For the last few weeks my son and I have been reading a superb trilogy of books by Paul Dowswell. Set during the Napoleonic era, they follow the adventures of a teenage boy who has been pressganged into the Royal Navy and although they are written for older children, Dowswell doesn't pull many punches when it comes to depicting the harsh realities of a sailor's life.
There are even a few swear words, which my son naturally loves.
I've always been fascinated by accounts of naval life. I'm not particularly interested in the actual vessels, but rather in the ship as a microcosm of society. Dowswell's books have taught my son a lot about life in the early 19th century and so far, he hasn't rumbled my hidden agenda of stealth history lessons.
Paul Dowswell has now left the Napoleonic age behind and has just published a book about Jewish children in the Second World War. If it's as good as his other books, then I've no doubt that he'll start to receive the recognition he deserves.
As Dowswell's last book in the series was partly set on board the HMS Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar, I thought I'd take my son to Portsmouth and have a look at the real thing:
The Victory is a beautiful ship and in its time, a deadly one. However the real appeal for me lay in the more mundane facets of naval life: the sick bay, galley, purser's office, grain store and sleeping quarters. I tried to imagine what life would have been like with several hundred men on board. Smelly, noisy and exhausting I should think.
I'm quite happy looking at something and letting my imagination wander - I can get the salient facts before or after the visit. However, whenever I stop and stare at something in an historic site, an attendant invariably siddles up to me and starts bombarding me with facts. I don't necessarily want to know how long something is, who built it and how it was restored. I want to know what impact it had on people's lives.
Guided tours are even worse. I remember a visit to Versailles where a woman with breath that stank of stale Gitannes spent 10 minutes in each room (and there were many rooms) regaling us with endless facts about French aristocrats I'd never heard of. My abiding memory of the visit of intense boredom. I had just visited what was, in its time, the largest, most opulent palace in the world but failed to gain any sense of its scale. I would have been happier wandering around on my own.
There are exceptions. The guided tours at Charleston - home of the Bloomsbury Group - are fascinating. I also remember an attendant at the Tate Gallery teaching me how to look at a Rothko painting, when I was a very ignorant and opiniated teenager.
After exploring the HMS Victory we went to look at the hulk of the Mary Rose, the pride of Henry VIII's fleet. Over four centuries at the bottom of the sea have taken their toll, so the remains have been stored in a controlled environment where the timbers are constantly spayed with wax.
Seen from the viewing gallery, the Mary Rose looks like something from Alien:
The restoration of the Mary Rose is a big deal for a lot of people and I really tried to find it exciting, but after the HMS Victory it just looked like a lot of wood, and not very interesting wood at that. Nevertheless I was impressed by the objects that have been salvaged from the wreckage: musical instruments, a backgammon board, beautiful pewter plates and a variety of surgical instruments that are remarkably advanced for their time.
After leaving the 'Historic Royal Naval Dockyard' we wandered around Portsmouth, which is a truly dreadful place.
Portsmouth was heavily bombed during the Second World War, but I wonder how much of the modern townscape is the result of the Luftwaffe? I suspect that town planners from the 1950s-70s are also culpable for the concrete nightmare of modern-day Portsmouth.
Recently, the local authority has tried to rejuvenate the town with some 'iconic' 'landmark' developments, but they just look incongruous:
What Portsmouth needs is better housing, proper cycle lanes, more green spaces and an attractive waterfront along the lines of the South Street Seaport in New York (minus some of the tackier aspects). That would be a start.