Life in Somerstown

Sarah Cheverton interviews Robert, a resident of Somerstown, about the challenges he has faced since he moved there with his wife in 1992. Robert asked to remain anonymous. His name, and the names of others living and working in Somerstown, have been changed.

I meet Robert in the new Somerstown Hub, a state of the art facility replacing the former Southsea Community Centre.

Local opinion about the new Hub seems divided. To an outsider, it has the feel of a hospital with its empty institutional corridors and generic public service signage.

The reception area is oddly placed away from both entrances, leaving the visitor to navigate the building with little assistance. The Hub’s café is the most immediately welcoming space in the new building, bright with sunshine from the huge windows that make the building so striking from the outside. The café is staffed by a friendly team who seem to know most of the people queuing at the counter.

On the day I go to meet Robert, a quick poll of everyone in the almost full café finds only two people who actually live in Somerstown. Some have ventured in from sunny Southsea, but the vast majority there are council officers who work in the building, very few of whom live in Somerstown.

In the café, Robert and I sit down at one of the remaining tables. I ask him about how he came to live in the area, and he answers in a gently lilting Scots accent.

‘I moved into Somerstown in 1992, into one of the tower blocks. It was very different then.

‘When my wife and I first moved into the block, people used to take it in turns to make sure it was nice, taking turns to mop the floors in the shared areas on each floor, keeping the place tidy, you know. People used to have pots of flowers in the corridors, that sort of thing.

‘But for lots of different reasons – health and safety, people not bothering any more – that’s all gone.

‘People spill drinks or drop litter and they just walk away. I borrowed one of the “wet floor” signs from the cleaners so that I can mop it up and not get in trouble with health and safety, you know, it happens that often.

‘When we first moved in, it was easier to get to know the other people who lived in the block, you know? People would talk to you more. Also, my wife was still alive then, so it made it easier for the older residents, sometimes older people don’t like talking to men who are on their own.

‘There were coffee mornings and sometimes events in the afternoon, cream teas and bingo, that sort of thing. There were parties and events at different times of year, like Easter, Christmas, you know. The coffee mornings still happen, but as time went by, things changed.

‘When old people move out of the flats into a home or when somebody passes away, Portsmouth City Council are not putting old people in the block anymore. They’re putting in people with families more.

‘The block is totally different now. There are only a few people in the sheltered housing scheme these days. I’m in it because of my health. I’m under the care of the Scheme Manager, so you’ve got an alarm in the flat and you push a panel and you can talk to someone who can come up to help you if you need it. I’ve never used it.’

The Scheme Manager, Alison, sees Robert most days.

‘If you need anything,’ continues Robert, ‘if you’re having a bad day, she’ll help you. If I haven’t bumped into her for a couple of days, she comes up, knocks the door and checks in.’

Robert has had recurring issues with his health following an operation that went wrong.

‘I had the operation about twenty years ago and I was pretty much disabled with it. They messed it up, basically. I spent eight weeks in a coma on a life support machine. I’ve “crashed” [almost died and had to be resuscitated in intensive care] three times. The vicar came out three times!

‘My wife was still alive then. After I learned to walk again and came out of the wheelchair, I was still very limited because the wound from the operation needed dressing three times a day by a nurse.

‘My step-son learned how to change the dressings when he was only seven. He asked if he could try and he’d seen the nurses do it so many times. The nurses couldn’t fault him and they started to only come out once a week. My boy used to do the dressings before he went to school and before he went to bed.

‘In the end they sent me to Haslar Hospital because they thought the wound was taking too long to heal. I’m diabetic as well so healing is even slower apparently. They did lots of different tests and scans and confirmed what was really wrong.

‘The consultant there was really good, he brought in three surgeons to meet me and they came up with a procedure to fix everything. The only thing was the operation would be a long procedure and I was going to be in a hospital bed, on my back, for at least six months after.

‘I was up for it, but my wife said no. She said, “I’ve nearly lost you three times, I’m not going to risk it.” We argued about it quite a lot. So unfortunately, I didn’t have it. I was down for a long time after that.

‘My wife had health issues too, she was hospitalised for a while and one day after that she tripped over the coffee table and hurt herself quite badly. I called the ambulance and they wanted to take her in but she wouldn’t go.’

It turned out that, in the fall, Robert’s wife had ruptured her spleen. She died shortly after.

Vertigo is one of several health problems Robert has lived with since and he’s visited hospital three times as a result of this condition alone.

‘I’ve been up a stepladder to try and get the light bulb in and had a dizzy turn, and then I’m back in hospital again. After the last time, Alison told me not to do that. She said if it’s out of hours, I’m to leave it, ring her and somebody else can come and do it.

‘She’s really good, she goes above and beyond the call of duty. She’s helped me out a lot and she’s really easy to talk to. A really great lady, she’s one of the best scheme managers we’ve had there in 20 years, honestly.’

I ask him what it’s like living in Somerstown now.

‘I wouldn’t like to say,’ he replies, ‘It’s changed a hell of a lot.’

One of the biggest problems for Somerstown, Robert says, is anti-social behaviour, particularly drug use. The use of cannabis is particularly rife.

‘I’m fed up with putting notices up saying: Whoever’s doing this, would you at least keep it in your own flat and not in the lift.

‘And of course, it’s not just the residents, it’s the people coming and going from the blocks at all hours.’

One of the other changes in Somerstown since Robert first came here reflects the shifting demographics of Portsmouth as a whole. The make-up of Portsmouth’s BME communities has changed a lot between 2001 and 2011 (the last two censuses). Census data shows that migration from EU countries as they were defined in 2001 has stayed roughly the same in that ten year period. At the same time, the number of people moving to Portsmouth from the new EU countries and the rest of the world has increased.

As of 2011, Portsmouth’s population includes 25,000 people born outside the UK. The data however, is not definitive. The 2011 census counted overseas students as ‘residents from overseas’, although most will return home after their studies. Data from the University of Portsmouth shows the number of overseas students to be just over 5,000.

At the last Census, the biggest BME communities in Portsmouth were: Bangladeshi or British Bangladeshi (1.8%, 3,649 people), African (1.4%, 2,958 people) and Indian or British Indian (1.4%, 2911 people).

‘There’s much more of a mix of cultures in our block now,’ says Robert, ‘it’s quite extensive now. Sometimes I get into a lift and I wonder, will I be in the lift with someone I can talk to, you know. More and more, I get into the lift and I don’t know what they’re saying.

‘It’s not that I’m being racist, but it’s hard to build up a relationship with people when you can’t talk to one another.

‘I’m not sure what the reason is, but it’s happened a couple of times that I’ve got in the lift and there are already people there. They’re not speaking English, they’re not from this country. That’s OK. They’re women taking their kids to school. Then I walk in and they push their kids behind them.

‘That happens quite a bit. I try to be friends with everybody. I’ve always had the attitude if I can’t do somebody a good turn, I wouldn’t do them a bad one. It’s a bit old-school, so I’ve been told. But I don’t like the funny looks I get if I just talk to the kids – “you off to school?”  and that sort of thing.

‘It’s not friendly, and the mothers obviously don’t want it. I’ve learned which ones I can talk to and which I can’t.

‘I’ll be honest with you, if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve spent so much money on my flat, I’d move. It’s cost so much money now though and I couldn’t afford to do that somewhere else.’

Robert’s no stranger to the complexities of racial and religious identity himself.

‘Believe it or not, my granddad was an Irish Jew. For years and years I didn’t know what that little cap he wore was all about. I was in my twenties before I found out what it was and who he was.

‘The only time I ever got money from him was if I worked for it, raking the tennis courts and that, he wouldn’t give you money for nothing. I’d be down there working from about half past seven in the morning to six o’clock at night. I’d sit down with my granddad and my uncles and have breaks and then they’d say “Back to work!”

‘When he paid me, he’d make up a proper wage packet. At seven years old, I got a wage packet. He’d always make sure that half of what I earned went in the bank. It stayed with me all that. I’ve always known the value of money.’

Despite the challenges facing his community, Robert is very involved in local projects as a volunteer. Locally, the problems are many and profound. Over half (50.8%) of the children living in Somerstown are living in poverty, almost double the average for the whole of Portsmouth. Residents there are more likely to have a limiting long term illness or disability than the average Portsmouth resident (17.9% versus the city average of 16%) and more likely to binge drink (27.3% of versus the city average of 22.2%).

Most striking of all is the disparity in local life expectancy, particularly for men. In Somerstown, men have a life expectancy of 72.4 years, compared to city average of 77.9 years and the national average of 78.9 years. Women in Somerstown have a life expectancy of 79.5 years, compared to the city average of 82.5 years and the national average of 82.8 years.

I ask Robert about his decision to become a community volunteer.

‘It’s only been recently that I’ve got more involved in the local community.’

After Robert’s wife died, he says, ‘I became quite withdrawn, I was a recluse for a long time. But after a while I thought, I can’t go on like this.

‘We’ve had quite a few different scheme managers in the block during my time here. When Alison got the job, she would go round and chat with everyone. One day she said to me, “We’ll have to do something with you, my lad!”

‘She was a real kick in the arse, to be honest. She asked me to start helping her run the coffee morning in the block. Through that she got me to go to college and do a catering course, to make it official for me to be working in the kitchen.

‘Through Alison and one of the council officers, I heard about a few different voluntary groups running in Somerstown. I’m now volunteering for four different projects in the area.

‘Before I started this, I was stuck in my flat all day, not doing anything. The government say, you know, if you’re disabled, you need to do something, but I can’t get work. Everything I’ve worked at I can’t do anymore because of my health.

‘I get a buzz out of helping people. One of the ladies next door was fretting because she couldn’t get the batteries for her hearing aids. So now I go down to Eastney and get them for her.’

I ask Robert what advice he would give to anyone like him who might be thinking of volunteering in the community but isn’t sure if it would be for them.

‘I’d say: Don’t make your mind up before you try it. If you try it and it doesn’t work out, fair enough. But try it.

‘It’s a challenge. But it’s stopped me feeling sorry for myself. I always knew there were people worse off than me and now I can help some people. I can talk to people about their problems because I’ve been through bad things too. I know what it’s like and you can come through it.

‘It’s taken me a while, you know. From the first time I went to one of the coffee mornings to where I am now, that’s taken about two and a half years. But I’m glad I’ve done it.’


With thanks to Portsmouth’s Voice of Diversity for their summary of Portsmouth City Council’s data on BME and migrant communities in the city. Read it here Health statistics on Somerstown and Portsmouth taken from Public Health England.

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.