When Britannia Ruled the Waves

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, October 22nd 2014

The act of sailing has long been one of the ways humans have tested themselves, measuring their endurance, reflecting on life and its meaning, from Ernest Hemingway to Jonathan Raban’s ‘Coasting’, an account of sailing round Britain at the time of the Falklands war.

The experience of cruising in pleasure boats, ocean liners and luxury ships is a very different world. One filled with images of a mix of ‘Casino Royale’ and Monte Carlo stereotypes, rich playboys, people gambling and endless hedonism.

The reality is a bit different in what is a multi-billion pound industry which caters for all sorts of different interests and incomes. This was illustrated by my recent ten day cruise on the Fred. Olsen ship the MS Black Watch which sailed from North Shields across the North Sea to the Baltic, stopping off in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Oslo, and sailing up the Kiel Canal.

The Black Watch first came into service in 1972 and like all Olsen liners is a middle sized ship compared to the behemoths being built for the ever opulent who wish to maintain their lifestyle on the seas. Captained by Finnish Mikael Degerlund, the ship had 765 passengers from nine countries, most from the UK, and 340 crew from eighteen countries.

Fred. Olsen began in business in 1848 and is still a family owned Norwegian business, set up and run from Oslo. Throughout the trip, the crew displayed at all times a friendly, hospitable manner to passengers which is part of the company’s homespun ethos. While some of this is for effect, the company have an impressive track record of crew retention with many staff spending a decade or longer working for Olsen, and preferring it to their more cut throat competitors, Thomsons and P & O.

A ten day trip is small beer compared to the long distance and world cruises on offer. But it still offers insight into a surreal micro-culture and society which is skewed generationally and financially, with its own acute distinctions and divisions. The majority of passengers fit into one of three identifiable groups: the aspiring working class, middle class people who feel their status and income is facing erosion, and the upper middle class and very well off, many of whom are on permanent vacation. Nearly everyone in these groups is retired, with people openly talking of it as a cheaper alternative to a ‘care home’, and only a small smattering of people still in work.

There is a soft, genuine sense of camaraderie and community amongst passengers which sits side by side an awareness of status and class. People talked openly to complete strangers about a host of things, with the most popular, not surprisingly being reflections on cruising, past, present and future.

One woman said she had spent ‘every year since 1975 cruising by land and sea’ and that she had visited most countries in Africa and the Far East. Other subjects discussed included illnesses, previous and planned surgery, health worries, and the pressures and tensions of extended family networks.

British and world politics made less of an impression, but were present. Every day news of the outside world came in the form of the four-page ‘Daily Mail’ summary which was printed and freely available in the ship. This was modern life presented as a series of threats and problems: from terrorists and immigration to striking public sector workers, those bureaucratic monsters, the EU, BBC and NHS, an endless fascination with celebrities doing wrong and sports news.

There were perceptive comments. One man from Yorkshire said as we sailed up the Oslo fjord, ‘Norway, Sweden and Denmark all have independent Parliaments and co-operate. A bit like the independent nations of the UK could be in the future’.

Others showed less subtlety particularly with regard to Alex Salmond. One woman said, ‘He wants to be King Alex’. Another asked me, ‘What do you think of that bastard Salmond?’, while one of their friends interjected that he was an ‘oily, greasy shit’.

A further viewpoint was that ‘the SNP are extreme socialists who believe in a socialist utopia Scotland’. Yet there was occasional dissent from the above, with one woman noting the difference between Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon: ‘She is straight, unlike Salmond’.

More often than not there was a certain sadness and regret rather than anger and dismay about the state of Britain and how things have come to this pass. One Scottish woman living in England stated after one of the above comments, ‘All of this doesn’t matter. We are all British’. A quietly spoken Scots man admitted to me that ‘I have never met someone who has voted Yes before. You are the first and you seem an intelligent chap’. Another saw the independence debate through the prism of their holiday plans, ‘We are touring the Scottish islands next year and were wondering if it would be a foreign country’.

One Norwegian tour guide on a shore trip noted the similarities between their country and Scotland, ‘Norway is an old country and new nation, like Scotland will be soon’. After this observation, standing next to myself, they then commented to the entire tour bus, ‘Anyone else here from Scotland? You have had your recent election. We thought you might come and join us. But you might next time’ only to be met by complete silence.

A Dutch guide, as we drove through the beautiful countryside and passed multi-million pound luxury houses told the group that ‘this was where the celebrities, football stars and coke dealers live’. After we visited a stunning small town she observed, ‘Amsterdam does not have any slums like London. When I went to the Elephant and Castle I was shocked by the area and poor housing’. When the levels of poverty and inequality in the UK were mentioned, she showed surprise and observed, ‘the UK always has to be the outlier: that’s your island mentality’.

On another Norwegian trip we passed police stopping and aggressively questioning Romanian travellers, leading to the tour guide commenting that ‘there is a problem with Romanian gypsies’. She went on, ‘We have open borders with the EU which causes problems. I understand that is a problem also in the UK’.  Warming to their theme they went on, ‘We have to pay for the EU, but have no say’, leading to audible mutterings from British passengers, ‘we have no say either’.

Two occasions of ship activities said something about Britain. The first was ‘British Night’ – a themed evening meal in which passengers were invited to dress up. One man put on a union jack coat, a woman a union jack long dress, one person a UK/OK Better Together t-shirt, while several wore union jack bow ties, conventional ties, flags in their lapels and even on their heads. These were a small majority. For the sake of full disclosure: I wore a kilt, sporran and full length socks. In other words, this was mostly a typical British experience: understated, unimaginative and with little effort or thought.

The second was ‘Britannia Rocks’, one of many shows put on by the company of singers and dancers who perform on the ship every night. It opened with a whirlwind tour of the 60s, 70s and 80s, followed by Bond themes, most carried off with a bit of fun and flair. After this came a bizarre ‘Sports Theme’ section with football, rugby and cricket TV signature tunes, which included a celebration of all the home nations, bar Northern Ireland.

As it progressed towards its crescendo, there came forth ‘There will always be an England’ with the invitation to people to wave their plastic union jacks. This segued into ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ as slowly the restraint wore off. Next came the ‘eulogy’ to Scotland: tartan, kitsch and cod Highland tunes, and at its conclusion, a drunken Scotsman staggered on to the stage with a large pint of beer. Then came Wales and Ireland, the latter represented by ‘Riverdance’, for no reason reclaimed by the UK for one night only.

This was topped off by a finale of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Rule Britannia’. The plastic flags were now in full force and swing. People were singing, the Last Night of the Proms was on the big screen, but a hint of the modern age intruded with the lyrics subtly changed to ‘Britannia Ruled the Waves’, although no one seemed to notice or mind.

I did meet one Yes voter and funnily enough he was also from Dundee. We spoke most of the time about our respective football clubs, Dundee United and Dundee. He recalled without any prompting, the first ever season of a ten team Premier League in 1975-76 when Aberdeen, Dundee United and Dundee all finished on the same number of points and Dundee were relegated on goal difference. He shared a similar sentiment of our national game to myself, and believed that ‘if Aberdeen or Dundee United could be consistent they could mount a serious challenge to a weak Celtic team’. We can but dream!

As we left Britain, weeks after Scotland’s independence referendum, I thought about Jonathan Raban’s meditative account, ‘Coasting’, of sailing round Britain at the time of the Falklands war. Raban listened to the parliamentary debate on the war with its invoking of ‘sovereignty’ and reflected that, ‘Listening to it, I felt that I’d been eavesdropping on the nastier workings of the national subconscious; I’d overheard Britain talking in a dream, and what it was saying scared me stiff’.

Thirty years on, so much has changed and so little. There are the same fixations on ‘sovereignty’ which have even more of a vice-like grip on the British political classes, this time in relation to the EU. Britain’s elites seem even more to be talking to themselves and the rest of us in a dream, one that scares many of us stiff, and which it is incredulous that they have got away with for so long without serious challenge. In such circumstances, sailing away over the horizon seems quite a sane response to the continued prevalence and hold of fantasyland Britain.