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Around the World in 80 Days

Day 40: 3 November

Michael Palin - Around the World in 80 DaysThe party starts, unhopefully, after supper, at seven. Shreds of streamer and strands of tinsel from the Christmas decorations remain stuck to inaccessible parts of the bar as Pat and Norman personally set out bowls of crisps, twiglets, prawn crackers and, for the Singaporeans, fragrantly roasted peanuts. 'They won't eat them unless they're like that.' One of the married couples arrives. The wife of the radio operator has been seasick and won't be here. Disco music blares out across an empty floor. Passepartout waits patiently to film whatever might happen, but without him probably nothing will. At last some of the 25-strong crew begin to filter in. The beer and the whisky begins to flow, and much to Tuddenham's relief there is talk, laughter and even dancing - albeit led by the captain himself. I talk to a Singaporean, aged 28. He joined the navy to see the world and is not disappointed. This is good to hear after the prevailing tones of disillusion. He loved distant places, different cultures, and asked me if I knew Felixstowe. It's only 20 miles down the coast from the little Suffolk town where my mother lives, but I can't imagine what it would offer a hot-blooded oriental. It turned out that when he was there he was doing Captain Tuddenham's old job and dropping the rope ladder down for the girls. Suffolk girls are evidently carrying on a time-honoured tradition. The rate of change is a common theme in conversations with the older officers. Smaller crews, more automated ships, tighter commercial pressures and the shift of the centre of trade to the Pacific Rim, all add a certain poignancy to the captain's reminiscences of the days when Britannia still ruled the waves and the depth of a continental shelf was determined by a weight dangled over the side until someone shouted 'Bottom!'.

I ask him if he thinks the British merchant navy is in terminal decline.

'It's already dead. We only run ferries now.'

He starts on another reminiscence. 'A man came to my cabin one night holding his hand in his hand . . . '

Time for bed.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Around the World in 80 Days
  • Day: 40
  • Date: 3 November
  • Country/sea: Pacific Ocean
  • Place: South China Sea
  • Book page no: 129

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