I shall miss The Dell, which I first went to in 1958. The Saints were then in the third division south, the docks were full of great ocean liners and my great-aunt Doll was opening another bottle of Mackeson to chase another tumbler of Australian "sherry". I lived just over 20 miles away in Salisbury which, because it possesses a cathedral and is a diocesan see, styles itself a city. But it is really a market town whose population was then little more than 30,000.
Trips to London were seldom made – less than once a year I guess. Thus Southampton, where much of my mother's extended family lived, represented to this child the Big City. I accept that this may seem preposterous – but we learn about places by chance rather than by choice. And our sense of place, too, is determined by a combination of circumstances over which we have little control: at the age when we become topologically sentient, we are still largely dependent on our parents' itineraries. Yet – Southampton! I can hear your groans. It is an indisputable fact that the etiquette which attaches to it is one of dreariness. It is an equally indisputable fact that that etiquette is wrong. Still, I would say: you can take the man out of Southampton but you can't take Southampton out of the man.
But surely there's something amiss here. It wasn't my home, merely a place I went to most weeks and which was, according to my father, somewhere I was lucky not to have to call home. He had no taste for urbanism: his son acquired his lifelong taste for cities from those frequent outings. I didn't mean to, I didn't set out in some spirit of mild filial rebellion to develop an appetite for the seething, teeming organisms my father did his utmost to avoid – but awe is not a sentiment over which we have control. And the sheer bigness of the place filled me with awe. It seemed never-ending, relentless. Many of the buildings seemed immense. In Salisbury, the cathedral apart, nothing was over three storeys and most were two. My grandparents' house had four storeys. The boatbuilders' hangars on the Itchen were so vast they frightened me. It was a delicious fright I suffered: they might have been created for a race of giants.
Southampton struck me – and you’ll have to stifle a guffaw here – as exotic: everything is relative
Although the city had been heavily bombed, some massive Victorian warehouses and dock buildings were spared. The Royal Victoria Hospital on the Netley shore was almost a third of a mile long – that's to say as long as any building in Britain (it is the subject of Philip Hoare's Spike Island). The chain ferry across that river, known as the "floating bridge", was a source of unbounded excitement.
Southampton also struck me – and you'll have to stifle a further guffaw here, too – as exotic: well, everything is, evidently, relative. There were no African or Indian sailors in Salisbury; there were no trams like the ones that hurtled down Bevois Valley, where the pavements were piled high with dead people's clothes and dead people's furniture and the sky was always black. There were no houseboats in my home town. There were no ranks of cranes. I suppose that I should profess to a fascination with Southampton's medieval Bargate and walls, which rival York's, or with the elegant streets of bow-fronted Regency houses – but that was not the case, for they wouldn't have been out of place in Salisbury. They were not ur-Southampton.
What Southampton had most of all was the feel of the future. Because so much of its centre had been destroyed there were – oh marvel! – modern buildings, as modern as those in Dan Dare. They are period pieces now of course, and I am of an age to discriminate between them. The first stages of the reconstruction are indifferent – coarsely timid. But one need only list the names of the designers who worked there in the late 1950s and early 1960s – Eric Bedford; Eric Lyons; Lyons, Israel and Ellis; YRM – for it to become apparent that here's a city of quality. I'm sure you don't believe me.