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.

Yesterday I went up to the blood clinic with him. He doesn’t want a chaperone but can get dizzy and forgetful. My mother has arthritis in her hips, and is all but housebound, hobbling on two sticks. She can’t manage his hospital visits any more, defeated by the long corridors. She waited eight weeks to see the hip man, a pleasant, serious, overburdened consultant who told her she might have to wait another four months for an operation. She comes into the category of ‘middle urgent’. Those who live alone or have other additional illnesses are considered worse off. A private hip-replacement costs about £12,000; they live on their state pensions and none of their children can afford it. So my mother rations her painkillers as if they were luxuries and trusts to the emergency buzzer in the flat which summons Careline, a 24-hour medical service. Most of the old ladies wear pendants with red alarms like makeshift jewellery over their jumpers and blouses because ‘you can’t rely on landing in the right spot’. According to new EU regulations, Janice, the daytime warden, who keeps a weather eye on all the residents, is not allowed to pick up anyone who has a fall. She can cover them with a blanket but mustn’t touch them – officially, that is. My mother thinks the new rules are driven as much by fear of litigation as human rights. Her hairdresser, Anne, is no longer supposed to help her elderly customers off with their coats or position them under the dryer. She might accidentally break a brittle bone and find herself being sued.

Portsmouth used to have three general hospitals: the Royal, near the dockyard, where I was once X-rayed for a rogue hairgrip; St Mary’s, a short walk from our house, where they poured sulphuric acid on my verruca till it went black and dropped off; and Queen Alexandra at Cosham, a few miles outside the city, and largely remote from our lives. The Royal closed in 1978 (a Sainsbury’s later appeared on the site) and St Mary’s has been ‘streamlined’, so ‘QA’ takes all-comers from the city and most of South-East Hampshire. It perches on the slopes of Portsdown Hill, close to where in the 1860s Lord Palmerston had yet more forts built against the French (known locally as ‘Palmerston’s Follies’). My father makes the eight-mile round trip for blood tests and transfusions, including a monthly intravenous dose of pamidronate, a drug that can lessen bone pain. Mostly he avoids the aptly named ‘patient transport’, which can take half a morning going round collecting a motley crew of invalids. Last time the vehicle was a clapped-out boneshaker and he felt every bump and jolt. Instead my parents blow their pension on an Aquacab, which glides up the motorway in twenty minutes but costs £8 each way, and even more in rush hour. Clinic hours have been cut just as patient numbers have increased, so it’s pot luck with appointment times.

Dad has learned to be flexible. For radiotherapy he must go to St Mary’s, though its machines frequently break down and his records sometimes get lost in transit. The specialist for his skin cancer, though, is at the Haslar in Gosport, on the other side of Portsmouth Harbour. Once a naval hospital, Haslar was built on a creek to prevent press-ganged sailors from absconding when their convalescence was over; it’s best reached by ferry and then bus. Dad was impressed by the naval surgeon who operated on the tumours around his groin and by the well-swabbed wards, kept in shipshape order. Haslar has never had a case of MRSA. Despite its proximity to the naval and military barracks, its hydrotherapy pool for the wounded and disabled, only ten years old, and its spotless reputation, the hospital – a grand stone edifice in the neoclassical style – is scheduled to close. The building’s period features and proximity to the seashore make it a developer’s dream. Staff and patients will eventually decamp to Queen Alexandra, which is destined to become a supersized general hospital of 1200 beds by 2010.

The haematology clinic at QA is a stuffy, makeshift space without enough seats (chairs with armrests are at a premium). Tracey, the duty nurse who must spend every day doing this, greets my father with a joke or two, and asks each new arrival courteously: ‘Would you mind if I weigh you?’ He has lost weight again. We sit drifting in the drowsy fog of hospital time, startled when Dad’s name comes up. The doctor consults the computer and recites figures – his haemoglobin is up, the paraproteins are down – as mysterious to us as the FTSE index, though we get the gist. The omens are good. He has to go on taking the tablets. I write it all down for my mother, who has read up on the disease and understands the pathology. She has long got over the shock of having to administer complex chemotherapy at home, including a long course of thalidomide which left my father’s feet numb. Their sideboard holds enough poison for them to start their own branch of Exit.

The pharmacy is a strenuous walk. There’s a sign announcing a long wait for prescriptions so we shuffle back to the lifts and down to the canteen for lunch in the bowels of the hospital. With the monstrous appetite brought on by steroids, Dad rapidly polishes off a pork chop, greens and mash, and then wanders over to the counter without his stick. If he keels over he could be bedridden for the rest of his life, but he returns safely with a dish of stewed apricots and custard, wondering why they don’t keep the plates hot. He mentions, as he always does, with disbelief, that the nurses have to pay for their dinners and to park their cars. After a mug of hot chocolate, we go back to the pharmacy, where a senior chemist talks us carefully through the medicines, all with different regimes. Back home we hand over the booty and my parents count their blessings. ‘He’d be dead without the drugs,’ Mum says.

When my father was first diagnosed and looked unlikely to last six months, I started recording his memories. He came to Portsmouth from Birmingham in the 1930s as a child of five or six, not long after his mother died of TB. ‘The old man’, his father, had grown up in Pompey, left home to escape religion – my dad’s grandfather was a strict Salvationist – and returned, swallowing his pride, to look for work. My father recounts again and again the memory of a ‘moonlight flit’, a scene familiar from many working-class autobiographies, the family secretly moving house in the middle of the night to avoid paying the rent, their few bits and pieces piled up in a wheelbarrow. Listening to his tales my mother butts in with jokes if he gets maudlin. She’s a local girl and they met at a youth club in 1948 when she was 16. He was 22, barely out of demob and very wet behind the ears, despite having been a military policeman in Cairo, with a motorbike and a boxer-dog. Dad’s first trip to hospital was the only time in nearly sixty years that my parents had slept apart. She can’t sleep without the warmth he generates in bed.

I began my father’s family tree for his 70th birthday, following a line of Henry Herbert Lights (masons and bricklayers to a man) back to Shrewton, a village in Wiltshire. Genealogy often gets short shrift from professional historians; it’s seen as self-indulgent and myopic, obsessed with the idea of origins. But as the branches proliferate, individuals become families; families become neighbourhoods and groups; groups become classes. The records are impossible to fathom unless you come up for air and take in the horizon. What seems parochial is always connected to the national; the national to the global. On his mother’s side, my father’s family left farm-labouring in Herefordshire in the 1830s to work in the needle factories of the Midlands, in those outlying villages that fuelled Birmingham’s industrial revolution. The Lights from Wiltshire migrated south to Portsea, the dockyard area of Portsmouth, which flourished during the wars against the French. Portsea’s fortunes followed those of the navy. When William Cobbett surveyed ‘that hellish assemblage’ of Portsmouth, Gosport and Portsea on one of his rural rides a few years after the peace of 1815, house-lettings had already dropped to rock bottom and an ‘absolute tumbling down’ was taking place. By the 1850s it was an industrial slum.

In my morning’s stint at the records office, I track my mother’s forebears, Murphys and Millers. They also congregated in Portsea, eking out a living in its tight mesh of unpaved, filthy streets, courts, lanes and rows. I don’t know how William Murphy, a shoemaker born in the 1820s, and his wife, Lydia, survived the cholera epidemic of 1849, but they turn up thereafter in different lodgings, mostly on Albion Street, notorious for its beer-shops and brothels (one of their seven children was Flora, my mother’s grandmother, whom she never knew). Albion Street was wiped off the map, belatedly and pointlessly, in a purity drive in 1911. Even when I was a child, half a century later, trainloads of prostitutes would arrive from London whenever a fleet was in and set up shop in nearby Queen Street, still Portsea’s main thoroughfare.

Family history can be deflating. I wonder whether to tell my mother that her ‘Uncle’ Tom Murphy (actually a great-uncle) was probably a fraud. She remembers visiting him as a schoolgirl. He lay in state upstairs, an aged invalid in his nightcap, smoking a clay pipe. The windowsills were decked with ships in bottles and he had ‘sailed the China seas’ in his youth. If so he must have been quick about it. The records give a different version of his twenties and thirties: paraffin merchant, shop-hand and then servant at an Italian coffee-house in the Strand. But maybe he managed a trip or two. In any case, tall stories, fabrications, become the myths families live by and carry emotional truths as historical as the census. People who never thought they had any history to speak of often talked themselves up.

On the way out of Portsmouth Museum, which houses the records, I take in the permanent exhibits, including the ‘Living in Portsmouth’ gallery, where the re-created 1930s kitchen looks uncannily like our own did in the 1950s. I note that HMS Fortitude ended up as a prison ship, joining all those other hulks where revolutionists, poachers, pilferers and cut-throats rotted or awaited transportation. And in a glass case a figure from my childhood greets me: the mechanical Laughing Sailor, a ventriloquist’s dummy with staring eyes and a maniacal grin, who presided over the entrance to the amusement arcade at Clarence Pier. A penny in the slot sent him into hysterics. He too is out of commission.

At lunchtime I call in again at my parents’ and find that they are trying out fish and chips from the new shop on the corner. I serve Dad and make myself a cheese sandwich while my mother, listing to port, fries an egg, not fancying the look of the batter. She finds the chips suspiciously ‘bendy’ and thinks they were cooked earlier and just warmed up. Most of their groceries are now ordered online or from the milkman, a shy, gangly bloke she has coaxed into conversation. (‘What’s your name?’ she asked him finally. ‘I can’t go on calling you “Milkie”.’) He stows things away for her on the top shelf of the fridge, or on the kitchen surfaces, so she doesn’t have to stoop for anything. I go out and do a bit of shopping for them, ignoring her warning against the prices at Waitrose (‘About a pound of carrots, but get a paper bag if you can’), and then I change the sheets and pillowslips on the double bed, a job which usually takes them half an hour. Dad takes the washing round to their communal laundry, my mother following at a snail’s pace in case he forgets to put the machine on or puts conditioner in the wrong compartment. On the train back to London, I feel relieved and imagine them taking their afternoon nap, sitting up straight in their armchairs. Later they will go back to collect their washing and I will be at Waterloo, and by then it will be dark.

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