Fortitude Cottage in Old Portsmouth, so the publicity tells me, is named after HMS Fortitude, a 74-gun ‘ship of the line’ that was part of the fleet which took on the French in the Napoleonic Wars. A tall bow-fronted house, it’s a bed and breakfast done out ‘boutique-style’, with white duvets, chocolate suede furnishings and modern ceramics. It was built on the site of a 16th-century cottage burned down in the Blitz and was recently renamed in keeping with the cobbled streets and battlements of the old garrison town. Across Portsmouth Harbour there’s a glimpse of Nelson’s flagship, the Victory, one of the tourist attractions in the ‘historic dockyard’. Much more dramatic, as I sit at the breakfast table, is the Isle of Wight ferry, lumbering into view between the narrow streets like a great white whale.
I’ve booked in to avoid spending another night at my parents’ sheltered housing. I can get to sleep in the guest-room only after the hard-of-hearing turn off their blaring TVs and only until dawn brings the more sprightly out for an early constitutional, clattering down in the lift and cheerfully banging the iron gates under the window. I also want to spend the morning at the local records office following up some family history. The host at Fortitude Cottage asks me how it feels to take a trip ‘down Memory Lane’. I explain that my parents and brother still live here and I’ve been visiting the city all my life. ‘Was Portsmouth a good place to grow up in?’ one of the other guests asks, overhearing us. They are from East Anglia, anxious about recent flood warnings, and down in Portsmouth to buy a new yacht. As a Pompey girl, born and bred next to the football ground in Fratton, I naturally know nothing at all about sailing (though I know that ‘F’ stands for frigate and chanted ‘Boney was a warrior, rah, rah, rah!’ in the playground, assuming it referred to a skeleton). I nod smilingly at their Swallows and Amazons vision of me messing about in boats. When I was a child the seafront meant swimming and ice-cream cornets on the beach; crisps and lemonade at the pier; the funfair. I have faint memories of fishing boats hauled up slipways with their nets full (my friend Carole put me off by saying that mackerel ate sewage), but the pleasure craft whose masts now bristle and clink in the marinas around the harbour were unknown.
Portsmouth certainly meant the dockyard (not yet ‘historic’), the city’s main employer until the 1970s. My father’s last job before retirement was as a fitter for Hampshire Engineering, a small maintenance firm contracted to the naval establishments, which tackled everything from fiddling with air-locks in radiators to climbing down inside huge industrial boilers and descaling them with acid. A man of philosophic temperament, given to quoting from Voltaire, who salts verses of poetry away in his wallet, my father is one of those millions who left school at 13. His brief apprenticeship as a carpenter was cut short by the outbreak of war. He tried his hand at most jobs in the building trade, and at worst had to dig roads: ‘a jack of all trades’, he always says, ‘master of none’. Now 81, he has spent the last two years in and out of hospital with multiple myeloma, a cancer which attacks both the blood and bones. It frequently affects elderly men and is sometimes linked to the accumulation of ‘toxic insults’ from working with pollutants or chemicals. Exposure to asbestos over the years – roofing, ships’ lagging, dust from dry walls – has also thickened the lining around his lungs and may be partly responsible for his condition. Two of his old workmates died of asbestosis.