R.Y.Britannia by Table Mountain, South Africa

1994 October: Thursday

I was woken at 7am by a steward with the cheery news that we were now travelling near to the Wash and that although we had a calm sea at present, there was a Force Ten storm forecast. Hmm.

Breakfast proved to be delightful. Firstly, there was no discernible alcohol to get through and, secondly, silence ruled the table. Any attempt to chat was frowned down – the only noise allowed was the steady chomping of bacon and egg, the rustle of yesterday’s Times newspaper, and the occasional request for an extra rasher. Exactly how breakfast should be treated. The Navy adhered to Oscar’s axiom: ‘Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast’.

The tempo changed an hour later as we were taken on deck to witness the ‘Man Overboard’ exercise. As the Royals were due later in the tour, a platoon of Royal Marines were stationed on the yacht. The exercise consisted of an orange lifebelt being thrown over the side of the vessel, and, with extraordinary speed, a squad of marines dropping down to the sea in a rubber dinghy to retrieve it – as neat an operation as one could wish. In the distance, we could see the derricks of the North Sea gas fields.

At 11am, I returned to Cabin 21 for a doze to try and shake off the hangover. I drifted to sleep with the distant sound of the Royal Marines Band practising ‘A Life on the Ocean Wave’ two decks above me. Half an hour later, I awoke to the sound of an electric bell repeatedly buzzing. I dismissed it as yet another of the numerous unaccountable noises of a ship at sea. Ten minutes later, my brother arrived with the news that the buzzing had actually been the warning for the fire alarm drill. I followed him up to the deck to find I was the only person to have missed the exercise – the result of having skipped the safety drill talk yesterday in favour of the engineer’s gin and tonic. Retired to the Wardroom in some disgrace.

As Nigel explained: “in case the guests might be sobering up”, Party No 7 started promptly at 12 15pm with Wardroom Luncheon Drinks, closely followed by lunch with wine, and then coffee and liqueurs. For the guests, yesterday’s initial excitement had been replaced by a hollow-eyed, bovine acceptance that we were on an unstoppable alcoholic merry-go-round.

At 2pm, we were led off for a tour of the Royal Quarters. Despite the fact that the furniture had been strapped down due to the approaching storm, the main rooms were exquisite and, considering we were on a ship, surprisingly large. The main reception room doubled as a ballroom (although the only time it had been used for dancing was on Princess Anne’s 21st birthday party). The drawing room was a vision of white and gold dominated by three huge Persian carpets. It was filled with the bric-a-brac of forty years of royal tours; a solid silver oasis with camel figurines from Arabia; a carved wooden shark from the Pitcairn Islands as a belated apology for the Bounty mutiny; and despite the recent breakdown of her marriage, portraits of Princess Diana still hung on the wall.

The most interesting of the mementos was the visitors’ book – this had been passed down from Royal Yacht to Royal Yacht since Victoria’s time. The most poignant of the signatures were those of Tsar Nicholas 11 of Russia and his ill-fated family.

The Royal Sitting Room, R.Y.Britannia

We then toured the sleeping quarters – the royal bedrooms were functional and not particularly comfortable, their small bookshelves being mostly dominated by Dick Francis novels. The main guest bedroom ran to slightly more luxury, but not a lot more – roughly the equivalent of a two star hotel. Its most recent inhabitants had been Bill and Hilary Clinton.

According to Nigel, the occasion had been the fiftieth commemoration of the D Day landings in 1944. After the ceremonies the Royals, including the 95-year-old Queen Mother, had brought the Clintons and their aides down to the Wardroom for drinks. During the conversation, it became clear that Hilary Clinton’s aide was somewhat resentful of the Euro class structure and this blatant (if illusory) display of Imperial grandeur. The Queen Mother’s eyes gleamed with anticipation.

The aide, a woman bred in the American democratic tradition, snappily enquired as to what, if anything, the Royal Family were doing for the Third World. The Queen Mother piped up sweetly:

“Oh, we often visit so many of our Commonwealth friends and we meet so many of their delightful peoples”.

The aide settled back mollified until the Queen Mother continued:

“And I do so much enjoy seeing all the little piccaninnies running around in their loin-cloths.”

The aide’s mouth sagged with shock at this gross display of political incorrectness, as the Queen Mother smiled innocently down into her glass of gin.

We passed on to the upper deck sun lounge – again, because of the impending storm, the furniture had all been stacked. Nigel pointed out a large and hideous Swedish chair amidst the pile. It turned out that it had been a Christmas gift from the Swedish Royals and therefore nobody could get rid of it. Rather like the ghastly china cat presented to you by a prickly aunt that you now can’t throw out in case she comes to visit.

The main impression that I received was that, despite the magnificence of the reception rooms, the royal apartments themselves were oddly dowdy. It seemed that they had been fitted out to the height of cutting edge technology and fashion in about 1955, but little had been changed since then. To add to this impression of frugality, Nigel said that, unlike the vast majority of global VIPs, none of the Royals travel with a personal defibrillator.

“The Queen hates waste.”

As Oscar Wilde once observed: “The only thing that consoles the rich for being rich is thrift”.

R.Y. Britannia

Remembering the captain’s offer to stage Wilde tonight, I adjourned to the deck to see if it were possible. Gazing out across the grey sea, I struggled to bring the lines to mind. The first few passages were passable but then I hit a memory lapse and, having left the script ashore, I stalled horribly. The next line simply would not emerge from my booze-lashed brain. For twenty minutes I struggled on – but the delivery flowed like cement. The only section that stuck contained the very relevant lines that Oscar had written about high society. 

‘To be in society is a bore, but to be out of it is a tragedy. To gain entrance to it, one must study two things; style and ‘The Peerage’. Style, of course, depends mostly on which way the chin is worn. But ‘The Peerage’, one must read that. It is the one book a young man about town should know thoroughly and it is the best thing in fiction the English have ever written.’

However that was that. Despite the years of experience, to deliver a faultless hour of script without aid is still a considerable feat of memory and, in my current condition, quite impossible. With massive reluctance, I would have to cancel the night’s performance – a casualty of Navy hospitality. As if to underline the problem a steward arrived with an invitation to Party No 8, this time in the Chief Petty Officers’ Mess. 

The CPOs were the backbone of any ship – the been-there and seen-it-all sergeant-majors who provided the true continuity on board. One of them handed me a pint of lager and related another of the endless repertoire of Britannia stories.

Although it was usually Royal Navy practice to hand over a ship’s laundry duties to the Hong Kong Chinese (who jealously guarded this right), the Yacht Britannia was the only vessel to employ its own crew to carry out this function. On one occasion, a particularly imposing Chief Petty Officer was on duty at the laundry, aided by a rating.

A man approached the desk carrying a jumbled bundle of dirty washing in his arms. The CPO’s eyes bulged with outrage. He bellowed out:

“What do you fink you’re doing, son! Bringing me a load of rubbish like that! You know you’re meant to sort and fold ‘em first, don’t yer? Would you take ‘em ‘ome to your mother in that condition?? Now, you run along and fold them all proper job! Off you go, double quick time. RUN! NOW!”

The man nervously nodded and scuttled off down the corridor. The rating, who had continued to fold clothes during this exchange, said nonchalantly to the CPO:

“Here, Chief, do you know who that geezer was?”


“Well, it was the King of Spain.”

The Dining Room, R.Y.Britannia

After a quick change of costume down in Cabin 21, it was back to the Wardroom for the ninth drinks party, followed by the Dinner Party – No 10. In the enforced absence of the Wilde show, the company retired to the Wardroom for a discussion on world affairs, accompanied by whiskies and soda. I elaborated a theory that had crossed my mind during the last two days.

That, despite the fact that the officers appeared to be solidly Tory in their politics, in reality the Armed Services, including the Navy, were the most socialist of all British institutions.

They provided a vital function for the common good of the whole society and were entirely subsidised by taxpayers’ money. Although their leaders were often individuals of great ability, they worked not especially for the money but for the esteem and honour of service. In the Navy’s case, everyone was literally in the same boat – if the ship sank, the Admiral could drown just as easily as the cabin boy. This led inevitably to comradeship and genuine care for everyone on board – the epitome of ‘all for one and one for all’ – against the common enemy, the sea. All this was the exact opposite of Thatcherite Toryism.

I doubt if they were convinced but with exquisite courtesy my opinions were given a more than fair hearing. A basic characteristic of the Britannia officers was that they were all professional courtiers, skilled in the evasion of disruptive opinion. I retired to Cabin 21 at 11 30pm woozily wondering if my classification of the ship’s company as closet Marxists was entirely on the mark.

NEXT WEEK AUGUST 29 – On becoming a temporary officer – and an incident with Boris Yeltsin.

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