Portsmouth Literary Map: a New Interactive Project

Which author who spent the formative years of his childhood in Southsea was the first British recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature? How old was Charles Dickens when he left Portsmouth for London and an illustrious future? Why was H. G. Wells so desperate to leave Portsmouth? Why does the world’s most famous detective owe his genesis to Southsea? What connects the authors of Goodnight Mr Tom, Coraline, and the D. I. Faraday detective novels to the city? And why should the University of Portsmouth be particularly interested in the announcement of the newest Poet Laureate?

Those curious to know the answer to these questions should be pleased to hear of the launch of a new project to capture Portsmouth’s literary history and culture in an online interactive map. With funding from the University, I will be leading the creation of a map that will reveal the rich stories of the various authors born or resident in the city. Most prominent amongst these is of course Dickens, born in Old Commercial Road in a house now preserved for visitors, but also (because his profligate father ran up debts that his Navy Pay Office salary could not match) at three other addresses in the city before the family decamped to London a month before the young Charles’ third birthday. Portsmouth was also home for a time to Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Sherlock Holmes while working as a GP on what is now Elm Grove. H. G. Wells, the author of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, was so miserable during a period working at a Southsea drapery shop in the 1880s that he regularly walked 18 miles to Uppark House near Petersfield to beg his mother to end his apprenticeship. His negative feelings about this period in his life are strongly reflected in A History of Mr Polly. Wells escaped the city in 1883, just one year after Conan Doyle took up residence close by. A decade earlier, and also not far away, in Campbell Road, Rudyard Kipling spent a troubled childhood with a foster family while his parents served in India. Now a controversial figure due to his associations with British imperialism in the Indian subcontinent, Kipling’s fame at the time led to that Nobel Prize award in 1907. These and other stories from Portsmouth’s literary past – including the lives and works of Olivia Manning, George Meredith, Sarah Doudney, Percy F. Westerman, Neville Shute, and others – will be told through the map. Clickable locations will allow users to access information of this kind, as well as outlining the ways in which the city continues to produce world-class writers across a range of genres.

These include Simon Armitage, the latest Poet Laureate, who studied for a Geography degree at Portsmouth Polytechnic in the early 1980s. Neil Gaiman, one of the world’s most famous writers of fantasy and sci-fi, was born in nearby Portchester. One of his novels, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, has been commemorated by the naming of a road on Southsea seafront. Michelle Magorian, most well-known for the children’s war novel, Goodnight Mr Tom, has fond memories of her childhood and adolescence in the city – something most obviously celebrated in Just Henry, a post-war novel full of Portsmouth cinemas and scenes; while Graham Hurley’s Portsmouth detective series owes much to his time in the city as a columnist on the Portsmouth News. The city has also produced two significant critics who cause controversy in their respective fields – the political commentator, Christopher Hitchens, and the writer and film-maker Jonathan Meades, best known for his cultural and architectural criticism, but who also produced the novel Pompey, an amazing and dark family saga set in the city. Portsmouth is also home to a thriving poetry scene, most prominently represented by Maggie Sawkins and Sam Cox, as well as an active group of short story writers and tyro novelists. The project is engaging with all of these authors in order to draw on their experiences and insights into this unusual city. This will also lead to events, conferences, and activities that will see the project reach out beyond the university to engage with all kinds of interested organisations and individuals who love the city and will try to reflect its unusual and unique history and culture. 

The city certainly divides opinion, so that for every person drawn into its peculiar charms another is repelled. This was particularly true when Portsmouth was dominated by the dockyards, peopled by sailors, and characterised by the kinds of economic activities that sailors often prefer – drinking and prostitution. The map project will therefore offer opportunities to reflect both positive and negative responses to Pompey. Perhaps the most piquant observations on Portsmouth came from the illustrious General James Wolfe, billeted in the city against his will in 1758 prior to sailing to Canada to defeat the French in Quebec the following year. In a letter to a friend Wolfe certainly did not hold back in making his feelings plain:

The necessity of living in the midsts of the diabolical citizens of Portsmouth is a real and unavoidable calamity. It is a doubt to me whether there is such a collection of demons upon the whole earth. Vice, however, wears so ugly a garb that it disgusts rather than tempts.

Things have moved on since the 1750s and the citizens of this fair city would argue that Wolfe’s characterisation of it is now obsolete, but it’s certainly the case that Portsmouth has a distinctive character, something that is apparent in the myriad literary responses that the map project will seek to reflect. 

Anyone interested in finding out more about the project should contact me at mark.frost@port.ac.uk

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