Our day in Ryde was delightful, but as we sailed back to the mainland, there was a taste of lack on the air, a softly-spoken lacuna murmuring something out of earshot. If we strained, we could just pick it up: “shopping…shopping.” Fortunately we were staying the night in Portsmouth and we still had a few hours until Gunwharf Quays outlet shopping centre shut. Maybe a mall could fill the hole?
The Lost Promenade has a guilty passion for malls. They are blank yet shiny, beetle-bright hard, simultaneously places of misery (many a time I’ve cried to myself in a mall) and mystery. There are no dark corners. Voices echo through them. And we do like to buy things. We know we’re not supposed to have any truck with chain stores and we’re aware of the ethical issues; the sweat shops, the non-unionised workforce, the many abuses. So shame accompanies a visit to a place like this, but by crikey, we do like to buy things.
However, we leave disappointed. We thought we’d need to come back the next day, but we cover the whole complex in 2 hours. The architecture is so unmemorable that if you were to try to draw Gunwharf Quays, nothing would emerge. If it could look in a mirror it would leave no reflection and if it could walk it would cast no shadow. The bulk of the wares are over-embellished and over-priced – and we’re totally over them. The one highlight is the Wonderbra shop, which is staffed by the world’s leading expert on all things breast-related and officially the campest woman who ever lived. “Darling” this, “darling” that – we’re in for a shock though – she declares both of us are two cup sizes bigger than we thought. Nhung in particular is in denial about this. While we’re in the changing room trying to come to terms with the terrible truth, the phone rings. It’s our friend, Michelle, who is temporarily staying with her family in Portsmouth at the time of our visit – calling to arrange meeting up this evening. “We can’t talk, we’re trying on bras!”
Uplifted but downcast, we head to our hotel to check in, at the same time as several stag parties. Then we head over to Michelle’s neighbourhood, Southsea for a meal at a Turkish restaurant. Southsea is a seaside resort suburb of Portsmouth with two piers, so although we can’t see much of it by night, we resolve to return tomorrow for a closer look.
Next day we’re up bright and early. Too early in fact, because the fire alarm in our hotel goes off in the small hours. We have a period of ignoring it and hoping it will stop, then an ”Oh-it’s-being-going-on-for-a-while-now-maybe-we-better-get-dressed-and-go-out-so-we-don’t-die”-Yeah-but-I-want-to-sleep-for-longer-fuck-living” type conversation. Finally, by the time we grudgingly join the pyjama’d bleary multitude on the stairs, we’re told it was all a false alarm – some div set it off trying to get out of the wrong door to the car park.
Once we’re really up, we head back to Gunwharf Quays. Nhung is still not happy about the cup size conundrum so wants to get measured again. This time we try Marks & Spencer and what do you know? According to their boob guru, she’s only a cup size more than she thought. Also, a tradition has developed, Michelle once more rings us while we’re in the changing room. “Guess what we’re doing?”
Tamsin also buys some very heavy brogues that weigh her down for the rest of the trip.
Michelle takes us along the Millennium Walk from the Quays to Southsea seafront, finishing off by Clarence Pier. It’s a flabbergasting sight. Although originally built in the 1860s, after war damage it was rebuilt in 1961. A combination of pebbledash and blue and yellow shiny cladding, topped at one end by an arrow-pointed pagoda and at the other by a flying saucer, it’s one of our favourite ever piers. What’s more there’s a Wimpy upstairs, complete with photographs of burgers that have faded so that the meat looks green.
Despite the huge temptation of that, we forego a burger and instead have a sit down at an outdoor café where we meet Michelle’s sister and her bulldog and Tamsin has the vilest ever cup of hot chocolate. Next to us is a plastic model of a cow in a red waistcoat eating an ice cream and in the souvenir shop across from us there’s an old-fashioned pram with an inflatable plastic sword dangling over it in Damoclean fashion.
Southsea seafront still retains a collop of something quite rare in British seaside towns these days – 1950s/60s futurism. Redolent of rocket ice lollies and Ladybird books about space travel and rock pools, it’s easy to forget that when places like this were booming as holiday destinations, modernity and future-dreaming were part of the picture postcard, not just nostalgic Victoriana visions of gilded carousels and hurdy-gurdy music. It’s worth remembering that the original Butlins holiday camps were not retro palaces – they were glistening aquariums of newness and promise. Clarence Pier, with its spiky silliness contrasts with the anonymity of Gunwharf Quays, with its buildings designed to blend insidiously with its surroundings, a brick Quisling fronted with clichéd sub-Sydney Opera House pieces of cheap metal. Even the nearby Spinnaker Tower (Dubai-One-Get-One-Free) ends up looking a bit sad – like a steel ghost from somebody else’s future, although maybe in 50 years time, it too will have taken on the patina of eccentricity.
Into central Southsea and we finally return to our natural habitat, the charity shop, where Michelle and Nhung do very well indeed. We also find the ideal place to eat – Pie & Vinyl – boasting dark walls, chequered floors, vintage bric-a-brac and best of all, Portsmouth’s only independent record shop record shop at the back. Along with the delicious pies, we drink sarsaparilla cordials from china teapots shaped like cottages. Yes, it’s twee, but the pies are so good we don’t mind and I’m pleased to report that this time, the “liquor” that comes with the pies is 100% eel-free.
Also, in the same street there’s a junk shop in which we see a man busily painting a giant picture of some kittens. And that has to be a good thing.
Mini eggs and spicy peanuts – accidentally left on a park bench while changing shoes
Good night’s sleep, due to being woken by fire alarm
Ridiculous trainers – Tamsin was tempted by a pair of hi-tops that looked a bit like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles but Nhung dissuaded her
Southsea model village – it turns out there’s a 1950s model village there that we only found out about afterwards – pah
Interest in Gunwharf Quays
Blue & white cardigan
7 pairs of knickers
Khaki knit t-shirt
Blue chunky Aran jumper
Black velvet dress
80s cream, grey & black geometric-blocked dress
Grey hooded cardigan
Jeans for £2
Concealer make-up for Michelle’s mum
Tan leather men’s brogues
Plasters to protect feet from said brogues
Larger breasts than expected