Archive for the ‘References and signposts’ Category

“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.

PLAYER'S NAVY CUT cigarette packet
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.

© Copyright Simon Carey and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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.’ .

My student pictures c1980

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.)

Soon: the final walk to Brighton Pier. Walking Home to 50 will be back!

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Inspired by Phil Sorrell’s thoughtful post about the benefits of precision in New Year’s Resolutions, I’ve come up with a few of my own.

Finish Walking Home to 50
The clock is ticking now – I’m in my ‘fiftieth year’ so technically I should finish before my 50th birthday, in early December. With only about 40 miles to go as the crow flies this shouldn’t be too difficult in theory. The (probably dull) Downs Link covers most of the territory in a railway-track curve, so there is a sort of hyperspace wormhole to get me there quickly if that’s what I want. Other routes involving a bit more North and/or South Down-time are alluring, so it’s win-win really. And I could always declare a new form of maths in which my fiftieth year starts with my 50th birthday… But no, my resolution is to get to the end of Brighton pier by 7/12/2011.

Carry on exercising
I always thought I was pretty fit but a bunch of blocked arteries proved me wrong. So I’m much more resolute in terms of exercise, which for me needs to be regular and to fulfil the criteria for effective cardiovascular working out. It would be very easy to get ‘wibbly-wobbly’ (to use Phil’s expression) and drift to missing out days then weeks, or not doing enough. (I sometimes count unpleasant or boring things as part of the warm-up, even though they probably aren’t physically active enough.) So the resolution is to do at least three full cardio sessions per week, preferably more, with 15-minutes warmup, 20 mins sustained work at 95-117 bpm and 10 mins cooldown. (That heartrate, by the way, was prescribed for me in rehab and takes into account my drug cocktail and fitness level. In case you were thinking it’s on the low side and are envisaging me ‘exercising’ by, say, being carried around in a chair reading a novel.)

Carry on with healthy eating
Same reason as above. I’m not on a ‘special diet’, just the same as everyone is recommended to eat, but with added motivation. However being me I decided to declare war on cholesterol and to pursue this with the vigour and inventiveness of Batman or The Punisher. So I avoid saturated fat, poring over the labels on packets with fanatical intensity until they yield their secrets or burst into flames; eat my way through fields of oats, carboys of flax oil and shoals of oily fish; do the 5-a-day thing. With attitude. You should see my muesli – one bowl punches the balls out of cholesterol for half the street and gives you two hits of fruit if you just look at it. The resolution is simply to carry on with all of this, and not to suddenly go mad and eat a pound of lard.

The demon drink
Plagiarising Phil again I’ll stick within the recommended healthy limits. After all, the last thing I want is another health-thing to worry about – and I dislike hangovers. So 21 units it is. To facilitate this I’ll avoid stockpiling bottles – ‘buy it, drink it’ will be the approach.

Smaller reading piles
I also intend to avoid stockpiling books. I have too many that don’t get read, so I won’t be buying new books (other than reference ones) unless I plan to read the straight away.

Bigger writing piles
Back when I was recovering, the writing was just pouring out of me and I had the time to edit, rewrite and self-publish a book. Now that I’m back at work my headspace is more constricted and there is less time. I also do less blogging though I do have Twitter leaching words out of me 140chrs at a time. But I am still writing on the quiet. To give this some focus I’ll resolve to self-publish something, at least a pamphlet, during 2011.

    Update: On the Cushion

Cripes – forgot the most important one of all – despite just having read an interesting post on the subject from Solitary Walker… I will continue my fledgling meditation practice with a daily 30 minute sit, whatever occurs. Hardcore.

Happy 2011 everyone. Let us be cheerful, healthy and playful in our explorings.


To illustrate this here’s a picture of me (middle), with >21units of alcohol on the table and an unread book next to me. But that was last year; this year it will all be different.


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Bit of an update…

Next week I hope to do another leg of the walk, and thereafter to try and regain the once-a-month schedule I used to manage.
I’m still pondering whether to traverse London, or to to skirt around the western fringes. “Think of the power you’ll gain by merely brushing the metropolis with your left sleeve!” suggested Nick Papadimitriou and John Rogers from the excellent Resonance FM show Ventures and Adventures in Topography when I asked their advice. I’ll bear that in mind.

Meanwhile I’ve been finishing a shortish book about my adventures in heart surgery. It’s called Bypass Pilgrim and will be available soon through the usual channels. I’ve put together a blog/site about it including samples of the kind of stuff on the pages inside the covers.

P1020170 copy
A bypass – see what I did there?

Meanwhile in Argleton – here I am at the epicentre, as photographed by Mike Nolan – expect more media coverage of the cartographic phenomenon on the 18th of September

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Just a little note to say I’m alive and hobbling painfully around the hospital. The op went well they say, so the plan now is to get mobile then settle in for some rest at home, followed by rehab which will involve walking – so expect posts on the ‘walked to Morrisons today’ lines. All good stuff then. My scars make some pretty routes… I wonder what times will flow from these healing wounds?

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The placename ‘Broadgreen’ has an attractive ring to it – perhaps denoting a wide common of some kind. These days Liverpool’s Broadgreen is home to the hospital where, at the end of this month, I will be spending a few days having a cardiac bypass. A pilgrimage along re-routed arteries; a mashup heart created to get me back on the road. Culmination of six weeks since being diagnosed: an experience probably less stressful than a tour of duty in a warzone; probably more stressful than a season in a pantomime, with some characteristics of both. Maybe more like unexpectedly finding oneself in the cast of a Mystery Play, in which the devils and angels keep changing places, the story seems familiar but doesn’t make sense, and the stage maroons are armed with live ammo. Snowdrops and snowflakes delivering body blows in a winter that won’t quit. Venous sabbatical.


I am happy enough to be booked in to Broadgreen. It is an excellent hospital by all accounts and an outpatient visit yesterday was as pleasant as such a thing could be. And the location interests me. It is at the western end of the M62, and in a sense Walking the M62 begat Walking Home to 50. In fact, way back in 2008 on the third leg of the walk (Maghull to Liverpool) I walked right past the hospital, on the Liverpool Loop, a deep disused railway cutting. So this pitstop is right next to the track itself. Comforting, like being wired up to my own personal leyline, connected to places and people that matter, north and south, past and future. Of course, back then I had no idea. At the time, I may not even have glanced in its direction. So all you ramblers, bear in mind: when you look into the darkness of the trees lining your route, dreadful, marvellous things may lurk there. A future that will alter your heart.


So I’ll spend Holy Week in Broadgreen. This Lent I have given up many things, including ‘peace of mind’, though I’m not complaining. During this process I seem to have found my way back to reality – being here and doing things, rather than rushing on to next thing and worrying about the thing after that. There will be more to give up: the equipage for this trip is slim indeed. Eventually, having parted with clothes, body-hair and consciousness (everything but my name tag), I’ll be in the hands of the experts, fully surrendered…


Nothing left to do now but go through with it. And hope: that it works, that soon I’ll be buoyed on a spring blood-tide, walking home.

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