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Sunday, 5 June 2011

Cruisin' - Part 1


 At the time of writing, I am on a cruise.  By the time that you read this, however, I will be back at home, sulking fit to bust.  You may say, with some truth, that this hardly makes for a contemporary account and I would have to agree.  However, I do take the view that advertising my absence from home via the internet would, perhaps, be a little unwise and a boon to the criminal fraternity.

This is my fourth cruise to date.  The notion of cruising seems to divide people quite markedly.  There are those who would happily spend the rest of their lives on a cruise ship (and, indeed, if you have the necessary funds you can now do so) and there are those who regard cruising as a sort of perversion.  I once mentioned, in an unguarded moment, that I quite liked cruising to a client of mine and he treated me as if I had gone over to the dark side.  Cruising used to be the preserve of the idle rich, now it’s more the preserve of the idle retired, although there is quite a range of ages present these days.

The principal focus of cruising is food.  Lots of it.  The single-minded devotion to this cause came as quite a shock to me on my first cruise.  I like a bite to eat with the next man, but I felt positively anorexic in comparison with my fellow travellers.  On a cruise, you can eat 24 hours a day, and many regard this not so much as an opportunity, as a challenge.  The other day, I heard a passenger recount how, when her husband refused to get up at 4.00 am to get her a slice of pizza, she ate everything in the mini-bar as an act of revenge.
 
Gordon Gecko’s observation that “Greed is Good”, could usefully be adopted as a motto by a cruise line.  Unfortunately, this tendency toward self-indulgence can manifest itself in other ways that can be less than socially desirable, always assuming that you believe that eating enough to keep a small impoverished nation going for a month or so is socially acceptable in the first place. 

An army of very polite and attentive people, of all nationalities, are permanently on hand to attend to your every whim.  The outcome of this is a ship-load of people who have become used to being treated as adored children by over-indulgent parents, and who therefore react petulantly when their wishes are thwarted in any way.  This can be a rather unattractive trait.  Moreover, being waited on hand and foot by people who have a tendency to call you “Mister Philip” (in my case) can bring on a touch of the ‘Old Colonials’, particularly in those who suspect that this should always have been the natural order of things.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I quite accept that not all cruise passengers are like this (before the complaining comments start arriving thick and fast).  I have, on my travels, met many charming, interesting people and have been happy to share a drink or a meal with them.  Unfortunately, I have also had more than my share of the other sort, including one pernicious old git, on my first cruise, who delighted in reducing the waiting staff to tears.  He was accompanied by an equally rude young lady who was his paid travelling companion (presumably because no-one else in their right mind would willingly have spent time in the same hemisphere as him, let alone the same ship).  One evening even she had clearly had enough of him and gave him a higher dose than normal of his tranquilisers so that she could go out dancing whilst he slumbered.  Regrettably, the dose was not sufficient to do humanity a great favour and he was back at his arrogant best the following day.

In addition to those who find getting into a lift, side by side, something of a challenge, there are those who are sleek and purposeful.  Not the fitness fanatics (although anyone prepared to climb two flights of stairs could reasonably be described as a fitness fanatic in this company) but the smokers.  On either side of one open deck, a game band of sad-eyed individuals brave the prevailing wind and flecks of foam to consume their duty-free nicotine.  I’ve come to think of this area as ‘Death’s Waiting Room’.

In some ways, I have a certain admiration for this group.  You really do need to be made of sterling stuff to be a smoker these days.  No more the cushioned comfort of the ‘smoking room’ with brandy and fine cigars.  Today, you’re lucky to have a half-constructed shed in which to enjoy your roll-up.  In answer to those who say “well, if the conditions are that bad, why do they do it?”, I can only say, as an ex-smoker with a long history of tobacco-related products behind me, because they enjoy it.  This is something that the anti-smoking brigade refuses to acknowledge, often seeing smokers as obdurate fools bent on self-destruction, which may well be partially true.  Nevertheless, I can honestly say that I enjoyed most, if not all, of the thousands upon thousands of cigarettes I consumed and the habit is, of course, tremendously addictive.

I can, however, clearly remember one cigarette that I did not enjoy.  Way back in the early 1970s, when Spanish tourism was just beginning to flower and General Franco was still in charge, it was theoretically impossible to buy tobacco products from anywhere other than a state-licensed tobacconist.  In reality, there was a thriving black market in UK and US cigarettes and most bars could provide you with a limited range from underneath the counter.  However, if the police had been showing an interest, or if the bar-tender just didn’t like the look of you, then this source could dry up and, with the duty-frees long since consigned to the ashtray, you were forced to the State Tobacconist.  I seem to remember that these kept very restricted opening hours and imported cigarettes were quite expensive.  However, the native Spanish brands could be had for a song (presumably in an effort to protect Spanish businesses).  I had bought a couple of packets of these domestic brands as a sort of emergency buffer if all else failed.  Sure enough, the morning came when the Benson & Hedges had run out and the only thing available to provide that first rush of nicotine was the Spanish brand.  I ripped open the packet and placed the odd-smelling tube in my mouth.  Not ideal, but beggars can’t be choosers, I thought.  I lit up and took the deep drag of the truly addicted.

I honestly thought that my chest was going to implode.  My lungs seemed to go into shock and my chest walls tried to gang up with my spine to make a break for it via my throat.  I clutched at my chest and had to sit down.  I began to wonder if I would ever breathe again and, for a while, that did not look like a safe bet.  Eventually, the evil effects of Franco’s Revenge subsided and I was able to crawl out on the balcony and whimper a little.  Of course, anyone other than a dyed in the wool smoker, such as myself, would have stubbed the offending article out and thrown the rest of the packet into the nearest waste bin.  I, on the other hand, regarded this as a minor setback and a major challenge.  The Spanish Gaspers came back with me to the UK as a sort of bulwark against ever being fag-less and, in due course, were consumed on those occasions when there was more week than wage.  So you see, if you’re prepared to tolerate that sort of discomfort in order to satisfy your addiction, a little hypothermia is nothing.

There's more about the cruise and cruising at Cruisin' Part 2 - Buffet, The Waistline Splayer

The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format at all Amazon sites, and you can find a version of this post in the new collection, 'A Kick at the Pantry Door' also available on all Amazon sites.