Home Thoughts of Portsmouth From Abroad

Having left Portsmouth for the United States and then come back to Pompey in later life, Gareth Rees ponders the meaning of travel and the definition of home.

It’s hardly uplifting hearing folk running down their hometown. It’s the locality which is sunk in apathy. It’s not me, of course. And I’ve been guilty of this sulky state and an arrogance that sees me as deserving better. It’s an attitude that often results in relegation rather than rising to the Premier League.

I needed to get out of Portsmouth, had to get out of England with its massive imperial, nuclear-armed ego nursed by pale-faced Brahmins dressed in dark grey uniforms and necks closed to fresh air by buttoned-up shirts with stiff collars and noose-like ties which, if tightened any more, would make their dead-dog-eyes pop out from their sockets. I needed a bright-eyed new world. America.

So I went and it was wonderful. Hershey’s chocolate sauce on ice cream made with cream instead of the pork fat dripping from the sausage machine. I loved the juicy hamburgers and the floppy gherkins. And it was folksy, generous and children weren’t nuisances. I even had a Green Card so I could have stayed. I did have to swear I wasn’t a communist and I didn’t like to do that. I wouldn’t say I was a communist. But I wouldn’t say I wasn’t either.

Old ruins and sinking Venice might have been a romantic destination in Europe but romance for me was America and palm trees along Delray Beach, hillbillies in the Ozarks or a black man sat smoking a fat cigar on the veranda of a wooden shack in the Georgia woods.

But the world is a safer place when viewed behind the glass of a car or a train window and, as long as you keep moving, no-one’s pain can embed itself in your heart. And maybe too, in motion, I can suppose I’m leaving my own pain trailing behind. Isn’t travelling sometimes an escape from self? But who is this self I don’t want to meet? Is it the frightening and frightened self, the creature of the frightening and frightened human herd?

I came to a halt on the other side of the American dream in a rundown, gap-toothed street in a midwest city. At the cash desk of a supermarket there was no cash. Toothless, ghost-white faces paid in welfare stamps. But musicians, artists and gay people found refuge from all-is-well America in that part of the city. There was a bar, the only life at night. Maybe it was protected. Cops used the place and never seemed to pay for their beer or food. There was the sound of gunshots and a while later a couple of cops came in the bar and said there’d been a hold-up at a gas station. ‘A couple of niggers got shot.’

I went for a walk in Fredericksburg, West Virginia. Odd that in the “land of the free”, you weren’t free to walk. Verbal abuse came from a passing pick-up truck followed by an empty Budweiser can and then a bottle of Dr Pepper landed near my feet and smashed. And then, suddenly, it seemed I wasn’t in America anymore. In a land where hardly a building was more than forty years old, I saw an eighteenth century church which could have been in the English countryside. I hugged the church wall and knew then I wanted to go home.

And I went home. But was it home anymore? When the gunshots were sounding in the American nights, I thought favourably of England where of course the police don’t carry guns. But when I got home the peace was like the peace of a cemetery. I missed the ‘edge’. And the pacific and beautiful Hampshire countryside? The day I got home, we drove into the Meon Valley and visited the Shoe tavern in Exton. Perfect. But it didn’t feel so. The countryside was tame and manicured, the village quaint but twee and in the pub I felt an England bombed-out by history. I felt queasy as old certainties were certain no more.

Was I unbalanced? Yes, I was.

I met an old bloke in the Bold Forester pub in Albert Road, who told me he’d been a prisoner of war in Germany and yes, he did try to escape once. A couple of hundred yards from the prison he fell through the ice on a stream and he was very grateful to be recaptured quickly and returned to the ‘cosy comfort’ of prison. But that pleasure didn’t last long. He was unhappy on the outside and inside he was being crushed by monotony and boredom.

It took a while for equilibrium to return after getting back from America. But there was to be no return to the old idea of home, an idea which was probably illusory in the first place. Hadn’t I projected an inner desire for a safe, permanent anchor onto a place, Portsmouth, Hampshire, England. Perhaps it’s more realistic to sometimes report to that place in the soul which is nomadic and where settlement is transient. My house is a tent for one night, perhaps a week, perhaps years. But it’s not permanent.

And perhaps that desire to be safe and anchored comes from the same insecurity which longs for a messiah, a football manager perhaps, who can transport us out of the valley of the shadow of death to a higher, sunnier place and the open top of a double-decker bus carrying Harry Redknapp, Portsmouth FC and the FA Cup.

And later, foreign interests were encamped in the form of Louis Vuitton, BMW and Land Rover. And then the Red Arrows thundered across the sky. But, instead of following the aerial affair, I found myself watching two little boys who were laughing and chasing each other and oblivious to the mayhem in the sky.

I pondered on the close-fetched world of a child and wondered if going home is going home to who I am. Now there’s a trip.

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.