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Twenty Days on the High Seas – Part Two

November 8, 2022

This is the second part of my diary of a cruise to Singapore. How do you occupy yourself for eight days of uninterrupted sailing? Read on….

Day Thirteen: Pool wars, or gobshites in speedos

Last night’s exit from Salalah came to a halt for a while. The ship stopped. Nobody could tell us why. This morning we learned that there had been a medical evacuation – the second on this trip thus far. This time though, because we were close to the port, there was no need for a helicopter rescue. As I looked over the side, I could see a little boat with a tiny red light approaching. Lucky patient, hopefully. Out in the Indian Ocean your chances of being picked up quickly must be slim, since we’re likely to be out of range of most choppers, unless we’re lucky enough to be passing near an aircraft carrier. So if one of us gets sick now, it’s either hang in there or curtains: down to the ship’s morgue for a transit to Singapore in cold storage, along with the steaks, cutlets and other perishables the rest of us will consume.

Mind you, I won’t be in the least surprised if one or two of my fellow passengers succumb over the remaining next eight days of the cruise. Such is the enthusiasm with which they pour into the restaurants for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and late-night snacks, that some will surely eat themselves to death. We, on the other hand, confine ourselves to two meals a day, interspersed with 30-length sessions in the pool and brisk three-circuit marches round the promenade deck, passing as we go rows of potential corpses lying on their sunbeds, insensible and open-mouthed.

I’m so determined not to gain weight that I’ve even brought a set of scales with me, and religiously step on them every morning. So far, so good. Not that I take much joy in being such a self-righteous git.

Why am I so uncharitable towards the grazing masses who seem to have nothing better to do than eat and sleep? Because I could easily be one of them.

Back in the UK there seems to be a contest going on between journalists to come up with the most comprehensive demolition of Boris Johnson. Matthew Parris, no lover of the flaxen blob, leads the field in his Times column with one of the most vengeful eviscerations of a politician I’ve ever read. I have frequently launched into purple insults at those of whom I disapprove: Boris, Nigel Farage, Trump and the rest of the gang. But my powers of description don’t come close to those of Parris in full flow.

Truss, on the other hand, is like one of those talentless sixth formers who get to be prefect because there’s nobody of any substance left standing. Everything about her says imposter. A useful idiot, the creature of hedge funds and far-right think tanks funded by unknown donors. At least that’s the opinion of Led By Donkeys in their video on the Tufton Street lobbyists. Boris is perhaps less of an idiot – more like a useful buffoon.

After twelve years of blogging, I’ve more or less run out of epithets to describe my least favourite people. Perhaps it’s time to invent some new ones, in the hope that one day they’ll make the Oxford English Dictionary, which would probably end up being my only claim to fame. I do have a few candidates, however. Puddlesucker. Bumscraper. Blatherhead. There will be more, but will they stand the test of time and usage? In the meanwhile, one glorious Irish word will have to do for today: gobshite.

More news from the UK. Much alarm, it seems, from a new class of disenfranchised citizens. Apart from the 99.7% of the population who won’t get their say on who is our next prime minister, it seems that around 12% of Conservative Party members don’t or can’t use email, the chosen method of voting. Much wailing and gnashing of false teeth among the care homes of England that 20,000 well-informed, selfless and unprejudiced Tory faithful will be unable to vote for the cuddly blob by next Friday. That will include at least a thousand passengers on this ship, because internet access is both exorbitant and no faster than a sleepwalking sloth. That would cost Boris a few votes. I guess. It also wouldn’t help his cause if the Russians brought the internet down for a few days in Chelmsford, Andover, Torquay and Scarborough. Otherwise, if he makes it to the final ballot, it’s quite possible that enough members will ignore the fact that he’s an incompetent, lying, bumbling, corrupt, law-breaking scumbag of a gobshite and will make him our prime minister again, God help us. There – that feels better.

This evening we encountered Pool Wars. Most of us use the swimming pool for gentle laps. It’s small, but ideal for lolling around, thereby getting in the way of swimmers who want to work off their breakfasts. Occasionally someone shows up who reckons they’re an Olympic swimmer. Flouncing their athletic bodies for the delight of the rubicund, coke-swilling zombies scattered about on their sun-loungers, they enter the pool and proceed to do a vigorous crawl, inundating all in their wake, which enrages the women, who were anxious to keep their coiffured hair dry in advance of dinner. One gargantuan lady, who stood in the same place and did an approximation of aqua-aerobics, complained loudly to the gentleman concerned, which sparked off a furious row, made worse when he accidentally kicked my wife in the ribs on his way past. A grudging apology followed before he left the pool to a hail of catcalls from the vengeful sealions.

Now at this stage you might wonder why I’m on this cruise, since I’ve been moaning about it constantly over the past few pages. There are several reasons. I love the sea. I love the food. I get to read many books. And above all, I enjoy meeting people. Because even if half of them look like they belong on a mortuary slab, the rest have stories to tell. OK, some tell you the same story every time you meet, especially if they’re pissed, and are best avoided for that reason. But on this cruise, we’ve met doctors, engineers, accountants, a highly engaging rabbi and a jovial Church of England clergyman whose last parish was in Handsworth, a district of Birmingham that I know well. From many conversations I learn something, and often quite a lot. And yes, I do spend a bit of time cursing Brexit, Boris and Truss, but only when asked. I do prefer to listen, hence the learning.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the independent financial advisor who happens to be a born-again Christian. Perhaps, now Truss has wrecked the British economy, he’ll become a born-again financial advisor.

This morning, I sat in on a lecture on Judaism from the rabbi and learned that the origin of the kosher rules that prohibit Jews from eating pork and shellfish originate not from sanitary concerns in the 9th century BC, but from God, for no knowable reason. As the rabbi freely admitted, this is the equivalent of parents saying to their children “because I said so”. Whereas rules prohibiting murder, theft, adultery and the like can be said to be socially desirable, the same logic doesn’t apply to shellfish and not eating dairy food at the same time as meat. The same applies to circumcision. So these inexplicable strictures come under the heading of “God said so”. Makes sense, though if like me you’re not convinced that God, if he exists, is likely to be particularly bothered with such minutiae of human existence (especially as He probably has billions of alien species to deal with), the whole edifice comes crashing down.

Day Fourteen: Meltdown in the laundrette

The longer this cruise continues, the more the inmates acquire the characteristics of a village. Particularly where gossip is concerned. The main source of tittle-tattle seems to be the bridge club, which has a direct feed into the smoking club, which hangs out on Deck 11. Since I’m partial to the occasional puff, I get to hear all the news that’s not fit to print. The Born-Again Financial Adviser, who seems to spend all of his time up there, had what he thought was a juicy tale to tell this morning.

Apparently, before we reached Salalah a couple of women had a row in the laundrette about access to the clothes dryer. It seems that one of them dived in out of turn and replaced someone’s laundry with her own. The other woman, who was highly aggrieved, waited for the transgressor to leave the laundrette and proceeded to add several bars of chocolate into the mix, thus staining (or, as my wife is fond of saying, destroying) the entire wash. The injured party complained to the purser. As a result, the choccie-bomber was offloaded from the ship at Salalah. Whether or not she was accompanied by her husband is not known. Nor is it clear how the complainant could prove that the accused committed the offense. Unless, of course, there was CCTV in the laundrette specifically to detect chocolate violators.

So now the cruise is at least one passenger light. My take on the fun and games? A waste of perfectly good chocolate. But if true, it does indicate how animosities fester and erupt in small communities – even temporary ones. In real villages, it’s more likely to be poison pen letters, adultery and endless boundary disputes. But I guess on a ship, chocolate is one of the few weapons at the disposal of the aggrieved. Wine, at $50 per bottle, would be far too extravagant. There remains, of course, the ultimate sanction: the heave-ho over the railings. But with cameras everywhere, I’m not sure how you would do the deed with impunity.

Later on, one of our dinner companions, a veteran of many cruises, told me that such incidents are by no means unusual. On a previous cruise a woman was offloaded for a similar offence: inserting a Mars bar in someone’s dryer. Apparently, chocolate in dryers not only stains clothes, but puts the dryer out of action. He also mentioned a couple of elderly gentlemen who got into a fist fight over the last piece of cake on offer in the buffet. They were also offloaded. Which goes to show that some old men are not just grumpy but quite prepared to act on their ill-humour.

The good news for potential miscreants is that we’re now far enough into the Indian Ocean that offenders can’t easily be offloaded, though I suppose a diversion to Iran might still be on the cards. Otherwise, it’s full steam ahead to Singapore, with only a spell in the brig to prevent an outbreak of World War 3.

Among the less febrile passengers, there appears to be an outbreak of beetroot faces. Is this because of their determination to sit out in the sun, or because of the cumulative effect of all the booze they’ve been drinking? Looking at these folks, it seems to me that the next step in their physical transformation is to turn into desiccated mummies of the sort to be found in the Atacama Desert. Perhaps there are one or two who are halfway there, lying undiscovered in their cabins, or even in some rarely visited nook elsewhere in the ship.

Day Fifteen: Rishi’s turn

The Pool War erupted again yesterday. It seems that the aging Olympic swimmer, also known as The Thrasher, was up to his antics again, splashing, crashing and kicking his way through the delicate bathers lolling in the pool. This time, the basking sealions had had enough. Several of them blocked his passage, thus thwarting his Olympic ambitions. Words were spoken, and eventually he left the pool in some disarray. Victory for the women, whose bulk wasn’t just enough to stop him, but would probably have prevented the D-Day invasion had they lined the shores of Normandy.

As we sail towards Sri Lanka, which was a planned stop-off, but cancelled because of the island’s political and economic instability, I wonder how many cruise companies are thinking of striking Britain off their destination list for the same reason. Perhaps Rishi Sunak’s imminent coronation will spare us this further humiliation.

Speaking of financial instability, Carnival Cruises, the owners of Cunard, must be in pretty dire straits if they think it’s OK to soak their passengers as they have on this cruise. As in $16 for a small glass of Provencal Rose, $13 for a small gin and tonic and a whopping $45 for two hours in the indoor heated pool. Not to mention $400 for internet access so execrable that I would have complained about it even in the days of dial-up.

Back to Rishi. If for no other reason than that the racist seal-farts in the home counties whom we have to thank for the disasters inflicted upon us by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss will not have a say in choosing between two candidates, I hope Sunak wins unopposed. At least then it will not be said that we choose our leaders on the basis of the colour of their skin. That will be progress of some kind that the wobble-chinned colonels and martini-marinated memsahibs will not be able to thwart.

And once he’s in place, I hope the rest of the British electorate, as soon as they get the chance, inflict such a defeat on him and his rotten party that it will take a decade for them to recover. After which time the other lot will be so corroded by power that it’ll be time to kick them out too.

This afternoon I chanced upon Rishi’s tutor in the jacuzzi. She told me that she’d been hired by his parents to get him into Winchester. He was, apparently, the brightest child she’d ever tutored. Also a very pleasant child to teach. Her job was to help him get a scholarship, which was important because his parents weren’t wealthy. Despite his ability, he wasn’t given an award. My new friend firmly believes that racism was a factor. But he still went on to be head boy and then to get a first-class degree from Oxford.

If racism held him back early in his education, it doesn’t seem to have impeded his subsequent career, until he ended up in his beauty contest against Liz Truss. Perhaps, though, he succeeded because he worked twice as hard as his colleagues. If he gets the nod this time, let’s hope his intelligence is laced with a little wisdom. If that’s the case, it’ll be the first time in a long while that we’ll be able to say that about a Tory prime minister. Not since Major, perhaps.

Day Sixteen: more cruise wars, and searching for whales

I learn more from Deck 11 Rumour Control about misbehaviour on cruise ships. On one cruise around Australia there was so much drinking – on account of the cruise line’s overgenerous drinks prices – that many people were confined to the brig. So many that there was an overflow, which meant that they were locked in their cabins with security guards at the door. Which, of course, thanks to giveaway prices of booze at our supermarkets, is something that takes place every night at some of our more lively city centres. No chance of that on this cruise where, as I mentioned earlier, the average booze package is likely to bankrupt most drinkers before they arrive at their destination.

Meanwhile, as we trundle our way through the Indian Ocean past Sri Lanka, I keep my eyes peeled for whales on their migration path to Antarctica. Alas, none to be seen. My enthusiasm is punctured by an Australian couple who tell us that from their house on a headland near Sydney, whales are a regular occurrence. Smug bastards. At least, unlike many an urban Brit, they don’t live near a dog walking route, where regular sightings of the most infernal packs of woofing, snarling, yelping creatures are to be seen and heard, along with their desperate owners or, should I say, dogherds. Sometimes the sound is deafening, rivalled only by the baying and yapping that greets the latest Tory prime minister as they arrive at party headquarters.

Day Seventeen: form anxiety strikes again

Our first day of “bad” weather. Up on deck early in the morning to be greeted by rain. Oh joy.

We’re three days away from Singapore, and panic has gripped the ship. Just as getting on board was a bureaucratic nightmare, with health declarations to be submitted, COVID certificates to be printed and even labels for our baggage to be created by origami, getting off again is even more tiresome, since we are all obliged to complete an online application to enter Singapore called a SG Card.

Given the primitive internet access whose awfulness is only emulated in Pyongyang, this is quite a challenge, since we’re competing with hundreds of other passengers for precious bandwidth. Half of them are so ancient that they still under the misapprehension that mobile phones are for making telephone calls. Some can barely read, let alone fill in an online form, which doesn’t make things much easier. Endless queues at the purser’s office begging for assistance makes any other kind of business impossible. This is all because you can only complete the SG card three days in advance of your arrival date.

Even though we’ve done this before, it still took us three crashes before we completed ours. Having a laptop that’s on its last legs through multiple organ failure (fan and battery actually) didn’t help. The major pitfall in the process is that you need to upload your vaccination certificate QR code as a photo (no more than a megabyte). This requires taking a photo of the certificate, cropping the image down to the QR code and uploading the image to the immigration site. Enough to give apoplexy to the average passenger, engorged by five meals a day and copious quantities of alcohol. I expect to hear alerts for medical emergencies any time now.

Anyway, we managed it before being trampled by sealions honking their way towards the purser’s office, so all good.

Last night there was a barbecue on the deck, with vast quantities of meat on offer. No complaints, you would think, but some still managed to moan about the food being cold by the time it reached their plates. However, a couple of old boys I met were cheered up by the three dancing girls, or more specifically the shape of their backsides – the most excitement they’d had on the whole trip, it seems. These comments were not made within earshot of their wives, naturellement.

We missed all the fun because we chose to dine inside. So we paid the price for being miserable killjoys by missing the only appearance of spare ribs on the cruise.

One of the more interesting features of walking round the deck on our twice-daily circumnavigation is the scars people have. Many chests appear to have been cracked at one time or another, which suggests heart bypasses. Knees that look like first world war trench systems. Then there are abdominal scars – hernias perhaps? These are only on the men. I try not to wander around taking a detailed peek at women’s maternity scars. But it is noticeable how many of the elderly gents have benefited from the surgeon’s knife. Beyond the scars, judging by the limps and the walking sticks, there are enough potential customers on board to keep an orthopaedic surgeon busy for years. Come to think of it, a cruise ship that provided in-house hip and knee replacements, heart bypasses and inguinal hernia repairs would make a fortune. And how about a floating plastic surgery clinic? Come on board, do the liposuction and emerge at your destination a new woman (or man).

The food on this cruise has been excellent. The chefs have taken great care with presentation, especially of the starters and desserts. Lots of little garnishes that make ordinary-looking dishes look special. However, it was noticeable how towards the end of the journey there seems to have been a growing shortage of cruise staples, especially for breakfast. The first to go was mushrooms. Followed by Cumberland sausages, and finally by prunes. The latter are much favoured by the elderly for their emetic properties. With so much food consumed you need something to keep you regular. God forbid that you suffer a couple of days of constipation, followed by a Krakatoa-strength drain-blocker.

Speaking of drains, I’m not sure if these vessels discharge their sewage into the sea. I hope not, but otherwise it would mean that our ship, over a 20-day cruise with 2500 on board including staff, accumulates  – on the basis of 1.5 movements a day – the results of up to 50.000 bowel movements. That’s shedload of shit by any standards. Not a pleasant thought.

If you’ve never been on a cruise, you might wonder what people talk to each other about. Prolonged encounters develop much as they do onshore. But very often you find yourself next to strangers in the pool, or at breakfast. With them, the conversation might proceed thus: Nice day, followed by a moan about the ship, followed by where do you live, followed by what did you do for a living before you retired. By this time you will have enough information to figure out how the person made their money, and therefore how they can afford to be on the cruise. Are they rich bastards, or people like us? If they’re rich bastards, why aren’t they at the top of the ship, where all the premium cabins and posh restaurants are? If they’re at the top, they’re fools for paying so much money. If they aren’t, they’re mean bastards for not spreading their money around. The rich can’t win, in other words.

I’m sometimes tempted to tell a pack of lies about my background, just to get a reaction. Very childish, I know. How much more fun to be the owner of a chain of sex shops or a forensic accountant specialising in tax scams.

Day Eighteen: time for the plague mask

It’s pissing down. Thunder and lighting deprives us of our only chance of a swim in an otherwise empty pool.

Much talk of disembarkation. We will be unceremoniously dumped onshore at 8.30 in the morning, from there to find our way to our hotel.

Tonight is the last of the so-called gala evenings, for which once again I’m expected to dress like a king penguin, with waddle to boot. You don’t have to dress like an Oscar-winner, but I don’t want to let the side down. I do draw the line at masks, even though this is a masquerade night. Had I known, I would probably have brought my 400-year old plague mask. Particularly appropriate given that Singapore appears to be going through a resurgence of COVID. I imagine that such a device, accompanied by a long black cloak, would duly impress the local authorities.

But no, no bloody mask for me, and as soon as dinner’s over I’ll be back to the room to remove my black suit and pack it away for the next five years, not to be unearthed again unless some future government chooses to award me a knighthood in recognition of my creative use of bad language (don’t laugh – wait till you see the parade of useless mediocrities about to benefit from Boris Johnson’s resignation honours).

I absolutely hate what these days is known as cosplay. Boris on top of a tank. Priti Patel dressed as a police officer, Robert Maxwell as Aladdin’s genie, Conrad Black as a cardinal, Putin as a bare-chested Apollo on horseback and so forth. I wore enough costumes as an amateur actor, and very silly they were too. But at least they served a dramatic purpose. Fancy dress is just plain stupid at best, and deeply narcissistic at worst.

Why then, you might once again wonder, when just about everything we’ve seen and done gives me an excuse to be grumpy, am I on this ship?

Well in the first place, I like being grumpy. Grumpy is good, especially when underneath my veneer of disgruntlement lies a pretty contented person. Being on a long voyage forces you to acquaint yourself with people you would never normally meet. And people have stories to tell. The older they are the more stories they have, provided they’re prepared to share them. Some are truly impenetrable, and are best left to their interminable eating and their ready supply of blockbuster novels. But others, if you take the trouble to ask, have had interesting lives. It’s just a matter of looking beyond the leathery masks, the bellies, the operation scars and all the other signs of impending departure.

Day Nineteen: a premature end to the journey

Our journey ends in a death, it seems. Not ours, of course. Yesterday afternoon there was a call from the bridge for the medical team to go to a room on our deck. Five minutes later, the same call again. At the time, my curiosity was only aroused by the fact that the call was broadcast. Wouldn’t it be better for them just to call the medical centre? And weren’t the emergency team equipped with radios?

Whatever the reason for the broadcast, we heard nothing more. Until this morning, when my regular informant on Deck 11 told me that someone had died. Sad, of course, especially as they didn’t get to see Singapore, when possibly they could have been revived. But hardly surprising, considering the massive amount of food and drink consumed over the past three weeks. Perhaps the unaccustomed input was too much for one of the elderly souls. Heart attack? If that was how they died, it wasn’t a bad way to go. Nor was it a bad place to go. And I certainly wouldn’t mind being buried at sea, which apparently isn’t an option on a Cunard cruise. Otherwise, we would have had to answer a question about death preferences on the pre-cruise questionnaire. That wouldn’t have quite set the tone for the voyage, I think.

As it is, the deceased will have to be flown back to Britain, Australia or wherever else they came from, at considerable expense to their loved ones, or rather their insurance company.

We have now arrived in Singapore. We’re not leaving the ship until tomorrow, so we have a day to pack and get things in order. Tips for the waiters and cabin boy, resolution of bill disputes with the purser and so forth. Most people have left on tours, so we have Queen Elizabeth more or less to ourselves. No hacking coughs in nearby rooms. No more whoop whoop as the vacuum toilets struggle to carry a neighbour’s bowel movement down to the bilges.

Plenty of time to re-read the endless rules of the Singapore government governing our arrival, with fines for this, jail for that and even the death penalty should you be foolish enough to bring a stash of heroin into this immaculately ordered country.

I once wrote during the COVID lockdown in Britain about an imaginary department in Whitehall whose sole purpose was to devise ever more detailed, obsessive, even anally retentive regulations about what we could or couldn’t do. Park benches out of bounds, people arrested for sitting on the grass. When was a party not a party, and all that crap.

I believe that Singapore must have a similar department, except that their brief isn’t just COVID, and their presence isn’t temporary. Why otherwise would we discover a host of new rules since we last visited Singapore only a year ago?

And there are still nutters in the British parliament who hold up Singapore as the model of governance to which we should aspire. Give me a break. I like Singapore, but I could never live under its overbearing social ethos. All in the cause of the great Confucian virtue of order. Which is another reason why I don’t intend to visit China, where the authority of the state weighs even heavier than in Singapore, even though it would have amused me to see Liz Truss being escorted off the podium by a couple of heavies during the Conservative Party Conference.

Day Twenty: decanted at last

We’re finally decanted off the ship. One little bit of excitement. After surviving immigration and customs, we’re queueing for a taxi to our hotel. I notice that my wife’s bag is not her bag. Panic. She rushes back to customs with the bag that isn’t hers, to find a distraught German woman standing beside a bag that isn’t hers. Our bag. This is the third cruise in a row, she says that her bag didn’t arrive. This time, she’s obviously third time lucky. Profuse apologies, and off we go.

So would I spend twenty days on a cruise ship again? Not sure. The trouble is that there are cruises and cruises. Obviously the clientele depends on the time of year you choose, which to an extent dictates who you travel with. October is not the time for families, so we were always going to end up with people past retirement. And Cunard, with it’s slightly fusty ways, is an ideal operator to choose if you want the company of the nearly dead.

Would I do a Caribbean cruise, full of burger-devouring Trump supporters who lay waste to a host of islands desperate for their dollars? No. Would I do another Nordic cruise with entertainment officers leading tacky singalongs round the pool? No. Would I go on one of those monster ships that accommodate five thousand screaming, whooping, jostling passengers? No.

Which doesn’t leave me with many options. Antarctica in a small ship? Perhaps. Or one of those niche companies like the late lamented Swan Hellenic, that took you around the Mediterranean, stopping off at archaeological sites with a latter-day Mortimer Wheeler to enlighten you about the places you’re visiting? Perhaps.

But I suspect that my main reservation about the Singapore trip had nothing to do with the ship, the cruise company or the port stops. It was that I looked at our companions and saw myself. And I didn’t like what I saw. Nobody likes getting old. And I suspect that most of us don’t like being reminded of our incipient decrepitude, even if we don’t feel particularly decrepit ourselves.

Aside from that observation, how was it for me? Food was great, the cabin was fine, weather was good, too much jerking around with the itinerary, the trips too short, the swimming pools too small. A shout-out for Newfoundland, a great Irish father-and-son duo whose music kept us happy for many an evening. But did I meet lots of interesting people? Some, but not as many as I hoped. Too many folks up their own arses. Like me perhaps….

From → Sport, Travel, UK

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