A Map of the Solent

In this absorbing work of psychogeography, writer and dramatist Tom Phillips draws some little-known connections between Portsmouth and other parts of Britain and Europe.

You can’t beat a good map. That’s what I say. Right now, on the wall opposite me are a map of the world – which I’d like to think isn’t a sign of incipient megalomania – and an illustrated street plan of Sofia in Bulgaria – which has its own story. Over the years, their predecessors have included a rail map of Europe (from Inter-railing days); a road map of America’s Eastern Seaboard (from an adolescent trip to South Carolina); and a map of the air corridors across what was then the Soviet Union which my father, a flight engineer with British Airways, ‘retrieved’ from the flight deck of a Boeing 707 after flying from Moscow to Tokyo shadowed by Mig fighters. Oddly, the first map I remember sticking up on my bedroom wall when I was ten or eleven was an Ordnance Survey inch-to-the-mile map of Portsmouth, the Isle of Wight and the Solent.

I only say ‘oddly’ because I didn’t live anywhere near the south coast. I grew up in Buckinghamshire, very close to one of those places which claim to be the furthest point from the sea in Britain. Our own village’s claim to fame was that it had been the scene of the Great Train Robbery in 1963 – the year my father bought our house, although the timing is presumably coincidental. Rather than sticking up a map of Buckinghamshire, however (with Bridego Bridge, Leatherslade Farm and other sites made famous by Reynolds, Biggs & co circled in pencil), my pre-teen self went for the old red-covered version of what’s now known as OS Landranger 196.

This wasn’t due to landlocked yearning for the sea or a longstanding family connection with that part of the country. It was simply because I’d been on a primary school trip to Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight and, having already spotted the symptoms of my nascent cartophilia, my father had bought me a copy of the map as a present – even though, on reflection, it would’ve been better if he’d given it to the teacher who managed to get us lost on a walk to Alum Bay.

That map stayed on the wall beside my bed for three years before it was replaced by photos of Joe Strummer and Debbie Harry torn from the pages of NME. Like my train set and my Willard Price novels, it went into a box and then into the loft. I’ve still got it. It’s in a filing cabinet with the American road map and the airline map of the Soviet Union.

I should have retrieved it and put it in my rucksack when we went on holiday this summer. For reasons known only to teenage boys, my son suddenly developed a passionate interest in submarines. Around the same time, my wife, who’s been tracing our family history, discovered that one of my ancestors was Thomas ‘Customer’ Smythe, a Tudor-era chap with a spectacular ginger beard and head honcho of Customs and Excise at London docks. Given these circumstances, it was almost inevitable that our holiday would end up consisting of two days in Portsmouth, with most of our time spent nosing around the Historic Dockyard, the Mary Rose and HMS Alliance.

It’s possible that my old map might have come in handy when we went to find our hotel. Or maybe not. I don’t seem to remember there being quite so many dual carriageways on the map as there were on the ground. Either way, the initially confident journey turned into a psychogeographical ramble into Buckland which eventually brought us out, not at our hotel, but at Dickens’ birthplace and a brief, unexpected moment of literary homage which I wouldn’t have otherwise managed to infiltrate into our official sub- and Tudor warship-dominated itinerary. Adding to the pleasure of surprise was the fact that the house looks so … well, Dickensian, to the point at which I half-expected the cast of Oliver! to come bounding out of the front door singing ‘Consider Yourself’ while Mr Brownlow looked on benevolently from an upstairs window. Three years previously the house had been the venue for the launch of an anthology to mark the Dickens centenary: one of my poems had been in the book. Not long afterwards, the anthology’s editor – a friend of mine in Reading – started visiting the Isle of Wight on a fairly regular basis. There was a fairly decent chance, I thought, that while we were standing outside 393 Old Commercial Road he was heading towards Portsmouth to catch the ferry. Our paths may even have crossed at Portsmouth Harbour that same afternoon.

It’s that kind of coincidence which seems to haunt every visit to Portsmouth. The following day, for example, we continued our excursions through the Historic Dockyard, picking up the kind of random facts – World War II submariners stank because they never washed, nineteenth-century sailors weren’t any shorter than their modern-day equivalents – that usually stick in my mind far longer than all the official stuff about admirals, deployments and engagements. It being nearly the hundredth anniversary of Gallipoli, preparations were well underway for commemorative activities. The flags of the nations that had participated in the campaign had been put up; naval personnel were double-checking the arrangements; a group of actors was rehearsing on the deck of Gallipoli veteran HMS M.33. We were twenty-four hours too early and would be back in Bristol when the main event took place.

Which sounds as if it should count as an almost perfect lack of coincidence – except that, the following day, another friend of ours, one from Bristol, would almost certainly be standing exactly where we were, leaning on the rail, watching the actors on board HMS M.33. She was coming to the Gallipoli Centenary because she’d worked on the display about the campaign in the museum. Anna was also the friend who’d been part of a decidedly unlikely coincidence the previous year. I’ve written elsewhere about the chance meeting with a Bulgarian student in Portsmouth which had all manner of unexpected consequences, but there was another upshot of that brief encounter. When I was visiting Sofia and Vassi’s family were planning my trip to the Black Sea coast, I posted on Facebook that I was in Bulgaria and about to catch a bus to the seaside. Almost immediately, Anna messaged to say that she was in Bulgaria too, taking part in a theatre project. In Sozopol. On the Black Sea coast. Vassi was scribbling my itinerary on the back of an envelope at the time: first stop, Sozopol.

The following day I got off the coach from Sofia. It’s a popular resort, Sozopol, but with Bulgarians rather than Brits, so it’s not turned into the peak-season hellhole that is Sunny Beach further up the coast. Anna was waiting outside the Bar Small Tequila, on the narrow strip of land that connects old Sozopol with new. Even though we both live in Bristol, I couldn’t remember the last time we’d met. Maybe a year before. Now we were catching up, swapping news about kids and work and mutual friends over bottles of Burgasko in a bar beside the Black Sea. Statistically speaking, it seemed, there was more chance of us meeting on the other side of the continent than on the harbourside at home.

The theatre company Anna was working with were in town for the Apollonia festival, the Bulgarian seaside equivalent of Edinburgh Fringe. A joint Bulgarian-Romanian venture, the company specialised in ‘labyrinth’ theatre and were going to be in the town museum the next day. I told Anna I’d be there and then went back to what was becoming our favourite topic: the sheer unlikelihood of our meeting by chance in the seaside town of Sozopol.

In the morning, I got up early, wandered through old Sozopol under dark-beamed balconies and had a conversation with an old man in a sailor’s cap about the relative strength of the off-sea breeze. Trawlers slumped against harbourside wharves. At the far end of the isthmus a row of concrete Xs formed the town’s coastal defences. Languid holiday-makers stationed themselves outside cafes selling deep slices of cake while kids chased along cobbled alleys. Somewhere someone was rehearsing a Tennessee Williams play translated into Bulgarian. I met Anna and the theatre company for lunch before we walked to the museum. I thought it was just going to be a leisurely tourist visit. Half-an-hour later, I was perched on the back of a chair in an upstairs gallery, making up a monologue in the character of a 4,000-year-old Thracian cult object as part of an on-the-spot site-specific theatre piece. Fortunately, the human audience seemed to find this bit of unexpected improv somewhat more hilarious than the 4,000-year-old Thracian cult object in the cabinet behind me did – and the Margaritas in the old town jazz bar we retreated to certainly tasted all the better afterwards.

Does any of this have anything to do with that map of the Solent I used to have on my bedroom wall? I doubt it. I don’t know. In a cafe on The Hard, we ate full English breakfasts and in the newspaper headlines some business leader or other was quoted about having a clear and well-defined roadmap. We went out into the street to smoke before catching the train back to Bristol. The flat-bottomed ferry to Ryde slunk past. If only the inventor of Blu-Tack had been from Portsmouth instead of Leicester.

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.