In the first part of a serialised story, JS Adams vividly imagines Portsmouth in the throes of eco-apocalypse.
The first sighting of the icebergs was on February 19th. It would not have been unusual if the icebergs had been spotted in Scotland, but these were breaking away from the shelves of the Arctic Circle and drifting down the River Thames. I was sent to photograph them. Majestic in any location, the bergs seemed to be at their most imposing when they reached us up close, floating towards our doorsteps, driven on by the currents before running aground in shallow waters or snaring up on outcrops and jetties.
One Monday morning, whilst I was taking pictures from Westminster Bridge, my friend and colleague Elisabeth Wright, a fearless news reporter, told me excitedly about a strange turn of events unfolding on the shingled beaches of a seaside town. From that part of the world there had already been reports of larger bergs carrying natives from the coldest polar regions, amongst them a group of stranded Eskimos who had to be airlifted to safety 25 miles off the coast of Brighton. When Elisabeth mentioned the name of her seaside town – Portsmouth – I was intrigued, for this was the town of my birth.
‘I think you really need to help me cover this, John,’ she insisted on the phone. ‘Get here quick before we’re swamped with other media’.
For my friend Miss Wright I can say only this: if she states that she has the biggest story ever to hit the news then it is probably true and I would be a fool not to follow her.
Southsea, like many seaside towns, had begun to die a slow, quiet death as a tourist draw. It had been kept on life support by its dwindling appeal as the home of the Royal Navy and as a port of historical interest. It was a sleepy place for parents to drag bored kids out to on boring Sundays in order to instil some heritage in young minds. For centuries Portsmouth was seen as the “gateway” to Britain and Henry VIII built its original coastal defences in 1544 to stop enemies conquering these isles. Southsea was developed as a resort in the nineteenth century and remained a popular tourist destination until the early 1970s, round about the time its handsome South Parade Pier was destroyed during the filming of the rock opera Tommy. The pier was re-built and re-opened, but eventually closed due to lack of funds for maintenance. The next time Portsmouth would make the national headlines would be that fateful day, when the icebergs came.
Elisabeth told me that these bizarre arrivals had been preceded by several weeks of the worst storms the south coast had ever endured. To most it felt as if the rains would never end but then on the first day of May, the bad weather ceased and the first of the icebergs became visible, riding on the Solent, some snagging up on the old sea defences; a long line of concrete blocks spanning the harbour entrance. There were further reports of icebergs floating along the lower end of the island, and others gliding silently into the harbour itself, disrupting the car ferries between the mainland and the Isle of Wight. The largest berg of all, however, was perhaps the size of a small house, which Elisabeth recalled in great detail from her notes which she emailed me after our conversation.
Elisabeth’s Eyewitness Account
That weekend I came to Portsmouth to visit some old uni friends and by chance noticed a post on Facebook about the bergs and I decided to cover the story. It was early Monday morning when the largest one ran aground twenty yards from Eastney beach, attracting dog walkers and local fishermen alike. By 10 am a large crowd had gathered, busily snapping selfies and posting them all over the internet. No sign of the police however, which came as little surprise to me due to the severe cuts the local constabulary had endured over recent years.
The Eastney berg was quite a beauty! Spanning perhaps thirty or forty feet in diameter, it was a large, jagged block that tapered up from its base. Its three gleaming white corners rose up from the sea some twenty feet into the air and dipped in the middle like a house with a collapsed roof. By the time I had arrived, several men in wet suits had already waded out to it, whilst another was attempting to scale the most accessible side of it. Meanwhile, the crowd was growing larger as more and more locals began to descend upon the shingle, armed with cameras.
Among them was what looked like an outing of some twenty or so schoolboys, lead by a very loud teacher. Tall and thin, twitching a thin moustache and clad in light brown corduroy with dark patches on the arms, he was in his early thirties and reminded me of the singer Jarvis Cocker. The procession of schoolboys followed him as he clambered down the beach towards the berg and began to inspect it. He strutted about, staring at the white edifice through thick, black-rimmed glasses. He then addressed the group in a slight stutter. ‘N-now, pay attention boys,’ he said, adjusting his glasses. ‘Now, c-can anyone tell me what sort of iceberg this is? Any-anyone?’
There was a long pause from the perplexed children, as they chewed on pens and looked to the heavens for inspiration. The teacher sighed and receded, raising his arms with great animation at the mass of ice before them, as if conducting an orchestra. ‘Right, if you – if you look at the general shape, it has one – two – three – yes three c-cornered pinnacles but the overall shape of it suggests a more bl-blocky appearance. Hence it is a…’
The teacher swung around to the kids, his eyes wide open, darting left and right, in hopeful anticipation that maybe one child might show a vague interest. ‘Any-anyone? OK OK, it is a bbblocky iceberg. OK?
The children nodded slowly in unison, their mouths gaped open in mystified confusion.
‘Any questions?’ he said.
There was more silence, only interrupted by the sound of lapping water and the squawk of circling seagulls. By now the tide was receding quite rapidly, so much so that the berg was now almost out of the water.
‘OK children, what’s also q-quite interesting is that it’s so cl-close to the s-sea-shore. Generally speaking of c-course, the mass of any one iceberg is hidden below the w-waterline. Hence the ex-expression: t-t–tip of the iceberg. In this c-case however the b-berg we now look at appears to have a f-flat underside, which explains how it’s been able to d-drift right up to the s-shoreline without impedance – any q-questions?’
A small hand rose and waved in the air.
‘Y-Yes H-Hen-Henry, what is it?’
‘Is that the one that sank the Titanic?’ he said, picking his nose and eating the bogey.
‘I v-v-very much doubt that, Henry,’ sighed the teacher, shaking his head in dismay.
‘It looks like the one that hit the boat,’ said the ginger-haired head boy, chewing his pen. ‘Ain’t you seen the film sir?’
‘W-w-well… I haven’t seen the f-f-film in a very long time but I can assure you that it is v-very unlikely that this is the s-same ice-b-berg that hit the Ti-Ti-Titanic.’
Another boy raised his hand too. ‘My great granddad worked on the Titanic.’
‘Really, that’s very interesting Simon,’ lied the teacher.
‘I reckon it’s the same iceberg’ Insisted Henry.
‘Now now Henry,’ cautioned the teacher.
‘Is that the one with Kate what’s her face?’ asked another.
‘Look, can we forget about the T-Titanic,’ said the teacher, getting frustrated.
‘Yeah and Leonardo Da Vinci-face,’ said another.
‘That ain’t the same iceberg…’
‘Well it might be,’ maintained Henry. ‘I ‘ear them Icebergs can float around for years ‘n’ years n years,’ he said, jumping up and down in a circle.
‘Don’t be dinny, it would have melted ages ago,’ said a taller boy pushing him.
‘Oo you calling a din?’ Henry began to push the taller boy back.
‘Now now you two, come on b-break it up,’ ordered the teacher, hands on hips.
‘But ‘e started it.’
‘I don’t c-care who st-st-started it…’
Meanwhile, the crowd around them continued their flurry of selfies whilst one of the school children eluded the eye of the teacher and began to scale the side of the iceberg closest to the beach. Before I knew it, he had already scampered to the top and disappeared from view.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, waving my hand urgently at the teacher, ‘but one of your kids just climbed up there’.
‘What?’ The teacher looked around and cursed under his breath. ‘All right you, c-come back down from there at wuh-once!’
After a while the boy in question reappeared.
‘N-N-Nathan!’ shouted the teacher, hands on hips. ‘Did you not h-hear what I just said? Now g-get down here this instant!’
‘But sir I’ve just found a big hole!’
‘I don’t care what you’ve found, now g-g-get down here at once!’
I called up to the boy. ‘Excuse me, Nathan is it? I’m a reporter for Star & Crescent. Could you describe what you see up there?’
‘A big hole, miss… looks deep, like, and …I can ‘ear a summink in there miss.’
‘You hear w-what exactly?’ asked the teacher, twitching his moustache.
‘Dunno sir, sounds like summink movin’ about.’
The teacher looked back at the class assembled on the shoreline and then at me. ‘Right,’ he sighed. ‘N-N-Nathan I need you to climb down from there r-right n-n-now.’
‘N-n-now c-c-come on, there’s a good l-lad.’
With a huff Nathan clambered down and was the teacher caught hold of him. Then an old woman in a large round floppy hat and carrying a chihuahua in a shoulder bag approached and tapped him on the shoulder.
‘Excuse me, but have you seen the other man that was up there?’ she said. Her chihuahua snapped and growled at the startled teacher.’
‘Sorry ? W-w-what other m-m-man? ’
‘Well, he climbed up there a few minutes ago but he never came down again.’
She shrugged. ‘Funny that’. The teacher backed away from the growling animal and twitched his moustache again.
‘Maybe he fell in the ‘ole sir,’ piped up another of the lads.
‘I d-d-doubt he f-f-fell in the h-h-hole Evans.’
‘Why not?’ I said.
‘Because iceber-bergs are not g-generally known to be h-hollow,’ he said, shaking his head and adjusting his glasses. The chihuahua barked relentlessly at the berg.
‘Not hollow?’ I said. ‘Says who?’
‘Look,’ said the old woman, trying to subdue her dog. ‘Shouldn’t somebody go up there and look for him? He might be hurt you know, he ain’t come down here now that’s for sure.’
‘No. We’ll w-wait for the p-police. They can s-sort it out.’
‘But he could be injured, my lad. He could have a broken leg, anything!’
‘M-m-madam, I’m p-pretty sure he’s not up there.’
‘Then where is he?’ I asked.
‘M-m-maybe he climbed down the other s-s-side and wondered off somewhere. I d-d-don’t know. Now, if you d-don’t mind I need to…’
There was a low thud, and ice began to flake off the berg. The chiwawa’s ears bent back, as it whimpered and cowered in the old lady’s handbag. ‘Shhh now Dollybaby,’ she said, kissing the mutt. ‘Now there’s a good girl.’
From the berg came faint sounds, like scratching. Scratching and huffing. An odd noise, that seemed to stop and start. Then there was another thud.
‘W-w-what is it n-n-now?’
‘What the b-b-blazes is that?’
‘I told you it’s hollow.’
‘’Ere!’ said the old woman. ‘It must be that man! He’s trying to dig himself out!’ She then cupped her mouth with her hands and hollered up at the berg. ‘DON’T WORRY DEARY, WE’LL SOON GET YOU OUT !’
With her free hand, she then picked up a piece of driftwood and tried hacking with it at the face of the ice, but to no avail, while the chihuahua began to growl again more intensely. ‘Come on you lot, pitch in. Let’s have you.’ She lost her grip on the driftwood and it flew into the sea.
‘Oh for God’s sake give it here,’ snapped the teacher and snatched it up from the water, bashing with it at the berg’s wall, while several of the boys started kicking the ice with all their might.
‘Keep going lads,’ said the old woman, clenching a fist. ‘It’s starting to go’
It was then that I heard heavy breathing, coming from within the berg. Something large thumped against the ice from inside, dislodging a sizeable portion which fell into the shallows.
The teacher jolted back and swore loudly. ‘F-F-F-F-F-F-FUCK! W-WHAT IS THAT- WHAT IS TH-THAT ?’
Then larger chunks began to fall away, splashing the teacher. The crowd by now had become so large that is was difficult for anyone to move away from the berg.
‘I think we need to stop now,’ I said to the boys. ‘Stop kicking it will you! Get away from it, QUICKLY!’
THUMP went the berg.
Suddenly a large portion of the front cracked open and collapsed into the water. The crowd started and backed away. A several feet wide hole appeared. Everyone fell silent around me and all that could be heard was the strange sizzle of ice bubbles and the water lapping gently at the berg’s base. The teacher looked at me and then approached the newly made excavation. Slowly he placed his hands around the wide opening and peered into the blackness.
‘Be careful young man,’ whispered the old woman, covering the eyes of her shivering dog.
‘What are you whispering for miss?’
‘Can you see anything sir?’
‘N-n-nope, looks empty – m-must have been the heat from the… OH J-J-JESUS!’ He screamed and fell backwards into the crowd in terror.
A huge furry bulk suddenly thrust itself forwards, filling the hole. With a violent crash, several large chunks broke away from the berg, spraying the crowd with snow and splashing into the sea, dispersing the seagulls and pushing the confused crowd further backwards.
The polar bear broke free and crashed upon the shingle.