Love in the time of covid #4 – Southsea Independents

covid 19, Southsea Life

I live in the seaside resort of Southsea. The nearest city is Portsmouth, and we’re situated at the southern end of Portsea island, Hampshire. Southsea developed as a fashionable Victorian seaside resort, originally named Croxton Town (who knew when you buy a beer in Croxtons?), but later adopting the name of nearby Southsea Castle.

My first experience of Portsmouth was a soggy cycle south with a friend in my teens. We stayed at youth hostels, cycling from Oxford to Portsmouth and then around the Isle of Wight. The rain had finally cleared just as we reached the tip of the South Downs, and we looked down on Portsmouth, sparkling and glinting in the optimistic sunlight. It looked like a vast metropolis of possibilities to my tiny Middle England brain. So a few years later I chose to come to Polytechnic here.

The view from Portsdown Hill

Portsmouth is practically an island. With all that an island mentality brings with it. It is still attached to the mainland, but barely. By 3 roads, all at the top. And we’re surrounded by islands. To the East is Hayling Island, look West to Gosport on strictly speaking a peninsula, and south is The Isle of Wight and then the French. Most of the council housing estates are all just off the island to the North. This means that Portsmouth itself doesn’t have a lot of the inner city problems associated with other cities because all the problems are over the (Portsdown) hill and far away.

In a survey where Portsmouthians were asked to list their three biggest fears the running order was:
1 – paedophiles
2 – drinking in the street
3 – the French

The French?? Henry VIIIs legacy I guess. Back in the day, looking out across a misty English Channel from Southsea castle, I guess you would have good cause to be scared of the French. Our best ship, the Mary Rose, didn’t stand up too well. And just to touch on paedophiles too, (tho not in that way). Yes, it was on a Portsmouth housing estate where mob rule torched a paediatricians house for fear of crimes yet to be rendered.

Island mentality I think is generally a positive minded well meaning groupthink centred around preservation. In the absence of anything but Portsmouth existing, sometimes, given a threat, the best way may well have been to bare knuckle fist fight your way out of a situation. Thus preventing the demise of Portsmouth. The biggest employer historically, the dockyard, is now largely a tourist attraction. A massive chunk of navy land has become Gunwharf Quays, a premium retail outlet centre. And possibly the biggest employer in the city is now the University. The university incidentally attracts huge numbers of new students to the city every year, some of whom, like myself, don’t actually leave. Maybe I would say this, but I think this introduction of a wide variety of twenty somethings from all over the world has added to a new layer in Portsmouth on top of the fading defence industry, which it was built to be, and is still fiercely proud of. As a city, there isn’t a huge amount of wealth here. Naval heritage yes, but actual money, no. This is a great leveller for the people living in the city and Portsmouthians generally rub along quite happily together and are an affable bunch.

In some ways it’s a hand mirror to the island mentality of the UK. I think the two are not that far apart.

So oi loikes Portsmouth oi does. And it’s dialect.

Who would have thought then that this almost island nation of ne’er do wells would be topping the charts when it came to Google’s location data, gathered via Google Maps, to track people’s movements during the pandemic? According to Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson ‘Pompey is showing the rest of the country how it is done’.

This is a far cry from how we’re often described be it a few villeins, bordars and serfs in 1086, to ‘the diabolical citizens of Portsmouth’ in 1758 and, even more recently when Boris Johnson in 2019 called Portsmouth a city ‘full of drugs and obesity’ – hurrah!

But on top of a town filled with war and preparations for war came trade: wheat; wool; wine and woad as well as the delicious stories of Spice Island, smugglers and pirates. And trade is still a huge part of Pompey from the gold spired metropolis of Gunwharf Quays, to the well trodden market ways of Commercial Road and then the colour and variety of independent Bohemian Southsea. Always in flux – until now.

I’ve always worked in some form of retail, from selling my own clubwear line in the noughties, to working from the extremes of corporate department stores to family run businesses.

Winter @ Spanbodywear in the noughties

I’m not sure if I chose a career in retail, or that once having worked in it, it literally pinned me down by the throat and price gunned me into a life of servitude, unsociable hours and endless promotions. Even in lock down now I have to pinch myself as I work in a non essential business and am actually at home in the sunshine, while other people in shops are at work. I always seemed to still be working, be it Christmas, weekends and bank holidays as shops are required to be open when most other people have time off. That aside, I also love working in retail. There is a very real time connection with people and commodities when you work in a shop. Everyone shops for something at some point and you get to talk to GPs, mothers, captains of ships, teachers, politicians, other retail workers, downright racist bigots, bus drivers – and how do I know all this? Because they tell you. There is a real human need to communicate and a lot of that has been lost on the High Street, even before covid 19. We don’t all go to the butchers, the bakers and the candlestick makers any more. We do go to coffee shops and I think that’s a good thing. Whether it’s somewhere to go alone to work, think or write poetry but in the company of other people or if its to socialise and meet people out. And now, in lockdown, that’s gone too.

Lockdown has forced decisions on everyone, but here I’m specifically thinking of small independent businesses. Many have had to shut, tattooists, hair dressers, beauticians etc. Some for social distancing and some for economic reasons. Others are still continuing a presence on line, especially restaurants.

Keen to try something other than home cooking in these unprecedented times – my cooking is nourishing but basic, what we both wanted was a take out curry. I checked on line, and, to go by the websites, most restaurants were still delivering. In practical terms, however this was simply not the case, websites, for the most part, not having been updated. I found another list of take outs still delivering in the time of covid, but again pretty out of date. I Whatsappd friends and finally found that Bombay Express on Albert Road was our spicy balti beacon in the wilderness. We hesitated. Our bourgois sensibilities having loftily propelled us far from the smokey lock in days in the back rooms of that very establishment. We soon crashed back down to pandemic ridden earth, and realised it was that or no curry. It was amazing! We left a £5 tip in the letterbox poking out for the delivery driver and barely spoke until the spongey naan had scooped the remainder of the gloopey saag into our grateful mushes.

It turns out, I’d done a lot of research that night, and it seemed a shame to potentially let it all go to waste. My husband suggested I should put it out on line, as it was the very list I’d been looking for when the first pangs of curry withdrawal set in. I could hear my Mum reading me ‘The Little Red Hen’ as a kid and saying ‘I’ll do it myself – said the litle red hen’.

I’ve never really thought of my blog as a website, but it is as good a domain as anywhere, and ten past six is a pretty good time to be thinking about ordering a take out. So for the remainder of the lock down, the tenpastsix homepage will be an updated lists of as many varied and amazing independent businesses as I can find in Southsea. Those who are still doing amazing things in unprecedented times, and mostly even delivering to your front door so you don’t have to go out. Please check all the website details carefully as different businesses have different opening times and ways of ordering and please let me know if you are a business and want adding or if I can change anything to remain up to date – happy eating!

Look after yourselves, it’s the best way to look after everyone else. And support your independents by keeping the spice in Spice island!

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