Wednesday, 13 August 2008
I love seaside towns. Not big, brash holiday parks or tasteful resorts but run-down places with high-ceilinged apartments and quiet hotels. These are the places where grandparents take grandchildren, where a jogger or cyclist passes along the seafront every quarter hour and a swimmer is cause for comment. Here the piers are not quite deserted – but they close early if it rains. Half the ice-cream stands are boarded up and the pubs offer quiet corners, even on Saturday nights.
We came to Southsea where I'd booked an apartment with huge rooms, high ceilings and sea views. It was what we needed. In the mornings we slept late then watched the yachts strung out from the Isle of Wight. We read and played cards. There was no internet connection.
We meant to explore but did less than we intended. Occasional walks tended to take us along the sea front to Portsmouth, though we did try wandering through Southsea itself. I missed the two literary sites I'd hoped to explore: the house where Arthur Conan Doyle began his medical practice and Dickens' birthplace in Portsmouth. The teenagers weren't particularly keen and I lacked the energy for solitary exploration. Perhaps another time. In any case, the ghosts of Doyle and Dickens walked with me as I wondered how the quiet of Southsea and the military bustle of Portsmouth had seemed to them.
The beaches at Southsea are stony and all week the sea was calm. While there was rain elsewhere, we had occasional drizzle but mostly the sun shone.
Along the coast lay the memorials of war past and preparations for future war. We walked past tanks, an anti-aircraft gun, the D-Day Museum, ships crafted for battle from the Napoleonic Wars to the Falklands. (Nobody mentioned Afghanistan or Iraq.) In the shipyard, men worked on the huge aircraft carriers, some of which had been sold abroad. The navy and past deaths were marketed as a tourist attraction. We became tourists.
I looked at the young parents pushing buggies on the front, the preparations for war and the gently implacable grey waves. In the leisurely August sun I could find no point at which those three worlds met.