Friday, 25 July 2014

David in Euroland

A Tale for Children

David had to go to Euroland for a big meeting in Brussels. This is where sprouts come from and sprouts, as every child knows, are horrid tasteless vegetables resembling solid green ping-pong balls that adults won't let you leave on the side of your plate after Sunday dinner. Instead you're told they're good for you and made to sit there at the table until you've eaten every last one.
David was The Prime Minister of Britain and normally he quite liked sprouts but sometimes even Prime Ministers who like sprouts just feel that they've had enough and would rather have something else for a change.
Strangely enough the meeting that David had to go to wasn't about sprouts like most of the other meetings but about another kind of animal altogether called Eurocats - or maybe it was Eurocrats, he couldn't quite make out the foreign accent over the telephone - but in either case it had as usual been decided that all of them should be exactly the same, all green and all perfectly round with great grins on their faces because they'd skimmed off so much of the cream.
Once upon a time if you wanted to go to Euroland, which very few people in Britain usually did, you had to get on a cross Channel ferry. Nobody really knew why the Channel ferry was so cross, but as long as they could remember it always had been. Most people thought it was probably because it had to go to Euroland every day and they all sympathised.
Anyway that was before they dug a big tunnel under the Channel. It was officially considered much better to go by train because Euroland had long ago started running on rails. David was pretty sure of this because the papers continually published stories about how the European train had departed from the station leaving him standing on the platform. Some of the newspapers considered this a great shame, whilst others said that the train was on the wrong track anyway and would most likely end up in the United States.
David wasn't very good at geography, but the United States sounded like completely the wrong direction to him. The editors explained they meant the United States of  Europe. Now David knew perfectly well this didn't exist and he thought it was a pretty silly idea for the Eurocrats to have built a railway line going there, let alone got on a train and started on the journey.
However, he saw things a little differently after he got a telephone call from his girlfriend Angela to ask why he hadn't come over. Angela was a German lady who had grown up wanting to be an engine driver and had been so successful that she was nowadays known in her own country as 'Der Steamroller'.
Angela told David that all the leaders agreed their destination was sure to exist by the time they got there. David didn't really find this very reassuring. All things considered, he thought, he would probably rather stay at home and eat sprouts. But Angela told David that if he didn't come on the train with all the rest then he'd have to follow behind on a bicycle and that sounded like an even worse idea to him. So David reluctantly agreed to go over.
Well of course by the time he got to Brussels everybody else had been on the train for some time and whilst they were waiting they had all been eating and drinking and playing cards. Angela was playing the Queen of Hearts but François was playing the field. Since all of the leaders were such terrible gamblers, the Eurocrats had carefully concealed all the real money in a big black box and handed out some imitation cash called Euros so that their chiefs could do what they liked with it and it wouldn't matter.
Unfortunately first the Greek leader and then the Irishman and then the Portuguese and then the Spaniard and then the Italian lost all the Euros that they had been given to play with. Every time this happened Angela had to give them some of her Euros in order to prevent them getting off the train.
So that when David arrived nearly everyone already owed Angela a lot of make-believe money. As if that wasn't a bad enough start to the meeting, the others all told David that whilst they were waiting they had already chosen a new driver for the train and his name was Jean-Claude. David didn't like the sound of this. He pointed out J-C rhymed with K-C and people called Casey were famous for crashing trains.
Angela said that this didn't matter ein pfennig because they had also decided that on the Eurotrain all the passengers could go at different speeds except those who had paid for their tickets using her money and they would have to go at the same speed as her so that she could keep an eye on them.
"Look at it this way," she said to David. "We had an election and nearly three quarters of the people in Europe said they wanted anybody but Jean-Claude, so obviously Jean-Claude has to get the job."
"I scarcely see why," said David, quite mystified as usual in his typically British way. The British are terribly bad at foreign languages and have never really understood Eurospeak.
"Because of the democratic deficit of course, dummkopf!" said Angela. "In Euroland we have a system that people should never get what they want because it only spoils them, so since hardly anybody wants Jean-Claude it follows he is the perfect choice."
"What experience does he have driving a train?" asked David.
"He's very popular in Luxembourg," said Angela, deftly changing the subject.
"That settles it," said David. "Do you know how much trouble the Labour Party leader in Britain got into trying to eat a bacon sandwich last week? You can't possibly expect me to swallow a Luxemburger."
"Look David, we're all agreed. Except for Viktor that is. He disagrees with everything that isn't in Hungarian."
"Good for him. I'll vote for Jean-Claude on condition he agrees to do everything in Hungarian too."
"Now be reasonable, liebchen. You don't want to be isolated, do you?"
"Actually, yes. That's the only way I'll ever be re-elected after all the austerity. You did hear UKIP topped the Euro-poll in Britain, didn't you? Now would one of you chaps mind pulling the emergency stop? I think I'll get off the train."
But liebchen," Angela wailed, "the Eurotrain is not moving."
"Excellent," said David. "I don't know if you've noticed but the British train on the other hand is moving along quite smartly. I might even manage to pull off another term in office. Toodle-pip, you chaps!"
And so saying David got off the train and took the bus to Calais for the ferry. Both David and the ferry were very happy about this because they were on their way back to England. In fact the ferry was so happy that it completely forgot to be cross and as a result it sailed to Southampton instead of Dover.
This was a bit unfortunate for David, since all the newspaper reporters were waiting for him at the wrong port and when he failed to arrive they naturally jumped to the wrong conclusion.
The next day all the British newspapers ran stories saying David had missed the boat.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Royal Clipper

There is something about a windjammer that makes a cruising holiday so much more enjoyable than a voyage on a liner.  Perhaps part of the magic is the small size.  Although the largest full rigged sailing ship in the world, at 5000 tons Royal Clipper is well under a fifth the size of even the small liner on which I have previously cruised.  She carries 220 passengers and her dining room can accommodate every one of her passengers at once.  Since I had already decided that huge liners with thousands of passengers were a very long way from my idea of a good time, the individual attention afforded by Royal Clipper's crew to passenger ratio of almost 1:2 was extremely pleasant.

It so happened that during this cruise we berthed in one port alongside a giant multi-storey vessel that could only be described as a floating block of flats.  Pop music was blaring out of its loudspeakers and innumerable passengers returning from shore excursions were all trying to board at once before sailing time.  Thank you, but no, not for me.  Looking over from the deck of our little ship, we few Royal Clipper people felt very smug indeed.

Another thing that I found very refreshing was to be treated as an adult.  I sometimes despair of being regimented by holiday couriers as though I were a child of five.  On Royal Clipper they seem to say, "You know what?  This is a sailing ship.  There are ropes everywhere.  Since you are not a child we don't have to tell you not to walk into the ropes.  You can duck them or climb over.  Unless someone is actually pulling on a particular rope at the time you can, using care and your own judgement, pass by it.  Obviously don't get in the way of sailors handling the sails in difficult conditions. Otherwise go where you like." Oh bliss.

I might like to talk about the interior being a cross between an Edwardian restaurant and a private yacht gleaming with polished wooden paneling.  I might like to talk about the unbelievable quality of the food, cabins and service generally; perhaps the unfailing cheerfulness of a crew determined to ensure that everyone has the holiday of a lifetime without unnecessary distractions.

But of course it is the magic of sail that touches the romance in the souls of people like us who spend all of their normal lives in close proximity to electronics and machinery.  It is not that  Royal Clipper relies on her sails. She will normally use staysails  to augment the motor except against a headwind and her square sails too if the wind is abaft the beam, but she rarely needs to tack as she would without an engine and she does not tend to lose time to the weather, though on this cruise we did lose one port of call to rough seas. Nevertheless there is no question but that she is a proper sailing ship and not an ocean liner that just happens to have the odd sail.  In fact she has 42 sails, 5000 square feet in all, and on this voyage she set 41 of them at once.

Two aspects of sailing stick in my memory.  One is being allowed to fulfill a lifetime's ambition and actually climb up the rigging to the crow's nest.  Oh yes I did, and I have photographs to prove it!  The other was a match race between Royal Clipper and her sister Star Clipper off the Croatian coastline.  Whilst I may entertain a few doubts as to whether the race was slightly choreographed and whilst the deck never really leaned over far enough for this enthusiast's taste, it certainly provided the ultimate photo opportunity for a lover of tall ships.

Star Clipper (left) is technically a barquentine rather than a true clipper.  That means she only has square sails on her foremast.  You do not however notice this holding her back in relatively light winds such as we experienced, whilst our heavier vessel perhaps needed a stiffer blow.  Nevertheless I want to thank the captains and crews of both ships for providing so wonderful a spectacle.  (And if anyone who was on Star Clipper wants to swap photos, please do get in touch!)