Saturday, January 05, 2013
Portsmouth. It should be such a lovely place - a historic naval dockyard, Charles Dickens' birthplace and a wealth of literary associations, from Nicholas Nickleby to Mansfield Park. But sadly an unholy alliance of the Luftwaffe and postwar town planners have brought this city to its knees. It was probably always a bit rough, with all of those jolly tars wandering the streets, but was it ever this ugly?
In fairness, the local authorities have tried to spruce up the place recently and the Spinnaker Tower is a striking landmark:
But the only real solution to Portsmouth's woes would be to bulldoze most of the postwar buildings and replace them with a mixture of pre-1940 replicas (à la Warsaw) and some well-designed modern alternatives. Naturally, you'd need a contemporary art gallery as well, to attract some middle class people from Stoke Newington.
The ship above is the HMS Warrior - the world's first iron-hulled warship. It boasts an array of impressive statistics about armaments, horse power and speed, but I'm more interested in the interior design. I like to be comfortable:
This all looks terribly civilised, as does this:
Perfectly fine for a Second Lieutenant and probably no more spartan than their room at Harrow, but blow stairs it was a different story. The HMS Warrior had ten boilers that were heated by four large stoves each. The combined heat of 40 stoves created a working temperature of 120f and the men who worked there were paid an extra 25%, to compensate for the appalling conditions.
I'd decided to take my younger son here for a visit to the HMS Victory, but ended up buying a ticket for the entire dockyard. It was an odd place with a rather rum selection of visitors, including an eight-year-old boy who was dressed like a 1920s country squire, with a Herringbone Tweed jacket and matching cap. He was accompanied by an old man with ancient hearing aids that were so large, they looked as if they could pick up echoes from the Big Bang, or the movements of enemy submarines.
As we approached the Victory, I saw two of the Royal Navy's new top secret stealth warships:
I couldn't help wondering why these 'top secret' vessels had been docked right next to a major tourist attraction. Shouldn't they be in a remote part of Scotland? The Hood from Thunderbirds wouldn't need his secret camera here:
Can you see them behind the Victory, or has their stealth technology defeated my digital camera?
We'd booked a guided tour around the HMS Victory and I was looking forward to gory tales of Nelson's death, maggot-infested biscuits and hasty amputations. Unfortunately the tour was ruined by the behaviour of several children, who kept banging and rattling every artefact they came across. One particularly dippy woman allowed her 18-month-old to stagger freely around the decks until it inevitably had a collision with a sharp object.
However, in between the interuptions, I managed to learn that Nelson was pickled in brandy so that his body could be preserved for a state funeral, Captain Hardy was 6'4" and amputations were performed without the benefit of alcohol.
After the tour I congratulated my son for behaving impeccably and decided to reward him with a visit to an antique amusement arcade that included familiar machines like the menacing Jolly Sailor and the Fortune Telling Lady. However, there was one that I'd never seen before:
Pop 20p in the slot and the doors will open, to reveal a reconstruction of the public hanging of James Aitken, alias 'John the Painter' - a man who supported the colonial rebels in America and expressed his solidarity by setting fire to the rope and pitchyard store in the dockyard at Portsmouth. The animated execution was a little grim for small children and I regretted finding the extra 20 pence piece.
As we reached the end of the visit, I wondered what my son had got out of it. I'd become so jaded by a succession of disastrous visits to museums and buildings with his older brother, I'd almost given up the day trips. Perhaps all children hated them.
I looked at my son. He was happy, skipping along the dockyard path with a shy smile on his face. On the way back, we talked about future days out and my son suddenly announced his plans for going to university. He seemed to have an appetite for life. Why was his brother so different?
As we left Portsmouth, I saw a sign that pointed the way to Charles Dickens' birthplace. I'd missed it for the third time. I told my son, who paused for a moment, then turned to me and said: "Wouldn't it be funny if they'd had computer games in the Stone Age."