“I don’t remember seeing Portslade on the radar screen…” Robert Sheppard, The Given, 2010
In Ian Fleming’s novel Thunderball, published in the year I was born (1961), the character Domino Vitali provides an interesting account of the origin of an iconic image: the sailor on the John Player Navy Cut cigarette packets.
Image: Leo Reynolds
“Have you never thought of the romance behind this picture? You see nothing, yet the whole of England is there! Listen…This is the story of Hero, the name on his cap badge.” A career sailor from boyhood, “he went all over the world–to India, China, Japan, America. He had many girls and many fights with cutlasses and fists.” Rising in the ranks to become a bosun, he grew the famous beard and embroidered a picture of himself, framed by a lifebelt. Then, “he came back home on a beautiful golden evening after a wonderful life in the Navy and it was so sad and beautiful and romantic that he decided he would put the beautiful evening into another picture” featuring “the little sailing ship that brought him home from Suez” and “the Needles lighthouse beckoning him in to harbour”. Hero hangs the embroideries in the pub he runs, where one day a Mr John Player and two small boys, his Sons, see the pictures. The rights to copy them are acquired for the sum of a hundred pounds, and combined into one – the round portrait superimposed on the square homecoming picture, obscuring a mermaid – thus creating the image that has adorned Navy Cut packets ever since. As a child at Cheltenham Ladies College, Domino (at that time called Dominetta) carried the picture around with her, as a talisman, “until it fell to pieces”.
This account could of course be made up – a tale within a tale. There are other origin stories. Various sources (eg Middleton, 2004) refer to a sailor called Thomas Huntley Wood, whose picture had appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1898, “whence it was borrowed for advertising purposes. A friend of Wood’s wrote to the firm suggesting payment of a fee of £15; Wood reduced this to a sum of two guineas ‘and a bit of baccy for myself and the boys on board’.” (The Man Who Sold His Face, in talent imitates, genius steals.) Wood lived in Lower Portslade, as far as I know until he died in 1951. Apparently he tired of the recognition and shaved off his beard. There are other claims for the original sailor, some made in the comments on a Guardian Notes & Queries column. Perhaps many places have a story of ‘their’ sailor who was used as the basis for this picture, like the countless local versions of Hindu deities, or the Madonnas in trees that appear throughout Europe.
But as a Portslade man brought up on James Bond (of whom my dad approved on the basis that ‘the story starts straight away’) I’ll stick with Thomas Huntley Wood for reality, Domino Vitali (aka Dominetta Petacchi, Dominique Verval in the 1965 film, Domino Petachi in Never Say Never Again) for mythology.
I once worked in a newsagent a few streets from where the sailor Wood lived. I remember trying Navy Cut, which were tipless and delicious. However the black packet JPS were the cigarette of the day, so much so that if people just asked for ’20 fags’ that was probably what they meant. These just tasted like burning paint to me. (When the KGB produced a miniature camera disguised as a packet of cigarettes, plainly popular JPS were the model.) Around that time JPS produced black sponsored Lotus Esprit cars to celebrate racing victories; an advertising technique that probably cost them more than the two guineas (£2.10) and some tobacco used to buy Wood’s face. The Esprit had at that point enhanced its fame by appearing in a James Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me; in the the film the car was able to convert into a submarine. Until this morning I misremembered the dialogue about the cigarette packet artwork as being from The Spy Who Loved Menovel rather than Thunderball. Had I scrabbled around in the attic to find the book to quote from, I would have been looking for Spy… but in practice I found a slightly suspect free online version of Thunderball – hopefuly the text is fairly accurate. In any case, James Bond himself seems unlikely to have visited Portslade, through another heavy-drinking orphan did…
Twenty years before Thunderball, in the novel Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton (1941) the protagonist George Harvey Bone suffers from a split personality disorder involving long amnesiac spells. In one of these he finds himself wandering an unknown street, and asks a passer-by where he is. Initially he mis-hears ‘Portslade’ as ‘Port Said’. This scene highlights the disorientation of lost identity, and maybe also reflects the nature of the locale, as Portslade itself has been described as ‘a place with a dual character; a veritable ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ of a place’ (in Kipling’s Sussex Revisited, R. Thurston Hopkins, 1929 quoted in Green 1994.) ‘Portslade Hyde is painfully brutal with its squalid water front and rows of grimy houses and shops, while Portslade Jekyll, a mile from the sea, is a benevolent spot and just as pretty and secluded as nine out of ten of the ‘guide book’ villages.’ .
However, Portslade has never quite accepted a role as a dystopia. Look at this crest for instance, designed in 1920 by P.J.W. Barker, who owned a shop a few doors up from the newsagents I worked in – ‘A Bunch of Grapes signifying “Health”…An Oak branch signifying “Strength”‘ and a Latin motto ‘which being freely translated means “Here’s health and strength to you”‘. ‘PORTSLADE HAS BEEN FAMOUS FOR HEALTHINESS FOR OVER 100 YEARS’ points out the enterprising druggist, citing the Brighton Herald and the fact that the town had sometimes ‘had the lowest death rate in the kingdom’ (Green, ibid.)
And healthy effects have been experienced. I have a picture postcard, postmarked PORTSLADE AUG 16 07. The sender was writing from Trafalgar House, another building a few yards from ‘my’ newsagents. “I have been out with Baby this morning from 9 till 11.30, went down by the sea, it was lovely there, I am enjoying myself very much, and certainly feel better” wrote ‘B’ to a Mr F. H. Brookes or Brooker, 48 Tavistock Road, Westbourne Park.
I hope things worked out for B and Baby. Her postcard featured, incongruously enough, a picture of Orkney. A year later, she would have been able to buy a postcard of Portslade itself, bearing an image with something of the surreal power of a Max Ernst collage, and an ambiguous, even terrifying caption: ‘Dear____ I have no face to tell you all that happens in Portslade.’ (From Middleton, 1997; ‘This delightful postcard dates from 1908.’).
Over 100 years since the walk with Baby, three-score-and-ten after Hangover Square, half a century after Thunderball, three years after I started walking down from Merseyside, I arrived at Portslade, the ‘Home’ of this blog’s title, having walked some 300 miles, occasionally limping as like Domino I have one leg slightly shorter than the other (though given Ian Fleming’s penchant for giving characters physical flaws (which tend to make women/good characters more attractive, and men/bad characters more monstrous) this may have been an aspect of his fictionalisation of the actual events.) Along the way I walked around the perimeter of Pinewood Studios, where the film version of Thunderball and nearly all other Bonds was made, along with some other films about heroic orphans (Batman, the Supermans). A year ago today I underwent a heart operation, survived and became stronger. If I had recalled the Portslade crest at the time, I would have used it as a talisman of health and strength; the link with my distant home town would have been comforting. Perhaps subconsciously I did recall it; personal ley lines seem to join up all that happens, even as things transform into other things, names and faces change and talismans fall to pieces. I concluded the last bit of walking at Station Road (Hove), a street that has two names as it is also Boundary Road (Portslade). It is hard to say where one ends and the other begins; perhaps there is a line to quietly cross or perhaps both names inhabit the same road.
“Well thank you anyway for having listened to the story. I know it’s all a fairytale. At least I suppose it is.” – Domin*
Portslade: A Pictorial History, Claire Green, Phillimore 1994
Portslade (Britain in Old Photographs series), Judy Middleton, Sutton 1997
Portslade and Hove Memories, Judy Middleton, Sutton 2004
(It is a small world; I remember Ms Green from the library on Old Shoreham Road, and Judy Middleton is my mates’ mum.)