Last weekend I returned from France on a cross-Channel ferry. The decks were crowded with young people jabbering away in French, German, Dutch, English. It occurred to me that whichever language they spoke these kids were very much alike in dress, conduct, outlook and lack of physical fitness, as though a European cultural union had almost been achieved already, and I was sorry about it.
A few days later I was back in Dover, this time to board a cruise ship. The passenger list is 90 per cent British and of these the vast majority were born before the war. On this boat no such surrender of the national identity has occurred. We are so thoroughly British, we are almost stupefied by it.
In the evenings I can choose to dine formally in the restaurant, jacket and tie required, or help myself from the buffet, jacket and tie optional but still required, and sit at the nearest table with an unoccupied place setting. The latter option gives single voyagers like me the opportunity to mix easily and convivially with the other passengers. On my first evening at sea I carried my bowl of minestrone soup across the carpet to a small table occupied by a single female draped in vividly coloured silk. I was wearing a three-piece suit and tie. ‘May I sit here?’ I said. I asked the question as a polite formality. But it seemed to take her by surprise and she made me hover there, clutching my bowl of minestrone soup like a supplicant, while she looked me up and down and considered my request. Finally, she motioned me with a contemptuous flick of her fork to the empty chair. During our meal together she spoke not a word to me, nor looked at me, even when I asked her to pass the pepper. And when she’d finished her meal she stood up, turned her back and walked away as if I was beneath her notice.
At dinner the next night I asked if I might share a table with two ladies. They agreed with warmth and charm, but their enthusiasm seemed to dip dramatically from the moment I opened my mouth. From this point I began to wonder whether I hadn’t found myself among an intensely class-conscious kind of Britishness that I hadn’t come across before, but had read about in novels. For the next two nights I was careful to dine alone.
During an afternoon on solid ground, however, in Lerwick, Shetland, I managed to reconvince myself that I am a valid and not that uninteresting person, and at sea again in the evening I carried my bowl of consommé across the rising and falling carpet to a table occupied by three passengers. An elderly male and two elderly females were slicing their way through their venison steaks.
‘Can I sit here?’ I said. ‘By all means! Splendid! Welcome aboard!’ said the old chap, looking up myopically. His companions looked up and offered shy, encouraging smiles. ‘I’m Jeremy,’ I said. ‘And I’m travelling alone.’ ‘Terrific! Marvellous! Well done, that man!’ said the chap, straightening his glasses and frankly examining me.
Encouraged, I tried a small joke. Indicating the ladies, I said, ‘Both your wives?’ ‘Ha!’ he ejaculated. ‘Splendid!’ And then he said, ‘Up she goes!’ as the floor juddered and rose alarmingly. I think I was interesting to the ladies, who were utterly engrossed in an evidently conspiratorial conversation, only as an uncomfortably close material object. They looked up from their steaks occasionally to check whether I was still there or not. The motion of the ship concerned them not at all.
Determined to make some sort of meaningful contact with the three, I pulled out my copy of the Shetland Times, which I’d read earlier with great interest. In every reported court case, I told my dining companions, heroin was involved. The ladies looked up with expressions of polite interest. And in one report, of a heroin courier detected and apprehended on arrival at the Lerwick ferry terminal with 780 ‘wraps’ of heroin on him, I said, I’d come across a wonderful quote that I hoped they’d find as amusing as I did.
I folded back the paper and read it out to them.
Procurator Fiscal Duncan Mackenzie told the court the police had intelligence about [the defendant’s] activities, and were waiting at Holmsgarth terminal the next day for ‘yet another Liverpudlian to come off the boat with diamorphine concealed in their rectum’.
‘Jolly good show! Bravo!’ cheered the man after a pause. I don’t think the ladies had understood a word I’d said, either. I might have been speaking in a foreign tongue. They looked at me encouragingly, as though they really would have liked to understand what I was telling them, but it was hopeless, and they returned to their plates and to their enthralling whispered conversation. And the joyous pandemonium of that cross-Channel ferry crossing suddenly seemed very attractive.