Writer and actor John Bartlett remembers an eccentric Portsmouth character and the peculiar gifts he would bring.
The bitter northeasterly wind had been blowing all day bringing with it the odd flurry of icy sleet. I was working at Seymour’s, an architectural salvage yard on Beck Street, Southsea, owned by my friend Andy. As an adult “Saturday boy”, I had worked here for a number of years in return for items I could take away and use to restore my crumbling Victorian house. This arrangement suited the both of us; for me it was a refreshing contrast to my day job as a drama lecturer and for Andy I could be relied upon to open up and run the vast two-storey warehouse on my own.
When not serving customers, often two or three at a time, I found the warehouse bleak and uninviting. But there was always something to do such as measuring and pricing up the latest batch of old doors salvaged from skips or bought from one of the dubious “Totters” who periodically turned up to sell a hand basin, toilet seat, or indeed anything that had been removed from a house in order to “renovate and update” it by some unscrupulous builder. Andy and I saw this as nothing short of sacrilege but at the same time it was a dilemma, as the rape and pillage of our local period housing also provided us with stock and the public with the kit needed for the restoration of their own properties. This constant round of taking out or replacing period objects meant that, on more than one occasion, Andy bought or sold an item only to repeat the transaction in reverse a year or so later when the new owners had ripped out all the carefully replaced period features in an effort to modernise the property.
On this particular Saturday the hours were dragging by, trade was slow and the cold had seeped into my very core. Having cashed up the somewhat meagre takings for the day, I was glad to finally turn the lights off, pull the large heavy green outer sliding doors together, lock the pass door and finally pull the substantial chain between the two solid handles then click the extra padlock shut.
I hoisted my old semi-worn out, but typically versatile, grey German army rucksack bought from a local ex-army store, onto my back. Earlier in the day I had filled it almost to bursting point with vegetables from the market in Charlotte Street. I mounted my bike and, turning my face into the bitter cold wind, I was off. A mile or two later I was wheeling my bicycle through the welcoming porch and front door of my Victorian home.
I noted with satisfaction the inner door which I had worked hard for. Andy had quantified it as ‘Three Saturdays for that,’ as he had passed his expert eye over my latest potential acquisition. Mentally he had weighed up the door’s commercial possibilities and arrived at a fair disbursement balanced against labour and stock.
‘Done,’ I said and now the large door with its clear bevelled glass central panel was hanging in situ, just behind the stained glassed front door, creating a porch and, more importantly, an air lock to keep out the cold icy blasts that whistled through gaps and crevices created over time since the house had been built more than a hundred years previously. I couldn’t help thinking that I had the better part of the bargain, three Saturdays for what was now a lovely period feature. In addition, the added warmth in the house was remarkable.
The children ran to greet me, their excited faces expectant for a rough and tumble with their dad, but first I needed to heave off my back the substantial load of potatoes, carrots, parsnips, cauliflower, cabbage and fruit of all kinds. that constituted the weekly shop necessary to keep the wolf from the door. After the raw November weather the heat hit me like a blast furnace, but there was nothing wrong in that; this was, after all, home. Glad of the sudden relief from my heavy burden my next task was to cast off various layers of warm protective clothing all the while being grabbed at and pestered by tiny hands.
‘Leave your father alone,’ said my wife. ‘Let him get in through the door first.’
Dinner was always more or less ready, corn beef hash or crispy pork belly with small roast potatoes or perhaps a tasty shepherd’s pie; not exotic food but nourishing and above all substantial. There was always room for another at our table and today was no exception. Andy had called in wanting to know how we had done. He took the news on the chin and smiled ruefully; nothing ever seemed to dampen his spirits and, besides, there was always next week. Another place was hastily set and, despite Andy’s polite protestations, we all settled down to a noisy family dinner.
The food was hardly on the table when the doorbell rang. I left my place to see who it was and returning I ushered in Sid the Fish. Now Sid was an ex-sailor and looked it; he had a friendly but lined rugged face, a short curly receding hairline and an old but powerful physique. In his knitted blue Guernsey jumper he looked every inch the sailor. Add a tarred ponytail and he could have stepped out of Nelson’s navy. At the very least he looked reminiscent of Sam from the Rupert Bear stories of my youth. These days, he earned his living with an old navy pal fishing from a small inshore boat – hence his title Sid the Fish – in and around the upper reaches of the vast flood that constitutes Portsmouth Harbour. The pair of them eked out a precarious living by trawling the seabed for molluscs.
Sid often popped in on a Saturday evening to regale us with humorous stories and dubious exploits at sea gleaned from bygone days. However, today was slightly different as he had brought with him a large, wet Hessian sack which smelt pungently of the sea.
‘Here you are,’ he said with a twinkle in his eye. ‘I kept this lot for you!’ When he opened sack the slightly noxious smell of salty brine was even stronger. Inside there appeared to be large chunks of black rock all partially covered with little white mini barnacles and remnants of green and brown seaweed.
‘Sea coal,’ said Sid the Fish with a grin seemingly all dredged up from the bottom of Portsmouth harbour. ‘Oh yes and there’s this.’ He handed over a fragment of an old clay pipe. Most of the bowl was intact but the stem had been broken off either by the sea or by the sailor who had discarded it over the side, at least a hundred years ago once he had finished his smoke. I turned the old pipe over in my hands and my imagination instantly filled with romantic stories of Queen Victoria’s navy or even earlier, and in my mind’s eye I pictured the bearded Jolly Jack Tar as depicted on an old packet of Players Navy Cut cigarettes.
‘Wow that’s amazing!’ I exclaimed. Looking back upon it, I suppose it wasn’t really that amazing, there must have millions of clay pipes manufactured. It’s not that uncommon to turn one up in the garden or lift a floorboard to find the discarded evidence of a satisfying indulgence of the working man.
What was uncommon was Sid’s sack of wet salty coal. Hampshire is not exactly known for its coal mines, despite many years ago my school careers advisor suggesting I became a miner rather than an actor. It was at this point I politely suggested we were both wasting our time and left.
But I digress, so where did the coal come from? The only possible answer was accidental spillages from the decades of coaling vessels that had supplied His Majesty’s Ships – or perhaps towards the end of her reign in the late 1800s – Her Majesty’s Ships. Later that night, with some satisfaction, I sat down in front of the fire in my cosy front room, listening to the hiss and crackle of the salty sea coal that periodically spat small hot fragments across the room.
It wasn’t the best quality coal and now and then you did have to instantly leap into frenzied action to avoid burning a hole in the carpet, but I didn’t care, it was free and what’s more it had been paid for by the King – or was it the Queen? – decades earlier.
As for Sid, from that day on he often brought round a sea sodden sack of coal and so Sid the Fish became Sid the Coal. I still have the pipe but His – or was it Her Majesty’s? – coal has long since gone up in smoke.