Arriving late from France on the Caen-to-Portsmouth ferry, we decided to stay overnight in Southsea, a once-fashionable Victorian seaside resort contiguous with Portsmouth. Many of the grand seafront houses are still extant, having survived the bombing during the war, but of course, as everywhere else in the country, the whole townscape has been ruined by a few modernist buildings constructed in what Jean Cocteau called architectural Esperanto, strategically placed so that the horrified eye cannot avoid or escape them.
Southsea, of course, is where Arthur Conan Doyle set up his medical practice and wrote the first Sherlock Holmes stories. At the time, it was a place of retirement for generals and admirals, and Conan Doyle took enthusiastic part in the town’s sporting, cultural, and intellectual life, recounted in detail by Geoffrey Stavert in his book A Study in Southsea: From Bush Villas to Baker Street. The pictures in this book amply illustrate just what an aesthetic disaster the advent of the motor car has been for a small country such as Britain, how this infernal machine has come completely to dominate urban life so that, for example, front gardens have been asphalted over completely to accommodate it, thereby destroying all pride in the buildings behind, which have been allowed to decay because they are no longer worth preserving. Roads that were once pleasant, leafy, airy, and spacious are now cramped and crowded and littered with multicolored machinery.
Southsea was the birthplace of Peter Sellers, but also of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the author of one of the most malign books ever written, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. Chamberlain, the son of an admiral, hated his country, moved to Germany and wrote in German, and has commonly been called Hitler’s St. John the Baptist. By strange coincidence, a few days after I left Southsea, I found a book by Norman Baillie-Stewart, The Officer in the Tower, which recounts how he was twice imprisoned for treachery, being a former British officer who broadcast propaganda from Nazi Germany and may have been the original Lord Haw-Haw. Baillie-Stewart was the son of a colonel in the Indian Army who retired to Southsea, so perhaps sea air is not always as healthy as advertised.
It is full, I am glad to say, of independent little businesses, there not being a chain store or multinational in sight.
Conan Doyle’s house was bombed and completely destroyed in the war, and replaced in the 1950s by an utterly dispiriting utilitarian block of flats, the very embodiment of what British bureaucrats of the time considered necessary and sufficient for the good life, with only a forlorn blue plaque to record that the home of a great writer once existed on the site. And yet, not far away, in an unbombed part of the town, to the rear of the seafront, is an interesting if not wholly attractive world which Conan Doyle would surely have found of interest.
Through streets of small houses, constructed for the Victorian lower-middle class, now turned mainly into cheap lodgings (insofar as any lodgings in England can now be called cheap, thanks to the unacknowledged inflation of high asset prices brought about by low interest rates and so-called quantitative easing, that is to say the conjuration of money out of nothing), runs a long thoroughfare that somehow captures much about the state of the country.
It is full, I am glad to say, of independent little businesses, there not being a chain store or multinational in sight. A visitor from another planet might conclude that the predominant economic activity of the district was the provision of takeout food to a local population incapable of cooking, which consists largely of young people, presumably students, who rarely appear before noon and are not late to emerge principally because of the care they have taken over their appearance. Suffice it to say that it is easier to find Korean barbeque takeout in the street than a raw tomato. The students are too busy sleeping and smoking dope to cook for themselves.
The name of a single shop sticks out in my mind: Bored of Southsea. It is a clothes shop, and its name supports a favorite theory of mine, that people buy clothes mainly because they are bored and hope that the search for exactly the right T-shirt will lend purpose to their lives. There are other interesting establishments too, for example one devoted entirely to the sale of hemp products, with a large bright green cannabis leaf painted on the shop window, and an old-fashioned junk shop so unimaginably cluttered that a careless movement might bring a moth-eaten stuffed otter in a glass bell crashing down on you. I looked, as I always do in such shops, for an unrecognized Vermeer—even a Van Meegeren would be better than nothing—but none was to be had.
The wonderfully gloomy shop was presided over by a casually dressed young man contentedly reading in a dusty corner without the assistance of pop music to aid his concentration. I experienced the shop as balm to my soul. To think that such an establishment can still exist in these days of universal e-commerce, undisturbed by music or customers, where probably nothing is bought for days on end, and in the hands of a young man who seemed totally unaware of the need for money! I left the shop reassured that all is not yet lost, that our civilization will survive.
Perhaps not surprisingly in this golden age of self-mutilation, though, there were at least five tattoo parlors on the road, one with the words Ink You Can Be Proud Of emblazoned on its windows. They appeared not to be doing a roaring trade, perhaps because the market round here had already been saturated: there must come a time when even David Beckham can have no more tattoos.
What a juxtaposition! Hypochondriacal superstition meets lifelong self-neglect! Ours is truly an age of extremes.
And then there were the health-food and oriental medicine shops. I wished I had had a camera, to record for posterity (if, pace Greta Thunberg, there is one) a man in his late thirties, so fat that I could easily have fitted into one of his thighs, shuffling past one of these shops with the help of his tripod walking stick, out taking his Staffordshire terrier for a very slow and no doubt rather short morning crawl. What a juxtaposition! Hypochondriacal superstition meets lifelong self-neglect! Ours is truly an age of extremes.
Having visited Southsea several times before, I knew that there were three second-hand bookshops on that road although, because of irregular opening hours, I had been able to visit only one of them once. On my previous visits I felt like a thirsty man in the desert, desperately making his way to a watery mirage. So near and yet so far!
On this occasion, I gained admission to two of them, the owner of the third (in the disparaging words of the proprietor of one of the others) being irregular in his habits and never to be relied on to be open even during opening hours. “A law unto himself,” said my informant.
Not that either of the others seemed exactly obsessed by order. The first, a lady as friendly as she was nearly edentulate, told me that her bookshop had ninety thousand books, mostly lying in the kind of flat cardboard boxes in which fruit is packed because her shelves had toppled under the weight of the books. But they were nevertheless in some kind of order: she said, “Here is your section on nature, zoology, animals, and David Attenborough, there are your academics” (academe evidently being conceived as one vast undifferentiated institution productive of books that not many would read, much less buy).
I was already familiar with, and fond of, the third. I arrived just as the owner opened up for the day. Before he had even unlocked the door, he launched into a lament about the forthcoming rise in rent (by 20 percent) that would drive him out of business after many years. I know that the economic system depends upon everyone in business trying to maximize his profits, and that overall we are much the better off for it, but all the same I could not but feel sorrow that there is no place in this universe for an otherworldly man to run his eccentric, disorganized business in which he takes pride in charging for his wares what he thinks they are worth, not what someone might be willing to pay for them.
Soon after I began to browse, a man of about my age entered, obviously bookish. He was a familiar of the shop, and there is an instant camaraderie among those peculiar beings who find excitement in searching shelves on which, as George Orwell once described it in his account of working in such a bookshop, every bluebottle prefers to die. We began to discuss the perennial problem of all compulsive book-buyers, that of space and the consequent complaint of wives. There is only one solution, albeit a temporary one: a bigger house.
Having settled the problem of space, we progressed to more purely literary matters. “Did you know that Houston Stewart Chamberlain wrote his major work in Southsea?” he asked, with a kind glee. I didn’t know because it isn’t true, but residents of towns everywhere like to lend world-significance to their place of residence, even if it is for something bad. Much Wenlock in Shropshire, for example, likes to think that it was the true originator of the Olympic Games.
I chose six books from the shelves. The store was particularly strong in detective fiction 1920–60, with about two yards of Edgar Wallace alone, from which I selected The Flying Squad. In total the books came to £32.
“I’ll give you 30 percent off,” said the bookseller. “That’s £22.40. Call it £22.”
“Do you mind a receipt in pencil?” Even his pencil was near the end of its useful life.
I asked for a receipt—my books are a tax-deductible expense. He tore a page out of an old exercise book and started to write on it with an old pen. He had difficulty because he was so short-sighted: he had to hold it about three inches from his face to see what he was doing. His old pen ran out of ink after two words.
“Do you mind a receipt in pencil?” Even his pencil was near the end of its useful life.
My spirits were lifted again by such blithe unawareness of change, such indifference to money and commercial advantage. The survival of his enterprise (if such it could be called), and others like it, was to me evidence of the survival of freedom, albeit tenuous and threatened. Here were people who lived as they wished, doing no harm and giving pleasure to at least a few others.
I hastened to read one of the books I had bought in the shop: The End of the Armistice by G. K. Chesterton, published in 1940, four years after his death. It was a collection of Chesterton’s articles about Germany, from which Chesterton emerges as part brilliant seer, part appalling bigot. He saw the danger of Hitler early and clear, and the need for re-armament:
A man does not give up his umbrella at the exact moment when a thundercloud is threatening to crash over his head; a man does not give up his sword at the exact moment when his next-door neighbour, who has obviously gone mad, is waving sabres and battle-axes over the wall.
But then we read:
We might applaud a hundred things done by the Nazis if we could bring ourselves to applaud the motive and the mood. Unfortunately it is a hysteria of self-praise, which is fed by its own virtues as much as its own vices. For that is the vital or rather mortal weakness of Pride. It says, “I did a fine thing kicking out a Jew usurer”; but it also says: “Bashing a Catholic boy scout was a fine thing, because I did it.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 5, on page 41
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