Saturday, June 30, 2007

Birthday on the Briny

There’s something special about a barbecue party in the middle of an ocean that simply can’t be reproduced on land. And last night’s one was no exception. It was a gross shindig!

It was 6pm takeoff, and by the time we arrived up on the bridge deck it was laid out with trestles and tables and chairs – fairly polite ones for the passengers, and one large (and, as it proved, not wholly steady) affair for the serious partiers. Which meant just about everyone. The trestles were heaped with salads, ferried up by Svetlana, Natalya and Viktoria from down in the depths, and Vladimir, our chef, was poised over a broiling barbecue turning vast heaps of bleeding meat of all descriptions in vast heaps of mostly much less bleeding meat.

Needless to say, we were also provided with plenty in the way of liquid refreshment – beer, wine, the spirits which are so hugely cheap at sea, and even a few soft drinks for the less hardy and those who were about to go on watch.

This ship’s barbie was a little different to any other I’ve experienced in my cargo-ship voyaging. On the one hand, instead of the English-speaking Filipinos of the Blue Star Line, the junior officers and crew here are Russian. And I don’t have two words of Russian. Unless you count Belka and Stroika. So how to make contact? How to party together?
Secondly, the girls. Ladies. Svetlana, Natalya and Viktoria. And that’s not even counting Lyndall. Nor Claudi from Paris and Biddy from Zimbabwe. Blokes party differently in a stag atmosphere than they do when there are ladies, especially young and attractive ladies, not only around but perhaps even to compete for the attentions of.

t started slowly. All the passengers and the cadets down one end, the Russians down the other. But there’s no way our Captain would allow that sort of thing to go on for long, and no way convivial creatures like K Gänzl, Ms L Soule, and Mr G Cole, not to mention our exceptionally lively young quartet of cadets, would allow that sort of thing to go on for long. The loosening up process would soon begin.

The climax of the food part of the party came with the arrival of the birthday cake – a birthday cake for two – Happy birthday Captain Peter (30 May) and Greville (31 May)..

And then the Captain sent for the vodka, and the party moved determinedly into a different gear. I have never seen a bottle of vodka vanish so quickly. A swift series of glugs, and a dozen or more not-so-little glasses are filled with an inch or two of liquor, a communal ‘clink’ and .. down the hatch! Once, twice, three times …
I grasped my can of Guinness firmly in my hand and clinked with that. After last night, I was steering way, way clear of real Russian vodka. Michael, the youngest of the cadets, got himself well and truly caught up in the clinking and hatching, and what! There’s Lyndall at my elbow clinking and downing with the best of them. Once, twice and three times…! Lyndall who didn’t know what Martini, Drambuie and Cointreau were until last week!
One more round of clinks, the now empty vodka bottle was promptly replaced by a full one ..


And little by little I began to discover that not a few of the Russian men spoke a little or even quite a lot of English. I chatted happily with Oleg, a huge, gently-spoken ‘motorman’ (surely this is not the man whose party piece is taking off a bottle top with his eye socket!), with Nikolai, another ‘motorman’, but above all with Sergei, an oiler and turner, whose command of the English language was quite amazing. We swapped family histories. He is 38 years old with a wife back home in Eastern Russia, a little girl of 11 and a wee boy of 5. I don’t know how many times during the night I was asked about my family. But every time that I said that, no I didn’t have a wife, and no I didn’t have any children, I could feel six gallons of compassion sweeping my way. But then someone said cheerfully: ‘But you are rich’. Well, I suppose I am by Russian standards. Anyway, that was apparently all it took. I was no longer a man to be pitied!

As the day flowed on into night, our numbers began to dwindle. Michael went first, sagely, realising that his legs had gone all bendy in the wrong places, and heading for a safe haven. Little by little, silently, almost imperceptibly, people faded out of the merry circle to duties or to a needful bed. Lyndall, I noticed, had disappeared. I should have known better than to be concerned, she was simply up on Monkey Island having a mid-party (but, I doubt not, vodka assisted) snooze on a sunbed!

By 11pm only the hard core remained. Grev and Graham, both definitely vodka tainted but plunging practisedly on, Nikolai and Natalya, Viktoria and someone I hadn’t officially met, all sort of dancing to the stereo, and Sergei perched what looked like perilously on the ship’s rail with a can of Tiger..

And then even the Tiger was all gone.
At midnight I put my watch back the necessary hour, and bid everyone goodnight. I can’t do that silent slipaway thing. It was handshakes all round, and a swift buss for Viktoria. I guess you’ld call it ‘making an exit’. If so, I mucked it up. I’d just got stripped off for bed when I realised I’d left my camera up on the bridge. What the heck, the die-hards would still be partying, I’d just slip on some briefs and hop quietly up the stairs and get it. And as I went up, the partiers came down. Some exit!

It had been a great, great party. The communication problem hadn’t been one, and the girls – well, they were great too. I hope by next time I get on the Tikeibank, Viktoria and Natalya have made large English progress, so we can talk. Svetlana is already the ship’s star linguist. Of course, I suppose I could try a little Russian study: but, hey! It’s they who are going to need the extra language, not me.

Amazingly, there don’t seem to be too many pale-faced people around the ship today. Maybe vodka is good for you. And the valorous Michael, although admitting to being just a tad off form, has reaped the reward for his timely retreat. Grev, mind you, who was just about the last man standing, is spending his birthday on Lyndall’s sunbed, up where the breezes blow strongest!

So thanks Captain and thanks Grev .. and whose birthday is it next?

Between the Azores and Madeira

28 May

The Azores and Madeira.
Such memories.
Such memories of 35 years ago, when we sailed the ‘Northern Star’ to those then unknown (to us) islands.
Madeira. How we loved Madeira. Never, as long as I live, will I forget Alison and myself scaling those craggy, half-made tracks to the top of the Pico dos whatever it was -- the highest part of the mountainous back of the island -- sleeping out in loft-hay in the hut on the peak, then racing down the mountain to the departing ship the next day, and making it in time only thanks to my appeal for help (in Latin) to a local priest and to the kindness of a priest-fearing lorry driver. Never shall I forget the little house by the river that its owner was keen to sell us. One hundred and fifty English pounds. Perhaps I should have, but in those days I didn’t have a hundred and fifty pounds in the world…

And how happy we were.

Well, I sha’n’t be seeing the Pico dos whatsit or the little house (probably now replaced by a tower block of apartments) this time, and perhaps its just as well. I’ll just keep those memories intact.

We are driving our south-westerly course slap bang between the two groups of islands, both well out of sight, and I doubt not that we sha’n’t see another dribble of land until we sail into the Caribbean.

Which means it is time for pure lotus eating, enlivened only by reading (not writing yet), eating thrice daily and drinking, and a large amount of optional evening chat.

My latest reports on the reading part
‘From Doon with Death’ by Ruth Rendall. Another good crime novel, though I guessed whodunit remarkably early on.
‘Out-Island Doctor’ by Evans Cottman the remarkable boy’s-mag adventures of an American schoolteacher who quit 1940s Michigan for a life on a slightly inhabited Bahamian island, where he hewed and built and, finally, became a touring medico, battling through the elements on his yacht to treat the islanders other folk couldn’t treat. First half a definite treat, second half still OK.
‘The Norfolk Nightmare’ by David Thurlow a disgusting voyeuristic true-life crime thing. I junked it after 2 chapters.
‘English Passengers’ by Matthew Kneale A stunner. An historical novel set mostly in Tasmania. Full of imagination and characters, and not too much ‘message’ until a dreary epilogue. A Whitbread Prize winner. The Booker lot just shortlisted it. And yet K Amis won. No comparison between the two works.
‘The Courts of Love’ by Jean Plaidy a middle-aged ‘for ladies only’ pastiche of the Eleanor of Aquitaine story.
‘The Grave Tattoo’ modern semi-thriller-whodunnit about yet another lost work by yet another famous writer, sought after by both a sweet academic and ruthless commercial interests. The formula is overworked, also I guessed the baddie ten minutes in, and the ending (priceless poem destroyed) as soon as I started.

29 May

A brilliantly sunny day, with picture-book-calm seas and a whole lot more lotus eating.
The only thing to arouse one from one’s lethargy was the sight of something floating in the sea where something shouldn’t have been. James, the deck cadet, spotted it first … then I spotted him spotting it ... and … something white, floating too far off for even binoculars to make it clear. It seemed to be, in fact, three white bits with gaps in between, and James’s theory is that it was an upturned catamaran. Oh dear. I wonder if we shall ever know?
And oh, disaster, I seem to be a little sore on the whiter parts of my stomach… not to mention a tad pink .. and I thought I’d been so careful ..
Better have a beer to cool down
And another
And another
And, hey, let’s shout ‘wine on the table’ for everyone tonight to celebrate the qualification as a racehorse of my homebred ‘Boris’ aka ‘Wings of the Wind’ news of which has just come through on the ship’s email…

30 May
Very pink, especially the shins
And a slightly sore head
Not to mention a rather hazy recollection of the later part of yesterday evening, spent in the company of Lyndall, and the two engineering cadets, Grev and Michael.
Wine and beer together, not a good idea.
I shall blame Boris.
Shade-bathe today, rather than in the sun. Watching the flying fish flitter by. And a nice nurofen.
Get myself in order for the evening’s entertainment. Captain’s birthday, to be celebrated in tandem with Grev’s which is tomorrow.

Au revoir, Europe

Thursday 24 May 2007

It’s a whole week already since I set forth from Wokingham at the beginning of the watery part of my travels. A whole week. It seems like a blip in the eye of time. I do hope the next four weeks won’t go as quickly…

We didn’t spend so very long in Le Havre. I thought we’d be there for perhaps a day or two, but all the loading was done by supper time, and out we sailed. There was nothing more to see beyond what we’d seen on the way in, but the weather was a little brighter, and it seemed sensible to re-take some of the incoming photos, so we all piled up on to Monkey Island for what would, theoretically, be our last port until Panama.

Theoretically is a good word to use around cargo ships.

But, anyway, out we sailed, heading along the French coast to Cherbourg, round the corner, and then to the South … destination …
That’s what the Captain said.
And, no. You won’t find it on a map.
It’s short for “Finisterre for orders”.
We were sailing for Cap Finisterre, at which point – and by which time – the powers that organise (ie shipowners Andrew Weir and the charterers, Swires Ltd) would have worked out the logistics of getting us to rendez-vous with a sister ship from whom we would be able to pilfer the additional lifeboat of which we had need.
Then, and only then, could we continue on or way.

Well, they duly organised, and we know now – 48 hours later -- that we are headed for Lisbon. We probably won’t dock – both we and our sister are carrying ‘restricted’ cargo – just anchor off, and go through the palaver of lifeboat-swapping, but we are heading for Lisbon.

Of course, none of that makes any difference to me. I have slipped very nicely into my usual shipboard routine.
Up at around 6am or 6.30am, check out the outside temperatures, check the emails, breakfast at 7.30, up on deck with a book or three, down for midday lunch, straight up again having eaten, and stay there till five-ish after which its shower, change for dinner, cocktails, 6.30pm dinner and ... either more book, or some socialising, a little wine and/or off to bed for one of those sleeps one only gets at sea.

Really, the only variables are those caused by the ship’s organisation and the weather.
Yesterday, for example, was reasonably sunny and slightly cool-breezy. I managed some ‘shirt off’ sunning, and got through books number two (remainder of), three and four. Book number one, a large tome on the history of mapmaking by a chap with three names, had gone back to the library early. I only got up to Captain Cook. The facts were interesting, but the author’s style was unbearably self-conscious and thick. I suspect him of being an academic.
I went lighter and fictional for day two. No disasters but no unexpected triumphs either.
Anne Rice, as an antidote to the map-man. A book called ‘Lasher’. Well, you know what you are going to get with Mrs Rice, don’t you. Know where you are. And she’s eminently readable. This one was definitely a ‘ripping yarn’ in her usual style and manner, with something (sexual) for everyone, and more than a little cleverness in the plotting. All in all, good stuff.
Then a bit of Tom Sharpe. ‘The Midden’. As true to himself as Mrs Rice. I mean, no-one else could have written it. You can tell a Tom Sharpe blindfolded. Again, its good if predictable (in style) fun, But, just occasionally, Mr Sharpe pulls out a zany, wild, obstreperously bawdy scene that is distinctly better than just ‘good’, and this book has one of those. And better still, it comes right at the end. It had me laughing out loud. I shall read that last bit again when the library starts to falter.
Number three was a Kingsley Amis. I’m sure I must have read one of his books sometime, there are a lot of them, but I don’t recall it. This one ‘The Old Devils’ won the Booker Prize. Well, that’s what it says. And it has all sorts of quotes on the back saying how wonderful and funny it is. I think they need me on the Booker panel. Unless I’m missing something (and there are signs of the thing being a clef) it was run of the mill, not terribly interesting in its characters or its minimal tale, and indeed almost dull. Sorry, I prefer Mr Sharpe.

Today started off grey and windy. But I donned a sweater, found myself a niche where the wind didn’t penetrate, and settled down with ‘The Search for Nefertiti’ by Egyptologist Joann Fletcher. Rather a thick book, but the lady writes with mostly unaffected ease (she’s from Barnsley) and the story of the search – which is actually an attempt to identify a hitherto nameless mummy as being the iconic Egyptianess – was definitely interesting. Unfortunately, in the middle of her ‘search’, she puts the story into suspension and plonks in a potted history of the Pharoahs and Egypt which have all the air of having been written as a separate piece and sutured in here. I skimmed that bit, to get back to the archaeology, and finished nicely at 5pm.
I finished in my cabin, however, because Thursday is washing day. You get fresh linen in your cabin, and the seamen hose down and scrub the decks to rid them of those nasty, oily, all-ruining black smuts which rain, from time to time, in a sort of a nose-blow effect, from the smokestack. And ‘my’ deck is just below the smokestack. Actually, so far it’s hardly rained smuts at all, but the Captain says ‘it will’.

25 May

It rained. All night it rained on the newly washed decks, and all morning it rained some more. I did my best to take up my usual place on deck, equipped with one of the Cadfael mystery novels (as satisfying as they always are), but the rain having started to penetrate even the covered parts of the deck, I had to renounce. Instead I spent the afternoon curled up on my bunk with the autobiography of Eric Sykes. What’s it like? Well, if you skip the bits about golf and so forth, it’s … yeah, it’s OK. No scandalous bits which is a relief, though it was good to get a bit of grit about the successive and he-is-probably-right-useless heads of Television Light Entertainment in amongst the sunny stories.

The main entertainment of the day came after dinner, For after dinner, we steamed into Lisbon. I have been to Lisbon before, light years ago, on the Northern Star, but I don’t remember very much about it. All I really remember is getting out of Lisbon in order to go to a special place where they sold local pottery. I was mad for pottery in those days. I bought some for my parents, and I bought two plates and a mug for my cabin. 35 years on, I still have them. One of very few souvenirs of those extremely happy days at sea.
Anyway, I won’t be re-visiting, because we are only anchoring off Lisbon. All we get to see this time is Lisbon from the sea. A gentle wander down the estuary, past the famous statue on the hill, and under a spick-and-span bridge, to what looks quite a large and quite an attractive city. But it is really too grey and night-falling to tell.

26 May

Dawn proves that Lisbon is indeed a nice-looking city, this side of it anyway, even if we are really a bit far away to see any details.
And not long after that rather chilly dawn, the day’s bit of entertainment begins. At 7am, the SS Boularibank picks up the Lisbon pilot and, soon after, she steams into view, escorted not only by a grey speedboat which looks like a gun launch (but is apparently only a police one) and shadowed by a rather quaint vessel with a yellow funnel which is – Lord forbid! – a Greenpeace ship! I thought they had all been sunk years ago.
Why all this fa-lal? It appears that our sister ship is carrying not only a large amount of uranium but also a consignment of dynamite. I think being a passenger on her might be just a little less comfortable than this one!
There is, of course, the usual vast amount of launch-type toing-and-froing as this inspector and that official do their thing, but finally the sun bursts out in a really frizzling heat rash and the activity – the transferring of the dinky orange lifeboat (it doesn’t look big enough to carry 50 people!) from Them to Us -- gets underway.
The boat is lowered into the sea, and four seamen (A Russian, a Scot .. etc) head it towards our left hindquarter. The aft cargo crane drops a pair of canvas slings which are then attached to the top of the lifeboat, the seamen transfer agilely to a waiting harbour vessel, then its heave-ho, and up the thing comes to the deck. I mean, it’s not an earthshaking event, but its an uncommon enough one that even the crew are out taking photos.

It takes much more time to hoist the boat onto its destined cradle than it did to physically get it abroad, and before its finished I have decided that I’m lifeboated out and have gone downstairs for one of our best lunches yet: spicy cottage pie with hot beetroot and cabbage.
After lunch, back topside for a lounge in the intermittent blazing sun (15 mins maximum exposure is, I feel, good fishing) and a really good book. ‘The White Rajah’ by Nigel Barley. The story of Sir James Brooke, the amazing man who invented -- and became the first dynastic Rajah of -- Sarawak. It’s apparently a story that’s been much told before – even though it was totally new to me – but Mr Barley makes its stories of political and pirate-chasing battles immensely readable and, since this is the 21st century, he gets to demonstrate the fact that said Rajah was neither a hero nor a villain (he has been painted as both by interested parties) but simply a remarkable Victorian man. Also that he was into young teenage boys. Not easy in Sarawak.

We were supposed to steam out of Lisbon at 3pm, destination Panama (traverse: 7 June), however a bit of unfortunate timing got the pilot to us before the local agent had returned with the departure documents, so we got shuffled down the queue a bit, and didn’t get away till 7.30. Still, most of the days from here on in are going to be 25 hours long, as we pass through the various time zones, so although I’m writing this at 8.45pm, as we steam out of the harbour mouth .. I can see the seaside buildings through my porthole … it’s actually only 7.45pm as I say

Au revoir, Europe, until the next time round.

Tikeibank in Le Havre

Tuesday 22 May

As you can see from the above byline, we have sailed! I am now afloat, for the first time in … well, I suppose it must be seven years or more since Ian and I took our last Blue Star ship to (or was it from?) New Zealand. It won’t, of course, ever be seven years again, for me.

We stayed in Dunkerque for almost the whole of Monday, while the ship’s cargo was got aboard. I was quite puzzled when I saw those endless bags of flour being loaded from the barge tethered to the ship’s side, but all that was wrong was that I’d not done my homework properly. The Bank Line ships are not, as I’d rather automatically supposed, dedicated container ships, they are ‘general cargo’, so we get all sorts. I watched, for example, a huge box of truck or tractor tyres being swung into one of the open holds. But we don’t seem to have got the vast pile of windmill-parts that were heaped up on the wharf. Seems they went by barge.

Cargo watching is, however, not an enormously enthralling spectator sport, except for the utter cargo-ship neophyte, so I didn’t spend too much time at it. It was much more a (grey again) day for a little book, a little computer, a little e-mail, a little lounge-about, and the usual amount of eating and drinking. The ‘usual amount’ is rather a lot. Three meals a day – timed like a race programme, and produced by our two Russian chefs (1m 1f, I now discover) -- are there to be had and, since one is not doing anything else, one automatically attends them. Unless one has a certain strength of character. Lyndall has given the lead by already abandoning breakfast. I have not. Yesterday morning it was black pudding, today bacon and poached eggs with very nice blinis. And I have just demolished, as noontide luncheon, a large plate of really excellent ‘Russian Soup’ (a little meat, much strip-veg, and what I imagine is a beetroot base) and a nice thick piece of poached smoked haddock with a noodle salad. (The main course was pork chop with trimmings, so I am being quite sensible and selective!). This sees one through till 6.30pm when, tonight, I see it is spring chicken. And, I can report, it’s all of a very acceptable standard indeed.

But enough of things edible. After dinner last night (roast lamb with .. oops, sorry) the entertainment was ‘the departure from Dunkerque’. And it was a departure which turned out to be more entertaining than I’d expected, for the ‘Port Ouest’ is a locked port. The water of the harbour where we were berthed is more than seven metres higher than the sea. So the Tikeibank needed to be taken down a notch. And the operation had, of course, to be recorded -- in the age of digital cameras -- by each and all of our little group.
It was a grey evening, with quite a nippy wind to it, but some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, braved the open decks and Monkey Island for the occasion.
Our two tugs escorted us through the grisaille, down the waterways of the port, in the usual push-with-the nose, pull-with-the hawser fashion, past the colourful panoply of berthed ships, and manoeuvered us into position for the lock.

By the time the lock had done its work, and we steamed out, past what I assume were the famous beaches of the ‘Dunkirk Evacuation’, towards the harbour entrance, with its blinking lighthouses, twilight and the misty atmosphere had pretty largely put paid to our sightseeing and snapping. After some two hours up on deck, we descended to the warmth of the lounge, and the warmth of the last dregs of the last bottle of Jameson’s. (It’s OK, once we are at sea, Steve can and will replenish!)

By 10pm I was in bed with a book, by eleven I was in the land of very heavy Nod, and I awoke at 6am to find us already amongst the parked ships off Le Havre. So it seemed sensible to get up and investigate.
The port of Le Havre is much larger than that of Dunkerque. It stretches seemingly for kilometres. You come in through the harbour entrance, past the usual bornes and lighthouses – with a view across to the curving beach and what is evidently the main part of the city – and you see before you every kind of loading equipment imaginable – for grain, for coal … and, of course, the now ubiquitous container cranes – as well as some mighty port buildings. The first parts of the harbour are at sea level, but we have come deeper into the complex of berths, and have had to pass through another lock (dubbed, for some reason, Ecluses François 1er’) to get to our allotted tie-up. Looking out my cabin window (open! It’s permitted! Hurrah!), I see acres of silos and tanks of different sizes and doubtless purposes, I see cranes and chimneys – including those always fearsome looking ones that spout flame – hangars and towers meant for uses I understand not. Closer, there are the heaps of containers, some of which are obviously destined for us. And, everywhere, ships of all sorts and sizes, from a huge, ugly car carrier to what looks like a little Russian coaster. The port of Le Havre is a vast and busy place. A ship-spotters paradise, I would imagine.

So, here we are. Awaiting our load. For a day? Two? I don’t know. I don’t care. I’m not budging. Not going ashore. No-one has, except Michael the engineer cadet who has gone into town to buy a computer, and the ever-adventurous Lyndall who has gone in search of somewhere to spend her last two hours of French pre-paid Wi-fi.


Ladies aaaaaand Gentlemen ..!

The next five weeks’ worth of blog (which, obviously, won’t be uploaded until I hit Sefton at the end of June) will be all Tikeibank and then more Tikeibank and then Tikeibank yet again. And those five weeks’ worth of stories will, logically, week in and week out, feature some, or all, of the same cast of characters. So, in good old theatrical fashion, let me present you with the folks on the bill, the cast list, for what we may call … ta-da! .. THE TIKEIBANK FOLLIES

Well, not too many follies, I imagine.

First of all our leading man. Clearly, in earlier years, he was light comedy juvenile. You know, the Cary Grant sort. Although there is, in fact, a rumour going around that he played Romeo on more than one occasion. Now, in his getting on for grown-up years, he is theoretically into more serious roles, although the old habits die hard, and the comedy has a way of creeping into to all but the most dramatic of his performances…
Here he comes… our respected and beloved captain …. Peter!

It is kind of unusual in these 21st century days for a leading man to form a vibrant and virtual double act with the chief comedian of the show, but who are we to be boringly conventional? William Gaxton and Victor Moore did it back in the roaring twenties, so why can’t we in the zany zeroes…
So here he is, with a witticism or a raspberry, a master key or a bottle of what you fancy, always at the ready, the second half of the top-of-the-bill act, our star comic (and chief purser) … Steve!

Next, of course, comes our leading lady. Tall, blonde, gorgeous, straight out of Florida, USA .. and she travels, amongst an impressive array of useful items (from camomile to corkscrews) a rectal glove. So no messing about with this lady, or you could end up upturned and ….. For, when she ain’t being a star in this particular tale, the lovely Lyndall is an officially retired veterinary surgeon with a speciality in horses.
A big hand (no pun intended) for … Lyndall!

Mesdames, messieurs … every good show has, obligatorily, a fascinating French lady in its cast .. whether it be a French soubrette or a French Marquise. Remember Mireille Perrey? Remember Alice Delysia? Remember Leslie Caron? Well, we have our own .. our very own …
A little bit soubrette .. a little bit fille de bonne famille .. a little bit Marquise… and a whole heap Parisienne …
notre très bien aimée … Claudie!

Follies Part 2

Now, this is not a classically proportioned story. Well, would you expect one such from me? Don’t be silly. Normally, a show would have one juvenile man who, after five acts of singing and dancing, would romance his way into the heart of a juvenile lassie. Well, I can do much better than that. We have not one juvenile man … we have four! The Fab four. Officer cadets all. And I’m sorry but this story doesn’t have a juvenile girl in it, so they are mostly going to be put to doing close harmony quartets .. although I have a distinct suspicion that at least one of them (if not all four) may be casting illicit glances at our leading lady…
So, let me introduce, the toyboys of the Tikeibank…
Grev! Representing Hereford
James! Representing Chichester
Dion! Representing Gibraltar
Michael! (Michael, people fight producers like hell to get the ‘and’ billing) Representing Liverpool
You’ll be hearing a lot of them, one way and another, I doubt not.

Follies Part 3

Next, we have our character players. All sorts.

First, there are the dashing, aristocratic ones who sweep in and tell the juvenile man that he cannot possibly marry the flowergirl (who is of course a billionairess in disguise, and he is only a penniless Duke) or the ones … well, you all know your Hollywood 1940s don’t you .. everything from Cuddles Szakall to Margaret Dumont to Eric Blore or Cathleen Nesbitt…
We are – and I say it from the bottom of my heart -- particularly lucky to have ..
Hugh and Biddy!

Secondly, there is the ‘Old Bill’ (and I don’t mean policeman) character. The pepper-of-the-earth chap who, from the depth of his pint (or, maybe, tot of rum), says all the wise things that too many folk don’t listen to. He usually gets the hit number of the show, somewhere along the line. Anyway, we are blessed with a superbly salty-and-peppery bloke for this important part
So, take a bow, my very favourite Graham!

And finally there is Philip. Philip appears only in act 3 and act 4 of our show. So I have him cast for ‘the mysterious stranger’. Since he makes that first appearance, when the story is indeed well under way, sporting a very evident black eye in one corner of his exceedingly characterful face .. haha! HAHA! So, will there be a mysterious surprise???

Follies Part 4

No show can even be imagined without ‘les girls’ and we are particularly well equipped in the glamour stakes. Even the Bolshoi or Berkby Busley, I am sure, couldn’t come up with better team than our line up of Tikeibank stewardess sweethearts...
Allow me to introduce…
La blonde Svetlana!
La brune Natalja!
Et la jeune et belle Viktoriya!

Finding a first class premier danseur is always a very difficult job. It’s driven me mad many a time in my career as a caster in the West End. But how much more difficult when you’re casting from the complement of an ocean-going cargo ship! But – guess what -- we have one! An utterly genuine one. Would you believe it, our young Bosun, the Adonis of the Tikeibank, swapped his ballet shoes for a Bosun’s bandana some years back….
Le voila! Evgenyi!!!

We have speciality acts, too, you know.
How about a strong man? There’s no doubt about who has the title on this ship. It’s Igor, the second officer, the champion of the gymnasium. I won’t show you a photo of him from the neck down in case this blog gets x-rated, but here he is, the Magnificent (and tres gentil) Igor!

Follies Part 5

And an international double act! David from Yorkshire and Dolores from West Virginia. David is our ‘chief’, only occasionally to be lured by us (well, by Dolores really) from the depths of the engine room… but here he is! Here they are!

I am currently investigating the rest of the crew for hidden speciality talents…, and may or may not report back subsequently.


What? Who? Me? Good heavens, yes, of course, I’m in this show too. As what? Silly question. I’m the casting director, so I’ve saved not one but two roles for myself.
Number one, I shall be the singer. You know, the one that sings ‘Here they come, those beautiful girls’, when they do. Usually around meal times.
But, more importantly, I’ll be the hero’s .. or the heroine’s, or what-the-hell everybody’s ...‘ best friend’ chappie. The confidant, you know? Like Maurice Chevalier in Dede. The one who gets a good dose of the best numbers, a good few of the funny scenes, who gets the mickey took out of him on a regular basis and never gets the girl (or, since this is 2007, the boy) … but still gets the notices.


Watch this space!

M/V Tikeibank, herself

On the M/V Tikeibank

Well, I’m here. I’m on.

Lyndall and I got our dinner at La Vague – panaché de poissons again, with a fine bottle of Gevray Chambertin and the odd aperitific and cognac frill (total: 86.80) -- and it was every bit as good as it had been the previous night, also -- this time – the place was full to the point of turning-away. On top of that, the taxis did indeed turn up at 9.15pm, and we and our luggage duly trundled off to the ‘Port Ouest’ of Dunkerque to rendez-vous with our ship, which had docked just fifteen minutes earlier.

My first impression as we drove down the dock towards her was: ‘oh heck, she’s SMALL’. And, indeed, compared with the Blue Star ships which have been almost the whole of my previous experience, I suppose she is. 18,000 tons as compared to 25,000 tons, it appears. She is also not terribly young, being a converted Finnish or Russian arctic ship – with ice-breaker prow and a closed-in bridge, pardi! -- which in her day has seen duty in many a North Sea capacity, including a potentially warring one. She is even equipped with a nuclear shelter and a decontamination tank: both now recycled, of course, to kinder uses as a table-tennis room and a swimming pool respectively.

My big ‘wonder’, after my unfortunate venture into a rather disagreeable German line after all those hugely happy years travelling on the Blue Star ships – reputed far and wide and rightly, in their time, as ‘the best’ -- was: just how much less wonderful than the Blue Stars she would turn out to be, and in what departments. Cabin, open deckspace, lounge and laundry facilities, food, and so forth and so forth.

Boy, was I in for a surprise.

In almost every area the Tikeibank is as passenger-friendly, if not even more so, than my deeply missed old favourites. I can scarcely believe my good fortune.

My cabin is really delightful. Of course, it’s not as roomy as the big double ones in which Ian and I used to travel, but it is definitely more spacious than the Stars’ singles were and, in fact, I actually like it better. It is a cosy accommodation for one, without ever being cramped.

I have a simple box bed, a day-bed, a fine desk with a fridge, tea & coffee things and a fruit and biscuit supply, a TV for DVDs and videos (library provided) and a CD-player. I have a double wardrobe and umpteen drawers into which I’ve been able to unpack my entire travelling bags, and I have a very small but sparkling new bathroom – basin, toilet and a very fair (for a ship, with -- of course -- limited water pressure) shower.
The whole is nicely, freshly decorated in autumn colours, sports a useful if rather ticky clock and an attractive water-coloury impression of Venice… and if the floral porthole curtains and Woolworths tea and coffee canisters aren’t quite to my taste, they nevertheless both do their jobs.

I have peeked into most of the other cabins – there are two large double suites, and a third less expansive double (all, since we are five ‘singles’, being sole occupancied) – and they seem all to be nice, but somehow I like my little “Suva” room the best of all. Tant mieux pour moi!

The open deck situation on the German ship was a disaster. Scarcely a square foot to plant a deckchair. On the Stars, it was brilliant, a vast wide double-sided deck with an open-air swimming pool and unlimited barbecue potential. The Tikeibank, alas, doesn’t have the swimming pool (it’s down in the depths, the old decontamination tank) but it does have a very nice selection of open decks ... one good semi-covered one and one open one, both on bridge level, as well as a larger-than-usual ‘Monkey Island’ above the bridge. Plenty of space for all of us to sun, without being on top of one another ... and I notice the barbecue equipment is already up there! It all promises well.

The passengers’ lounge is divided into a seating area with bar, and a games room with – o hallelujah! a free passenger e-mail connection to the real world. Here, without a doubt, the Star ships are simply outclassed. And since the library and the laundry (both of which I have already sampled) are well up to hopes, and the food shows every sign of being even better than hoped, optimism and joy are the order of the day.

All going well, the Tikeibank looks set to become a feature of my life for years to come.

We were first welcomed on board by the ship’s purser, Steve, a jovial bearded Liverpudlian of uncertain girth. A purser for heaven’s sake! Never had one of those before. Well, not since Roy Clarke on the Northern Star a hundred years ago (see the story concerning whom in EMILY SOLDENE: IN SEARCH OF SINGER and further than that I will not go). Steve welcomed us with bottles – Guinness, bedad! On top of La Vague’s whisky, Nuits Saint-Georges and cognac! And since he has subsequently magicked up extra coat-hangers, as well as heavy scissors and a screwdriver (to make slim man’s holes in my new belt) for me, and is evidently an all-round good humoured and good value guy, I am all in favour of Steve.

Our Captain, Peter Stapleton, as lofty as Steve is rotund, joined us too, and .. well, let’s just say this is evidently going to be a very merry cruise, with good-humour positively flowing. I can go with that!

After the Guinness, it was definitely time to retire. But I couldn’t quite yet. I wanted to unpack all my things and put them away so that, come morning, everything would be ‘home’. I don’t know what time it was when I sank into my box-bed. But there I stayed till 6am.

We are, on Saturday 20 May, still in Dunkerque. The cargo takes rather longer to load than the passengers. Especially as we seem to be loading zillions of small (?) white bags of flour from a large barge parked alongside. I wasn’t aware that we would carry anything other than containers. It seems an awfully old-fashioned and time-consuming (time = money) way of doing things. But hey! None of my business.
Apparently we load through the night into tomorrow, and sail out of here some time after lunch. So the ‘new’ travellers (and Lyndall, who is not new but confides she usually doesn’t start too well) are having a chance to get their sea-legs, so to speak, before we actually move.

I arose with the seagull, tested my little shower (not bad, not bad at all, and MUCH better than any other ship shower I’ve ever had) and immediately investigated the laundry which is, happily, right opposite my cabin door. A morning of washing and ironing was a must, to get my ‘home’ in order.
7.30am was breakfast, and yes, I did. Bacon, eggs and fried potatoes. I don’t suppose I shall be so rash every day, except that they turned out to be particularly good. Not quite Lucille of Jersey standard, but hey, this is a ship.
I should pause here to mention … OK, I know it’s useless to compare present and past, but one can’t help it… I should mention that our meals are cooked (I believe) and served (definitely) by young ladies. Ladies! On a ship. Never, ever, in my life at sea have I seen a young lady on a cargo ship. The only ladies heretofore were elderly and passengers. But here we have three young Russian ladies (one speaking fine English, her two subordinates, both very new to the job, not yet).
For I have not mentioned that this ship is, apart from the British senior officers and four cadets, manned entirely by Russian junior offices and seamen. I don’t suppose they will make music like the Filipinos, but who knows. Maybe they have other talents.

The morning vanished in laundry, library, Steve’s lifejacket lesson and guided tour of the ship, a little reading, a little computing, and a small doze. And I wasn’t the only one. I think a few of us took rather more than a small doze. I also investigated the e-mail thingy and bundled out a few ‘guess what’s to various e-pals.
The afternoon – umm – well, more of the same .. that’s the routine on board ship. I shall not be using the fearsome looking gymnasium down below. Definitely not its weight-lifting equipment (for Russians only?), and not even its up-to-the-minute treadmill. If I exercise, it will be up and down the stairs and around the deck.

Oh, there was of course lunch. Pork and bean soup and a nice bit o’plaice in light batter, with a glass of Heineken. The bar is full of Heineken. Maybe because no-one wants to drink it. Steve has just popped in to tell me that the Guinness has been loaded, so all will be well.

And so, it’s 4.35pm already. At five we have the traditional Captain’s Cocktail Party, before dinner. It’s steak night, Sunday. I wonder if I can get my scorched cow. I don’t think I can do my ‘walk the cow past the fire and chop a bit off’ routine in Russian. And I’m not sure that even the chief blonde lady (names will come) of the restaurant would get the gist, anyway. Time to wash ‘n’ brush up ‘n’ change for the evening…

We made it! La Vague part 2

The Duchesse Anne

Kurt in Dunkerque

Dunkerque was not on the programme. Well, it was, but simply as the place into which our mini-bus would roll, allowing us to climb straight aboard the Tikeibank, prior to setting forth across the oceans. Only it didn’t quite happen that way. We were destined to see rather more of Dunkerque than the shipyards. For, like all good cargo ships, the Tikeibank is, surprise!, running late. In fact, when we arrived here, she was way behind us. That she had been held up by the need for the replacement of a faulty lifeboat, we had already been told in London, but allegedly that problem had been fixed, allegedly she was on her way (I had actually believed the lifeboat thing was happening here!), and, allegedly, we would still sail, as re-re-scheduled, on Saturday 18th. Some time. Any time. But Saturday 18th.
So why were we here on Friday?
Because the mini-bus, apparently, does not run on a Saturday. So we five voyagers had to be transferred to France one day in advance. We would sleep the night in a small hotel in the centre of Dunkerque, and board the ship on the morrow. Some time. Any time. A repeatedly altered time. But on the morrow.

It is now the morrow. 4pm on the morrow. And we have just been re-re-altered to ‘taxis at 9.15pm’. Maybe. Hopefully. For we have been out of our hotel rooms since 11am and are currently camped out with our luggage and our computers in the hotel lounge. It’s very comfortable (and I’ve just been served coffee), so I’m not in any way complaining, but it would … perhaps I should be positive and say ‘will’ .. be nice to get aboard, installed, unpacked and so forth after ten weeks living out of one and a bit suitcases.

But that is, actually, the only reason for my anxiety to get on. For Dunkerque, against all my expectations, has turned out to be a wholly good thing. I expected a rather frowsy dockside city, sort of grey and grubby, as such cities can so often be, and with little of interest to be discovered.

Not so.

To start with, the Hotel Borel, situated on the edge of one of the largest watery yacht-populated areas in the middle of town, is very nice indeed. I had a smart little room in which the essentials – large, comfortable bed (these seem nowadays – as opposed to ten or twenty years ago -- to be the happy norm), powerful shower, splendid bathroom – were very well cared for indeed, and in which I was very comfortable. My only grouch was that – although they offer wi-fi, you have to pay 10 euros for three hours. Since that is against my principles, the blog didn’t get blogged, and no-one got any emails. This chunk of history will, as a result, not get posted until I reach Christchurch.

As soon as I was installed, I sallied forth for a bit of shopping. Yes, me! Shopping! For, as you will recall from my Paris episodes, I had not succeeded as yet in laying my hands on those very necessary-for-the-voyage espadrilles. Also, since we were to be in town for the night, and the ‘free’ evening meal at the hotel (which doesn’t do dinners) was a micro-waved TV-dinner, I wanted to scout out a ‘petit restaurant’ where I could devour my last plate of tripes for the present.

Having at first taken the wrong turning, and ended up in a very unglamorous suburb of the town, I had the notion to follow the signs saying ‘centre ville’, and I thus discovered the said ‘centre’, just across the water from our hotel. Dunkerque having had a history full of wars (I even passed a monument to the dead of the Franco-Prussian one), it is inevitably a mixture of much that is new and newish with only a limited amount of ‘old’, but the main street features a very impressive brick Hotel de Ville, a splendid and sizeable bullet-marked church, a huge war (1st and 2nd) memorial clock tower, and the city seems to be monument-mad. Monsieur Jean Bart – whoever he is -- features largely, and the local corsairs – who I presume are the ‘Paul Jones’ lot – are also much remembered.

Anyway, more importantly, the main street sported a shoe shop, that shop happily stocked espadrilles, at a mere 6 euros a pair, and I (after lingering a little over a bright scarlet pair) ultimately purchased the entire contents of the ‘size 44’ shelf. Mission accomplished.
The second part of my mission, however, proved to be in vain. There are Turkish restaurants, tandoori restaurants, Italian restaurants, a Greek restaurant, sea-food restaurants (naturally), and even the occasional French restaurant, as well as the usual range of brasseries and bistrots, mostly featuring moules (naturally) and/or brochettes. One even had andouillettes, but only at lunchtime. But tripes? Hélas. They were nowhere to be found.

Back at the hotel, we confirmed that there was no ship, and that we were definitely staying the night, so come 6 o’clock Graham and I decided that it was aperitif time and adjourned to the café next door where we killed a few beers in the company of Dominic, an underwater gas-pipe engineer who has been here since January doing said piping. And he still doesn’t have more than a word of French!

In the absence of tripes, I had made my decision over dinner. On instinct. Directly opposite the café was a tiny, eccentrically modern-decorated little ‘restaurant de poissons’ named La Vague. And something inside me just said ‘this is for you’.

How right can you be. La Vague, I can report, turned out to be a veritable pearl. A modern-style fish restaurant with flair and fashion ... and, oh! The food!
As you know from past tales, I am not a big eater. I love good food, but in small doses. So it’s normally a case of one dish. The dish I chose, on this occasion, was a ‘panaché de poissons’ .. a small piece of this fish, and a small piece of that one ...
Graham, whom I had persuaded to join me, even though restaurants of this style and class have not hitherto been in his repertoire, but who as an ex-fisherman has nothing to learn about seafood – chose sole.
Both our meals were quite simply superb .. but that is only a small part of the story.
I began with a whisky as aperitif .. there was a choice of more brands than you can imagine (I chose Ballantine’s) .. and this in a restaurant of six tables, one toilet and a small kitchen (yes, I went in to say ‘thank you’) .
Then came a little ‘sandwich’ starter. It was fish in one part, raspberry in another .. and I missed the rest of the description, as when one of the two very young gentlemen who are the ‘front of house’ for the place described it to me in too dulcet and mumbly-high-speed French, I was so taken aback by the ‘raspberry’ that I missed all the rest.
Then came our main course, accompanied by a very nice bottle of Sancerre. 30 euros, but what the hell. Already it was evident that La Vague was a very, very superior place.
As we gently finished off our wine, two more little surprises turned up. The first was actually a huge surprise. A pair of little wooden sticks, in a glass of what looked like white sand, upon which was whirled what I can only describe as pink candy-floss! I don’t quite get the reasoning behind it, but it was perfectly nice.
And then, when it seemed all was finished, and the coffee and cognac (well, why not!) ordered, along came two delicious little chocolatey thingies..
We lingered longly over the last stages of our meal … and I was so carried away that I simply have no idea what the bill was. It didn’t matter. Ah! Graham says it was 88 euros. Plus a ten percent tip which for once I was eager to pay. Well, I call that a bloody bargain.

Anyway, if you ever need to eat in Dunkerque, it’s La Vague, 9 Rue de la Poudrière, 59140 Dunkerque (Citadelle) tel: 03 28 63 68 80.

Friday dawned bright and cool. The Hotel Borel serves an excellent buffet breakfast, but breakfast was not the main thing on anyone’s mind. The question was ‘what time do we board?’. Finally the answer came. Sigh. 7.15pm.

So it seemed like a good idea to go for another stroll around Dunkerque. And the first thing I find ... just across the bridge from the hotel? A bistro serving: tripes 10 euros. Seems as if my lunch is calling me.
But Bank Line has arranged for us all to have a midday lunch on the firm at another bistro. Which doesn’t do tripes, but … it’s the one that does andouillette at lunchtime! So andouillette it is. And jolly good andouillette it was … accompanied by several glasses of splendid French biere brune, and followed by a fairish slice of tarte aux pommes. On mange bien a Dunkerque.

After lunch, Lyndall needed to go to a camera shop to buy a lens filter. So I went along too, in my role as our little band’s French-language person-in-chief. We didn’t have any luck with the filter, but from the camera shop we continued on to the merry Friday market – where I lashed out ten euros on a replacement for my crumbling belt – and then on through a nice, long amble round the port area. More monuments (mostly to lifeboatmen of ages gone by), the office and the specialised boats of the ‘Phares et Balises’, the local lighthouse maintenance folk, endless lovely yachts swooping in from the sea digue which was visible in the distance, and a port museum featuring a big fully-rigged German training ship of 1901, rechristened the ‘Duchesse Anne’, a 1940s fire-boat, an ancient pilot boat ..

We arrived back at the hotel at 4pm and were there and then greeted with the news … boarding time no longer 7.15pm but 9.15pm.
But every cloud has a silver lining.
I have just been across to La Vague and booked a table for Lyndall and I at 7.30 pm opening time precisely. I have explained to my friend the chef that we need imperatively to leave at 9pm to catch our ship … which I guess means that the lingering cognac is not going to happen tonight!
Well, we may be boarding our ship late, but we will board it happy!

Au revoir, Britain

I’m on my way.

I’m writing this curled up in a nice maroon chair in the foyer of the office of Andrew Weir Shipping, the agents for the Bank Line and its SS Tikeibank in London. No, I’m not here to take my departure. Merely to drop off my encumbrant suitcase before heading on to Stoke Newington to spend the last night of my stay in England with Jane Wynn Owen, the current (and always, since the days of Ian and I) incarnation of Talent Artists Ltd and one of my oldest and dearest friends in this country.

I left Shirley, and Andrew and Wendy, on Sunday and headed off to Wokingham to spend a few days with another pair of friends from long ago, Peter and Jane Joslin. For some reason, I got myself in a frightful lather about what is a perfectly straightforward East Croydon-Clapham Junction (1 station!)-Wokingham (one comfortable hour plus) train trip and, when we came to an unscheduled halt for some ten minutes at Balham, I had visions of missing my connection. It would really not have mattered if I had – except that Peter was waiting for me at the station – but it was just a lather day, and I duly lathered.

I suspect that the real problem was that I’d expected to have left London for the ship by now, and having to recharge my failing batteries for the extra time now existing before my departure was simply making a few arcs in my brain.

Well, I couldn’t have fallen into a better spot in which to do the recharging. Peter – who runs a web-based picture agency named Cadenza Archive -- is one of the world’s most enthusiastic collectors of theatrical memorabilia, with an accent on Gilbert and Sullivan, classical composers and the Victorian musical world in general, and his library is something to marvel at.
So I spent much of Monday and Tuesday curled up on the living room sofa, like some library-mad Pasha, being served up with end-to-end heaps and piles of the most wonderful Victoriana. Playbills, programmes, music, photographs, lithographs .. simply everything. And treasure after treasure. You can imagine, I was in my element. My computer flashed and grinned for hour upon hour, as I pounded page after page of hitherto unfindable information into my files. It reminded me of nothing less than my famous trip to Vienna, in the 1980s, when, researching for my ‘Encyclopaedia of the Musical Theatre’, I spent a week in the local Theatre Museum, and was allotted a personal librarian to serve me with, and photocopy, the hundreds and hundreds of Theaterzetteln I needed.

Just to add to the feeling of Pachadom, in between the ‘study sessions’, we were served up with breakfast, lunch and tea as well …

I slept four nights in succession without even a shaving of a sleeping pill.

On Wednesday we went for a jaunt down to Henley-on-Thames. I don’t think I’ve ever been there (although of course Emily went, and I described it), but we’ve all seen pictures of the pretty town and of its famous regatta, and the boating scenes of ‘Half a Sixpence’ were filmed there.
We strolled by the Thames, across its bridges and up to the lock at Marsh Weir, watching the boats and barges go by, through in the drizzling rain, and marvelling at the funny mixture of beautiful and shacky-weekender houses on the island in the river’s middle. We took in the local second-hand bookshops (I resisted, Peter didn’t), the local antique shops, the pretty local streets where much of the old-time charm is retained but which nevertheless sport their Chinese takeaways, their Tandooris, their Thais (oh! those inevitable dreary Thais!) and other such features of modern life.
We, of course, didn’t go for any one of those when lunchtime came. Instead we visited one of the Loch Fyne chain, an attractive, airy fish restaurant on the Market Place where the fresh fish is laid out on ice on the counter, the fish chef is nicely in view, and everything is done in a most encouragingly attractive way. We had a delightful, lanky, quadrilingual waitress who was a specialist in Guinness, so, of course, I had to break my three day booze-pause and sample her recommendation.
Loch Fyne is not only attractive, it serves damn’ good food. I had a really delicious fish stew which sent me out into the drizzle of the day very nicely warmed inside indeed. Well, I suppose the Guinness helped too. Anyway: At 68 pounds for three, definitely recommended.
We drove home via the eternally lovely little village of Sonning, where so long ago I used to visit the dinner theatre. The roads, and the famous bridge at Sonning are, however, not exactly made for two large vehicles abreast, so we encountered a good old-fashioned English traffic jam as well.

Come Thursday, and it was time to set out for London. I had decided not to attempt to get from Wokingham to Tower Hill in the early rush hours of Friday morning, but rather to take an hotel room near the shipping line offices for the night previous. However, Fate and the British hotel industry decided otherwise. Peter and I spent two hours on the Internet and the telephone, attempting to find me a respectable room in EC3, or in EC2 or EC1, or almost anywhere in London City at all, without any joy. The prices advertised on the web didn’t bear any resemblance to the prices quoted if you actually rang an hotel – the first one we tried, for example, allegedly 85 pounds a night, turned out to be what sounded like 225 pounds. I say ‘sounded like’ for, during our phone tour of London hotels, we did not meet with one single clerk who spoke acceptable or – to me – even comprehensible English. So, in the end, we gave up.
And that was when my friend Jane came to the rescue with the offer of a sofa in Stoke Newington.
After lunch on Thursday, Peter drove me to Twyford station, from where I caught an agreeable and fast train – less than an hour -- to Paddington. From there, I had decided to pop down to Tower Hill and leave the heavier of my suitcases, rather than lug it all the way to Jane’s and then back the following morning. Pop? My appreciative comments about the present-day British transport system stop short when it comes to the Circle Line. It was always awful, grubby, infrequent and inefficient. It is still awful, grubby, infrequent and inefficient. It took me four separate trains (the first three ‘terminated’, unannouncedly part way round the incorrectly named ‘circle’) to get to Tower Hill. It took me as long to do Paddington-Tower Hill as it had to get to London.
Then I had to find Royal Mint Court. My Internet map was pretty grossly inaccurate, but I got there, and to the enormously grand Dexter House, by the good old fashioned method of asking a doorman. I am glad to have done this, for at least in the morning I will know to where I am coming.

The morrow.

From the Andrew Weir office, I was to head for Liverpool Street (2 stops) and take the suburban train to Stoke Newington (4 stops). However, as I went down the tube stairs, I noticed that one stop away was Aldgate East. Now, Aldgate East was once ‘my’ tube station. In my very first months in London, when I was a student at the London Opera Centre, it was to Aldgate East that I had to come each morning to catch the bus down the Commercial Road. Since I had plenty of time until my rendezvous with Jane, I thought that I would spend five minutes to go there and have a nostalgic glimpse. Bad decision. The station probably hasn’t been cleaned up since I was last there in 1968. It was not pretty, nor was it even nostalgic. And then, having glimpsed, I had to wait 40 minutes for a tube train to take me the one stop to Liverpool Street! Why I didn’t go out and walk….?
So, in the end, my 2pm departure from Wokingham/Twford got me to Stoke Newington at 6pm, with most of the four hours having been wasted on the Circle and Hammersmith lines.

Jane and I had a wonderful reminiscing-and-catching-up evening, over roast chicken and several bottles of wine, at the end of which I sank gratefully on to the sofa, altogether content that the so-called hotel industry of London had failed to find me a room.


It is now Friday 12 noon, and I am sitting in a mini-bus in the car park at Folkestone where one awaits one’s turn to go through the Channel Tunnel. And I imagined you just drove through! It appears we get loaded on to a train.

With the previous days tubular horrors in mind, I caught the 8am train from Rectory Road (Jane’s station) and was at Liverpool Street within 12 minutes. Samantha at the office had told me that it was only a ten minutes walk from Liverpool Street, down Bishopsgate, Houndsditch and the Minories, to Tower Hill, so rather than risk the rush hour tube I decided to use my feet. I am very glad I did. I had a really nice walk through some of the many beautiful spots in the eastern part of London .. there is a really splendid new building at St Botoplh’s, Aldgate … and I even remembered (which I hadn’t before!) to use my little platinum card to get some cash for the ship out of a hole in the wall.
The walk, even with stops, took me a just quarter of an hour, so I arrived at the office a least an hour and a half early. Oh well, I guess some days it works, some days it doesn’t.

At 10am we set out … me (N.Z-ish), Graham (a former fisherman, of Eastbourne, UK), Hugh and Biddy (neighbours from Zimbabwe) and Lyndall (USA). We, along with one French lady, are to be the ship’s complement for the voyage…
A voyage which moves at this very moment into its next stage, as we head for our place on the train and – given the number of sleeping policemen and other hazards over which we are bouncing – I now close down this delicate piece of machinery as we say ‘Au revoir, Grande-Bretagne’.