Sunday, 25 September 2016

The Royal Yacht Britannia: an Appeal to Boris Johnson

The Rt. Hon Boris Johnson Esq.
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Downing Street West
London SW1A 2AL 25th September 2016

Dear Sir,

It has been reported in the media that you intend to launch consultations on whether the Royal Yacht Britannia should be recommissioned for use as a floating embassy and, possibly, resume her role as a royal yacht.

As a person who has often visited the yacht and can actually see her from my front window, I wish to register my objection to this scheme.

First of all sir, I understand you have some reputation as a historian.  Then you will be aware that current Britannia is serving out her retirement as a museum and she is a beautiful one at that.  On the surface one would expect the exhibits to focus solely on Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her family.  There is far more on offer.  It is not often that a slice of society from the mid 20th Century can be served to the general public in such a layer-cake fashion.  Her Majesty, family and honoured guests at the top, through the officers and ranks, with the poor bloody marines and laundry crew deep in the bowels of the vessel.  

Britannia as a museum is a confection for which the public has great appetite: she is the top tourist attraction in Scotland.  In Leith, where Britannia is moored, there is still areas of great deprivation.  More can be done to make Britannia relevant to the local population but, if she is taken away, so will be jobs and incomes.  One is not solely talking of those directly employed by the company.  Britannia is the centrepiece of the Ocean Terminal shopping mall which is on its way to recovery after the recent economic crisis.  Hotels, restaurants and businesses all benefit from tourism that Britannia brings.  A quick check on accommodation websites, such as AirBnB, shows that in Leith alone there are over 300 rooms being let out by households in the area.  Removing Britannia will be a blow against Leith, people who are trying to make an honest living from hospitality and those who depend upon them.

A recommissioned Britannia will need considerable upgrading.  The oil-fired steam turbines in the engine room are a magnificent museum display and they should remain as such.  My father, who was a chief engineer, was scornful of the technology even in the 1970s.  In marine engineering, one of the greatest advances has been with engines, with their physical size being reduced substantially over recent decades.  Having previously worked with graduates of naval architect schools, it is also certain that the science of fluid dynamics and therefore ship design has seen recent improvements too.  

In a very fundamental sense, Britannia is a ship of her time.  Nowhere more so is on the automation side.  In terms of computation power, a tourist’s average smartphone has far greater capacity than anything designed for Britannia, even in her later days of service.  With recommissioning, the whole pre-digital nature of the vessel will be irrevocably and forever lost.  There are very few complete historical artefacts that can show pre-digital, industrial-era technology at the zenith of design and manufactured quality.  I have not even touched on the necessary upgrades which would have to be performed on the security side and whether they are even feasible in light of today’s threats.

One of the modern success stories of British manufacturing is in luxury yacht design.  As a nation, we have the capability to deliver a brand new, top-class vessel that would serve as a floating bill-board for what our manufacturers are able to deliver today.  If the government should decide that we do need a moveable embassy (which might also double as a new royal yacht), then we should avail ourselves of what we are currently capable of.  Compared to some modern super yachts, while Britannia is undoubted regal, she is also modest in capability.

Time moves on and some things, because of the unique history and perspective that they offer, should be preserved for posterity.  Britannia is one such artefact.  Since I first voiced my opinions on social media, some people of nationalist persuasion have contacted me.  Their perspective is concentrated upon the symbolism of the vessel and what it represents to them in terms of Britishness and royalty.  The attitude is very much “let it go and good riddance".  Frankly it is an attitude that shocks me.  My retort was to point out that even in the Soviet Union, the Russians were smart enough to preserve their royal palaces.  They even painstakingly restored those which were gutted during the Second World War.  I view Britannia as a floating palace whose time of greatness has passed but should be preserved as she is now: at the height of her glory.  

After reading this letter, I hope you will agree with me that the grand old lady that is Britannia deserves the honourable and useful retirement which she currently enjoys.

Yours faithfully,

PS.  I write a blog which covers current affairs.  As such, I will be posting the above letter online and any reply you may make.  MV. 

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Grammar Schools and My Father's Education

I have been listening to the radio over the past few days with increasing fury.

Theresa May’s speech, standing on the steps of No.10 Downing Street, spoke of social inclusion and mobility.  I never believed it.  One’s cynicism seems to be borne out with her announcement  on the reintroduction of new grammar schools in England and increased powers for religious schools.

My father was born in 1935 and died in 2001.  He was from Hartlepool in the northeast of England and from a poor background.  He is no longer around for me to check the details but what follows is what can be recalled of his educational experience.

My father must have started school in 1940 and he enjoyed it. Apart from the threat of sudden death from the Luftwaffe and the near constant hunger, he said it, in general, was a great time to be a child.  All the children were covered in a substance called gentian blue - used to treat the resulting sores and general poor skin conditions resulting from the poor diet.

As a child, as he continued to be for the rest of his life, my father was bright.  He did very well at the junior school, that is until the age of ten.  It was then that the class got a new teacher.  For the next academic year, progress stopped completely.  Then the class sat the Eleven Plus exam.  Not one of them passed.

In the autumn, all those who failed went on to the local secondary modern school.  That was not quite true.  As a member of a different class in the school, the headmaster’s son had also failed his exam.  Nevertheless his uniform was bought, he attended the local grammar school and nothing more was said.

At the secondary modern, some pupils continued to get an education.  My father was among those who did not.  This even went as far as sporting activities.  One Wednesday afternoon, cricket was being taught to the selected.  The rest of the pupils were literally being ignored.  My father went up to the pile of spare equipment, got a couple bats, ball, wickets etc. and set up an alternative game.  One of the teachers noticed.

“What are you doing Veart?”
“Playing cricket sir.”
The teacher turned around and continued to ignore the group.

At the age of fourteen, my father left school without qualification and worked in an office as a gopher - go for this, go for that.  At seventeen he worked his day job and attended night school.  The lecturers was also the maths and and science teachers at the local grammar.  They used to say stuff like “I wish my pupils worked as hard as you lot do!”  Graduating with an Ordinary National Diploma, it was enough to get a job as an marine engineering apprenticeship.  This led eventually to a chief engineer’s ticket and a life at sea.

There wasn’t many people who had cars in the 40s and 50s.  My family certainly did not own one.  The observation was made that in Hartlepool, if the family had a car, any children went to grammar school.

To return to today, I simply do not understand May’s argument that the reintroduction of grammar schools will lead to greater social mobility.  Those who are better off will always find ways to preserve their privilege.  To an extent, that is human nature.  We should not be setting up new systems that allows privilege to be so easily preserved at the taxpayers expense.  

I am the first in my family to go to university and gain a degree.  An opportunity my father never had.

Liberal Democrats have already stated we will oppose these moves.  The reintroduction of English grammar schools is a retrograde step and should be opposed by any with a progressive outlook.