1994 October: Friday
At 9 30am, I was half-awoken by the sound of more bells outside in the corridor; they sounded subtly different to the fire alarm bell, so I turned over and dozed off again. Ten minutes later, my brother Nigel breathlessly burst in with the news that these new bells represented the ‘Abandon Ship’ exercise and, yet again, I was the only missing member of the company. As he hurried me up to the evacuation point, he muttered:
“I reckon you’d have slept through the sinking of the Titanic”.
Once more, I had to face the accusatory/amused eyes of the ship’s company as I stumbled on deck to hunt down a life jacket.
Over a reviving rum, Nigel consoled me with a story about a previous Officer of the Prow. He had been onshore in Portsmouth spending a vigorous night with his girlfriend and missed the embarkation. There had been an almighty chase across the Solent in a small boat to catch up. The Royal Family and the Admiral were aboard and the penalties for this misdemeanour would have been dire, had not the first officer dressed the bosun in the Officer of the Prow’s uniform and successfully disguised him on parade.
After Party No 11, the Luncheon, and Party No 12, the Petty Officers’ Mess Invitation Drinks, I managed to disconnect from the social whirl and discovered a patch of deserted deck suitable for a spot of solitary contemplation. The reason why it was deserted may have been that it was the hallowed Upper Royal Deck. Oblivious, I lit a cigarette and gazed out to port.
There was no sign of the threatened storm at all – just clear blue sky, the sun gleaming on the sea, and north-east Scotland one mile away. Dunnottar Castle and then Stonehaven came distantly into view. As usual, the cliffs from sea level looked as if a messy giant had been taking bites out of a chocolate cake. Breeze on the face – puffins riding the waves – and alone (temporarily) on this fabulous yacht. A magical moment.
The idyll was broken by the arrival of Nigel at 2 30pm with another invitation – this time to join the Admiral on the bridge for the approach to Aberdeen harbour. The yacht manoeuvred towards the dock, the Royal Marine band blasted out tunes from the main stern deck, and the Officer of the Prow hoisted aloft the Union Jack, as we watched the cheering crowds lining the shore and jetties.
After docking at 4 30, the Admiral and his aides went ashore for a civic reception. Having been told that a large party (No 13) awaited us in the evening, I retired to Cabin 21 to catch a quick preparatory doze. No sooner had I laid my head on the pillow than the Royal Marine band began its rehearsals in the dockyard just outside my porthole. What had been pleasantly lulling two decks above and atavistically rousing while on deck, was a bloody nuisance twelve feet away from my head. As they began their third run-through of ‘Hearts of Oak’, I gave up and read a book instead.
After yet another change of clothes, I went to the wardroom to attend the briefing for the evening. It turned out that this was the First Officer, Royal Yacht (FORY) reception for the Lord Provost for Aberdeen and his dignitaries. It was a major occasion catering for roughly 250 guests of what seemed to be the entire great and good of the Grampians. The Yachtsmen would act as waiters, etc., while the officers would act as greeters and guides to show our guests around the ship. The navigator commented that:
“For most of them it’s the social high point of their lives – and we shove them through like processed peas”.
With such a large number to cope with, the captain asked the wardroom guests, including myself, to help the officers on the ‘greet and guide’ duties. We were to be honorary Britannia officers for the evening.
Accordingly, at 6 15pm, we adjourned aft to the Royal Dining Room to take up positions. Ten minutes later, 250 hugely excited guests arrived. The navigator had been correct – they were bubbling with anticipation about this one and only quasi-‘mixing-with-royalty’ opportunity. The yacht was bursting at the seams with the hubbub.
I took up a position near the cocktail bar and expounded on the history of the Yacht to anybody who might stray near me. At first, my efforts were largely ignored, but gradually I found myself the subject of an almost embarrassingly awed attention. Now, although I do possess an actor’s resonance of voice and sound relatively posh, I also have a hairstyle longer than Mick Jagger and the general appearance of looking like an unmade bed unwillingly squashed into a suit. This, combined with my stance of languidly lounging against the bar, made about as unlikely a Royal Navy man as it were possible to find. I was utterly bewildered by the frankly adoring audience I was acquiring.
What I did not know was that one of the officers had been pulling a prank on both myself and the Aberdonians, and mischievously spreading the rumour that I was a hugely important official at Buckingham Palace drafted up here to prepare the way for the Royals. According to him, such was my pre-eminence that I had carte blanche to do whatever I liked, and no one could dare to question either my decisions or my eccentricities of style or dress. Plus he added some heavy hints that I had some vague veto over the honours list.
After I had imparted some Britannia facts (probably wrong) to one couple, the man breathed reverentially: “Thank you, sir”, then bowed as his wife curtsied before backing away.
After several more of these extraordinary encounters, Nigel came up and let me in on the situation. With an inner chortle, I decided to press home this unlikely advantage.
Next in line were a small Scots couple who peered up at me like monks at an altar cross. The male had a pinched, thin-lipped look about him – the sort of man who carries a purse, and counts how many cornflakes he’s been given for his hotel breakfast. Revelling in my new character, I took up full regal stance, hands clasped behind my back, and asked:
“And tell me, what do you do?”
Swallowing hard, he stared humbly at the carpet and stuttered:
“Och, I’m only a judge.”
Soon afterwards I moved to the upper deck to shake off my fans. Being omnipotent can be a bit stressful – and a steady intake of vodka was knocking the sheen off my impersonation. The sight from the bridge was glorious: against the night sky, coloured bulbs etched the yacht rigging above us and below every cabin porthole blazed with light. The decks were crammed with party-goers, while a large crowd had assembled on the dockside to watch the Marine Band Beating Retreat alongside the vessel. They marched and wheeled below us, post horns duelling with each other, then the old familiar march tunes echoing out into the city.
It was a decidedly moving scene – the admiral said that he had been present at a similar event in some distant country and witnessed the British Ambassador with tears pouring down his cheeks at the sound of the Marines playing ‘The Minstrel Boy’. Yes, this wasn’t just a business venue or a royal plaything; it was a lot, lot more.
A guest turned to me and gasped:
“They are just wonderful. Wonderful! And you’re talking to a man who’s seen the Syd Lawrence Orchestra!”
Unfortunately the rest of the evening, for me at least, then descended rapidly. Having had about fourteen vodkas this evening, on top of the depredations of the previous two days, I already had the wind in my sails before we hired taxis for a trip to the bars of Aberdeen. Several pints of lager followed, before we returned to the Britannia’s wardroom at 10 30pm, where I was handed a bottle of Glenmorangie whisky.
That was the final straw. I remember very little of ensuing events other than my attempt to get back to my cabin about 3am. The geography of the yacht had always been confusing and, with about two per cent of my brain still functioning, it now became a total maze. After a good twenty minutes of zig-zagging along corridors like a berserk pinball, I found myself in what turned out to be the Royal quarters.
Too plastered to care anymore, I pushed open a cabin door and staggered across to the bed. As I did so, a large figure appeared in the doorway. I vaguely registered that he wore the uniform of a Chief Petty Officer. He crossed over and lifted me easily back through the door with the words:
“Come along, sir, that’s a good sir. No, that’s not your cabin, sir, that’s Prince Philip’s cabin.”
1994 October: Saturday
“Well, you certainly made a night of it,” said Nigel, as he picked up the now empty bottle of Glenmorangie.
I raised an eyelid and groaned. The CPO, bless him, had deposited me back in Cabin 21. However, I had to admit that the Navy had won – when it came to alcohol, they’d been there, done it, and not only got the T shirt but the entire wardrobe. I had been unwound.
However, despite whatever social disasters I may have committed the previous night, my departure was greeted with total friendliness and bonhomie. The Navy charm remained as solid as ever. The only chink I noticed in the gravitas came right at the end. When I stood at the top of the gangway to the dock to wave farewell, two Yachtsmen came to attention and saluted. As I glanced across, one of them gave me a conspiratorial wink.
The Britannia continued its voyage, collecting the Royal party in Helsinki, and transporting them on to St Petersburg. While in harbour, they were visited by the senior Admiral of the Russian Navy. He became so overwhelmed by British Naval glamour and wardroom drinks that he turned to his aide and, seizing the aide’s row of medals from his chest, insisted that the Britannia’s captain have them. The Russian aide, who had probably gained his medals in WW2 by defending Leningrad armed only with a broken milk bottle, looked suitably aghast.
This incident was followed by a State Banquet where the Queen entertained the Russian President Boris Yeltzin on board the Yacht. Knowing Yeltzin’s reputation with alcohol, strict instructions were passed down that he should perforce remain relatively sober to avoid an international faux pas. Nigel was given the task of ensuring this by heavily watering the President’s vodka. This strategy worked well, in spite of clear disgruntlement on Yeltzin’s part at the execrable quality of liquor served by the British. When the Banquet ended, the Queen rose to depart and Yeltzin rose to bow to her. She left stage right, as he began to leave stage left. As he strolled behind the diners, Yeltzin reached over between each guest and drained their drinks as he went.
Although Nigel’s term aboard ended two years later, the Yacht itself continued in service until 1997. Its last major task was to convey the Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, away from the colony before its transfer to the Republic of China. The last Royal Yacht and the last of the British Empire coincided.
The Britannia itself was de-commissioned at Portsmouth Dockyard five months later. The Royal Marines Band saluted the Yacht with an impromptu version of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ from the dockside. Reputedly, it was the only occasion when Queen Elizabeth was seen to shed tears in public.
Next Tuesday- one of the first forays into the New World. Oscar in the Bible Belt – life in North Carolina