Writer and artist Gareth Rees sometimes feels alienated from his home town… until he makes his way to the delightful Rock Gardens and their language of fragrance.
Population-wise Portsmouth is of course a city, but the city centre isn’t big, is it? And doesn’t this make Portsmouth different in a pleasant way? There’s no noise-polluting, hurtling metal highway like the Champs Elysee cutting through it. You don’t feel reduced to the size of a vole as you might do at the base of the canyons of New York.
And the city museum is not housed in a vast converted old power station. And you don’t get queasy by too much art. It’s about what it has and not what it hasn’t. There’s no Picasso but there is a Turner and there’s no pressure to walk past it because of a plethora of other great works of art vying for your attention. So, unhurried, I can pause to look at the Turner, to study the faces of the folk out for a sail on Portsmouth harbour. The sea is choppy and do the faces show, in the exhilaration of the outing, a tinge of anxiety? Are the passengers trying to escape from Gosport perhaps ?
Exhibited also is the casing of a World War II bomb which didn’t explode. I thought I’d be pleased to have this as an epitaph. ‘He was a bomb, but he failed to explode.’ I thought further about the effect of the bombing of Portsmouth. Are there still aftershocks? Is there still a numbness that informs the city government and makes it slow to vibrate, to exploit its wonderful Solent location? Does the city’s military past hang low like an incubus inhibiting the forging of a fresh identity?
Just because I might feel less small in Portsmouth than I might in Wall Street, doesn’t mean I don’t feel diminished at all in this city. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel the chill of being subject to remote power which doesn’t know my name. In the Civic Offices, being treated as a number and made to queue in order to pay a tax to the Caesar, isn’t conducive to a tall, proud bearing. But there is an antidote.
Take a stroll through the Rock Gardens. Yes, the Red Hot Pokers are tall but they’re hardly the Petronus Towers. South Parade Pier looks as though it’s living in the past but I don’t have to do that. Look forward. Move forward and then turn left to where the rose gardens speak in silence in the language of fragrance. Pass through the pergola, pass the splash pool and we’ve arrived at the model village.
Now, it’s up with the gods and looking down on human settlement amongst fields. And yet, how did steam engines, marauding iron horses, gain entry into this bucolic scene? Is Thomas the Tank Engine really so benign? But then it’s down and away from divine heights and into a dark tunnel built for military men and at its end is a grotto containing model ships and the Guildhall made from matchsticks. I wonder about the hard work, concentration, precision and patience without a thought for fame and fortune.
It’s time to rise from the subterranean and to ascend to the toy-land castle on the top of a toy-sized hill. At the top of the castle is a bench and to sit there with a grand view of the sparkling Solent is to feel like a monarch at last.
Photography by Sarah Cheverton.