Fact and fiction blur in Alan’s look at the past

AUTHOR Alan Burnett at his Southsea home. Picture: Paul Jacobs (113520-3)
AUTHOR Alan Burnett at his Southsea home. Picture: Paul Jacobs (113520-3)

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Alan Burnett and I have gone for a stroll. We’ve left the warmth of the cafe on the edge of Southsea Common.

It doubles as his club. He prefers to call it a community centre where people, and their dogs, can pop in to lounge around and gossip.

We head along Castle Road and have only gone a few yards when Alan points up.

‘There it is. A link to the past. If you look closely they’re everywhere in this city.’

A few doors farther along, in the front entrance to a shop, is another. The word Kodak is etched into the floor.

The first word read Bakery. It’s above a shop which now sells old military uniforms and such like. ‘This was once Campions, a bakers and I bet there are still the remains of ovens out the back,’ says Alan.

The Kodak signage is an easy clue to the shop’s former use.

He says: ‘I used to bring my films in here to be developed.’

I’m about to increase my vocabulary.

‘They’re examples of palimpsest – elements of the past that remain in that of today,’ he says.

‘You find them all over Portsmouth wherever buildings have changed use or been remodelled, evidence of the former uses remain.’

By trade, Alan is a human geographer and palimpsest are grist to his mill.

Whatever, I make a mental note of the spelling. It’s bound to crop up sooner or later in a crossword. And, lo and behold, it does crop up – on page 141 of Alan’s first book, a collection of short stories based loosely, very loosely, on his life.

We retrace our steps back down Castle Road to the Mayfair Chinese restaurant on the corner – a junction once known as Postcard Corner. It’s the birthplace of comic genius Peter Sellers and on the wall is a blue plaque marking that momentous day.

When Alan was the Labour leader of Portsmouth City Council he made sure the sign was put up. One of his daughters dressed as the Pink Panther to make the event go with a suitable laugh.

The cafe, on the opposite corner, is Sellers (it used to be the Wheelbarrow pub) and the walls are festooned with pictures of the great man.

Alan, 72, is a huge fan, along with his lifelong love of jazz and, latterly, Portsmouth Football Club (although that, understandably, is waning). He needed a Goonesque sense of humour to see him through his years on the council, then as its leader and, 19 years ago, as lord mayor, the city’s figurehead.

The book is a tribute to this spot. It’s called Early Years At Postcard Corner.

‘It’s not autobiographical,’ says Alan, with a mischievous glint in his eye. ‘Although you might be able to spot one or two characters you might think you recognise.’

It’s a charming collection of fictitious stories, one of which sees the hero, a junior curator at the City Museum, organise a visit by Sellers on his 50th birthday to the city of his birth.

All does not go smoothly. Of course, such an event never happened

Alan, is a lad of Cumbria but a man of Portsmouth. He has the city indelibly ingrained on his soul.

He arrived in the city in the mid-1960s and raised his family in Southsea. He still lives in Sussex Road with Jenny. They have five grandchildren – the latest arrived just before Christmas and two more are due in the next few weeks.

He studied at the universities of Durham, Indiana and Southampton and taught human geography at Portsmouth College of Technology/Polytechnic/University.

There was rugby-playing for Havant and helping run the city’s Nuffield Jazz Club. He has travelled and worked in Europe, the US, Ethiopia and Borneo.

‘I’ve used my experiences living in Romania and the United States for some of the stories,’ he adds.

‘They’re not all based in Portsmouth, although the city has played such an enormous part in my life that it has to feature heavily. It’s so rich in terms of material.

‘But I’ve never done anything like this before and I can’t pretend it was easy. In fact, it was damned hard. The discipline it took to create a beginning, middle and end. Then there was plot and character development.

‘Of course I’ve written academic works, but never fiction. Actually, I prefer the term faction.’

That naughty twinkle returns to his eye.

‘I think I’ve changed enough settings for various council people and others not to recognise themselves, although I’ve been told some are quite identifiable.’

· Early Years At Postcard Corner by Alan Burnett is published by Tricorn Books at £7.95. It is on sale at Waterstones in Commercial Road, Portsmouth, and at Sellers Cafe, Kent Road, Southsea. You can buy it direct by e-mailing Alan at alanburnett@live.co.uk.