of the 58 member nations at the time, none voted against it. The text of the declaration is worth reading:
It is also as relevant today as it was at the time it was drafted.
Wells’s Vision, and human rights today
HG Wells was a real visionary, a man ahead of his time, who strongly believed not only in human rights, but also that the secret to future peace lay in the creation of a League of Nations rather than in protecting individual nation states. He passionately fought for the freedom of movement of each and every individual, including the right to cross borders and to settle freely. 81 years after the publication of The Rights of Man, Wells would undoubtedly be dismayed by an increasing return to shoring up borders, by the curtailment of freedom and movement, and, in particular, by the current British government’s threat to abolish the Human Rights Act that was only passed in 1998. At a time when millions of people are trying to flee war, persecution, starvation, or climate crisis, when desperate people take to flimsy boats to cross seas, and when men, women, and children freeze to death in makeshift camps along Europe’s borders or drown in the English Channel, it is not enough to simply have a World Human Rights Act. What is needed as we reflect on this International Day of Human Rights are people as passionate about upholding and fighting for Human Rights as Herbert George Wells was during his lifetime.
Dr Christine Berberich is a Reader in English Literature at the University of Portsmouth, specialising in Holocaust Literature, fictions of Englishness and national identity, and Brexit Literature. She is also Associate Head (Global) at the School of Area Studies, Politics, History, and Literature. She is the author of The Image of the English Gentleman in Twentieth-Century Literature (Ashgate 2007) and the editor of The Bloomsbury Introduction to Popular Fiction (Bloomsbury, 2014), Trauma & Memory: The Holocaust in Contemporary Culture (Routledge, 2021), and Brexit and the Migrant Voice: EU Citizens in post-Brexit Literature and Culture (Routledge, forthcoming), as well as numerous journal articles.
Writing Literary Portsmouth’s Poem of the Month feature has so far featured Stephanie Norgate’s ‘Ferries at Southsea’ and Maggie Sawkins’ ‘Learning English at Friendship House’. We’re excited by the opportunity to place a different verse in front of you every month, so that together we can explore this city’s amazing poetic scene. This month we are very pleased to feature one of Dale Gunthorp’s finest poems, ‘Southsea Postcards’.
We are particularly interested in poems that give a strong flavour of the city, its urban spaces and unique natural landscapes – but just as much in those that explore the lives of its inhabitants and communities. Whether the poems we select are funny, moving, heartbreaking, or inspiring, we hope you will enjoy taking a poetic journey with us – meandering through Portsmouth’s fascinating past, present, and future – and using this most mercurial and vivid of literary forms to explore the city’s many, varied, and vibrant identities.
Writing Literary Portsmouth is the vehicle of the Portsmouth Literary Map, a project devoted to mapping, exploring, sharing, and celebrating our city’s remarkable literary energies. See our introductory blog, Welcome to Writing Literary Portsmouth to find out more about everything that we are doing.
Dale Gunthorp, a Portsmouth poet and writer, was born in South Africa, was chased to London by the apartheid police and, after three decades in a city pressure-cooker, escaped to Portsmouth, a place where you could hear what people (and the wind and tides) were saying. She is a retired journalist, former editor at the Commonwealth Secretariat, and author of two novels (Georgiana’s Closetand Looking for Ammu), and a book of subversively erotic short stories (The Flying Hart) (Sheba).
Dale and her partner moved to Southsea in 2005, in search of a kinder environment for their two young daughters, and joined Tongues and Grooves poetry club. As well as making her an integral part of Portsmouth’s vibrant creative scene, this inspired Dale to produce and co-edit (with Maggie Sawkins and Denise Bennett, the first anthology of poems about Portsmouth, the wonderful This Island City. Its poems are widely represented on the Portsmouth Literary Map. Dale continues to write and to contribute to the city in many ways.
This September is Oddfellows Friendship Month, an annual charitable event which celebrates friendship and its role in combatting loneliness. This month’s poem is chosen because of its sideways glance at these themes, and because of the compassion and openness that motivates Gunthorp’s verse.
Your feet are trudging along a cold wet pavement in Southsea while your head trudges through the gloomy numbers your phone says is your bank balance. Then, passing the Co-op, the homeless man’s dog catches your eye, tilts his head to one side, and gives you a dog’s gloopy smile. In a millisecond, the world is full of light and colour.
That is a Southsea postcard.
(Dale Gunthorp, in conversation)
Dale’s poetry is at its finest when at its most impressionistic. ‘Southsea Postcards’ is just such a poem, a testament to the poet’s sympathy and observational skill – a practice of looking and listening that has evidently been honed for many years. The three sections deliver brief, pithy slices of everyday life in ways that imply that this area of the city is an amalgam – of rich and poor, privilege and deprivation happiness and unhappiness, human and non-human – and that this jostling together of disparate forces is the essence of city life. It was published in This Island City: Portsmouth in Poetry (2010), and is quoted here with the kind permission of the poet.
As Gunthorp’s reflections below suggest, the poem arose out of real experiences, and from a belief in the transformative nature of human connection:
These three [verses] describe real events. Transient encounters which took me, however briefly, out of my imprisoned self. When the world was full of grief, love, pain, fear and joy that was mine-but-not-mine. Which I was a part of, because we – every living thing – are all one family of life.
(Dale Gunthorp, in conversation).
This month’s poem resonates with the previous Poems of the Month, because they are all united by a belief in shared humanity and the value of compassion - to ourselves and others. We are delighted to share this beam of light with you all.
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:
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:
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.
So what is my literary connection to the novelist, Charles Dickens, to John Pounds, a humble Portsmouth cobbler and pioneer of the Ragged School Movement, to Lord Shaftsbury, a social reformer; the doomed Victorian mariner, Sir John Franklin, and Georgian novelist, Jane Austen? Why are so many of my poems are written about historical events? Well, I love to explore local history and often find myself wandering down alleys, lanes and into public spaces to discover who inhabited them and how they lived.
For me, there are poems on practically every street corner.
When I was a small child my family lodged in a basement flat in Southsea that was the former home of Maria Beadnell, one of Dickens’s first loves, who is buried in Highland Cemetery. Eventually, this became the poem, Number 6, Shaftsbury Road, which attempts to conjure up the inhabitants of this address at two very different historical moments. Ever since childhood, I think, I’ve been steeped in the vibrant lives and history of this city of mine.
I later attended John Pounds School, named after the man who, after breaking his back by falling into a dry dock in the dockyard at aged 15, retrained as a shoe-mender and worked tirelessly to care for and educate the children of Portsea. His work inspired a public awakening, and later Lord Shaftesbury took up the cause and helped establish the Education Act (1870) which provided free schooling for all children aged five to thirteen. Sadly, Pounds’s workshop, removed for safe keeping during WW2, is believed to have been lost in 1939. A superb replica can be found in the Unitarian Church in the High Street. I would not be penning this blog if this had not happened. Pounds is an important figure to me, and perhaps I would not have been a poet without him.
Early steps in verse: hot potatoes
My first poems were published in my school magazine, aptly named The Hot Potato – an allusion to John Pounds’ habit of going in search of hungry children with hot potatoes in his pockets so that he could offer them warmth, shelter, and education in his workshop in St Mary’s Street, now Highbury Street, Portsea, also the title of another poem of mine. Learning about Pounds first opened my eyes to the city’s rich history. It is believed that Charles Dickens wrote his famous Christmas Carol after visiting a ragged school and it’s quite possible that he met and conversed with Pounds himself.
After Hot Potatoes
My interest in local history took me for a trip down Blossom Alley, now Blossom Square, Portsea, courtesy of History in Hiding by Anthony Triggs, where I was amazed to discover the murder of Mary Pelham in 1923. Immediately, I wanted to go beyond the realm of crime statistics and tell the world about the young woman living in squalor and earning her living by prostitution, who was glassed by one of her clients. ‘Blossom Alley’ was the result.
In contrast, I have always been aware of Agnes Weston, the Christian philanthropist who ran cheap lodgings in the form of a temperance hotel, complete with clean cotton sheets and bible by the bedside, as hospitality for vulnerable sailors. Looking more closely into her life I wanted to ‘sing her shanty’, so in ‘Agnes Weston’ I spoke of her valuable work at The Royal Sailor’s Rest, fondly known as Aggie’s, in Edinburgh Road (Queen’s Street).
Jane Austen’s Footsteps, and Beyond
One of my favourite Jane Austen characters is humble Fanny Price who hailed from Portsmouth with her lowly family in a house which is similar to those in Peacock Lane. The novel Mansfield Park, really spoke to me. I felt Jane Austen captured the spirit of the old town in those chapters where Fanny returns from the big house to visit her old home. In order to write Fanny’s Footsteps, I needed to follow the path she takes in the novel, but at the same time to imagine the walk on the Ramparts which Austen took with her brother Francis, and to imagine the ships and other sights they saw.
That brother of Austen’s, Francis – or Admiral Sir Francis Austen as he became – inspired a second verse. Francis, I learned, worshipped at St Peter and St Pauls, Church, Medina Road, Wymering, north of the city and is buried in the churchyard. In my research for my poem, Frank, I discovered that he was known as ‘Fly’ by his family and was very keen on helping Jane and Cassandra cutting out templates for their patchwork; like all good sailors, he had learnt to sew. I love this detail about this life and was keen to weave it into the poem.
From Sir John Franklin to World War II
Portsea Island, so rich in history, has offered much inspiration for my poetry. I was intrigued to know that several revered men had etched their names in a pane of glass of one of the windows of The Star and Garter, an inn which was situated in Broad Street, Old Portsmouth and demolished in 1954. One of these was Captain Sir John Franklin who led an expedition to find the North Passage in 1845. His two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, were only found in 2016, confirming suspicions that the entire crew had died amidst hypothermia, malnutrition, and cannibalism.
For many years after his death, his widow stayed at the inn on the anniversary of the sailing, grieving for his loss, never quite believing he was dead. How I could resist using this material in another poem, ‘Star and Garter’?
This area of the city has given me so much to write about including the loss of life when the High Street was blitzed in 1940, killing several people who were sheltering in a shop basement in front of Portsmouth Cathedral. It was the baby’s blue bootee, found in the debris, which haunted me and compelled me to write 101 High Street.
Ode to Portsmouth
I always feel history beneath my feet as I walk the streets of Portsmouth and can feel the griefs and joys shared by the those who have lived and loved here. For me, there really is something special about this city of mine – and so many street corners mean so many poetic opportunities still to come. In the meantime, here’s a flavour of my feeling for my island city:
Denise Bennett was born in Festing Road Southsea and has lived locally all her life. She has an MA in Creative Writing and is a widely published, prize winning poet. Awarded the inaugural Hamish Canham Prize by the Poetry Society in 2004, Denise has three excellent collections: Planting the Snow Queen (2011), Parachute Silk (2015) and Water Chits (2017). She has also written a sequence of poems about the loss of HMS Royal George which foundered off Spithead in 1782 with the loss of more than 900 lives. In 2010 she co-edited the wonderful anthology, This Island City: Portsmouth in Poetry with Maggie Sawkins and Dale Gunthorp.
In the return of our occasional series, Poem of the Month, we are delighted to feature an amazing verse by one of Portsmouth’s finest poets. ‘Cabbage Patch’ by Denise Bennett is a typically vivid and sensitive reflection on a painting by Portsmouth artist Edward King whose story is moving and an often-overlooked part of Portsmouth’s past. Its focus on returning life – in the soil, through the seasons, and in an individual’s painful existence – is chosen precisely because of its resonance at this time of the year as we see the first signs of spring appearing around us. Late winter confronts us, on the one hand, with a sense of the fragility of life and its struggles, and, on the other, the abiding hope of overcoming, and of better things to come. Bennett’s poem also straddles these different feelings in a manner both understated and wonderfully evocative.
The poet: Denise Bennett
Denise Bennett was born in Festing Road Southsea and has lived locally all her life. Her first poem appeared in The Hot Potato, the magazine of John Pounds School, Portsea (the Portsea educator-philanthropist has been an abiding influence throughout her life as she explains in a September 2021 post on our blog). Denise was awarded the inaugural Hamish Canham Prize by the Poetry Society in 2004, and has three excellent collections: Planting the Snow Queen (2011), Parachute Silk (2015) and Water Chits (2017). She has written a sequence of poems about the loss of HMS Royal George which foundered off Spithead in 1782 with catastrophic results. With Maggie Sawkins and Dale Gunthorp, Denise co-edited the wonderful anthology, This Island City: Portsmouth in Poetry (2010). She is, quite simply, a brilliant poet whose work is deeply rooted in this city.
The artist: Edward King
Born in Kensington in 1863, King was a talented violinist as well as an artist, but painting quickly became his chief vocation and passion, and he studied in Paris, Leipzig, and London. As Denise Bennett points out, ‘by 1904 he had exhibited 54 paintings at the Royal Academy’, but the illustrious career that followed was cut short when ‘he was committed to St James’ psychiatric hospital in 1925 after he suffered a breakdown when his beloved wife died’. A patient there for over 25 years, he continued to paint. ‘During WW2’, the poet reflects, ‘he was appointed as the war artist for the city and painted many scenes of the blitz damage. He also painted the grounds of the hospital’. King died of a stroke in 1951. Readers wanting to find out more about King will find this 2016 piece by Susan King an invaluable starting point – it also has several examples of King’s extraordinary paintings.
Word and Image
Denise’s poetry regularly finds inspiration from artworks displayed at Portsmouth Museum and Art Gallery and this one reflects on an unhappy period in King’s life, but also of the restorative and salutary effects of art and landscape.
As she reflects:
There are also powerful personal resonances for the poet, as she explains:
Past and present
Such reflections built the connection Bennett began to feel for the artist and set off trains of thought and many questions:
Reflecting Denise’s unusually keen eye for the passage of time, then, the poem vividly collides King’s life with the present, as building works go on at the site, and in doing so offers a poignant attempt to maintain the city’s cultural memory against the depredations of time. The poem, perhaps one of Bennett’s finest, is included here with her kind permission.
Writing Literary Portsmouth launches our 'Poem of the Month' feature. We’re really excited at the prospect of being able to place a different verse in front of you every month, so that together we can explore this city’s amazing poetic scene.
We're particularly interested in poems that give a strong flavour of the city, its urban spaces and unique natural landscapes – but just as much in poems that help us to explore the lives of its inhabitants and communities. The poems we select may be funny, moving, heartbreaking, or inspiring, but we’re sure that you will enjoy taking a poetic journey with us, meandering through Portsmouth’s fascinating past, present, and future, and using this most mercurial and vivid of literary forms to explore the city’s many, varied, and vibrant identities.
Writing Literary Portsmouth is the vehicle of the Portsmouth Literary Map, a project devoted to mapping, exploring, sharing, and celebrating our city’s remarkable literary energies. See our Introductory Blog, Welcome to Writing Literary Portsmouth to find out more about everything that we are doing.
The poet: Stephanie Norgate
Our first Poem of the Month is by the playwright, poet, and academic, Stephanie Norgate, whose excellent collections are Hidden River (shortlisted for the Forward First Collection and Jerwood Aldeburgh prizes) and The Blue Den (both with Bloodaxe Books). Her much-anticipated third collection, The Conversation, will be published in September 2021: look forward to a review here when we get our hands on it.
Norgate’s novel, Storm, was shortlisted for the prestigious Cinnamon Award 2019, while a number of her plays have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. After many years running the MA in Creative Writing at Chichester University, Norgate has taken up a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship at Southampton University where she provides invaluable advice to students on essays and other forms of writing. A gifted academic, Norgate has written a chapter about the imagery of houses in her poetry for Architectural Space and the Imagination (Palgrave, 2020).
Stephanie was very pleased to have ‘Ferries at Southsea’ selected for the Portsmouth Literary Map as she was born and grew up in nearby Selborne, has been visiting Portsmouth all her life, and now lives not far away, just over the border in West Sussex. We were equally pleased (and grateful) that Stephanie agreed to let us feature the poem on the map, and to use it to launch our Poem of the Month feature.
The poem: 'Ferries at Southsea'
The poem is a welcome burst of human feeling at a time when humanitarianism often feels in short supply. A rich, sympathetic, and evocative poem, it turns on the ways that ferries are intimately bound up with the myriad movements of human life. The poem muses on the issue of migration, and the plight and the aspirations of refugees arriving in this country seeking a better life.
Strongly rooted in the local – the area in and around Clarence Parade and its Isle Of Wight ferry port – it is at the same time global in its perspectives and universal in its sympathies. It arose from Norgate’s regular attendance at a poetry workshop in Southsea where the ferries were often in sight. It is quoted here with the kind permission of the author.
In a world of hostile environments, people smuggling, perilous journeys, incredible suffering, and widespread misunderstanding of the status and plight of refugees and migrants, Norgate’s appeal to the things that we all share – the desire for peace, warmth, shelter, and happiness – resonates powerfully, while her reference to night-travellers smuggling their 'talents' through customs is a welcome reminder of the benefits (economic and otherwise) that accompany migration and multiculturalism.
If you have any thoughts you would like to share about this particular poem, or your experiences of this part of the city or the issues the poem raises, do get in touch with Mark Frost, Director of the Portsmouth Literary Map, at email@example.com.
And get in touch, too, if you have suggestions for a future Poem of the Month. Remember it has to be poetic and it has to have something to do with Portsmouth.
Kissed to Death, Gillian Fernandez Morton’s second novel, is well-paced and thoughtful, a story that grips one from the beginning but also has a lot to communicate. The author’s background as an educational psychotherapist is evident in her insights into serious themes of loss, abandonment, and childhood secrets – and the impacts they have on children as they grapple with the challenges of growing into adulthood.
A prologue sets up the backstory swiftly and efficiently. The novel is mainly narrated from the perspective of central characters Elizabeth, her daughter Gemma, Elizabeth’s close friend and neighbour Sarah, and her grandson Kenny.
We are initially introduced to Elizabeth hanging out her washing in the yard, drawing us into the working-class, close-knit community atmosphere of wartime Portsmouth of the novel’s setting. Elizabeth is established early on as a reliable narrator and keeper of secrets – but by the end of the novel neither Kenny nor Gemma have learnt all the secrets of their respective families.
Secrets, losses, and abandonment
Both Kenny and Gemma have absent parents. Gemma’s father came home from the war a broken man, turned to drink, and walked out on her and Elizabeth. Kenny’s mother, Yvonne, left when was he was a baby and his sense that he was an unwanted child is unhappily confirmed when Elizabeth shows him a christening photograph found in a drawer after his grandmother’s death: ‘My mother. That’s her? She looks so unhappy. Was she unhappy?’ he asks.
Yvonne is given a voice in the prologue and we learn that Kenny was the product of rape by a stranger. Kenny, however, is never privy to this dark secret. He and Gemma grow up together as close friends, later to drift apart as children do. Gemma, likewise, is shrouded in secrets which her mother chooses not to share with her.
Path to adulthood
Kissed to Death is an interesting portrayal of young people moving into adulthood and finding their own paths. Kenny is uninterested at school, leaves as soon as he can and beginning to drift. He is seduced by the attractive yet dangerous Marit, who entraps Kenny as her sex slave, ultimately cutting him off from the outside world.
I appreciated the unconventional portrayal of gendered relationships: that it is Kenny who is coerced into becoming a sexual plaything for a devious woman rather than the well-worn, and more stereotypical portrayal of a young girl manipulated by a man.
Gemma at first appears the more capable and resilient of the two friends but recognises her fear of being on her own, and her tendency towards dark, introspective thoughts. This susceptibility leads her to prolong an unsatisfactory relationship (that later becomes controlling and then abusive) with the very ‘un-charming Prince Charming’, Bruce:
The Snow Queen and traditional folklore
Kissed to Death is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s 1844 story, ‘The Snow Queen’. Other traditional fairy-tale themes abound: being orphaned or lost, good triumphing over evil, and eventual reconciliation and reunion are all explored with considerable insight. Both Kenny and Gemma leave home and go on physical and emotional journeys as they ‘find themselves’, before finally being reunited in their home city of Portsmouth.
There are echoes of the ‘no place like home’ sentiment behind L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) as the characters in Kissed to Death find what they need in themselves and, quite possibly, their heart’s desire in each other. Kenny poignantly carries his tattered copy of The Snow Queen (a present from Gemma) on his journey, and the book becomes symbolic of their close ties and, perhaps, a warning of their shared vulnerability as children of missing parents. Like the Snow Queen, Marit is initially attractive and charming, but ultimately calculating and harmful to Kenny and other ‘lost’ young men.
Although there are strong indications they may become a romantic couple, it was pleasing that Kenny and Gemma end as very good friends, rather than falling dramatically into each other’s arms in a more obvious ‘romcom’ ending.
Fairy-tales, spiders, and witches
Gillian Fernandez Morton used stories in her therapeutic work with children, and this is reflected in a novel threaded with imagery from the stuff of fairy-tales. When they start school, Elizabeth notices sadly that Kenny and Gemma ‘disappear behind the door, rather like the children in the Pied Piper story’. Kenny uses language reminiscent of folklore and fairy-tale, referring to Marit as ‘a witch’ and ‘a spider’. He turns to dark, child-like imagery to describe his seduction and manipulation at her hands:
Portsmouth, a city by the sea, is important in reflecting the emotional development of the central characters. Kenny and Gemma are drawn towards the water for solace, comfort, and meaning, and looking at it becomes of way of helping them come to terms with their feelings:
Sitting with Marit again on that last morning in the seaside shelter, watching the roaring waves, he’d tried to follow a single, rushing seagull in its pursuit of nothing, as a way of holding onto his own flying thought as she talked in that not-quite-English way.
Particularly effective are the rather poetic descriptions of Kenny watching ships leaving as he sits pondering his own direction in life:
Kenny is staring out into the dark, eyes following the faint lights of a ferry on its way out past the fort that had always seemed to him to just grow out of the sea. How deep must it be there, he thinks.
It was a pleasure to review Kissed to Death. The main characters are well-fleshed out and minor characters, such as Stefan, are sensitively presented (although I am not sure that Kenny really needs to visit him again in London. I personally thought the phone call was enough and felt a little worried for him). However, Kenny’s growth and maturity are signalled by the empathy he feels for Stefan as well as his appreciation of the kindness he showed him and his help in getting him off the streets. I enjoyed following the journeys of Gemma and Kenny and I liked the realistic way some secrets are kept intact and a few ends left loose, as in life.
The novel has psychological depth but, above all, is an interesting story and well-told. I love a 1940s background, and will be ordering Gillian Fernandez Morton’s first novel, Bombweed. Can’t wait to read it.
Tina MacNaughton was born and brought up in Portsmouth, a city that means a great deal to her. She now divides her time between Crowthorne, Berkshire, where she works as an acupuncturist, and her seaside flat in Southsea, where she walks, goes to the beach, and writes poetry. She belongs to the Portsmouth Writer’s Hub and Words Out Loud based in Chichester. Her frank poems about menopause and women’s issues have resonated with many readers. A fine collection of Tina’s poetry On the Shoulders of Lions was published by The Choir Press in July 2021. We are proud to have Tina represented on the Portsmouth Literary Map.
The possibilities of science fiction
I was very pleased to be given a copy of Olivia’s book. Although science fiction isn’t my favourite genre, I have over the years been intrigued and moved by some memorable books that, while describing some kind of dark and unpleasant future, nonetheless had something useful to say about the present and indeed the past. To mention a few: 1984 by George Orwell of course, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, and The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. While imagining a future very different from our own present life it is possible to explore thoughts about the nature of society with the many ways of being human, and also to reflect on the appalling real events of the past – to reflect on humanity’s potential for deceit, greed and hatred, and its capacity for appalling cruelty to others, that have devastated so many lives.
Olivia is a teacher and English Literature graduate from the University of Portsmouth. A talented upcoming poet and novelist, she has published a variety of poems through the Young Poets Network, and ‘The Mermaid of Feegee’in The London Magazine (February/March 2021), and was joint winner of the 2018 MJ Meads Short Story competition.
Olivia’s highly imaginative story looks into the future, imagining an overpopulated world in the year 3000. Because of a ‘one child policy’, benevolent scientists seek a solution to the implications of this policy for family life. To provide siblings and further children for families, a scientific couple, Indie and Chase, design a ‘synthetic’, but this is not just a robot. Their Sygrowths can grow and develop from something the size of a small baby into an adult with some capacities to feel and think. The couple explained to an interviewer that they:
Indie and Chase choose a slightly imperfect one of their small creations, Eden, for themselves but following this benign start to the story, the plot soon darkens. There are destructive forces at work. Other scientists have created a different kind of synthetic, for the purpose of malevolent mass control. As the Sygen Corporation increases its power, all of Indie and Chase’s designed Synths come under threat. The Synths’ capacity to think and feel, and experience genuine attachment to their families, can be seen as a threat to the Sygen Corporation. It can be in some societies in our real world today: societies in which education, a free press, and diversity cannot be tolerated.
Future visions, present concerns, and echoes of the past
Olivia gives the reader, in small pieces, this information about her world of the distant future, as she introduces her various characters, both human and synthetic, telling the story of several families. I particularly like the way Olivia hints at the development of emotional connections between humans and synths while also describing the limits to what these man-made creations can feel.
In an echo of the one child policy of China, one family secretly have a second human child, but need to keep him hidden. In another family, a newly introduced Synth sibling has to look after the real child when the parents are liquidated by the Sygen destructive agents, the Rounders. The all-seeing eyes of the Sygen Corporation even exert their control through children’s entertainment programmes. In the middle of a Bunny Cartoon show on the futuristic technology in every home, there is an interruption.
I felt that in Olivia’s description of this wholesale plan to get rid of the Synths, there was another echo of the past: of Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Power of Dystopia
Olivia brings these various threads together, building towards a dramatic climax, where the forces of good and evil clash. Then the question arises: how developed and how resilient is the Synths’ capacity to feel attachments, and will they continue to properly protect the vulnerable, orphaned human children they have been brought up to think of as siblings?
Eden writes an Epilogue in 3999:
Olivia has created a dystopian world but one in which courage, loyalty, affection and attachment continue to try and survive. A Human’s Touch is extremely thought-provoking and I hope it will reach many more hands.
Gillian Fernandez Morton is the author of Bombweed (2018) and Kissed to Death (2021), both of which prominently feature Portsmouth. With roots in Wiltshire and Portsmouth, she has a background in education and educational psychotherapy, and her works all turn to the issue of childhood experience. She lives in London and France but has very strong links to Pompey.
Portsmouth (and beyond)
Pompey was a hard city to leave. Lin and I had been living there for the best part of thirty years. It had seen me through a troubled apprenticeship in crime fiction, offered characters and storylines to rescue my mistrust of the genre, and – in ways that still amaze me – secured a dozen books that owe an enormous debt to the crime writer’s best friend.
Pompey – uncursed by money - is claustrophobic, inward-looking, truly a city apart. Its darkness and its rough wit fuelled book after book. The French, oddly enough, loved the series. D/I Joe Faraday, in particular, found countless fans amongst French female readers convinced he needed a real woman in his life.
In mid-series, a production company in Paris bought the TV rights and – with rare skill – turned Faraday into a household name if you were lucky enough to be living in France. The producers also chose Le Havre as the anchor location – the French Pompey – blissfully unaware that the city is twinned with Southampton. At that point, Lin and I knew that our days in Portsmouth were numbered. Faraday selling out to the Scummers? We had to be on our way.
Leaving Portsmouth (and crime) behind
Most of our furniture had gone ahead in a hired Luton van. We left under pouring rain in our ancient camper van with a thousand books, a forest of houseplants and the cat. The cat started pissing on our precious dwarf olive tree as we hit the M275. She didn’t want to leave, either.
In Devon, where we now live, Lin put the cat into therapy, and hosed down the olive tree, while yours truly wondered what kind of fictional challenges lay down the road. A quartet of cri-fis set in the West Country did well but East Devon lacked the glum magic of Fratton on a wet Wednesday. In truth, I was beginning to tire of the interview suite, and the ever-growing mountain of paperwork, and a CID culture so risk-averse and so cash-strapped that major crime was becoming a serious career proposition amongst folk who’d formerly been careful about parking fines.
To date, I’d published twenty-five novels, sixteen of them crime fiction. Thanks to the success of Joe Faraday and the gang, I was banged up in the cri-fi Gulag, and somehow I had to find a way out. If you think publishing is a friend under these circumstances, you’d be wrong. You’re a crime writer. The books have found a market. We can sell more of these babies. Just do it.
That same year, we found ourselves in Galicia, in north west Spain. The French had bought one of the West Country cri-fis for yet another movie and I had a breathing space to step away from the keyboard and take stock. It was autumn, brilliant weather, the roads and the endless beaches empty. We were camping in that same ancient camper and one afternoon we came across a tiny fishing village called O Porto de Bares (see blog image at the top of the page).
I remember it was a sunny afternoon. Lin and I settled on a bench with a perfect view of the harbour. There were very few people around and after a while I became aware of the nearby plaque in the harbour wall. O Porto de Bares is the most northerly settlement on the entire Iberian peninsula. It overlooks the main shipping lane across the Bay of Biscay, and during the middle years of the Second World War, a storm drove a passing U-boat with engine trouble onto an offshore reef. Local fishermen saved most of the crew, but the plaque pays tribute to the handful of German matelots who perished as their submarine broke up.
I studied that plaque for a while, and then we walked along the harbour in search of a beer. The bar where we stopped, as it happened, had a model of that same U-boat, tastefully draped in tar-blackened netting. Eternally superstitious, I took that as a sign. If I was looking for a tunnel out of crime fiction, then here it was.
We moved on west along the coast, and each new leg of the journey, and each new campsite, gave me an opportunity to develop something substantial from that first image seeded by the plaque in the harbour wall. Men, already half-drowned, struggling to survive in the boiling surf. Their rescuers battling huge waves to pluck them to safety. Where was the U-boat headed? Where had it come from? What were the stories behind the men on board?
A post-war child
Most of my life, I’ve been fascinated by the Second World War. I grew up as a post-war baby. My dad flew in Beaufighters with the RAF. My mum was under the bombs in the Blitz. My father-in-law spent five long years as a Prisoner of War behind the wire. As a young reader, the carpet beside my bed was littered with books – both fiction and non-fiction – that had washed out of that enormous world-wide convulsion. Later, as a TV producer, I made countless documentaries that tried to put the consequences of those years of unimaginable violence on the screen. My final offering to ITV was a six-part retrospective, In Time of War, that explored the experience of the Falklands conflict through the eyes of those who had fought in the conflict. The scars these men brought home, I realised, would have been all too familiar to generations of fighting troops who’d gone before them.
By the time we headed back to the UK in late October, I had the bones of the plot down on paper. Half the book belongs to the Captain of my invented U-boat, Stefan Portisch. The rest settles around an ex-FBI cop, Joe Gomez, assigned to security duties at the top-secret development base at Los Alamos, where American scientists are building the first atomic bomb. The two storylines flirt with each other, and finally come together in a surprise climax. I called the novel Finisterre, which is the name for the region surrounding O Porto de Bares. Translated from the Latin, it also means ‘the end of the earth’, which suited the Los Alamos theme rather nicely.
Back home, I invested heavily in research and then wrote the book, which I sent to my agent. When he pointed out that Finisterre was a thousand long miles from my chosen genre, I argued that we should be thinking outside the box. The Second World War, I suggested, was the biggest crime scene ever. That’s where books like these begin and end. Motives. Consequences. Plus a great deal of violence.
Nearly convinced, Oil pitched my draft to a publisher he knew who liked my work. Nic Cheetham, at Head of Zeus, was a fellow World War Two buff, and thankfully enjoyed my first bid at historical fiction. We met for the first time over a longish lunch, and Nic said he was happy to take the book on. Most books these days are commissioned in series, to maximise sales, and most publishers insist on the presence of a central character to carry the narrative. So who would be the series lead? Who would we accompany from book to book? Whose face would we be putting on the cover?
Losing the shackles
Already, I sensed that Finisterre could truly be the book to set me free. After the badlands of Pompey, to which Lin and I owe an enormous debt, it would take me to pastures new. Not only would it let me tunnel out from the cri-fi Gulag, but I could also unshackle myself from the need for a single protagonist. Don’t get me wrong. I loved the company of D/I Joe Faraday, my series lead for the Pompey books. He was a difficult man, heavily conflicted, trying to retain just a shred of optimism in an ever-darkening world. We spent more than a decade together, and I admired him immensely, but on both our parts – as the series came to an end – enough was enough. As I explained to Nic over lunch, there has to be another way of glueing readers to the page for book after book.
Nic, at first, was dubious but by the time we said our goodbyes he agreed to take on Finisterre, as long as I could come up with a credible alternative to a single lead, and so I conjured a plan that called for a handful of characters who would appear and reappear over the series, claiming more or less of the fictional spotlight depending on the demands of the plot. I gave this concept a name – ‘soft linkage’ - and Nic, brave to the last, said yes.
Finisterre hit the bookshops in 2016 and the reviews were deeply promising. To our mutual delight, it also made the short-list for the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Award, and since then Zeus have published four more titles. Book Five, Last Flight to Stalingrad, appeared at the start of this year, and Zeus – deciding that this was the break-out title - funded a big publicity push for the US launch. Book Six, Kyiv, is already out in hardback and Book Seven, Katastrophe, is scheduled for next year. Books Eight and Nine, meanwhile, haunt the pile of research reading on the table in my study. One will explore the astonishing story that lay behind the Dieppe Raid, while the other – breaking news – will draw a bead on the plot to assassinate both Churchill and Roosevelt in Morocco in 1943. Soft linkage, to my intense delight, has worked.
All fiction, says me, is an act of trespass. The Pompey books obliged me to get inside the heads (and maybe hearts) of working detectives, as well as the bad guys, but we shared the same world, and these people were always around if I needed a prompt or two over a pint. Writing about a long-ago war, on the other hand, imposes different responsibilities. From the start, with Finisterre, I was determined to mix major historical figures – the likes of Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, Churchill, Stalin and Robert Oppenheimer – with characters of my own invention and making that work on the page demands enormous leaps of the imagination. You have to be at home in the war. You have to figure out what it feels like to be under constant threat, both in government and in the front line. You have to be comfortable with the smallest details of a crime scene that took millions of lives. Hence the mountain of research reading that lives with me every working day.
I look at those books in my study from time to time, savouring the fictional possibilities to come, and it’s impossible not to remember the taste of the wind off the Bay of Biscay, that afternoon we sat by the harbour in O Porto de Bares. In publishing, as in life, it’s good to take a risk or two when needs must, and I’m glad to report that the creative juices have never tasted so sweet. The Spoils of War happens to be the series title but I like to believe that the gods of war – notoriously fickle - were with us that afternoon on the very edge of Europe.
A meeting of past and present
It’s rarely the case that opening a book of historical fiction has such pertinence to contemporary events but beginning Graham Hurley’s most recent novel Kyiv towards the of March 2022 provided just such a moment. As I settled down on my sofa to read the opening paragraphs of the novel, Russian troops were beginning their march on Kyiv and the slow encirclement of the city that made it seem a full-scale attack on the Ukrainian capital was imminent. Hurley’s novel, set predominantly during September 1941, covering the flight of the Soviets from and the march of Nazi troops into Kyiv, and depicting a city under attack and occupation, consequently felt very relevant and almost too close for comfort. This discomfort was only increased as I read on: fact and fiction, it seemed, were beginning to merge in real life, played out nightly on my phone screen as I doom-scrolled through the day’s horrifying news from the contemporary Ukrainian war front.
The novel’s pertinent depictions of a Ukraine torn apart by both the departing Soviets who boobytrapped much of the capital’s infrastructure before leaving, and the incoming Nazis, initially hailed as ‘liberators’ by the population but soon discovered to be even more ruthless than the Soviets, is a timely reminder to readers of Ukraine’s troubled past, a violent history in which it has repeatedly been subject to attack, to invasion, to violence, to ruthless subjection to the rules of changing occupiers. As Hurley puts is so succinctly: ‘One occupation was about to end. Another set of thieves were only days away from taking over the city’ (2021, p. 91).
A Historical Novelist
Since the publication of Rules of Engagement, his first novel, in 1991, Graham Hurley has established himself not only as an accomplished writer of international and police thrillers but also as a writer of hard-hitting historical fiction, mostly set during the Second World War. Kyiv, the sixth in The Spoils of War novel series, follows the successful Last Flight to Stalingrad (2021) which I had the pleasure to review for this blog already. Kyiv, however, takes Hurley’s writing to an altogether different level, showing a maturity and critical attitude towards his historical subject matter that makes him deserving of considerable public and critical attention. This is a masterful novel: a war narrative, a spy thriller, and a historical fiction steeped in meticulously-researched factual detail.
A fine novel
Kyiv starts with the invasion of Russia by Nazi Germany in June 1941. The infamous Operation Barbarossa, in breach of the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact of 1939, saw over three million Wehrmacht soldiers and Einsatztruppen invade the Soviet Union in an attempt to wage a Blitzkrieg similar to the one Hitler had already largely won on the Western Front by that time. Within a mere six weeks, Nazi troops had surrounded Kyiv and were shelling the city day and night in actions eerily similar to the ones we are currently witnessing by proxy via our TV screens.
The novel focuses on a large cast of characters, headed by the British secret agent Tam Moncrieff and his love interest Isobel (Bella) Menzies, a double agent who had previously defected to Moscow but is now, seemingly, working for the British Secret Service again. In a fast-moving plot that sees Bella transport secret weapons in aid of the Soviets to Kyiv with the help of the resistance fighter and secret agent Ilya Glivenko, and that also features the regular – and sinister – appearances of MI6 agents Kim Philby and Guy Burgess of later ‘Cambridge Spy Circle’ notoriety, the action alternates between Kyiv (the last bastion protecting the oil fields of the Caucasus from the approaching Nazi forces), and London and rural Hampshire (where Moncrieff is trying to piece together clues about Bella’s disappearance and Philby’s mysterious involvement and potential treason).
The novel’s thirty chapters are structured around historical dates, starting with the beginning of Operation Barbarossa on 22 June 1941, moving through the attack of Kyiv and the first few weeks of Nazi terror in the city, ending on 3 November 1941, and with an ‘Afterwards’ section dated 18 August 1943. Hurley meticulously aligns his chapters with real historical events: Chapter 13 for instance, focusing on Thursday, 18 September 1941, depicts the aerial bombardment of Kyiv by the Luftwaffe on the final day before the Wehrmacht marches into the defeated city, while Chapter 15 (24 September) describes the first explosion of a booby-trapped building along Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s main boulevard.
It took me until about half-way through the novel, and the information that one of the key characters in the novel, the Ukrainian journalist Larissa Krulak, is Jewish, that the significance of the dates suddenly dawned on me – and, indeed, the narrative then hurtled unstoppably towards 29 and 30 September 1941, and to the massacre at Babi Yar that saw the murder of over 33,000 Ukrainian Jews in a ravine just outside of Kyiv in one of the largest single massacres of WWII.
Literary depictions of mass murder and genocide are always laced with risk, with a multitude of ethical considerations to take into account: preserving the memory and dignity of the victims often clashes with attempts to lure in readers, to provide descriptions that are attention-grabbing and graphic. Babi Yar, has been the subject of a variety of literary texts, from D.M. Thomas’ White Hotel(1981) to Jonathan Littell’s controversial Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) of 2006. Both authors depict the killings at Babi Yar in all of their horror, with visceral detail that makes for more than uncomfortable reading. Hurley, by contrast, tackles the events of those infamous days in Kyiv with historical rigour and greater sensitivity, eschewing gory details to focus on the victims as they are being rounded up and, eventually, for an aerial view of the ravine during the mass killings. This ploy, the physical distancing of the main characters – and through them ourselves as the readers – in a small plane circling over Babi Yar, ensures an account that is both historically accurate and emotive, that evokes the chaos and horror of the scenes from a distance yet does not pry into the victims’ last seconds or stoop to depictions of blood and gore. I had been worrying about what I would find in those descriptions of Babi Yar that, in the hands of a lesser writer, could have been problematic, but Hurley handles these scenes masterfully. It is, in particular, these measured depictions of one of the WWII’s most horrific events that for me elevate Kyiv over Hurley’s earlier war novels.
This is not the place for plot spoilers or summaries of further events in the novel. Suffice it to say that there is no happy ending in Hurley’s novel. The shadow of Babi Yar hovers over the remainder of the narrative, and as I was finishing the novel, news from the ongoing war in Ukraine reminded me once again that the fiction I had just been reading was not only steeped in historical fact but that it was, in fact, currently being played out again in real life. On 3 March, the memorial site at Babyn Yar was damaged in Russian missile attacks; news about massacres committed by retreating Russian soldiers in Bucha showed bodies lying in the street, civilians shot at close range, women being subjected to mass rape. Kyiv ends on the recapture of the city by Soviet troops on 6 November 1943: the ‘handful of veterans’ who enter the city first ‘stared at the grey ruins that lined the city’s biggest boulevard. They remembered shops here, hotels, theatres, trams, people, the beating heart of an enormous city’ (2021, p. 397). At the time of writing this blog, in late April 2022, Kyiv has, as yet, been relatively unscathed by the war. But as I closed the book I feared that history, indeed, was about to repeat itself and that Kyiv, once again, would soon lie in ruin.
For another perspective on recent events in Ukraine take a look at our recent blog by Vladislav Areshka.
Dr Christine Berberich is a Reader in English Literature at the University of Portsmouth, specialising in Holocaust Literature, fictions of Englishness and national identity, and Brexit Literature. She is the author of The Image of the English Gentleman in Twentieth-Century Literature (Ashgate 2007) and the editor of The Bloomsbury Introduction to Popular Fiction (Bloomsbury, 2014), Trauma & Memory: The Holocaust in Contemporary Culture (Routledge, 2021), and Brexit and the Migrant Voice: EU Citizens in post-Brexit Literature and Culture (Routledge, forthcoming), as well as numerous journal articles on a range of topics.
Last Flight to Stalingrad by Graham Hurley was published on 8 July 2021 by Head of Zeus.
(Head of Zeus, 2021), ISBN 978-1-788547-56-7
The Battle of Stalingrad
Since the end of the Second World War, Stalingrad has become the byword for the horrors of war: over the course of more than five months, between late August 1942 and early February 1943, German and Soviet divisions battled for control of the city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in Southern Russia that promised easy access to the oil fields of the Caucasus. The Nazi offensive used the 6th Army, previously victorious at the Western Front, under the Command of General Friedrich Paulus, Panzer Group 4, and large numbers of Italian, Romanian, and Hungarian forces.
Before the ground offensive, the Luftwaffe had conducted an intense bombing campaign that saw much of Stalingrad reduced to rubble. By November, and with perishing winter weather already making life extremely difficult for the largely unprepared German army, the Russians succeeded in cutting off the 6th Army from its supply chain. The remainder of the battle was conducted in house-to-house fighting, with the starving 6th Army expressly forbidden by Hitler himself to attempt breakouts or even to surrender.
Stalingrad and popular culture
The Battle of Stalingrad is widely regarded as one of the worst battles of all time, with an estimated two million casualties on all sides. As such, it has entered the collective cultural consciousness and has been represented and assessed in countless movies and novels from different socio-political vantage points. Particularly noteworthy here are Josef Vilsmaier’s acclaimed 1993 German film Stalingrad, Fedor Bondarchuk’s Russian film of the same title (2013), and the more mainstream Enemy at the Gates (2001), directed by Jean-Jacques Anaud and starring Jude Law and Ed Harris.
In fiction, Stalingrad has also been well represented: particularly important are Jonathan Littell’s epic novel, The Kindly Ones (2009) and Vasily Grossman’s masterpiece, Life and Fate, ‘arrested’ by the KGB in 1960 and only published in Russia in 1980. An English edition appeared in 1985. It is no surprise, then, that Graham Hurley’s most recent WWII novel also turns to this rich and dark subject: Last Flight to Stalingrad is historical fiction at its finest, taking readers straight to the heart of the beleaguered city and allowing us to share the main character’s increasing sense of doom.
Graham Hurley – from Pompey crime to Second World War thrillers
Graham Hurley is an acclaimed British novelist with a close connection to Portsmouth where he wrote regular columns for The News for many years. Hurley has published over thirty novels and first made a name for himself with a series of crime novels focusing on Pompey DI, Joe Faraday. From early childhood, however, Hurley has been fascinated by Second World War history – and, in more recent years this passion has found an outlet in a series of historical novels. Last Flight to Stalingrad is the fifth in his Spoils of War series that began with the publication of Finisterre in 2016, and that so far comprises six novels.
Last Flight focuses on the character of Georgian journalist, Mikhail Magalashvili, who lives and works in Berlin under an assumed name, Werner Nehmann. His fearless reporting paved his way to becoming a confidant of no other than the Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, but Nehmann soon learns that this comes at a price. Having inadvertently crossed the Minister, Nehmann finds himself dispatched on a suicide mission to Stalingrad where the remnants of the Sixth Army are under daily fire from the slowly-advancing Russians. Hurley’s novel is meticulously researched, with plenty of historical details: the fictional Nehmann mingles with real-life characters such as Generaloberst Wolfram von Richthofen, for instance, and learns about battle strategies from those in command.
Not just a Historical Novel
Last Flight to Stalingrad is an engrossing read, a historical thriller that, the reader senses, can only end in disaster for its beleaguered main character, marooned in encircled Stalingrad and battling on two fronts: against the Russian enemy, and against winter and hunger. Hurley masterfully conjures up the atmosphere in a city reduced to rubble, where soldiers from both sides have to burrow down into cellars or underground dug-outs in order to protect themselves against snipers and the cold, and where the former pride of Hitler’s army are now scavenging among the ruins, fighting each other for scraps of food:
But Hurley’s work goes beyond mere historical detail. It also subtly engages with the moral fall-out from the war in ways that few war novels, obsessed as they often are with battle scenes, manage. Several of the novel’s characters find themselves horrified by and even attempting to hinder the work of the SS, pondering that the crimes of those black-uniformed Einsatzgruppen will ultimately tarnish every ordinary soldier’s reputation:
The novel’s finale, with Nehmann and his friend Schultz actively dealing with Kalb, a particularly nasty SS leader, ends, quite literally, in butchery, and is not for the faint-hearted. Readers find themselves in an instructive moral dilemma: the SS officer, we know from history, might have escaped just punishment after the war. Yet rooting for Nehmann’s form of Selbstjustiz (vigilante justice) that sees him planning to dispatch the despicable Kalb in the chaos of the last days of the battle of Stalingrad means accepting – and perhaps even endorsing – yet more violence.
With a moral quandary such as this, Hurley’s novel is in fitting company alongside other historical novels dealing with the war and its aftermaths – Bernhard Schlink and Walter Popp’s Selbs Justiz (Self’s Punishment) of 1987, Philip Kerr’s The Pale Criminal of 1990, for instance, or, more recently, Ferdinand von Schirach’s Der Fall Collini (The Collini Case) of 2011. Novels such as these ask searching questions about crimes committed during the war and how they ought to be dealt with. To some extent, Hurley’s novel pre-empts questions about the failure of post-war justice. But it certainly shows the questionable lengths people are or were prepared to go to in order to ensure some sort of ‘punishment’ for war criminals.
Last Flight to Stalingrad thus works on a number of levels. For aficionados of war writing it offers an evocative insight into the run-up to the Battle of Stalingrad. For History buffs it offers glimpses into the manipulations in the ministerial offices at the heart of the Third Reich. But, possibly most importantly, for readers interested in what is termed Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the coming to terms with the crimes of the Nazi past, the book asks serious questions about how Nazi criminals ought to be brought to justice. Graham Hurley has produced an excellent addition to the genre of the historical war novel that ought to find a wide readership.
Dr Christine Berberich is a Reader in English Literature at the University of Portsmouth, specialising in Holocaust Literature, fictions of Englishness and national identity, and Brexit Literature.
Christine is the author of The Image of the English Gentleman in Twentieth-Century Literature (Ashgate 2007) and the editor of The Bloomsbury Introduction to Popular Fiction (Bloomsbury, 2014), Trauma & Memory: The Holocaust in Contemporary Culture (Routledge, 2021), and Brexit and the Migrant Voice: EU Citizens in post-Brexit Literature and Culture (Routledge, forthcoming), as well as numerous journal articles.
What a privilege to be given a proof copy of Annie Kirby’s debut novel, The Hollow Sea, to review.
It’s a mesmerising story, permeated throughout by the sea – its rhythms, its scent, its salt, its lore – which gives voice to what it means to be childless not-by-choice. Written with consummate skill and elegant prose, its canvas is vast, as three interweaving viewpoints come together to create one compelling and emotionally rich story. It’s an exploration of identity and loss against a backdrop of societal norms: both those of an unnamed Southern England seaside town and those of the beautiful and harsh environment of the archipelago of St Hia, a place still caught up in the traditions and prejudices of an earlier age, a place where incomers may never fit.
Annie Kirby lives in Portsmouth where she works part-time as a university researcher. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and a PhD in American Studies. Her short stories have been published in anthologies and broadcast on national radio and she is a winner of the Asham Award for short fiction. Annie is a graduate of the Penguin WriteNow programme.
The woman and the girl
This is how the novel starts, with an ending. The Hollow Sea has a backwards narrative as the first of its three interweaving viewpoints. It’s an emotional start, and yet the emotion comes to us from the unknown narrator who tells us what she imagines. We are intrigued to know what the woman and the child mean to her and and so we’re drawn in.
One of the things an author can sometimes do for you as a reader is to make you understand something which you’ve never quite got before. I don’t have children. And that was a decision which was partly made for me by life, but I was never sure that I was meant to be a mother. If I had been sure, I would have fought harder to become one.
But what happens if you are sure? What happens when you’ve fought as hard as you possibly can, when you’ve gone through the pain and the physical upheaval of FET and IVF, and the resultant losses, over and over again, when you finally come to the place where hope is “toxic” and “one more time, we’re almost there,” is pushing you further and further into breakdown and you just can’t handle “another failure”, just can’t carry “another ghost” in your “heart”?
Adopted child Scottie, who has grown up with no biological relatives and a sense of mystery about her long forgotten past, flees from her husband’s hope and the pressure to give it “one more try” and towards a mysterious island which, when glimpsed across the internet, triggers a sense of recognition: “the taste of sand, peaches, rain and salt”. She’s running away, but she’s also running forward, seeking to find her own roots and identity.
You take “A flight and two ferries” to get to this “remotest of remote places” and you enter another world: “a chain of islands in the Atlantic”. Each island is different, and we get a flavour of many of them. Even the names have a delightful resonance: Sorrow, Bride, Lugh (pronounced luck), St Rozel, St Mertheriana, and many more. The islands, “colonised at various times by Cornish, Scottish, Irish and Portugese,” have their own unique names, dialects, traditions and folklore. And then there’s the sea.
Scottie’s ostensible reason for visiting the islands is to take part in a seal survey. This provides plenty of sea action, marine life and island views. Kirby takes the time to examine matters of ecology, and the differing attitudes to marine life between the islanders and the ecologists, between the present and the past.
The islanders’ deep, almost fundamental, connection with the whales and seals which visit their waters is reflected in their folklore and yet also in their hunting for food. The ecologists arrive with a very different attitude, and with little knowledge of the centuries-old traditions which link the islanders and the sea-dwellers. Scottie is the only one who gets an insight into both worlds.
As Scottie’s search for identity and healing continues to take unexpected twists and turns, the past is gradually pieced together through the interlinked stories, using a mix of voices and folklore and sensory detail, while Scottie’s journey towards some form of acceptance is sensitively and heartbreakingly portrayed.
The Hollow Sea
The rhythm of the waves was different from anything I’d heard before and yet, at the same time, it reminded me of something. These were the waves that had tugged at my soul, sung to me my whole life.
‘This is the Hollow Sea,’ I whispered.” (Annie Kirby, The Hollow Sea, p.144).
The Hollow Sea itself, turbulent and unpredictable, plays a key role in Scottie’s search: at times frustrating; at times bringing things to a head.
And here, the symbolism is superb. Thematically, the Hollow Sea is so relevant to the novel’s story of childlessness and to Scottie’s conception of herself as “empty”, and yet, this is never directly stated. Instead we are met with compelling descriptions of “a stretch of water treacherous in more ways than one” (p. 3). We learn about its geology, its lore and the islander’s attitudes to it, and then, finally, perhaps inevitably, encounter it for ourselves.
I could say so much more. I could talk about the folkloric content, the “shimmering myth,” which so many other reviewers have commented on. I could mention the novel’s fellowship with Zoe Gilbert’s Folk (2018) and Susan Fletcher’sThe Silver Dark Sea (2012). It’s indicative of just how rich the novel is, that there is so much more to say than I possibly have room for.
So I’ll just conclude by saying that the emotional landscape was as powerfully drawn as the actual landscape, and that when the two of them intertwined, as they frequently did, it brought a depth which resonated far beyond the novel’s final page. When the final sentences fell away I had the sense of the sea itself, settling, or the final notes of a concerto drifting down into a peaceful and perfect silence.
The Hollow Sea will be published on 18th August 2022.
Helen Salsbury’s debut novel Sometimes When I Sleep is a contemporary coming of age novel, influenced by late 18th Century Gothic literature. Helen is a short story writer, spoken word performer and community journalist, who has been longlisted for the Mslexia novel competition and shortlisted for the Impress Prize for New Writers. Her Portsmouth-based Writing Edward King short story, ‘Persephone in Winter’, was recently republished by Fairlight Books.
How the story started
A chance conversation with Father Hollins in St Swithun’s Church, Southsea bought the cold statue of St Veronica to life for Alison Habens. She discovered the origins of the name vera icon (true picture), and immediately wanted to tell her tale as if it were happening today. Veronica, the woman encased in stone had found her voice.
More than the average Christmas story
I read this over Christmas (it was a perfect present) and unwrapped Veronica’s travels through many lands, without showering myself in shop-bought glitter, although there is a pretty strong vein of commercial enterprise woven into the telling. The novel follows Veronica, a successful dealer of rare purple dyes and silks, on a journey both physical and spiritual after deciding to give up everything to follow a charismatic healer. From the very first page I was submerged in the bustling colours, sights, and sounds of first century Phoenicia. Alison's research and attention to detail treated me to a 360-degree virtual tour, following Jesus and his disciples spreading the word of God and Veronica’s slow transformation as she joined his flock. Although their actual existence could be argued either way, the novel provides a living, breathing case to answer.
She started as a temple temptress (not a waitress in a cocktail bar) brighter than the men she seduced but physically weaker when outnumbered and brutalised:
Her spirited determination to follow a very different man led to her total rebirth:
Finding a voice
This woman literally sang her own song and did not choose the easy path. She fascinated me. Her stories told in song permeates the novel, so much so that the language and images of those haunting tunes filled my head for days.
At first the modern phrases felt strangely out of place housed within the ancient land and characters of Phoenicia but I liked the pinpoint focus of the protagonist, Veronica, a wealthy business woman trading in purple dye. Her passion switched allegiance from expensive jewellery and purple silks to a mesmerising man called Jesus whose words lit up the dark like her beloved amethysts and eventually ripped the gleam of hard currency from her eyes.
The Phoenicians stripped bare
The True Picture surprised, intrigued and educated me. Its raw humour slapped me around the face like a northern stand-up routine. Basic urges, physical, spiritual and sexual, are delivered in detailed, earthy, tones with the comedic accuracy of an Irish builder:
Alison’s exquisitely lyrical writing elevated the story, protected the reader’s eyes from the occasional violence but allowed the truth to seep through with language cloaked in purple that runs like a life force throughout the novel.
Slower paced but rich pickings
This is not a book I would have naturally picked up as I prefer fast-paced thrillers, but although the novel meanders across many lands and down busy alleyways it included fascinating details of everyday life for women of that time. Like many women on social media today, Veronica was originally obsessed with, clothes and make up before her conversion:
I found I adjusted to the pace and enjoyed the rich scenery the story offered so much so that I hardly referred to the excellent glossary at the back. The True Picture is full of religious markers and is Alison's area of specialism but you don't have to live in a beautifully converted church, like the author, to appreciate the depth of historical detail running throughout this drama. Alison likens the fear of the old guard witnessing Jesus’s many followers to fields of wheat.
A true picture? It's certainly Veronica's truth, sung from a refreshingly female viewpoint.
More from Alison
Alison has a PhD on the subject of divine inspiration in literature, runs a research project into life-writing for wellbeing, is a tutor at Skyros Writers’ Lab and teaches Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth. Her life sounds like a story too. She lives in a beautifully converted church on the Isle of Wight and commutes to work by hovercraft. Other novels by Alison Habens include Dreamhouse, Family Outing, Lifestory, Pencilwood, and The Muse’s Tale. SeeAlison’s website for more information.
Jackie Green is a successful short story writer who moved to Southsea after retiring and was delighted to discover the city was alive with creatives. Winning the Portsmouth Short Story competition with her first entry encouraged her to complete a full length novel which she co-wrote with Brian Bold under the pseudonym Jack Bold. Entitled Quota, it is a near future thriller written before the pandemic that reflects some of the alarming issues faced today.
In June, Writing Literary Portsmouth launched our Poem of the Month feature with Stephanie Norgate’s ‘Ferries at Southsea’. We’re excited by the opportunity to place a different verse in front of you every month, so that together we can explore this city’s amazing poetic scene.
We are particularly interested in poems that give a strong flavour of the city, its urban spaces and unique natural landscapes – but just as much in those that explore the lives of its inhabitants and communities. Whether the poems we select are funny, moving, heartbreaking, or inspiring, we hope you will enjoy taking a poetic journey with us – meandering through Portsmouth’s fascinating past, present, and future – and using this most mercurial and vivid of literary forms to explore the city’s many, varied, and vibrant identities.
Writing Literary Portsmouth is the vehicle of the Portsmouth Literary Map, a project devoted to mapping, exploring, sharing, and celebrating our city’s remarkable literary energies. See our introductory blog, Welcome to Writing Literary Portsmouth to find out more about everything that we are doing.
Maggie Sawkins spent her childhood in Leigh Park, a large council estate north of Portsmouth. A poet from the age of nine, she won the 2013 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry for Zones of Avoidance. Her other collections include Charcot’s Pet, The Zig Zag Woman, and Many Skies Have Fallen. She has performed her award-winning live literature production, Zones of Avoidance, at literature festivals and theatres throughout the country. Maggie is the founder of Tongues&Grooves in the Community and regularly hosts poetry workshops and music events in Portsmouth, working regularly with and for people affected by substance misuse, mental ill health, and/or homelessness.
Recent projects include the Penned-Up Literature Festival at HMP Downview, and Community Conversations for the refugee and asylum seeker community in Portsmouth. She recently collaborated on a project with the Good Mental Health Co-operative enabling people to take part in a ‘From the Heart’ poetry recital for Bookfest 2020. Maggie holds an MA with distinction in Creative Writing. We are proud to feature her on the Portsmouth Literary Map and to celebrate her work here.
‘Learning English at Friendship House’ was included in her collection The Zig Zag Woman (2007), and the anthology, This Island City: Portsmouth in Poetry (2010), and you can find it on the Portsmouth Literary Map, on the junction of Elm Grove and Grove Road South. It resonates with 'Ferries at Portsmouth, Stephanie Norgate's Poem of the Month for June. Both poets attended writing workshops hosted by George Marsh from his home in Southsea.
Like ‘Cold Harbour’, another of Sawkins’ poems that features on the Portsmouth Literary Map, ‘Learning English at Friendship House’ centres around the experiences of a language teacher and a refugee in Portsmouth. It relates to a particular moment in the city’s history, and the poem is also a reflection of a formative time in the poet’s life:
Like ‘Cold Harbour’, the poem subtly plays with ideas of understanding and misunderstanding between cultures. It touches – in sympathetic and moving ways – upon the often-harrowing circumstances of those who are motivated to seek a new life in the U.K. This is not a polemical poem, but its politics are all the more powerful for the way in which its humanitarian message is rooted in the task of trying to simply empathise with and understand another person regardless of differences, barriers, and difficulties.
The beautiful simplicity with which this cultural coming-together is described is breathtaking and moving. Sawkins’ motivation for writing is rooted in what the experience of teaching English taught her about the lives and difficulties of refugees and asylum seekers:
This poem speaks richly of the rewards of the act of reaching out to another human being, but Sawkins reflections show just how bittersweet these often temporary and disrupted moments of connection can be, and how fragile and vulnerable are the lives of many of those reaching our shores.
If you have any thoughts that you would like to share about this particular poem and the issues the poem raises, do get in touch:
And get in touch, too, if you have suggestions for a future Poem of the Month. Remember it has to be poetic and it has to have something to do with Portsmouth. Our selections are taken from published works.
So much of my poetry is rooted in my childhood experience, and motivated by an effort to bring my experiences of this remarkable city to life. Impressions of that past float up into my mind regularly, fragments of a past, and visions of people, both long gone – but preserved, I hope, in my poems. What follows are some of these impressions and some of my reflections on them. I hope they have both the vividness and the strangeness of memory: how much our pasts sometimes feel like dreams in that curious combination.
Mornings regularly spring to mind. How different family life was back in my childhood, and how much more were we together and connected in those times before mobile phones and other distractions:
I have never understood why people say they don’t like writing letters, because I loved writing from a young age. I enjoyed reading, and a walk to the Carnegie Library in Fratton where I grew up was a weekly treat. Mum and Dad were readers and had good vocabularies. Mum corrected my grammar frequently.
My father, Joe, was of medium height and always wore glasses. He had been captured in Crete during the war and spent three years in a prison camp, but rarely spoke about it. For a while he worked at the grocery store of the Co-op – we were very much a Co-op family. The Portsmouth branch had the highest dividend in the country – one shilling and nine pence. Then he became an insurance agent, a job for which he wasn’t at all suited as he wasn’t in the least pushy.
Nan and Grandad
I had a wonderful maternal grandmother, Ethel, who spoilt me rotten. She was large, and always wore a flowered wrap-around pinafore in a small colourful pattern. To this day, I am still drawn to this fabric design. She swore a lot, without malice, in her rich Suffolk accent, and appears in some of my poems:
Sometimes we were giddy up in The Gods
and the stairs must have been
a breathy struggle for Nan,
vast in her fifties under the loose grey coat.
This is a memory of when she took me to the Kings Theatre every year for the pantomime. I still remember the pleasure she felt at the occasion:
Nan's arm went like a piston
into our shilling quarter of toffees
and she still had room for a Walls vanilla tub.
‘Where Nan Lived’ tries to capture her in her own domain, the house (destroyed to make way for Waitrose) in Lennox Road North, but that poem is also an evocation of Marmion Road and environs of decades past.
My grandfather Tom died when I was young. He took me on regular Sunday walks, and I remember him very fondly.
My mother Joan, a full-time housewife who later worked for some years in a school kitchen, was self-effacing to a fault. She was embarrassed about her prominent nose and slim until middle age, probably because she was energetic in doing housework, hand-washing our clothes and walking everywhere with a pram. She was a hard-working housekeeper, cook and a ‘good manager’, the highest praise in those days.
Alan Bennett, a favourite writer of mine, says that a happy childhood gives you nothing to write about. He has found plentiful material in his, and so have I. It was a perfectly ordinary working-class childhood and my parents were enlightened and tolerant. My father gave me a love of music; from my mother I inherited an irreverent sense of humour shared with my younger sister. They took me to the theatre in London and to Navy Days at the Dockyard. The poem ‘Dinnertime’, by the way, attempts to capture the vividness, vibrancy, and noise of the dockyards of the 50s and 60s.
Like many other kids of my generation,] I failed the 11 plus, an exam that was very divisive and that often had long-term impacts on people’s careers and life-choices. We weren’t given the chance, for example, to take GCEs. All the same, at Kingston Modern (now Portsmouth Academy) we were taught French for a while, a novelty in secondary modern schools back then, and taken to concerts at the Guildhall, where we saw famous soloists. Visiting Paris with the school (at a cost of £28, at the time a princely sum), I acquired a French penfriend who I wrote to for fifty years until she died.
At fourteen, in competition with girls from all over Portsmouth, I passed an exam that enabled me to learn shorthand and typing. It meant I would have, in the phrase of the day, ‘Something to fall back on’, and more options than shop or factory work. Besides, secretarial work was well paid at the time.
Possibly because of the war, there were many single female teachers at Kingston Modern. Some were distinctly odd and appear in my poems, though I expect most children see some of their teachers as eccentric. One smacked me merely for using paint instead of crayon on a map. Another was rumoured to keep a bottle of gin in her handbag. My English and Music teachers were excellent, I now realise. A beady eye and good memory have provided me with a lot of detail from my childhood and education.
When I left at sixteen to start work, offices were full of characters who fascinated me, and I entertained my parents with their sayings and exploits.
These jobs gave me friends I am still in contact with in my seventies. In 1998 at the suggestion of a work colleague I went to a creative writing class at an arts centre in Winchester. Three good tutors taught me a great deal and I began to be published in poetry magazines and placed in competitions a year later. I am a founding member of the North Hampshire Stanza Group and attend meetings of Winchester Muse. I have read at the latter’s meetings and Winchester Poetry Festival events. I belong to Second Light, an organisation for older women poets, and have been to their workshops and residential courses.
Poetry has been a late means of self-expression and has brought me a sense of achievement – and many friends.
Lynda O’Neill is an important poet whose work is in part a repository of Portsmouth’s literary, cultural, and historical identities. Further information on Lynda’s life and work can be found on the Portsmouth Literary Map.
Following on from last month’s Poem of the Month – which shared poet Denise Bennett’s insight into the Jewish Cemetery in Fawcett Road, Southsea – this month’s selection takes us to the north of the City, where we visit the memory of a very special chapel.
St Stephen’s Church:
Established in 1899, St Stephen’s Church on Kingston Road survived for almost fifty years before it was destroyed in the Blitz. Only the chapel remained standing, and its tale from that point onward has been lovingly recounted by local poet Michael Perryment, who has a personal connection to the place.
With Michael’s permission, we have included the poem here.
There’s something unbearably tender about the image Michael Perryment relays for us here, of the chapel emerging from the cocoon of brick dust and debris. The glimpse of something old and deeply important. Through his words, we are connecting with a small and precious fragment of Portsmouth’s human history. The people who lived here before us, whose stories are trod into the foundations, who deserve to have their histories preserved even as Portsmouth continues to shapeshift and evolve.
The Poet: Michael Perryment
Michael Perryment was born in Arthur Street, Buckland in 1949, and has remained local to Portsmouth and its surrounding areas since. A passionate defender of animal rights, he has been vegan for over 45 years, and the shop he had in Fawcett Road (Time for Change) was one of the earliest known completely vegan shops in the world.
In 2006, he won the Tongues and Grooves poetry competition with Rag and Bone Man. This poem – alongside four others, including The Surprise, which also discusses his childhood – are featured in This Island City: Portsmouth in Poetry. Perryment has also self-published a small booklet of his poetry, titled Terracotta Flower, and is looking into publishing a more extensive collection in future. So if you’ve enjoyed reading his work, be sure to keep an eye out!
Of his work, he says:
Holly Kybett Smith is a research assistant at the Portsmouth Literature Map. She writes Gothic stories and more of her articles can be found on tor.com.
If you would like to get in touch with us about our poetry selections – to make us aware of yourself as a Portsmouth poet, or perhaps to recommend to us a poem you especially like – please do. We can be reached at Margaret.Bowers@port.ac.uk and Mark.Frost@port.ac.uk
For two successive evenings, starting on the 24th May 1866, Charles Dickens returned to the town of his birth to give readings in the latest instalment of his wildly-popular national Reading Tours.
The venue for his readings was St. George’s Hall on St. George’s Square, Portsea. The hall no longer exists and in its place the unlovely Millgate House looms close by Gunwharf Quays.
Dickens had already included Portsmouth in his itinerary, performing at the same venue, on 11 November during his inaugural 1858 tour. It is impossible to understate the enormous excitement generated by Dickens’s decision to undertake reading tours, but this only grew once people began to experience the astonishing power of his performances: the Charles Dickens on Stage website offers some glimpses of how spellbound his audiences were, and why.
The most dramatic of authors
It’s worth underlining that the enormous impact of Dickens’s readings was not simply due to his unrivalled position as the pre-eminent author of his generation, but also to his incredible acting abilities. Dickens appeared in major theatricals throughout the 1850s, some private, but many in major theatres, and his performances were usually met with considerable acclaim – particularly his central role in The Frozen Deep, ostensibly written by Dickens’s friend and fellow novelist-performer, Wilkie Collins, and staged a number of times after its first outing in 1856.
It was during the national run of The Frozen Deep that Dickens encountered the actress Ellen (Nelly) Ternan, who was to become his mistress, and who is the subject of Claire Tomalin’s excellent 1990 study, The Invisible Woman, and a 2013 film of the same name starring Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, and Kristen Scott-Thomas. This represents another major Portsmouth-Dickens connection. In 1910, many years after Dickens’s death, Ternan moved to Southsea and is buried in Highland Cemetery. The various Dickensian associations with the Cemetery are explored in the Portsmouth Literary Map as are his associations with St George’s Hall.
Exploring Dickens’s Portsmouth
Dickens’s associations with the city comprise a number of locations. He was born in Old Commercial Road and, largely because of his father’s debts, lived at a number of addresses in quick succession before moving with his family, aged three, for pastures new.
Although Dickens was not particularly drawn to the city, and returned infrequently, his visits sometimes included some typically Dickensian extended perambulations and high jinks. In Charles Dickens as I Knew Him (1912) George Dolby, the manager of Dickens’s reading tours, recorded that during the 1866 tour he, Dickens, and Dickens’s journalistic collaborator, William Henry Wills visited Dickens’s second home at Wish Street.
Dolby also records the following bizarre incident, amply demonstrating Dickens’s comedic and theatrical bent:
Readers interested in exploring the city’s many Dickensian locations can find more on the Portsmouth Literary Map (have a look at the entries under the Literary Figures (Deceased) and Literary Locations tabs), and there is also a walking tour pamphlet available from the excellent Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum.
The Farewell Tour
On a more melancholy note, it is worth underlining the strain that Dickens’s legendary Reading Tour performances placed on his health. So involved did he become in dramatizing his readings and captivating his eager audiences that the tours began to take their toll. In 1868 and 1869, he embarked on his final ‘Farewell Tours’, but was increasingly overtaken by giddiness and fits of paralysis. He suffered a stroke in Chester on 18 April 1869, and four days later, after collapsing in the aftermath of a 22 April 1869 engagement in Preston, he cancelled the tour.
Undaunted, he engaged for a further 11 performances in the summer of 1870, during which time he was also working on his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. His last performance took place before the Prince and Princess of Wales at a Royal Banquet on 2 May. Just over a month later, he suffered a final stroke, dying on 8 June 1870. He was laid to rest in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey.
What strikes me about this piece of writing is the vividness with which Bennett evokes the sensation of walking through a cemetery on a sunny day. When we think of these places, we tend to think of cooler days; soft evenings; the pathetic fallacy of suitable gloom. There is something disquietingly lovely about the contrast of sunshine with the harrowing knowledge of where it is you tread.
The Jewish Cemetery on Fawcett Road
Fawcett Road runs northwards from Albert Road in Southsea. Established in 1749, and extended thrice during the 19th century, the Jewish cemetery located there has long been a feature of the landscape. Significantly, the purchase of the land for this use is one of the earliest recorded mentions of a Jewish community living in Portsmouth. Its establishment was followed soon-after by the construction of Portsmouth’s first purpose-built synagogue, on the corner of what is now Curzon-Howe road, in 1780.
Having filled up in 1990, the cemetery is no longer in use, but remains an important landmark denoting Portsmouth’s Jewish history. Many of the tombstones feature intricate and beautiful Hebrew inscriptions.
The Poet: Denise Bennett
Denise Bennettis a local poet, born on Festing Road in Southsea. Her first poem appeared in The Hot Potato, the magazine of John Pounds School, Portsea, and she tells us more about this in a September 2021 post on our blog. Denise was awarded the inaugural Hamish Canham Prize by the Poetry Society in 2004, and has penned three fabulous collections: Planting the Snow Queen (2011), Parachute Silk (2015) and Water Chits (2017). With Maggie Sawkins and Dale Gunthorp, Denise co-edited This Island City: Portsmouth in Poetry (2010), in which Dog Roses first appears. Her poem, Cabbage Patch, was also featured on the Writing Literary Portsmouth blog as Poem of the Month in February 2022.
Holly Kybett Smith is a research assistant at the Portsmouth Literature Map. She writes Gothic stories and more of her articles can be found on tor.com.
If you would like to get in touch with us about our poetry selections – to make us aware of yourself as a Portsmouth poet, or perhaps to recommend to us a poem you especially like – please do. We can be reached at Margaret.Bowers@port.ac.uk and Mark.Frost@port.ac.uk
Summer is arriving in Portsmouth – albeit interspersed, still, with the odd determined shower – and with it, our Poem of the Month for June. Dog Roses, by local poet Denise Bennett, takes a tender look at the Jewish Cemetery in Fawcett Road, Southsea. Contained within a series of concise two-line stanzas is a reflection on the painful history of antisemitism in our country, set in the quiet, intimate stillness of a place where many of the local Jewish community were laid to rest. The contrast is illuminated best by the juxtaposition of delicate roses growing along a barbed wire fence. With Denise’s permission, we have included it here.
On Love and Pain
Of her inspiration regarding this poem, she tells us:
When I’m not pounding the keyboard, or plotting my crime novels, I’m walking the coastal paths and by-ways of Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, looking for a good place to put a body! A fictional one that is.
I can't pass a boatyard, beach or bay without thinking there must be a dead body or a skeleton here somewhere. One day I’m sure I’m going to be arrested, or locked up, and if that happens then I hope either of my heroes, the enigmatic and flawed Portsmouth based detective, DI Andy Horton, or the rugged ex-marine, Art Marvik, will come to my rescue because, in fact, it would be their fault if I found myself in such an awkward position.
The sea has always held a fascination for me, probably because I was raised in the coastal city of Portsmouth with its vibrant waterfront, its great contrasts of modern and historic, its diverse multicultural population, international port, historic dockyard, fishing fleet and the home of the Royal Navy. Portsmouth Harbour is one of the busiest in the World and the Solent offers up every kind of sailing vessel you could wish for from giant container ships to ferries, naval ships to leisure craft, fishing boats and even a regular hovercraft service. Once the sea is in your blood it never leaves you and it seemed only natural for me to turn to it for inspiration for my crime novels.
For me setting my crime novels against the backdrop of the sea has many advantages. For one thing it is never constant. In one day alone it can change from being glass-like calm to storm-tossed turbulent thus providing a great backdrop for pace in a novel and great settings for a climax. On the surface it can look perfectly safe and yet underneath, hidden from view, can be a sandbank, a rock, a wreck, a dangerous current all of which can cause havoc and kill, and be used to good effect in a crime novel. The sea is also completely uncontrollable. No matter how much you think or wish you can control it, you can't. You need to respect and fear it. In life sometimes you need to go with the flow and other times to swim against the tide, the trick is knowing when to do which. My detective, Andy Horton, hasn't quite got it sussed, or when he thinks he has something happens to throw him completely off course, just as in life.
The great variety of locations also provides diversity of scenes within a novel. Horton can be on a stony or sandy beach, at an expensive marina or a rotting boatyard, on the police launch in the Solent or crossing on the ferry or the hovercraft from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight.
Andy Horton’s patch is Portsmouth and there are plenty of interesting locations around the city to choose where to put a body! I’ve used the fortifications of Old Portsmouth, the Town Camber, Southsea beach, Milton Common, the historic tunnels of Hilsea Lines, Tipner, Portsmouth International Port, the Historic Dockyard and many more in the fifteen novels. There are still many more intriguing and interesting locations around the vibrant waterfront city of Portsmouth to feature, more than enough to keep a crime author scribbling for years, and DI Andy Horton fully occupied until retirement.
Born and raised in Portsmouth, Pauline Rowson draws her inspiration for her critically acclaimed crime novels from the local area. Visit Pauline’s website for details of all her books, news, videos and articles.
Our port may not, at first glance, be the most glamorous of locations, but it has certainly provided me with the opportunity for so many adventures!
Portsmouth is a global city, so growing up here, and being lucky enough to live close to its International Ferry Port, France has never felt far away. Over the years I have been lucky enough to have enjoyed many happy experiences during my frequent trips across the Channel or La Manche.
Piping across the port
I am a piper in an international pipe band, so on many occasions I have played my bagpipes on the ferry as we have sailed out of harbour and again coming back from Ouistreham! Commemorating Le Debarquement or D Day with the veterans has created so many treasured memories over the years.
We were delighted, for example, to be able to help to fundraise and play for the unveiling of the Bill Millin Memorial Statue (the piper in The Longest Day), but more than that, so many wonderful friendships have been forged and flourished during these times together.
Creating Little Creatures
Portsmouth’s gateway on the world also enabled me to travel deeper into France and led me to finding a home in Basse Normandie. The contrast between our busy bustling city and this rural retreat couldn’t have been more striking. Spending days in Normandy, sitting, watching, listening, taking in the fresh country air, and closely observing nature all around me has been a tonic for body and mind, but it also inspired me to write the book Little Creatures, a children’s story in which a cast of tiny animals do their bit for the war effort during the Nazi occupation of France.
How it came about is a rather curious story. A toad used to come and sit on our porch as the sun set each evening, and my daughters used to say it looked like he was on sentry duty. The house had been occupied by the Nazis during the second world war….and so the story began!
But back to Portsmouth, because my book is a product of Pompey as well as Normandy: teaching in local schools, I have always been deeply inspired by the potential and talents in young people, and the best part of my job was being able to nurture their creative energies. I worked for many years with pupils who are often overlooked in our society, and were unable to access mainstream education, yet their unique talents and skills were abundant and our days were invigorated by helping them to recognise what they had to give and developing their strengths and abilities. So whilst Little Creatures began in France it was also inspired by the young people in our City.
Taking inspiration from Portsmouth’s literary heritage
Portsmouth’s strong literary heritage inspired my writing from an early age, and part of my degree involved studying the works and life of Charles Dickens. Whenever I walk past his statue in the Guildhall, I always thank him for his influence!
I can relate to Dickens’ style of writing - its compelling mixture of fantasy and realism, the way in which he weaved topical events into his writing, and his talent for creating and using strong characterisations which take on a life of their own outside the book, many of whom have endured and live on in our everyday language: we all know a ‘Scrooge’! Many readers have taken the characters in Little Creatures to their hearts and I have been told there is a photo shop in Portsmouth which has a photo of Lily the Ladybird pinned up behind its counter!
A port to a world of inspiration
Like so many people over the centuries, our port has provided me with a gateway and opportunities to travel, and I have never come back without being enriched by new experiences. There is always a sense of delight when I step onto the ferry knowing that new adventures await! Equally, as we sail back into Portsmouth Harbour there is also a sense of excitement and pride: as I stand with other passengers on the upper decks, watching them take in our local sights, perhaps for the first time, I know that for me personally, I am coming home.
Sadly in recent times with the pandemic, our port has been quiet and empty and I have been unable to make my trips. However, we are lucky to have a strong and vibrant Twinning Association between Portsmouth and Caen, and thanks to the efforts of Andrew Starr and the power of the internet, we have been able to keep our links strong and continue to fuel and forge new friendships! These will no doubt be cemented face-to-face in better times.
Pandemic Pete takes flight
In the meantime, one thing leads to another, as they say, and creating Little Creatures led me to develop new ideas and characters for a second book. Pandemic Pete (pictured above), a children’s story about a little robin. Inspired by the pigeons who became heroes during the Second World War, such as Gustav (whose Dickens’ medal is on display in the D Day Museum in Portsmouth), and Winkie, Pete and his friends set about helping their human friends cope during the pandemic. Pandemic Pete was published in August 2021 and is available from all major book retailers.
Now working as a counsellor with adults and young people, I have seen how in recent times, the people in Portsmouth have rethought their relationships with nature and the environment and gained a greater appreciation of the positive impacts it can have on both our mental and physical wellbeing. That too is part of the motivation for Pandemic Pete.
Caroline S Henton (nee Dowland) is a Portsmouth author, counsellor, educationalist, and piper. We will keep you updated on the progress of Pandemic Pete.
A Portsmouth childhood (and the magic of stories)
I was born in the summer of love to stressed newly-wed, newly-qualified teachers who had books and music to stir my imagination in a house on the slopes outside the city, the outskirts of suburbia. Unremarkable except for its psychedelic wallpaper, carpets and curtains, the three bed semi-detached on Portsdown Hill looked over a map of streetlights, the fairy-lit seafront and buoy-winking harbour.
From Rectory Avenue, I could see it all happening ‘down town’ (or ‘deen teen’ as the local dialect had it) and made frequent trips to the city for dance classes and drama clubs, shopping and shows; but where I really spent my childhood was in stories – in my head, from the bedside bookshelves or the three channel TV.
Walking the backwater avenues of Farlington on the way home from school was when my mental adventures went into overdrive, generating serials and sequels, long-running sagas (I could add emergency instalments too while hurrying to the loo in the night). Though left-handed, I found it easy and enjoyable to write, and seemed to effortlessly win silver stars for stories penned in junior school.
Running, skipping, walking home: my first plots played out along those neat kerbstones, the fancy brickwork of garden walls, the ambitious or abandoned flower beds. I developed skills useful for future novel-writing, including the playful management of boredom, diversion by shiny detail, security of repetition – the crossing, the corner; an ability to see the same thing over and over again in a new way every day; and the satisfaction of arrival (though I sometimes preferred to still be walking), on the heroine’s journey I took along the same quiet streets for a decade.
Leaving home (and finding home)
Upon leaving what felt, at 18, like the middle of nowhere, the place suddenly took on new meaning: a fresh boyfriend in cool Southsea, just when I was supposed to be moving to London, meant that I anchored firmer to Pompey, and grew fonder in termly absences.
On publication of my first novel, not too long after graduation, I was also lucky enough to get some part-time teaching at the university and have stayed ever since: learning more about the cultural history of this nautical city, the authors who have passed through and what they said about it, and some of the less famous writers whose ink has been stirred by the salty seaside muse of this place.
Very often, I feel a strong sense that I’m walking along a literary leyline, down Kings Road and Elm Grove, to Campbell Road, pinned as the 19th Century residences of Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells – although these authors didn’t live there at the same time, all in a row! They fictionalised its uneventful setting, long before the bombs of WWII knocked most of the teeth out of its vaguely genteel face. They renamed it ‘Rocklington’ or ‘Lymport’ in their stories. Their days treading the streets where the time machine was invented and Sherlock Holmes was born are not, in the end, key scenes or even mentions in their biographies; but at least they didn’t try to hide their background like Portsea-born author George Meredith who stated in a census that he came from ‘near Petersfield’.
Becoming a (Portsmouth) writer
I had a similar issue when deciding where to set my first novel. Though loyal to my hometown I could see that specifically setting it in Pompey, while I sat there writing it, might do me no favours and win me no friends in the literary world, as the city’s associations with football and the navy are so primary, and so strong.
As it went, the book was set entirely indoors, on one night, no one coming in or going out to speak of, so it never needed to come up. Like the all-purpose ‘kingdom far away’, it could be happening wherever the reader wanted it to be, though I hoped the vibe of my ‘Dreamhouse’ was more London, where I’d been a student but not close enough to write about it, than Southsea.
In my second published novel, the central characters go on a day trip to a real location, selected deliberately by me for its glamour, its fantasy, the classy historical backdrop; Arundel Castle, rather than Southsea Castle, was the scene of my horrifically clunky 1996 plot point. This was my shamefaced equivalent of George Meredith’s ‘near Petersfield’!
Owning (and exploring) my literary city
I finally came out as a Portsmuthian, though, when I set the present-day parts of my third novel on the seafront, the common, and the swimming pool - places where I was spending a lot of time as a young mum while writing the book. The Pyramids Centre, a balmy indoor beach with real rolling waves, was the familiar backdrop, easy and enjoyable to convey in vivid detail; but between those regular, machine-generated rollers were scenes from India in 1857 – a grim siege and gruesome massacre linked to the protagonist’s modern family frolicking in more local waters. My (self-imposed) challenge in this piece was to describe the ‘backstory’, set in a place and time I had never been, as viscerally as the places I inhabited every week in real life.
So far, writing with a sense of place hasn’t worked out particularly well for me as a novelist, but as an academic researcher and creative writer it has provided plenty of enjoyable engagement with the public. There’s a long-forgotten Portsmouth-born author, Walter Besant, once a household name like Dickens, whose novel proudly set in Portsmouth is entitled By Celia’s Arbour. I tried to pinpoint the exact location of this leafy nook in the old town wall from clues in the text, luckily meeting up with a local literary historian who was looking for the same thing. We made several wrong deductions before eventually gaining access to the naval base where we’d tracked down the seat of Besant’s beautifully memorialised view up the harbour. Matt Wingett published a new edition of Besant’s novel in 2016 with my preface and the full story of our quest.
An even stranger synchronicity led me to discover Thomas Pounde, perhaps Farlington’s most famous resident, also unremembered now. Born in 1539 and dying in 1613 in the very same room, he spent 30 years in gaol in between. In a creative process that felt more akin to a haunting, I researched the life and work of this obscure Jesuit, reading his long-silenced spiritual tracts and the unpublished verses which record acts of daring, sacrifice and extreme bodily depravations, in the name of his religious belief. At first a glamorous court performer for Elizabeth I, he gave it all up; returning to the same streets I walked home from school and the same broad local view, where I paced again, trying to conjure his voice, capture his idiom, to an iambic beat.
Though I’m sure the fresh and salty air of Portsmouth is inspiring, and the momentum of its ever-changing cast of characters passing, to and fro, on the tide, is important, it’s not unique. There’s nothing here that you couldn’t get along the coast, inland or overseas; but, for me, the city’s influence has somehow rubbed off on the soles of my feet, through repeated pounding of its peaceful pavements, in the footsteps of its previous writers.
Alison Habens is the author of the novels, Dreamhouse (1994), Family Outing (1996), Lifestory (2003), and The True Picture (2021 - look out for our review in the coming months), as well as poetry, short stories, and articles. She is Academic Lead for Communication in the School of Film, Media and Communication, and Course Leader for Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth, and lives in Southsea. Her work has been widely praised:
Maggie Sawkins is an accomplished poet and creative writing tutor based on the Isle of Wight, who has – over the years – done much work to enrich the Portsmouth poetry scene. Many of our local poets know her, if not personally then by her reputation. In 2003, she set up the Portsmouth poetry and music club Tongues & Grooves, which has become an enormous success. She has also delivered numerous workshops and performances across the city. In 2013, she was chosen by the Poetry Book Society to represent Portsmouth on the T S Eliot Poetry Prize Tour. The same year, she won the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry for her live literature production, ‘Zones of Avoidance’.
The House Where Courage Lives is Sawkins’ newest poetry collection, following on from Many Skies Have Fallen, released in 2018. She has kindly agreed to chat with us about it here.
Q: When working on a new collection, where do you like to begin?
I don’t consciously work with a new collection in mind, however I do write with the hope of being published. My first pamphlet, Charcot’s Pet, contained poems that had received peer validation after previously being accepted for publication in magazines, along with others that I’d written while studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Chichester University. There’s usually a long gap between collections because I wait until I have a number of poems that have been published individually in reputable places. The poetry world is really competitive so in order to get a foot in the door, you need to build up a track record before a publisher will consider publishing a full collection.
Q: What inspiration kickstarted the development of The House Where Courage Lives? – was there a particular theme you sought to examine or explore?
I’ve been fascinated by the notion of fear for some time – I think it drives much of the actions and decisions we make in life. I guess this preoccupation fed into much of my latest work. However, the theme only became apparent while I was revisiting the poems and deciding which ones to include in the new collection. The title comes from a photograph of a door in Dorset which has a plaque with the word ‘Courage’ above it.
Q: What is your writing process like? Does it take you long to craft a poem?
I read more than I write – anything from poetry magazines and books to novels, essays and current affairs. Reading feeds into your imagination – recently I realised that the poem ‘Sentience’ from my new collection was influenced by ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus, a book I’d read more than twenty years ago! The protagonist, Mersault, who is condemned because of his refusal to lie about his seeming indifference to his mother’s death, resonates with my own reaction to my parents’ deaths.
I usually have a journal on the go where I allow my imagination free reign. Sometimes a poem comes out of this, usually in the form of a promising first line. One early decision would be what form to follow – free verse, sestina, prose poem etc. After that the poem is constructed word by word, sentence by sentence, following the idea, capturing the essence, discovering (if I’m lucky) what it is I’m trying to say. Then there’s reading aloud to check the metre and rhythm, making decisions on line breaks and spacing, always with an eye to how the poem will look on the page.
Q: If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring poets around the city, what would it be?
I’m not sure what an aspiring poet is to be honest, or even a poet for that matter! It’s a strange concept isn’t it? I prefer to think of myself as someone who writes poems. I enjoyed reading and listening to anything from nursery rhymes to advertising jingles as a kid, and when I was nine I tried my hand at writing a poem. I only tentatively started calling myself a ‘poet’ after I’d had my first collection published later in life. Once you’ve bestowed the title upon yourself you have something to live up to! I believe if you have a passion for something you will follow it, no matter what. Your own truth is the best counsel.
What I can say is that higher education helped me to develop my writing. I’d always loved English at school but didn’t have an opportunity to study at A level until I was thirty. I went on to do an English Literature degree, followed by an MA in Creative Writing. That introduced me to a variety of genres and writers from different cultures while enabling me to hone my own writing. Having an education gave me the confidence to mix with people from the wider poetry scene which, at the time, was quite middle class and academic. If you aspire to have your work published, or if you wish to perform, you need to work at it, and it definitely helps to make connections. Here in Portsmouth there are plenty of opportunities to hone your performance skills with groups such as The Front Room and Trash Arts.
Q: We’ve heard that you’ll be talking soon with Radio 4 on dialect poetry in Portsmouth. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Ah yes! I was contacted a while ago by Catherine Harvey, a producer for Tongues and
Talk, a series exploring dialect poetry in different parts of the UK, who thought that Portsmouth would be an interesting subject. After the pitch was accepted I was asked if I would like to host the programme myself! So for the past few months I’ve been busy
researching Portsmouth dialect and identifying local poets who use dialect in their writing. We spent two days recording and a further three days editing and the programme will be broadcast live on 24 th July 2022 at 4.30pm. You can read a bit about it here.
Q: Finally – you’ve told us you read a lot. I imagine you must read a lot of poetry. Do you have any favourite collections, or individual poems, that you would like to recommend?
‘My Darling Camel’ by Selima Hill, ‘Seeing Stars’ by Simon Armitage, and ‘The Collected Poems’ of D.H. Lawrence are three of my favourite collections but there are plenty of others. Lawrence’s poem ‘Bavarian Gentians’ by D H Lawrence would definitely be on my Desert Island list.
I’d recommend reading any of the anthologies in Bloodaxe’s Staying Alive series – it’s a brilliant way of discovering a number of poets that might appeal to you. Here’s what the publishers have to say:
If you are interested in looking into more of Maggie’s work, you can find all of the relevant information on her website or you can reach her via twitter: @SawkinsMaggie.
Holly Kybett Smith is a research assistant at the Portsmouth Literature Map. She writes Gothic stories and more of her articles can be found on tor.com.
When you live in the country, the surrounding cities are part of home and yet not quite where you belong. Portsmouth was such a place when I was growing up in Selborne. As a child, I enjoyed pantomimes at the King’s Theatre. As a teenager, I took the train to Portsmouth with friends to spend hours trying on clothes in Debenhams and the boutiques on Commercial Road. The ferries to France and the Isle of Wight sparked the anticipatory thrill of travel. Portsmouth represented happy self-indulgence, until divers began to excavate the underwater wreck of Henry VIII’s ship, the Mary Rose.
Her female identity and the allure of her mysterious sinking came to pose a threat to my relationship with my first love. How could an ordinary woman vie with Mary Rose’s magnetism, romance, tragedy? One half of her was preserved under silt while the other had slipped away into the Solent. She was half ghost, half rival, half other woman communing with the sea. I’m ashamed to say that the events and deaths of 1545 seemed fictional to me then, obsessed as I was with my own life unravelling.
In the prologue to Giorgio Bassani’s novel, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, the narrator accompanies his friend’s family on a visit to Etruscan graves. The daughter asks why old tombs are less sad than new ones, and her father replies that ‘the recent dead are closer to us and so we care more about them. The Etruscans – they’ve been dead such a long time … it’s as though they’ve never lived, as if they’ve always been dead’. The child replies, ‘as you say that, it makes me think the opposite, that the Etruscans really did live, and that I care about them just as much as about the others’. That comment releases Bassani’s narrator to enter again the tennis courts of the Finzi-Continis in pre-war Ferrara before his friends were murdered in the Holocaust and to tell their story of first loves and friendships. The visit to the Etruscan museum enables Bassani to ask how closely we share the human condition with the almost mythical dead and the closer recent dead and whose history will be commemorated in years to come.
In 1981, there was no Mary Rose Museum. The ship was still under the sea, but operations were underway to bring the ship’s contents to the surface. These objects include prune stones, baskets, arrow shafts, dice, kitchenware, carpenter’s tools, surgeon’s implements, fragments of the lives lived on board, touched and used by those sailors, cooks and cabin boys, which I now find so poignant and evocative in the Mary Rose Museum.
R was one of the volunteers diving to raise these artefacts from the Mary Rose. There were about five hundred volunteers, and five hundred men on board the ship in 1545. A strange historical symmetry, perhaps, and the kind of consonance that worried me. R and I had recently graduated and then married too young. We assumed we could keep our relationship going at weekends, having moved both geographically and emotionally apart to study for PhDs at different universities.
In those days, and for some time later, I suffered from an inability to speak honestly because family troubles had closed me down. I was quite inhibited and silent when I met R in the sixth form. I now appreciate how he and his family helped me grow. I hope I contributed to his growth too. But in 1981 we were both struggling to become adults after unhappy events. The fact that I feel friendship for R now and an appreciation of his life doesn’t change the truth – that in 1981, I was torn between a guilty interest in other men and an intense suspicion of R’s female friends in the sub-aqua world. Anyone who dates a diver knows the colour of anxiety, without sexual jealousy being thrown into the mix.
One evening, I wandered around Portsmouth Harbour and Southsea Common in a state of hellish tension, returning to the dock regularly to check whether they were back. The hours went by with no news. I can’t remember now why they were so late. Of course, at first I feared that R had an attack of the bends and was in a recompression chamber. I don’t think that could have been the case, but the even worse fear of him drowning then completely possessed me. Nowadays R (still diving) can text his wife to say he’s above water, but then there were no mobile phones. Even before the Mary Rose excavation, I was already withdrawing from diving trips. I had grown up with crises and expected them to happen. I was so aware of late returns when I was waiting on shore that it was easier to be elsewhere.
Now, in the Mary Rose Museum, I wonder which arrow shafts R picked from the seabed and carried to the surface or whether he’d handled these wooden plates or shone his diver’s torch on that basket or this leather shoe. Now, I can see his enterprise as something bigger, part of the drive to commemorate our ancestors and to respect and reconstruct their lives.
Poetry is not a museum, but it too is a remembrancer, a rhythmic capturing of time, love, and experience. The hand that had so often held my hand had pulled some of these items from the sand, had touched the wood or leather that a hand from 1545 had touched, forming a kinship between us all through time. In the museum, the lives of the crew are ably imagined and reconstructed through the very finds that R and his friends brought up from the seabed. Though I found it hard to empathise with the drowned men or consider them real people then, I think my black moods of jealousy, fear and possessiveness were tuning in to the anxieties felt by the invisible fearful onlookers on shore.
In terms of memory shaping poetry, I associated the divers’ work with a time of unhappiness, where I felt in retrospect that I hadn’t dived deeply enough into my history and affections to be a good life partner. Thinking at all had become hard. It was difficult to sit in the Bodleian trying to finish my PhD on the influence of Ovid’s Heroides on sixteenth century poetry. In the Heroides, Ovid gives voice to abandoned women from myth in a series of dramatic monologues. This wasn’t the fit emotional subject for me at the time, though I feel very fortunate as a poet to have read Ovid’s works so closely in the original language, and now I’m older, I understand better the psychological and concrete brilliance of the Metamorphosis, the wit of the love poems and the understanding of anger and passion in the Heroides, where the women are often left on shore as the men sail away.
In the Mary Rose Museum, so many years later, I thought about what it’s like to be under the surface, to be in the sea or trapped under ground. I thought of the sinking of the Mary Rose almost as a metaphor for societal depression, for the having-no-choice.Sir George Carew, commander of the ship, is quoted as saying that he had knaves on board he couldn’t rule. This version of the story has an infuriating contemporary ring to it – ordinary people being blamed for their own demise (think Hillsborough or Grenfell Tower) rather than authorities taking responsibility. I came to understand that the bringing up of objects of daily usage was a kind of celebration of past lives as they were lived in the quotidian moments of cooking, making, carving, healing, shaving, drinking or lacing up shoes.
These ideas fed into ‘When you are under’, the final poem in my second collection The Blue Den (Bloodaxe Books, 2012). The whole collection deals with connections between the human and the non-human as the voices of people and nature elide into one another. This poem plays around with images of detritus under the earth or sea, or the abandoned traces of other cultures, as emblems of how we fight depression or oppression – here is the stanza based on the Mary Rose:
The contents of the Mary Rose speak to creativity, from the carpenter’s tools to the ointment jars of the surgeon, to the cooking implements, the making of the weapons and the decorative carving of the linstocks. The ship is made of a forest, part of nature; tree branches sit in its hulls. In the poem’s conclusion, a return to nature creates a new sense of equilibrium.
In my solipsistic mythology, which the poem helped me to disrupt, the halving of the ship (as I saw it probably not quite accurately), with one half becoming invisible seemed to speak of my split with R because yes, he did form a relationship with a fellow diver and, reader, he married her. My jealousy wasn’t madness though it sometimes felt like it, when I was tempted to behave as angrily as a Medea or Ariadne from the Heroides.
Towards the end of our relationship, I was due to meet R when he was on a diving rota. My train, delayed by several hours, went slowly all the way from London, as if reluctant to reach Portsmouth. Further along the carriage, a man marked time by making loud violent comments about women. We were the only ones in the carriage, and I became too terrified to move in case he saw me. Trembling from the journey, I rushed off the train early at Portsmouth and Southsea, while R was waiting for me at Portsmouth Harbour. Our missing of each other seemed symbolic.
For many years, I admit, I didn’t particularly want to go to Portsmouth at all, but poetry, as so often in my life, helped me reclaim a positive place. I started going to poetry workshops in Southsea. I read at Tongues & Grooves (run by the amazing Maggie Sawkins) and enjoyed work by other poets and musicians. Poetry and Portsmouth began to overlap optimistically. The friendliness, humour and edginess of the Portsmouth I knew before R and I split, regained its positive associations.
Russia invaded Ukraine while I was writing this, which makes my diving for the past seem irrelevant, selfish, egotistical. Does my story of a broken relationship matter? Does any individual story matter in the face of war? Yet we want to know who carried that basket of plums onto the ship. Which orchard they grew in? Were they an offering of love? Bought in a market? Sent by a parent? Which of the arrow shafts did R touch? Which of the crew longed for their lovers on shore? How did Henry feel as he saw the ship go down? What does the sea or the earth record about our tiny individual lives? That we lived, ate plums, and spat out the stones, carved beasts in wood, that we played backgammon, drank wine and ale, that we cried, that we petted a dog, smoothed ointment on sores, pulled teeth, stoked the fire, and that, if we were lucky, we lived to come up safely from the sea or come back from war.
As the girl in Bassani’s prologue says, ‘The Etruscans did live, and I care about them just as much as about the others’. As we’ve seen in recent political debates about history and curation, cemeteries and museums are as much about living empathy as they are about past civilisations. I’m grateful to the Mary Rose Museum for reconstructing hunger, friendship, medicine, and the everyday efforts we make to experience our lives. The fragments R and his friends salvaged contribute to this narrative. And these days, I’m proud of R risking himself to take part in that work and so grateful to the sea for not swallowing him. But before I could make this emotional journey, I had to conjure with it in notebooks, recollect events in fragments, note down the grey-violet clouds over Southsea common and the sea-kale along the beach even if none of this has yet found its way into finished poems.
Stephanie Norgate is a playwright, poet, and educator. Her collections include Hidden River (shortlisted for the Forward First Collection and Jerwood Aldeburgh prizes), The Blue Den, and The Conversation (2021). Her novel, Storm, was shortlisted for the Cinnamon Award 2019 while her plays have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She ran the MA in Creative Writing at Chichester University and was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Southampton University until Summer 2021. She is now an Associate Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund.
Although Arthur Conan Doyle only wrote the first two Sherlock Holmes novels in Portsmouth, the city haunts the detective’s adventures.
Doyle and Portsmouth: a deeper literary history
In A Study in Scarlet (1887), Dr Watson returns to England after being injured at the Battle of Maiwand in the second Afghan War, and lands at Portsmouth jetty, a couple of miles from where Doyle was writing the novel at his surgery on Elm Grove. In ‘The Naval Treaty’ (1893), Holmes and Watson return to London from Woking by taking (in what seems an irrelevant detail) ‘a Portsmouth train’; that is, one which starts in Portsmouth, on the existing South West Railway line. In ‘The Cardboard Box’ (1893) Watson bemoans the winter weather and instead yearns for ‘the shingle of Southsea’. In ‘The Missing Three-Quarter’(1904), while in Cambridge Holmes enlists the services of a dog called Pompey: commentators usually read this as a reference to Mistress Overdone’s servant in Measure for Measure or to the Roman statesman Pompeius Maximus, but neither of these invalidates the possibility that Doyle had inserted another reference to Portsmouth for his own amusement.
‘His Last Bow’
The story which features Portsmouth most prominently, however, is one of the most atypical in the Holmes canon. ‘His Last Bow’ (1917) (alternatively subtitled ‘An epilogue of Sherlock Holmes’ or ‘The War Service of Sherlock Holmes’ depending on which edition you read) is not really detective fiction, but a spy story with little element of mystery.
The first half of the story features a discussion between the England-based German spy Von Bork and Von Herling, Chief Secretary of the German legation, awaiting the arrival of their Irish-American agent, Altamont, who has further details of British military force. Altamont eventually arrives after Von Herling has gone, but reveals his true identity: Sherlock Holmes, who proceeds to capture Von Bork with the assistance of Watson (disguised as Altamont’s chauffeur). As Andrew Glazzard notes in The Case of Sherlock Holmes (EUP 2018), the oddity of the tale is that ‘its principal mystery is not solved by Holmes: it is Holmes – specifically, who or where he is’ (184).
Despite being set on the coast within sight of Harwich in Essex, the offstage events of Von Bork’s spy ring take place in Portsmouth. Altamont has a landlady ‘down Fratton way,’ and Von Bork has an extensive collection of papers relating to the ‘Portsmouth Forts’. Altamont reports that another agent, Steiner, has already had been captured: ‘he and all his papers are in Portsmouth gaol’. Following the closure of the prison near the dockyards in 1894, the reference here is to Kingston Prison, near Milton and Baffins, opened in 1877 (and operational until 2013), and not too far from Altamont’s landlady in Fratton.
Finally, once his identity is revealed, Holmes reflects to Watson that ‘It would brighten my declining years to see a German cruiser navigating the Solent according to the minefield plans which I have furnished’.
Most critical discussions of ‘His Last Bow’ focus on the historical context of its publication during the First World War, Doyle’s own military service, and the story’s status as propaganda (as Glazzard notes, the original subtitle of ‘The War Service of Sherlock Holmes’ describes not only the events of the story, but the story itself as text).
But the repeated references to Portsmouth point to another metatexual reading. Just as Doyle created Holmes while based in Portsmouth, so too does Holmes create his fictional alter ego Altamont in the city. Altamont is to Holmes as Holmes is to Doyle, a parallel made more dizzying by noting that Doyle’s source for ‘Altamont’ was his own father’s middle name. Both Doyle and Holmes seek to destroy their creations when they have served their purpose. Holmes, however, is rather more successful than Doyle in this regard, having completed the fictional Altamont’s mission by delivering Von Bork to the government.
In this light, the story’s experiments with narrative structure become clearer: regular readers of the Holmes stories in the Strand Magazine may have been slightly disoriented to find this story not only crossing borders from the detective story to spy fiction, but also as being narrated in third person rather than Watson’s usual first person narration, with Holmes and Watson seemingly absent from the first half. ‘His Last Bow’ is the first of the short stories to be narrated in this way (an experiment Doyle would repeat only once more, in ‘The Mazarin Stone’ four years later), though the technique does recall the American chapters of A Study in Scarlet.
Elegy and closure
The Portsmouth references in ‘His Last Bow’ also provide a sense of closure; for Doyle, writing in 1917, this was to be the last of the Holmes stories. Of course, Doyle had attempted to end the series before, supposedly killing off Holmes in ‘The Final Problem’ (1893) and framing ‘The Second Stain’ (1904) as Holmes’ last case. But there is a difference of mood in ‘His Last Bow’, exemplified by the elegiac tone of the often quoted final paragraph:
Ironically, in this story Watson is far from the ‘one fixed point’, absent from most of the action and shorn of his narrative authority. Watson, the narratorial god of the Holmesian universe, has been displaced by God with a capital G, an unusually theistic moment in the Holmes stories. But in a wartime tale looking back to the eve of the conflict, and which sought to close thirty years of Holmes stories, it is unsurprising that Doyle would return to the city where Holmes had been created and at which Watson stepped back ashore after the Afghanistan campaign.
In fact, this third attempt to finish off Holmes in ‘His Last Bow’ would similarly be unsuccessful; four years later, Doyle would return to Holmes to start what would genuinely be the final series of stories, the Case-Book (1927).
Dr Christopher Pittard is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Portsmouth. His works include Purity and contamination in late Victorian detective fiction (2013) and the forthcoming Literary Illusions: Performance Magic and Victorian Literature. He is the co-editor, with Janice M. Allen, of The Cambridge Companion to Sherlock Holmes (2019).
Continuing the conversation
What a treat to curl up on the sofa on an autumn afternoon to enjoy The Conversation by Stephanie Norgate. This is a magical book of poetry to absorb, inspire and delight. Stephanie’s third collection includes a sequence of poems written in memory of her close friend, the wonderful author Helen Dunmore, who was one of the first poets to be published by Bloodaxe and to whom The Conversation is dedicated.
Norgate’s first collection Hidden River (2008) was shortlisted for the Jerwood Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and Forward Prize for Best First Collection. The Blue Den followed in 2012. Her verse is often praised for its form, lyricism, sensitivity, musicality, and imagery. The Conversation sees Norgate on top form.
I enjoyed the poignancy and celebration of a friendship between two female poets, aptly portrayed through poetic imagery in ‘Walking the Path Again’. As in many long and close friendships, gaps, silences, and even the simple rhythm of walking together, are deemed as important as what is said:
Humour, loss, and pathos
Whilst grief, loss, and absence are important themes in this collection, humour exists amongst the pathos. ‘Jane Austen’s Visitor’ plays with language beautifully to convey the extraordinary juxtaposed with the everyday:
An atmospheric and original poem, the rich, interwoven images of creativity are quite in keeping with the historical period of this solitary lady writer:
Finally, we are taken right back down to earth with ‘apple pie in the kitchen’ and ‘I can’t write what I don’t know’ in a wonderfully subdued ending.
To conclude, this is a thoughtful and thought-provoking collection of insightful and personal poems and each one earns its place in a varied whole. The Conversation evokes a stream of ideas and a dialogue which lingers long after the first reading and commands many revisits. It is both a tender tribute to a dear and departed friend and fellow writer and a significant and wide-ranging collection.
Tina MacNaughton was born and brought up in Portsmouth, a city that means a great deal to her. She now divides her time between Crowthorne, Berkshire, where she works as an acupuncturist, and her seaside flat in Southsea, where she walks, goes to the beach, and writes poetry. She belongs to the Portsmouth Writer’s Hub and The Wagtails Open Mic Group based in Chichester. Her frank poems about menopause and women’s issues have resonated with many readers. A fine collection of Tina’s poetry 'On the Shoulders of Lions' was published by The Choir Press in July 2021.
The particular bond between the two writers is lovingly and touchingly captured to create a moving portrait of a friendship shaped by a shared love and respect for language and form:
Friendship, grief, and language
Towards the end of the collection, The Conversation extends the link between female friendship, speech and language, as the poet grieves for her friend and attempts to find a novel and different way to describe an altered world in which someone so important is now missing:
… and yet the city streets are now lit by memories and, in lines that carry Tennysonian echoes, the hills personified since this great shift between what has gone and what is now:
Memory, the past, and nature
Memory and the past are explored through nature and walking through both urban and rural landscapes as the poet perhaps tries to come to terms with a new present, a task that again recalls Tennyson's 'In Memoriam A.H.H.'. ‘Ask the Heathland’ evokes a harsh, cold winter scene. Nature is ‘frozen’, ‘broken’, ‘fallen’ (‘in what measure shall I walk my grief?’), yet there is beauty and hope in the ‘all sun, blue sky’, and ultimately the cycle of life continues with bird, insect and floral activity:
In a continuation of themes of loss and absence, there is a nod to the pandemic, enforced lockdown and further estrangement. ‘An Hour’s Walk’ compares past freedoms with new restrictions, while daily deprivations of space, social contact, and human interaction are described in devastating personal detail:
Walking is once again an important motif; a way of making sense, passing time, stimulating memories and thought, and connecting the past with the present:
Nature and the city
The relationship between nature and the city are explored in some depth by the poet. ‘February Foxes’ and ‘Wildlife Garden in the City’ are particularly evocative of the tension between city life and the natural world:
In ‘Wildlife Garden in the City’ we are asked to consider:
I’d been volunteering for Star & Crescent as a community reporter and had found myself covering some exciting local environmental projects.
I’d spent ninety minutes deep in conversation with Clare Seek (Portsmouth Repair Café, Plastic Free Portsmouth, Portsmouth Green Drinks) about the challenges and opportunities of urban environmentalism and had come away stunned and inspired by how much was happening in the city: a network of passionate people working for change.
I’d also covered a visionary Portsmouth Friends of the Earth and Sustrans 'Streets for People' public meeting, where I first began to grasp the idea that cities could be designed around people rather than cars.
As someone who had lived for eighteen years in the middle of Buckland, a concrete grid of narrow streets where the only green space to be found is the local cemetery, the idea that we could bring wildlife back to the city and turn it into a place where communities and families could thrive was a revelation.
I was also both heartbroken and terrified about the environmental catastrophe becoming ever clearer in the news. The idea that if we didn’t act – individually, collectively, as a city, as a country, as a world – in whatever way we could to start making a difference, time would run out.
Imagining a better future
In reporting about environmental initiatives in Portsmouth, I had found hope and a vision of an alternative future. As a yoga teacher, I’d learnt that visualisation was a powerful tool – that by focussing your attention on what was possible, you could work towards it.
It seemed to me that campaigns like Streets for People were fuelled by this positive visualisation, that by imagining a liveable city – where wildlife prospered, where walking and cycling was pleasurable, where people could gather on corners to chat, and everyone could breathe clean air – they gave themselves a clear landmark to head towards.
And who better to reimagine Portsmouth than a bunch of writers?
So I did what any good writer does, I used words. I put together a proposal, and invited my writing community and our local environmentalists to get behind it. And they did.
Building a team of creatives
Right from the start we had a fabulous team of collaborators, volunteers and experts. We had environmental campaigners, creative writers and tutors, editors, publishers (Star & Crescent), spoken word troupes (T’Articulation), social media experts, website and graphic designers; some of whom arrived ready skilled, many of whom learnt on the job. We launched in July 2019 and we’ve been learning how to do this thing ever since!
Our environmental advisors shared their campaigns and visionary futures with us via talks and articles:
- Plastic Free Portsmouth
- Streets for People
- Portsmouth 2030
- Wilder Portsmouth
- Tree Wardens
- Community Orchards
- Pocket Parks
We then invited writers to respond to this fertile content by submitting material. And as the stories and poetry flooded in, Portsmouth’s landmarks, shores and streets got a new literary and environmental makeover.
We had green roofs, sunflowers planted in potholes, a visit to a repair cafe, a glimpse of the Cornwallis Crescent Community Orchard and it’s impact on local residents, a Zeppelin trip to the Isle of Wight. We had stories set in local parks and significant trees, we had neighbours reclaiming their connections with each other, a woman knitting a community together by transforming Festing Road to a car free zone... and we had beach cleans.
But it wasn’t just about spreading the word, it was also about changing ourselves.
In collaboration with Star & Crescent, everything we accepted was edited, published and promoted – reaching as far as we could across the city, and beyond. Because gradually, our reach began to expand beyond Portsmouth.
Welcoming change and promoting campaigns
In 2020 the world changed for all of us, and we asked our writers to explore that. We opened it out to everyone regardless of location; this was a universal experience. We invited our writers to reflect on what we were living through and to find the cracks of light, the rainbow in the storm. We asked them to craft a permanent record of the changes we saw, when all the cars, planes and ferries so briefly stopped – the birdsong, clear skies, clean seas, quieter streets. We encouraged them to explore the interdependence between humans and the natural world. Had the burgeoning of nature helped people to get through the difficulties and traumas? What changes would they like to see merging from this time? We asked them to dream of what could be achieved. How could we protect this planet for the future benefit of all?
And as the cars began to roll again, we welcomed campaigns to make our streets safe for walking, cycling and social distancing, and cheered the small gains towards a city which could be so much more enjoyable for people, with a proper cycle lanes and pedestrianisation of commercial areas such as Castle Road in Southsea. We learnt how the Wilder Portsmouth campaign had been steadily progressing, building wildlife corridors through the big grey sections on the map – working with communities, streets, churches, councils and individuals to create a landscape where humans and wildlife could thrive.
We haven’t stopped. This year, in the lead up to COP26, there’s a real need for people to add their voices, to contribute their talents. As Andy Ames of Wilder Portsmouth so encouragingly said, “We need different people playing different parts – rebels and advocates, artists and writers, funders and supporters, doers and thinkers.”
So we’re getting involved in the city’s activities.
Great Big Green Week
For Great Big Green Week we held an online spoken word event in collaboration with T’Articulation. It was thrilling to hear our writers perform their work and to feel the strength of possibilities in their words. It was inspiring to hear Jenni Jones, the Portsmouth Liveable Cities & Towns Officer for Sustrans, talking so eloquently about the life-enhancing ‘School Streets’ scheme which aims to make the school run so much healthier and happier for children and also for parents, teachers, residents.
Jenni explained how closing school streets to traffic temporarily at drop off and pick up times can improve air quality and road safety, reduce congestion, and create a more playful and relaxed environment.
The scheme is currently being piloted in two Portsmouth schools, with more to follow.
We’re also grateful to Vin Adams who has volunteered to support Christine in this endeavour using his experience as a community arts practitioner. It’s early days, but look out for the publication of the resultant work later in the school year: we’re hoping that it will appear both on the Pens website and on school walls.
Vin will also be bringing his performance experience to the organisation of spoken word performances during the Portsmouth Climate Festival. Pens of the Earth performers will be supporting two of the festival’s planned events.
More change on the horizon
In the meantime our editing team are hard at work, preparing for the publication of poems and stories from this year’s ‘Small Differences Add Up’ theme. Publication will start in November and be promoted on social media by our Communications team. There may also be another collaboration with the University of Portsmouth, following the wonderful online ‘Streets for People: Small Differences Add Up’ creative writing workshop, which took place this August, lead by Dr Alison Habens. It’s still available to view online.
If you’d like to get involved with Pens of the Earth we’re always grateful for volunteers with suitable experience, just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re also fundraising for two of our favourite charities – the wonderful Wilder Portsmouth and Tree Sisters, who have so far planted 20 million trees. Donations are always greatly appreciated.
Want to find out what sort of bird you are? Discover Tessa Foley's latest collection at Live Canon publishers.
(Live Canon, 2021), ISBN 978-1-909703-51-3
From her island home within the thickly-drawn borders of Portsmouth, Tessa Foley sends forth What Sort of Bird Are You?, a collection of poems inspired by Glyn Maxwell, Rick Dove and Maria Ferguson amongst others. The collection will resonate with many readers, regardless of where they might be, but will perhaps have particular resonance for residents of Pompey.
What Sort of Bird Are You, published in May 2021 by Live Canon, follows Foley’s earlier publications Chalet Between Thick Ears (Live Canon, 2018) and the self-published Garden (2018). In these earlier publications, Foley found her place to fit in with the flowers in the garden; in her latest collection, Foley has built herself a church:
Identity, development, and a growing sense of self are the foundations of the collection’s structure.
What Sort of Bird Are You? is split into three sections: Old Bird, Mean Bird and New Bird, moving from life just before an 'emotional revolution' as Old Bird, through conflict and learning a bit more about life in Mean Bird, into an empowered and empowering New Bird.
As the poet told me:
Portsmouth and place
As with Foley’s earlier publications, What Sort of Bird draws upon her life in Portsmouth as the setting and influence for much of her poetry. However, it isn't the landmarks and well-known spots that feature, but the back roads, local pubs, and other everyday spaces that form the integral framework of one's life.
In her recent blog post, Foley explains how the use of these places in her poems is unintentional and subtle. This subtlety lends a universality to the collection, but at the same time these local places are highly personal for Foley and live deep down inside her. The skill of the poet is in making them just as familiar for the reader.
The brambles and fences of ‘Bad Things’ could just as easily be in the alley at the back of your own house, the fish ponds and parks of ‘All Fall Down’ just around the corner, and the nightclub stairs of ‘Idolatry’ a feature of any night out:
Amidst these familiar corners, ‘American Dream’ moves further afield, offering a view of potential lives overseas – all the more poignant and relevant after the last year (and a half?!) without travel. Luring us with a beautiful vision of exploration, adventure, and unfamiliarity, Foley shatters the dream with the disappointing realisation that she is not living the American Dream, but only dreaming of the Dream, still tantalisingly out of reach:
This blend of local and global, intimate and universal, is a perfect stage for the impressive range of experiences that find their reflection throughout the collection. What Sort of Bird discusses endometriosis, first times, abusive relationships and the Me Too movement: whilst each of these can be highly personal, Foley writes in a way that shatters any risk of isolation and instead unifies.
A poet’s wisdom
Within these accounts of real-life struggles, What Sort of Bird Are You? manages to avoid tones of resignation or defeat throughout. Even in the Old Bird poems, addressing attitudes prior to an emotional revolution, Foley offers a refreshing view that all those events which seem like the end of the world at the time really won’t be of that much consequence. ‘Bad Things’ reassures the reader that no matter how [big] and scary things may seem, when it comes down to it they may not really be all that significant in retrospect:
Happiness and (im)maturity
Maintaining this perspective that bad things really aren’t that bad, Foley flaunts a refreshingly happy attitude as she rejects the all-too-familiar image of the boring, party-pooper adult in ‘This is the Big Life and You Don’t Have to Have It’. The poem criticises the compulsion for control and order, particularly from parents at the expense of children’s fun and parents’ happiness. To be grown up, she says, is:
Bringing the Mean Bird section to a close, ‘This is the Big Life’ foreshadows and opens up the 'balls to it all' attitude of ‘New Bird’, as Foley builds an alternative non-adulthood of rude noises, playing with food and being sorry for causing upset to others. Even if clouds and dirt can be bad, they don’t have to be important.
The ‘balls to it all’ attitude peaks in ‘New Bird’ with Foley standing her ground, claiming ownership of herself and speaking out on the Me Too movement. In the midst of this empowering final part, Foley maintains a self-awareness and humbling sense of reality:
‘The Privilege’ offers – as the name suggests – a self-conscious privilege-check, while ‘In Case It Comes Back’ gestures to an ongoing anxiety of returning evils even amongst her attitude of rejecting the Big Life and standing her ground. These poems maintain a realistic and relatable tone to the end of the collection, and with What Sort of Bird Are You? Foley has said balls to all the right bits.
Old Birds, Mean Birds and New Birds: what sort of bird is Foley now?
“A Thunderbird, also known as a Thickhead”, she says.
Now, what sort of bird are you?
The return of our occasional Poem of the Month feature provides the pleasing opportunity to feature one of Tina MacNaughton’s finest poems, ‘Just Seventeen’. It also allows us to take up an important aspect of the city’s history – its long connections with the Royal Navy and with the losses of war. This blog has been somewhat delayed by Covid and work and readers will hopefully forgive me for continuing to label this an April Poem of the Month despite its publication date: April marks the 82nd anniversary of a significant event in the poet’s family history.
Tina MacNaughton was born and brought up in Portsmouth, a city that means a great deal to her. She now divides her time between Crowthorne, Berkshire, where she works as an acupuncturist, and her seaside flat in Southsea, where she walks, goes to the beach, and writes poetry. She belongs to the Portsmouth Writer’s Hub as well as Words Out Loud, which is based in Chichester. Her frank poems about menopause and women’s issues have resonated with many readers. A fine collection of Tina’s poetry On the Shoulders of Lions was published by The Choir Press in July 2021 and ‘Just Seventeen’ is featured there.
We are proud that Tina graces the Portsmouth Literary Map, and grateful that her various contributions to the Writing Literary Portsmouth blog make her a vibrant part of our literary community.
The poem: a personal connection
‘Just Seventeen’ centres on Tina’s long-standing connections to Southsea Common Memorial. This was a regular stop on her family walks in childhood, but it became particularly resonant and poignant because it commemorates a great uncle lost in action at a very tender age. As Tina relates:
HMS Glowworm was commissioned in the mid-1930s, and from 1936 to 1937 she was on duty in Spanish waters during the Spanish Civil War, as part of British efforts to impose an arms blockade on all combatants. After this time as part of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet, WWII saw her transferred closer to home, its duty to ensure safe passage for ships transiting into British waters.
By March 1940, she became part of the Home Fleet and took part in the Norwegian Campaign. It was during this period, on 8 April 1940, that she came across German destroyers transportingOperation Weserübung troops destined to invade Norway. The Admiral Hipper, called in by the German destroyers, severely damaged Glowworm. but the British ship continued to engage, attempting to torpedo the German ship, before ramming it in the chaos of a close engagement. Its bow destroyed, Glowworm sank soon after its boilers exploded (at 10.24). The Hipper, badly damaged yet afloat, immediately sought to rescue as many survivors as possible, but 109 men, including Sidney Rex, died.
Lieutenant Commander Gerard Broadmead Roope, who drowned when unable to cling to a rope while being rescued by the German ship, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, making him the first to receive a VC during WWII. Around 30 crew members survived. One can only imagine the horrors taking place during and after the engagement in the freezing waters of the North Sea. The final resting place of the Glowworm is roughly 70 nautical miles north-east of Froya Island, Norway (64º27’N, 06º28’E).
The poem: STOPping time
Deeply moving in its central subject matter, the poem gains yet greater emotional impact through its simplicity – both in the cold, stark economy of its language, and by its inventive allusion to the telegram forms used to communicate the deaths of serving soldiers to relatives during wartime. Its two stanzas admirably evoke events without involving themselves in battle details. The first is a numb, understated rendition complete with telegraphic ‘STOP’s, while the second brings to the fore the personal and family meaning of this tragic event, as well as its impacts.
One may often find it difficult to engage with the sheer numbers of deaths incurred during major conflicts, but the focus on an individual life – and, in this case, on a story that would not otherwise see the light of day – brings home the reality of war with redoubled force. Our most recent blog turned to ongoing events in Ukraine, and our next, by Dr Christine Berberich, will review Graham Hurley’s Kyiv, a novel also steeped in the horrors of WWII, so there is another layer of significance to our decision to choose this particular poem at this particular moment. It is quoted here with the kind permission of the poet:
Readers will, I am sure, appreciate the power of this short verse, and there is little more to say that could add to its impact. As Tina related to me:
MacNaughton, Tina Cathleen, On the Shoulders of Lions (Gloucester: The Choir Press, 2021), pp. 102.
Tina Cathleen MacNaughton’s On the Shoulders of Lions unapologetically roars with authenticity. It is neatly divided into themed sections, meaning readers can navigate the poems in whatever order they wish. This liberating reading experience reflects the assured narrative voice that accompanies each poem. For this review, I will share a poem from each section to give a flavour of what it has to offer.
Fearless Female (On Being a Woman)
The opening poem ‘Shades of Woman’ is our introduction to the straight-talking narrative voice. After a triumphant declaration of what women can wear, the voice concludes in a punchy end stanza:
A very personal MacNaughton family history is parcelled into a few short lines, reflecting the indiscriminate brutality of wartime:
Uplifting (A Little Bit of Whimsy)
After this poignant section, MacNaughton offers reassurance through a series of comforting poems. One of these soothing tonics is ‘Silvergrey’. The balanced view it provides on life gives the courage to proceed despite facing adversity. It opens thus:
This poem encourages readers to find solace in remembering that life’s unpredictability is part of what makes it special. We will not always be content, but we will not always be melancholy. There are ever-evolving changes that we have no choice but to experience. The speaker also acknowledges that the grey times will pass:
This poem reads like a spell. Tonally, it buoys the reader. By utilising the classical adage that we need the bad times to appreciate the good in a non-sentimental way, the final message is well-founded optimism. There is always the danger that poetry can present insincere or melodramatic truisms, but MacNaughton achieves an equilibrium that leaves readers feeling restored.
Unexpected Discovery (Pic ‘n’ Mix)
Typically, I would focus on the last poem of a collection. However, even though I find ‘Poetry Therapy’ massively relatable as I too believe the act of creation is cathartic, I want to share an unexpected gem. ‘Ultra-cautious Yoga Teacher’ is a prose poem breaching the previous sea of stanzas containing sprays of rhyme. This humorous poem depicts a yoga teacher fearing for the welfare of their gracefully aged clients:
As the poem unravels, the yoga teacher keeps interrupting their instructions as they become more paranoid at the thought of client injury. The repetition of the names makes the insistent tone comically clear. You can picture the yoga teacher gesturing and imploring at the front of the class:
It leaves the reader on a much lighter note. The sprinkles of comedy are essential and give much-needed relief from the ever-present pandemic.
Overall, MacNaughton’s wonderful collection provides something for everyone. Admittedly, not all of the poems were my cup of tea, but her ability to utilise her observations in poetry is admirable. I recommend giving On the Shoulders of Lions a chance based on its accessibility, and you may discover a new favourite poem.
Olivia Todd completed a BA Hons in English and Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth. To date, she has various poems published on the Young Poets Network, as well as ‘The Mermaid of Feejee’ in the London Magazine (Feb/March issue 2021), while another of her poems has been selected as third prize winner in the Poetry Society’s August Challenge #3 about Inanimate Objects. Olivia has also recently self-published a sci-fi novella, A Human’s Touch (paperback and Ebook formats are available).
The playfulness lies in the cunning layout. The off-set stanzas promote the voice’s central message of how they comparatively perceive men as being constrained through their upbringing to be ‘manly’, whereas being ‘female’ is a more fluid state of existence.
Therefore, the form itself stretches beyond society’s rigid gender boundaries. It kicks the collection off with an empowering feel.
Nature Heals (On Nature and the Elements)
The nature poems in this collection exude resilience and hopefulness. They serve to remind us of the remedial powers of wildlife, the night sky, forests and seas. MacNaughton’s natural settings provide a frame for the narrative voice’s introspection. This process is central in ‘Falling Leaves, Broken Dreams’. An encounter with a tree on an autumnal stroll leads to the following observation:
This beautiful personification projects the voice’s sense of awe at the ease of the tree’s metaphorical ability to release its inner turmoil. Life is stressful, but if a tree can learn to release its worries, then why not us? Following the tree’s progression of losing leaves, which represents ‘past regrets’ to leave it seemingly naked and vulnerable, the voice takes away this lesson:
These organic poems reassure the reader that metamorphosis is possible for all. In the complex contexts surrounding Covid-19, there is no better time to deliver this message.
Strained Love (On Love, Broken Hearts and Relationships)
As is richly evident throughout this collection, MacNaughton slips in humour throughout her poems. In this section, there are many cracking poems featuring thinly hidden innuendos that provide a hearty chuckle. ‘Burger Flippin’ Joe’ springs to mind. However, I will save those for prospective readers to discover and instead focus on ‘First Date’.
It is the first poem to represent a conversation. The colloquial tone and rhyming couplets produce a comical atmosphere as readers are privy to Sue’s actual feelings about her date. These are in complete discord to her date’s perceptions:
For me, this simple yet effective poem is reminiscent of the witty Pam Ayres. Ayres also uses everyday language to connect with her readers and uses rhyme for humour. The back and forth couplets in MacNaughton’s ‘First Date’ provide a lively pace and some much-needed comic relief after the more sombre poems of the previous section.
Home (On Places)
With three poems, this is the shortest section of the collection. Being Portsmouth born and bred, you will forgive me for focusing on its titular twin. This is where the title of the collection took on personal significance. MacNaughton’s biography details Portsmouth as her home city. Guarded by two stone lions is our multi-purpose Guildhall. As ‘Stone’ reveals, childhood memories of this place inspired the collection’s title.
There is something magical about seeing your birthplace depicted through poetry. Growing up, I always heard my peers bad-mouth Portsmouth and express astronomical levels of animosity towards it. They could not wait to escape its clutches. However, never have I known it described as MacNaughton does in ‘Portsmouth’:
These contrasts show that Portsmouth is a place for anyone. Regardless of your background, who would not want to indulge in a ‘colonic busting burger’? It is precious to see Portsmouth portrayed in a more down-to-earth way. This poem solidifies all my past thoughts that Portsmouth does have a unique appeal. It is especially true once you minus its ‘crowded terrace streets / with no parking’.
Timeless (On Memory and Death)
Poetry shall eternally be an open embrace to those who have experienced bereavement. There are many touching personal poems in this section, but the one that resonates most is ‘Hawk’, which captures the chaotic stillness and oxymoronic activeness in the wake of receiving life-altering news. After a voice message, the speaker spies a hawk on returning to their childhood home, presumably to pack a parent’s personal effects. The following lines gave me chills:
Grief alters your senses. The sun that usually gives you joy is suddenly a mocking presence. The devastating news has shaped the speaker’s behaviours. This is apparent through the imagery of a ‘carpet picnic’. It signals a return to childhood, a longing for innocence and shows vulnerability through their lowered body posture. On their journey home, their moon guide has also negatively morphed, becoming ‘big, white, ominous’. I also experienced this altering of the world through the loss of my dad to Frontotemporal Dementia. The colour drained from the world—everything felt distorted and grey. You exist, but you cannot comprehend how:
After recalling the hawk, they leave readers with a muted but deeply moving ending:
I commend MacNaughton for grappling masterfully with an immensely challenging experience. It is never easy to write about grief in a way that feels like you are doing justice as a poet to the emotions you are experiencing. ‘Hawk’ is a poem I shall treasure, and I feel privileged for having had the chance to read it.
Another poem (featured on the Portsmouth Literary Map) that deserves recognition in this section is ‘Just Seventeen’. Through prose and a single stanza, this simple poem leaves a haunting impression on the reader by representing the structure of a wartime telegram. The repetition of ‘STOP’ makes the reader drink in every minute detail:
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:
Welcome to the city where Charles Dickens was born and where Arthur Conan Doyle first unleashed the world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, on a grateful world.
Welcome also to a city whose literary stories go far beyond these more familiar examples – a city whose literary character and complex identity isn’t just about the past, but about a community of talented writers beavering away as we speak on so many inventive ideas.
The Portsmouth Literary Map project
Led by Dr Mark Frost and Dr Maggie Bowers of the English Literature team, the Portsmouth Literary Map project was launched in August 2019 out of a realisation that there was an amazing opportunity to publicise the stories associated with Portsmouth’s remarkable literary past and to tap into its existing literary community networks of poets, novelists, and short story writers.
But while the work of mapping Portsmouth’s fascinating literary stories goes on, the project has wider ambitions to forge strong and creative relationships with the wider communities of Portsmouth and Hampshire by reaching out to schools and libraries, authors and readers, to anyone interested in joining us to help fan the flames of the city’s literary energy. The launch of the Writing Literary Portsmouth blog is one part of our attempts to do just that – and you will hear more from us over the coming weeks and months about our work, our events, our projects, and about opportunities for you to be part of it all.
Inside the Writing Literary Portsmouth blog
The blog will include regular feature articles by authors, famous and local, on their own literary relationships with the city. Look forward in the very near future to pieces by one of our most renowned detective novelists and one of our most celebrated local poets. It will have a ‘Poem of the Month’ feature, introducing you to the astonishing range and vibrant quality of Portsmouth verse, with an emphasis on verse about the city.
Our ‘On This Day’ features will take you back to significant, obscure, weird, or fascinating moments in the city’s literary pasts. In the coming months, we’ll introduce you to Charles Dickens’s reading tours in the city, and to another best-selling Victorian novelist, Walter Besant, also born in the city, whose Celia’s Arbour: A Tale of Portsmouth Town (1878) offers revealing glimpses of bygone Pompey.
And as if that weren’t enough, the blog will also bring you regular ‘Map Stories’, digging into the details of the authors who were born or lived here, the novels and poems set in the city, and the various things – complementary or otherwise – that people have said about the city. There will be so much for you to choose from, and so much for you to find out.
How much do you know about Portsmouth Literature?
Before we say a little more about our aims for the map, why not test out your knowledge of literary Portsmouth with these ten questions?
Click on each question to see the answer, along with some links to the map for those wanting to find out more.
A tale of two port cities
We can learn a lot by exploring literary Portsmouth.
Firstly, this is a city that packs a literary punch. It’s hard to think of another provincial British city of comparative size that has such an extraordinary range of authors who were either born here, lived here, or felt compelled to reflect on their experiences of the city. In that respect, Portsmouth fights well above its weight.
Secondly, this is a city that has always divided opinion, and continues to do so. For every person drawn into its peculiar charms, another is repelled. This was particularly true when Portsmouth was dominated by the dockyards, peopled by sailors, and characterised by the kinds of economic activities that sailors often prefer – drinking and prostitution (for more on this, see the sister project, led by our colleagues in the History team, The Port Towns and Urban Cultures Project). The Portsmouth Literary Map project offers endless and exciting opportunities to reflect both positive and negative responses to Pompey.
Perhaps the most piquant observations on Portsmouth came from the illustrious General James Wolfe, billeted in the city against his will in 1758 prior to sailing to Canada to defeat the French in Quebec the following year. In a letter to a friend Wolfe certainly did not hold back in making his feelings plain:
Things have moved on quite a lot since the 1750s and the citizens of this fair city might argue that Wolfe’s characterisation is now obsolete. But it’s still the case that Portsmouth has a distinctive character, something apparent in the myriad literary responses that the map project is at pains to reflect, and that the poet, Tessa Foley, will address in her own distinctive and engaging way in her forthcoming blog for us.
Clichés about the city endure, and it is of course part of our task to record them. But it is also our job to record the works of those who have tried to go beyond the stereotypes of a drunken, violent city, and to capture its fascinating hybrid identity, something that has become more and more clear to us as we have accumulated literary responses to Pompey.
On the one hand, Portsmouth is an outward-looking maritime city, a window or gateway to the world, a meeting-point of cultures and a place of movement. At the same time it’s the end of the (railway) line, and at times retains an insular and inward-looking personality. Flat, densely populated, and geographically isolated, it has an island mentality while also attracting visitors and inhabitants from diverse communities: quite a few of the poems featured on the map reflect, for example, on immigrant experiences of this port city. It is a naval town, marked in so many ways by its central place in the history of the Royal Navy (the Dockyards and the Hard are very well represented on the map), but it is by no means defined by that alone. If the map is for anything, it is first and foremost a way of mapping and reflecting upon the city’s complex and productively unstable identities.
There is so much more that we could talk about, and expect much more from us over the coming months, but perhaps it is best to allow you to find out more for yourself by visiting the map. The map is designed for use on mobile devices as well as laptops and computers, and we think you will appreciate its sophisticated interface.
If you want to be more involved in the project, have suggestions for what to include, or if you would like to provide us with corrections or suggestions in relation to the map entries, please contact me, the Map Director, at email@example.com.
He’s a monster. A sadist. The SS breed them. […] We should have nothing to do with those people, nothing at all. No one loves you if you invade, if you steal their country, but the SS will be the end of us. One day, the world will take a good look at what they’re up to and blame us. All of us.
He’s a monster. A sadist. The SS breed them. […] We should have nothing to do with those people, nothing at all. No one loves you if you invade, if you steal their country, but the SS will be the end of us. One day, the world will take a good look at what they’re up to and blame us. All of us.
"It’s much quieter at that end of the seafront, the shingle populated with hardy plants that tolerate exposure and salt spray. Camilla said it had been designated as a local wildlife site."
– Every Little Helps, Sue Shipp