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:

Curious and magical…Alison Habens has a refreshingly playful love of language, and is endlessly inventive.

Review, The Times

Habens’ prose is lyrical, beautiful and witty…she takes a lingeringly erotic pleasure in wordplay.

Review, Independent on Sunday

Habens’ linguistic fireworks never lose their sparkle.

Review, Scotland on Sunday

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