Tag Archives: banana republic

Why enhancement of Old Portsmouth’s arches is a good thing.

I just had an email through from petition site 38 Degrees about petitions regarding the Portsmouth Arches.

Part of the arches enhancement

They wrote that “Anita”, the petitioner who wants to “save” the arches, argues:

“Please do not allow Old Portsmouth’s historic arches to become low-rent art studios, cafes and a brasserie. Residents are objecting to this development for the same reasons that any person would object to a proposal to plant a café in the middle of Stonehenge.

What we have now is an area of international repute and interest. Once it has been tampered with, it will have gone forever.”

Here is what I wrote back:

Hi,

Thanks, I have already voted.

I will be clear about this. Those arches are NOT comparable historically to Stonehenge – making such a statement is idiotic and shows a lack of understanding of the relative importance of 1) a UNESCO protected World Heritage Site on the one hand and 2) a cleared building site that has been too long neglected on the other.

The Barracks whose foundation outlines can be seen on the ground outside the arches were knocked down in the 1950s. The arches are all that remains of that complex of buildings, being the place where the gunports designed to protect the harbour were sited.

If your nimbyist is so keen on historical authenticity, then I suggest she petitions to get the barracks rebuilt, a thousand or so soldiers billetted there, the pubs reopened down the road, the brothels opened at Point and some good old-fashioned interservice fighting arranged for the weekends.

The cleared ground that sits by the arches at the moment is prime development ground, and the current empty space exists at a transitional point between developments on the site. It has been left like this for far too long and people have simply got used to it. Its current status is that of an abandoned development site.

The phrase “low rent” arches implies a certain snobbishness in your petitioner’s attitude, as if somehow that is a bad thing. Drawing artists into areas has been shown time and time again to be an asset to an area. Viz St Ives, Hackney, Brick Lane, etc.

I believe that development at the arches in the manner suggested will have two positive effects:

1) it will support art in the area, hard on the heels of which will follow money and will raise property prices even further in this area.

2) it will put good use to a dust-blown empty space that reeks of piss after a Friday night, while protecting it from being developed more fully.

A win all round.

Anita can swivel.

Thank you,

Matthew Wingett
Freelance Writer

To vote – here are the two petitions:

https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/enhance-arches

https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/save-arches

A Simple Act Of Kindness Can Change The World

I’ve just got back from a walk in my home town of Portsmouth – and I’ve learned how one person really can change the whole world.

I was walking past a little brick-built church on Old Portsmouth’s High Street, called the John Pounds Church, when I suddenly remembered reading that there was something special about it – a little museum dedicated to Mr John Pounds himself.  So, on that sunny winter afternoon with some time to spare, I decided to take a look at exactly what that museum comprised.

At the back, in a neat courtyard, a small wooden hut is built on to the side of the church.  It is a modest little museum.  If you look in through the barn door you will see a mannikin of a cobbler looking over the shoulder of a boy reading from a bible, while around him are other figures of little children in Victorian clothing, ragged and poor, sitting and reading from a book or scribbling on slates.

John Pounds's House
The Original Cobbler's Shop Where John Pounds Lived And Worked

It is the image of a makeshift Victorian schoolhouse, which John Pounds’s house and cobbler’s shop became.  Pounds had only two rooms in his house: one downstairs and one above.  And in the room downstairs, he taught the poor to read.

Pounds himself was self taught.  In 1778 at the age of 12 years old, he was indentured into the dockyard in Portsea.  And at the age of 15, just a few days after his father died, the teenaged Pounds fell into a dry dock and was crippled for life.

He was carried out of the dockyard, and that, as far as his employers were concerned, was the end of their responsibility for him.  He stayed with relatives in Portsmouth, and over the coming months he slowly recuperated.  Illiterate but with an enquiring mind, in that period of recovery he taught himself to read.  Then, as his vitality returned, he trained as a cobbler and set up his little shop on the main thoroughfare between the fortified town of Portsea and the High Street in Old Portsmouth.

The poverty in that part of Portsmouth at the turn of the 19th Century was smothering.  A report from several decades later describes, for example, a tiny close called Messum’s Court that butted up against the garrison town’s fortifications and was approached via a two foot wide tunnel called Squeeze Gut Alley.  Here 116 people lived below sea level in a damp, dismal courtyard supplied with water from a single standpipe that ran for just 10 minutes a day, and with one privy between them.  An open dunghill stood in the middle of the courtyard, through which also ran an open drain.  The denizens of this court, some of whom lived in cellars, dug their own wells outside their front doors, down which their small children were in constant danger of falling, while the water drawn up was often contaminated by seepage from the open sewers and cess pools nearby.  Children growing up in this poverty with no hope of an education were condemned by default to a future of yet more grinding poverty, and of crime.

Children were criminalised easily back then.  Again, a few decades later, by the mid-1800s, it is recorded that the offences of hopscotch, flying kites or playing marbles were, among many other offences, punishable by hard labour and a mandatory whipping.  But since those children were turned out on to the streets by their parents who didn’t want them at home, what else were they to do except loiter and get into trouble with the law or be recruited into criminal gangs?

It was in this milieu that Pounds took to teaching children to read and write in his cobbler’s shop.  To draw the kids in, he kept injured birds that he was nursing back to health in little cages hung from the ceiling, and little pets.  With his stooped walk that was a result of his dockyard fall, he would go out on winter days with hot jacket potatoes in his coat pockets (it is said that he had sewn in extra pockets to hold more of them) and hand them out to the children who were shivering among the timber stacked near Spice Island, or huddling in little crannies by the sea, out of the wind.  “There are plenty more where that one came from,” he would tell them, and the children would follow him to his shop.

Inside, it was cramped, but it was warm, and the kids learned to read under Pounds’s tutelage.  Often, 40 children at a time would be squeezed into the tiny little shed where he worked.  It is thought that in his lifetime he taught hundreds of children to read and write in that little room.

John Pounds At Work
John Pounds At Work

The fact was, there was no money in this for him at all.  If he got an inkling that your parents were able to pay for schooling, then you would be replaced with someone more needy.  As John Pounds put it: “I wants they as nobody cares for.  They’s they for me.”

When Pounds died at the age of 72, after dedicating a lifetime to teaching children to read, his cobbler’s shop had only a few items inside.  There were the tools of his trade, and a handful of personal effects.  He had lived and died in poverty, but had given hundreds the opportunity to work as shopworkers, join the Navy or get some form of employment other than manual labour – and had shown them possibilities other than crime.

Soon after his death in 1839, as people realised what an amazing thing he had done, the Reverend Thomas Guthrie was inspired by his story to set up the “Ragged Schools” movement, which provided free education for the poor across the country.  Portsmouth’s first “Ragged School” was opened just 10 years after Pounds’s death.

By 1852, the movement was so powerful that Parliament set up an inquiry into the condition of “criminal and destitute juveniles in this country and what changes are desirable in their present treatment, in order to supply industrial training and to combine reformation with the due correction of juvenile crime.”

This was a milestone in the development of something that would change the English speaking world forever.  That something was Universal Free Education in the form of a State Education.

If you are reading this and you are from Britain or one of its old colonies, it is likely that you received your education precisely because of the acts of kindness of a cobbler in Portsmouth, who 200 years ago walked out into the cold with hot jacket potatoes in his pockets, and set in train a course of events that would lead to the liberation from poverty of literally hundreds of millions of people across the globe.  He lived half a mile from where I live, and I could not have written this blog without him.

And you, wherever you are on this planet, would not be reading it.

The Birdwoman of Southsea

Walk into a pub in the Banana Republic,  not far from the old Royal Marines Barracks on a Sunday afternoon, and you might be lucky enough to hear a woman singing some jazz numbers, backed by a pianist and a bass player.

She lilts out the numbers with a steady ease, lifting her smooth voice over the drinkers’ pints as they gather for a relaxed pubday afternoon, and weaving for a moment little pockets of joy and sadness, laughter and tragedy from that oh-so malleable raw material: sound.

“No Moon At All” – Helen MacDougall and her Musicians

This singer, with her dark hair and her lean figure I think of as The Southsea Birdwoman.  She has sung in pubs and in clubs around the south of England, and she has played gigs to big audiences down at the Southsea bandstand.  Thousands have basked on the grass by the sea, or danced swing, while her full band has filled the air with jumping rhythms.

But there is far more to the Birdwoman than being a singer.  She is an unusual, massively gifted individual who has the hands of a builder, the muscles of an athlete and the voice of an angel.

Helen MacDougall - The Southsea Birdwoman

Catch her on a summer afternoon down at the beach.  She lives only a four minute walk from the solid shingle incline that shelves down to the sea.  If you time it right, and the wind is in the right direction, you will find her taking wing on the waves – windsurfing over white horses, catching the air in her sail and scooting over the spray.  Her tensed arms and her solid body taking on the elements, allow her for a moment to soar over the pale-green Solent on her single, white wing.

At work, you may find her in the trees, helping kids to find greater confidence by climbing with rope and harness up into the canopy.  Or she may be at work building a bivouac, or showing kids how to light a fire and make artefacts out of wood: little pots from bark, perfectly made, with a lid and a base, as if a little craftshop has sprouted in a glade.

And at home, you may find her building her nest: hammering and sawing, making little additions to her home.  The decking she built at the back of the house is a genuine feat of construction, with pillars of wood sunk deep into concrete, and a space where a tree has been given room to grow up through a hole specially cut.  This is a sociable watering hole she has made, a lucky horseshoe of seats for friends to gather in the back garden on a summer’s day.

Indoors, for warmth in the winter, she has built a fireplace.  She poured and set half a ton of concrete to build a suspended constructional hearth herself, and then put in place a cast iron Victorian fireplace.  She has reboarded the downstairs floor, painted and decorated the whole house.  Upstairs, completely unafraid, she took a circular saw to a wall in order to extend a room and build a clothes cupboard from the narrow space where an old boiler tank used to live.  And she plastered over the place where the original door was so that it is now impossible to tell that it was any other way.

Consider her now: singing for all to hear, or flying on her windsurfer, or hopping high up in the trees – or again – building her nest – and now you understand why she is the Birdwoman of Southsea.

he Southsea Birdwoman

Walk into a pub in Eastney, not far from the old Royal Marines Barracks on a Sunday afternoon, and you might be lucky enough to hear a woman singing some jazz numbers, backed by a pianist and a bass player.

She lilts out the numbers with a steady ease, lifting her smooth voice over the drinkers’ pints as they gather for a relaxed pubday afternoon, and weaving for a moment little pockets of joy and sadness, laughter and tragedy from that oh-so malleable raw material: sound.

This singer, with her dark hair and her lean figure I think of as The Southsea Birdwoman. She has sung in pubs and in clubs around the south of England, and she has played gigs to big audiences down at the Southsea bandstand. Thousands have basked on the grass by the sea, or danced swing, while her full band has filled the air with jumping rhythms.

But there is far more to the Birdwoman than being a singer. She is an unusual, massively gifted individual who has the hands of a builder, the muscles of an athlete and the voice of an angel.

Catch her on a summer afternoon down at the beach. She lives only a four minute walk from the solid shingle incline that shelves down to the sea. If you time it right, and the wind is in the right direction, you will find her taking wing on the waves – windsurfing over white horses, catching the air in her sail and scooting over the spray. Her tensed arms and her solid body taking on the elements, allow her for a moment to soar over the pale-green Solent on her single, white wing.

At work, you may find her in the trees, helping kids to find greater confidence by climbing with ropes and harness up into the canopy. Or she may be at work building a bivouac, or showing kids how to light a fire and make artefacts out of wood: little pots from bark, perfectly made, with a lid and a base, as if a little craftshop has sprouted in a glade.

And at home, you may find her building her nest: hammering and sawing, making little additions to her home. The decking she built at the back of the house is a genuine feat of construction, with pillars of wood sunk deep into concrete, and a space where a tree has been given room to grow up through a hole specially cut. This is a sociable watering hole she has made, a ring of seats for friends to gather in the back garden on a summer’s day.

Indoors, for warmth in the winter, she has built a fireplace. She poured and set half a ton of concrete to build a constructional hearth herself, and then put in place a cast iron Victorian fireplace. She has reboarded the downstairs floor, redecorated and painted it all. Upstairs, completely unafraid, she took a circular saw to a wall in order to extend a room and build a clothes cupboard from the narrow space where an old boiler tank used to live. And she plastered over the place where the original door was so that it is now impossible to tell that it was any other way.

To consider her now: singing for all to hear, or flying on her windsurfer, or high up in the trees – or again – building her nest – and now you understood why she is the Birdwoman of Southsea.

She is an amazing character, a kind and good hearted individual – and one, I am pleased, to call my friend.

A Little Boy, Lost In The Moment

A tiny moment of pleasure.  Scene: The Street Outside An Acupuncturist’s Clinic on Palmerston Road, Southsea.  Time: 3 p.m.  The shop is divided into the clinic, and a private living space, and the door to the living area has been left open.

As I walk down the street I hear the sound of a piano being played, and passing an open door, see a little Chinese boy of around 5 years old intensely concentrating on the keys of a piano as he falteringly produces the tune to “Camptown Races”.  I stand by the door and listen as he works his way gradually up the keyboard, changing the key as he proceeds.

A still moment.  The traffic and people pass by outside, and he is totally focussed on his music. He’s not brilliant at what he’s doing, and he makes mistakes.  But he corrects his mistakes, and carries on, teaching his fingers to pick out the notes in a certain order.  I absorb his total concentration, as if it, too, is emanating from the room on to the street.  Sensing him totally absorbed, feeling his way – learning, co-ordinating, learning, persevering.  The sound is not pretty, but enchanting – and it tells a story.

We live in a muddled world, and that makes it fun, too.  That little Chinese boy lives in a Victorian house in Southsea, where the English general public are treated with Chinese medicine, and plays a Black American tune on an old German piano.

I stand and enjoy.

These are the little pleasures of life.

A Provincial Snob

Tonight I have just got back from one of those great moments that happen from time to time in the Banana Republic.

It was a fireworks show over the water, fired from ships lying straight off from the Wharf, and boy it was great stuff. We got to The Point in the rain, and stood for half an hour on the shingle, with the smell of the water and seaweed in our noses, and the shingle scrunching beneath our feet. And despite the rain and the chill, it was neither damp nor cold enough to dull my enthusiasm. You know, I have come to love the Island. I love the Banana Republic and all its foibles. Yes, I get frustrated and annoyed by it, but overall, it’s an honest sort of a city.

The Spinnaker Tower, at night
The signature of the city, in concrete

Waiting for the fireworks, I played on the shingle with Toby, a close friend’s son – cracking open glow sticks and pretending in the October night to be Darth Vader – swinging our light sabres and laughing as we duelled.

Then, as the time grew closer I fell into conversation with a pair of women – one of whom lived in Old Portsmouth. And it was then that I encountered the Provincial Snob.

I guess I should have known her from her aloof air as she stood beneath her brolly, frowning at us playing, rigid in her light blue jacket in the rain.  The Provincial Snob of this type is a very particular beast. Look at her now, with her mousey bobbed hair and the slight curl of the lip, so nearly a sneer. Notice the way that she looks around her with an expression of discontent on her face. But most importantly, listen to what she says.

This Provincial Snob says things like: “Yes, I live here, unfortunately,” and doesn’t have the self knowledge to know that she is creating her own unhappiness. A little moaner, always looking to find something bad to say about the surroundings that are simply not good enough for her, the Provincial Snob will not hear that the place where she lives has anything to recommend it. She is in her twenties and yet sounds like a long decommissioned battleship would talk. Living by the side of the sea, she is a sad old hulk, caught in the backwater and stuck in the mud. What a shame on her.

And of course, the thing that is so stupid about the Snob is that she lives in a lovely, picturesque part of Pompey.  A place where the old buildings were saved after the War.  A place where King Harry watched his ships from the ramparts, where “heroes innumerable” as the brass plaque tells it, sallied forth from the Sally Port, and where the body of General Wolfe was landed in a barrel of brandy after he was killed scaling the Heights of Abraham.

“I didn’t use to like Portsmouth when I was younger,” I told her. “I used to live in the country. But now I’ve moved here, it’s great. The characters are amazing. Some of them are nutters.”

“Yes, well that’s part of the problem, the people,” she says, the light in her eye the optical equivalent of chokedamp.

Aha! So, it would be a better city if it didn’t have people in it… Another part of the Provincial Snob’s mindset is that she doesn’t really know how to be comfortable around people.

And then there is the Tower. As the firework show starts up, the Spinnaker Tower begins to flash with all sorts of different lights. Looking at its pointy shape and the way it stand on two legs, I say: “Wouldn’t it be amazing if the Tower took off!? That would be one heck of a rocket!”

“That would be the best thing that could happen to it,” the Snob sneers back, that cynical look in her eyes, that flush of colour darkening her face more. This is something that she has wound herself up about, that’s for sure. “That shocking waste of money. And I paid for it with my taxes. It’s disgusting. I see it everywhere I go in this city, and it is the ugliest thing I have seen.”

Wow. She is so dark now. “Oh, I really love it,” I tell her. “It’s a great signature building. Like the Blackpool Tower it is instantly recognisable. It put Pompey on the map.”

That put Pompey on the map?! You don’t think that anyone knew that it was here before?”

Oh, such stupidity. “Of course they did. But it now has an icon – a brand. It’s great fun. And people come here to see it, and enjoy it…”

But now the real fireworks start in earnest. A little dinghy is puttering around the harbour, and is firing a barrage of rockets into the sky. Screaming in pinks and whites and gold and blue from a big mortar on the boat. And this is just the prelude.

There it is. An amazing spectacle. Bright colours, explosions, the crackling of fireflowers burning for an instant in the sky, the gold explosion of the fire that bursts and rains. Then the embers hanging like stars in the rainy sky.

The fireworks burst over the Island.

Oh, wonderful city. Oh little Banana Republic that sparkles in the night, and fizzes and whooshes. This is the joy of the winter night, and little 4 year-old Toby sits on his father’s shoulders with his mouth agape. He’s never seen anything like it.

Behind it all, that remarkable Tower, lit up, drawing people to it, like a beacon.

And one Provincial Snob, not knowing that those little everyday decisions that she’s made about what to love and what to hate, she’s got the wrong way round.

Because if you choose to hate a firework, then it lasts for two seconds. But you choose to hate a building, or a town, and overlook what it has to offer… well, then you’re going to have to carry on hating it for a long time. It ain’t going anywhere.  And that little loop of reinforced emotion is going to carry on growing, under the skilled guidance of someone who really knows how to do misery.  Filling up your life with petty and useless distinctions which might well reinforce your sense of who you are but which, in the end make you this: a person less able to enjoy yourself.

Remember that, each time you are tempted to turn your nose up at whatever you choose to belittle; and when you are tempted to judge without first wanting to know and understand.  Remember this too: that knowing how to use your judgement skills to improve and delight in a thing can make you a person who can improve every day – and into a person in whom others can take true, pleasure – for the world expands as your love of it expands.

Why would you choose to do otherwise?