In my journey around Portsmouth I found myself recently in the slightly less than fashionable area of Eastney Road. We were off to The Fort Cumberland Arms to watch some live music. The band, Stolen, were already playing when we arrived and they kept us entertained for the next two and a half hours.
But this article isn’t about the band really, nor the pub (although both are worth an article each in their own right). Instead it was Sam Hoar, the front man of the band, that interested me the most, so I asked him if we could chat about him and life in Portsmouth.
I sensed that Sam had led a colourful life and from what he told me, I was right. Although he was playing in an old pub in Portsmouth, at present he lives in Havant. He had been what he described as a ‘childhood delinquent’ and had moved from school to school, finally finishing his education in South Downs College where he attended a Pre-vocational Bridging Course, completing his GCSEs with an A* in Maths and passes in English and several other subjects. He also has a Foundation Degree in Trees which he obtained at the Merrist Wood Agricultural College. He was able to recite the names of the trees in my garden, complete with their Latin names. I admit I was rather impressed with this.
He has worked in the field of tree surgery and arboreal culture for much of his working life, recently working as far afield as Sweden, but after twenty years he’s decided it’s time for a change – the years have taken their toll on his body causing occupational injuries to his knees and arms. With this in mind he recently secured his HGV driving license and now has a job in B&Q as a mounted crane driver. He talks about making changes in his lifestyle and is looking towards the future with optimism, wishing to draw a line under his sometimes troubled past. When I ask about his biggest regret, he explains that at eighteen, he had a son who he hasn’t seen since the child was two. Now his son is eighteen himself and Sam would love to be reconciled with him one day.
Originally a singer in a three piece acoustic band, Penny Bonanza, Sam later described himself as the ‘Karaoke King’, and ran his own karaoke outfit, before finding his way into singing with Stolen more than seven years ago. Often assumed to be ‘just a local band’, Stolen have a strong track record of playing 3-4 gigs a week at their busiest, from Portsmouth and Southampton to as far as Hampstead Heath or Worcestshire.
I ask Sam about his future as a singer and he tells me he knows his voice won’t last forever. His style of singing is to ‘belt it out’, and the crowd certainly loves it. He engages the audience and his enjoyment of the music is infectious. Unfortunately, he tells me, this type of singing isn’t good for the voicebox; his vocal range is less than it was when he was younger. He admits he doesn’t train his voice or warm up before a gig.
‘When I can’t sing anymore,’ he says, ‘I’ll just give up the band thing.’
Away from the music scene, Sam’s interests are based in the natural world: trees, being out in the countryside, camping and walking. I ask him about Portsmouth, the city, its people. It’s a frustrated place, he tells me; the people he meets are angry, agitated, there’s a lot of poverty in the city. Maybe this is why he loves the woods and would prefer to live in the country; he tells me he would love to live in Sweden.
We talk about different parts of Portsmouth for a while: the stark contrast between Gunwharf and the millions of pounds of investment in the new Hard Interchange, and the huge derelict high-rise building across the road that has become a self-made refuge for the homeless. Sam tells me he worked on the Spinnaker Tower as a concreter for three months when it was built, working twelve hour shifts at a time. He laughs as he tells me that he placed a tiny wire man in the right hand leg of the tower and a similar tiny wire woman in the left hand leg. I wonder if they will ever be found.
Our conversation highlights the inconsistencies in our city for me – the unfairness of how public money is spent as the struggles of vulnerable local people are derided or dismissed. We discuss the amount of money the Council wasted on the Spinnaker Tower due to the infamous delays on its construction.
As we talk, I think that Sam has little hope for the future of Portsmouth. It’s no wonder that he feels it’s a frustrated place, many of its people angry. Still, he continues to sing – to entertain in the way he knows best and like many people working or living in Portsmouth, what he does is to help make life richer, taking us away from our troubles for a few hours. Look out for his gigs around town – you won’t be disappointed.
Stolen are playing at The Old House at Home, Locksway Road on 22nd October and at The Phoenix, Torrington Road, on the 19th November. Keep up with the gigs and news over at their Facebook page.
Photography by Sarah Cheverton.