Belfast Telegraph

Loyal city of Portsmouth is a microcosm of UK society in a changing world

By Mike Gilson

We are staying with friends in Portsmouth on the south coast of England for the weekend. My elder son has decided, without much training or preparation, to take part in the Great South Run and we've gone along to support him.

There are 25,000 runners, serious types of the middle- aged male variety, charity fundraisers and a big sprinkling of Captain Americas, Mickey Mouses and a man dressed as a biscuit.

There's a great Sunday morning vibe as tens of thousands of well-wishers cheer them on along the blustery seafront. Everyone's whooping, back-slapping, runners are stopping to help the cramped-up stragglers over the line, the fancy-dressers get huge applause, but not as much as Royal Marines taking part.

Portsmouth is the home of the Royal Navy and the Marines. It's a blue-collar city built on the loyal business of serving those who would rule the waves. Its decline has followed the shrinking of the fleet.

Someone once said that Portsmouth was the northern town that found itself on the south coast and that is half true. Its terraced streets are crammed onto what is effectively an island, the only breathing space found as houses give way to Southsea Common and four miles of spectacular seafront looking out over the Solent.

That is where we are this Sunday morning, soaking up the good feelings and watching my son come in a frankly unbelievable, given his preparation, 2,900th place.

But back in the tight, car-choked streets there's also disquiet swirling in the air. The so-called Pompey Lads are at the centre of it.

Six young men from the city's Bangladeshi community travelled to Syria to fight for the brutal jihadist group Islamic State. Four are now dead, one is in jail and the other still believed to be out there.

But in a city which prides itself on loyalty to the Crown this has hit hard. The Bangladeshi community has battened down the hatches, insisting it is not responsible for the young men's actions, but the far-Right English Defence League is mobilising, too. In a city that has deprivation levels similar to Belfast's that is dry tinder waiting for a spark.

Meanwhile, in common with many recession-hit urban areas of England fears over Eastern European immigration are growing.

In the absence of answers from traditional political sources to mostly genuine questions, people have increasingly turned to Ukip.

When I worked in Portsmouth in the early Noughties it would have been inconceivable that a party of such incoherence would have six councillors on the local authority. It does today. So there are tensions on the streets of this fighting town for sure.

But there are also people six deep on a Sunday morning willing exhausted runners across the line, throwing tenners in charity buckets, hoisting young children on shoulders to see aunties and uncles jog by red-faced.

Portsmouth's historic ability to soak up change, take the blows and, in the words of one of its biggest fans, Churchill, keep buggering on is being tested again.

As we struggled away from the city on Sunday it seemed inconceivable that it would not come through.

Mike Gilson is Editor of the Belfast Telegraph

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