Travel Thursday: What’s in a Portsmouth?

The southern coast of England in summer felt a lot like Los Angeles in winter, I decided as I took in the view of Portsmouth. Not all that high, I could still see most of the city was on the island, though I’d never understand why people insisted on calling it Pompey. . . and sure the locals didn’t either, despite their protestations.

I really have to stop thinking about that, before it became a pet peeve.

More to the point of the view, I could make out the docks pretty clearly, especially with the telephoto lens, and while it was no longer the big military port of previous years and centuries, it was obvious from the hubbub of activity that it was still the place’s primary industry. And since I wasn’t a fan of the sea, I wondered what I was doing here.

Changing my worldview to “a lot closer,” I noticed the redeveloped area around me, which had been pretty much dock slums the last time I’d visited, though that had been quite a while ago. Like a lot of dock areas from London to Tasmania, it was now full of restaurants, clubs and bars, changing its name to the oh-so-quaintly-British moniker of Gunwharf Quays. . . and as always I forgot to pronounce that Keys, even in my head.

Shifting perspective once again, this time straight up, I took in the Spinnaker Tower. From this angle it looked a lot like the bottom of the Space Needle, a view I was well acquainted with from a photo I’d taken lying on the gum-covered ground of Seattle Center. And since this was giving me an equal sense of vertigo, I quickly looked back to horizontal, not wanting to see my lunch again after having inhaled it just a few minutes ago.

Yes, it did indeed look like a sail, just like the Burj al-Arab in Abu Dhabi, but I just couldn’t seem to get the point of it. . .

This time smart enough to look at the brochures I’d rounded up rather than straight up again, I noticed that the interiors, at least of the lower observation deck, had to be a lot bigger than they looked from here. That meant I probably could have seated myself comfortably in the middle of the Café in the Clouds without getting nauseous, but since that was on the middle observation deck I wasn’t about take the chance. And I sure as hell wasn’t about to go to the crow’s nest, as they called the highest one; I don’t know anything about sailing, but that’s gotta be as good a name as any. That one might have glass in front, but the roof was wire mesh and open to the elements, so. . .

I shuddered once again. . . and it only got worse when I read the part about the largest glass floor in Europe. . .

I don’t know what did it, but something made me remember a quote about the Crimean War, specifically the battle that inspired Tennyson’s famous poem about the noble six hundred: “England is a small country. . . made smaller by the decisions of idiots like those in charge of the Light Brigade.” to which I always added Churchill at Gallipoli first and foremost, as well as Dnieper, and even Singapore, but that was neither here nor there, but especially not here. . .

It was easy to tell Portsmouth had to do with the sea, just from the obvious name if you uncompounded it. The British Navy was a lot smaller these days, turning the harbor into more of a historical treasure than an active military port of call. Amongst all the gentrification the waterfront was full of nautical relics, well-preserved old ships, as well as being a rich area for shipwreck research, several famous ships having sunk in the area.

Spotting something that looked a lot like HMS Victory–whether the real one or a reasonable facsimile–I wondered just how cold those poor sailors of yesteryear got, with or without waterproof clothes. I would not have made a good sailor, with my aversion to hard work and more importantly being prone to seasickness, but in those days a lot of the sailors didn’t have a choice, being kidnapped and forced to work or be thrown overboard, like that Dana fella in the States. Unlike most people–and even before reading the brochures–I knew Victory hadn’t been exclusively Nelson’s boat, instead the flagship for such now-unknown naval leaders as Keppel, Howe, and Jervis. Technically it was still in commission, though of course no one would be dumb enough to go sailing in it nowadays.

I hope. . .

As usual with train of thoughts, my mind jumped to the next Pullman, this time Nelson. I don’t know if he’d been the inventor of the tactic, but he certainly was the most famous to capitalize on it: whereas in those days naval battles were fought in two long parallel lines, Nelson split his fleet into squadrons, attempting to broach the enemy’s line in certain tactical areas, literally ganging up on single ships to bust through before the unengaged enemy ships could come help out. Worked like a charm, of course: only several hours after the start of hostilities seventeen French and Spanish ships were captured and another destroyed, with all the Brit boats surviving intact. However, Nelson didn’t get to enjoy his triumph, having been killed by a French sniper during the battle, and that had to be a helluva shot, considering how poor the science of rifling was back then, as well as the bobbing of the ocean.

With the train almost reaching the station, me riding the caboose, I next thought about the following battle of that campaign, when four of the French ships that had escaped came across the Phoenix, and obviously wanting revenge, chased after it. The British craft led the French on a merry little chase. . . and right in the hands of a squadron of five ships, where after four hours all the Frenchies were forced to surrender. In a way it was like the Spanish armada all over again.

The train came to a crashing halt when I sensed Kathleen approaching behind me, seconds before she screeched, “Why didn’t you call me yesterday when you arrived?”

“When I get somewhere late, I have dinner and go for a walk, then right to bed. . . alone.”

“Considering how long you lasted, I doubt that last part. So what did you see on your walk?”

“Only thing interesting was this busker, young lady playing the violin.”

“And that answers the next question, you louse!”

“She was about twelve. If that was her mom, though. . .”

“Shut up. What’d you do, buy her CD?”

“Doesn’t have one yet. That’s what the busking is about.”

“Of course. Then what?”

“She wasn’t getting much business, so I put a five-pound note in her violin case and walked around with it through the crowd. The basic rule is if you stop to listen, you’re supposed to donate.”

“So how much did you collect?”

“Almost two hundred pounds.”

“Really? What did you do then?”

“Took my fiver back, of course.”

“Of course! You’re such a bastard. Where did this happen?”

“On the waterfront, near the tower.”

“How do you like our little local landmark?”

“Hey, you’ve gotten better at alliteration!”

“Thank you!”

Not that I didn’t notice the edge in her voice, but I still ignored it. “Kinda like the space needle, maybe Toronto’s tower. As for the shape, it’s kinda like the Burj al-Arab.”

“And you don’t like to sail!”

“Don’t like anything on water.”

“I can’t imagine why an underwater archaeologist gets along with you!”

“You really have a short-term memory. . .”

That at least made her giggle.

I insisted on having lunch on flat land, so she led me to one of the new places on Gunwharf Quays that might have something other than fish on the menu. While there I was regaled by her doctoral dissertation, where I quickly learned that Doggerland was the area that usta connect Great Britain to the rest of Europe before being swallowed up by water released from its frozen state at the end of the last Ice Age. No one bothered to explain where the name came from, but since I’d often had a hard time with British humor I didn’t sweat it, instead wondering just what kind of archaeological sites might be buried under the sea between my present location and the coast of Netherlands, and stretching all the way to Germany and Denmark. Next I pondered what kind of artifacts could have survived eight thousand years underwater, figuring those inhabitants hadn’t made marble statues or other things found in the much warmer Mediterranean.

Kathleen happily informed me that in 1931 a big fishing boat had dragged up a barbed antler point dated to when the area was tundra, followed by discoveries of mammoth and lion remains, plus tools and weapons. That made me smile as I remembered recently reading how there were still mammoths in Europe when the first Egyptian pyramids were being built.

And then she told me why it was called Doggerland, though the truth was so boring it was quite a letdown, and besides Kathleen had to go back to the university for a meeting, so that was that.

As I walked the streets, wondering where to find a taxi, I noticed–as I seemingly did in every city nowadays–how everyone was on their cell phones, most not seeing where they were going, making me think the statistics of people being run over, and more hilariously crashing into light poles, must have skyrocketed in recent years. Somehow this thought led me back to her dissertation, speculating if the people who’d lived in the now-flooded land saw it coming and moved or waited until it was too late. I guessed the former; ages-ago human had to have some smarts, otherwise they would have died out before they became old-age human, let alone medieval and modern-age human. People, no matter their size or shape or any arbitrary labels called “race,” were infinitely adaptable; sixty years ago a hand-held calculator would have seemed like magic to so-called sophisticated citizens, who nonetheless would have made use of them enthusiastically. On the other digit collection, how many people nowadays actually understood what made a computer tick, or instant replay possible? And how few of them could actually fix a modern convenience? Not many, or else there would be roving packs of unemployed repairmen wandering the streets like soccer fans. . .

Humans had a way of just accepting the workings of everyday machinery they didn’t understand, be they powered by alkaline batteries or arcane spells known as atoms. It took all kinds. . .

Finding myself outside a coffeeshop that promised wifi, I made my way in and brought a smile to the caffeinista’s face by ordering a herbal tea, then finding a table in a solitary corner while pulling out my laptop, looking for some mischief I could get into without Kathleen. . . for once. . .



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