Portsmouth is particularly nondescript near the ferry terminal, which is where you’ll arrive if you travel with National Disgrace. If you’re pressed for time head straight for Albert Road which is charity shop central and home to some good little second-hand bookshops and record shops. I'm assuming of course that you'll be able to find your way, which, if my experience was typical, is by no means a given.
I found the city hard to navigate, partly because the map I’d been sent by the tourist board had a key so small I practically had to rub it against my eyes to make any sense of it. Navigation wasn’t made any easier by the fact that Portsmouth is following the current trend for designating different areas as ‘quarters’. The city fathers had got a bit carried away and decided the city should have five quarters. More arithmetic and less marketing, that’s what’s called for there. The place didn’t seem too accustomed to visitors. When I asked for directions in the local library the woman behind the counter seemed foxed by the enquiry and responded as if I must just be a local who’d had some sort of stroke and forgotten where they lived.
The surprise of the day was the amount of art on offer. In a small café in a park there was an exhibit of watercolours by an 87 year old ex-seaman. Several were selling for £10 each, another for £8. This seemed insanely cheap. Perhaps his reasoning was that he’d probably be dead soon anyway, so there was no point in treating his art as a money making exercise.
There’s something up the creek about the way we value things. Because the pictures were so cheap I instinctviely started looking at what might be wrong with them to explain their cheapness. Conversely, if I was looking at a piece of art that seemed wildly overpriced I’d be looking at it trying to see what all the fuss was about. But I liked his stuff. He had a slightly odd sense of colour, almost but not quite right, which was an interesting effect. I think I prefer artwork that makes you wonder whether you like it, rather than making you wonder why you’re supposed to.
On the top floor of the library building there was more art. Mostly they were large figurative acrylics of seaside scenes running out at £150 to £300. It's the sort of stuff a lot of people like. I don't mind it but I can't feel strongly about it. Unless, like me, you spend a bit of time mooching around small private and public galleries outside London you could run away with the idea that in purely quantitative terms most of the art produced these days is conceptual. That may be the stuff that gets the lion’s share of harumphing media attention, but actually most of what gets made is still pictures of stuff. And I sense that people consume it on the same terms that they buy their furniture. This influences the content of what’s gets painted and printed. Hence the seaside scenes. The majority of people who buy artwork, I think, want to be reminded of 'nice' things; holidays, the countryside, nature. Unless they happen to live somewhere picturesque people don’t apparently want to see pictures of the ordinary people and things directly around them, and they certainly don’t want to be reminded of work. The art in these galleries is essentially an arm of the leisure industry. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing.
Under slate grey skies I headed out to the arse end of the city in search of the Dickens birthplace museum. It was closed for the off season. I suspected I wasn’t missing much. These birthplace museums are usually a bit of a swizz. I went to the Holst one in Cheltenham. He’d lived there until he was about six, like that was when he did some of his best work. But somehow the wasted journey got to me. I plunged into a trough of self-doubt over this travel writing malarkey. I found myself wondering if there really is a niche out there for me, whether there really is a readership wanting the vicarious pleasure of mooching about like an aimless middle-aged loser, without the obvious drawback of actually being one of them.
The city museum perked me up before I headed home; no Roman shit, and lots of domestic interiors from ordinary homes – the sort of stuff that doesn’t end up in paintings.