The Great British Disaster
Ever since the Costa Concordia, and her party Captain, ran aground in Tuscany, and her sister ship the Costa Allegra lost all power in the pirate-infested Indian Ocean, I’ve been getting pretty worried about sitting here typing away in Costa Coffee as bad luck always comes in threes.
And, to borrow an opportune Jimmy Carr gag from 10 O’Clock Live last week:
“It would seem Costa ships are like buses… Not seaworthy.”
Which brings us all to mind, I am sure, of the famous Great British Disaster of 2011…
We all remember The Great British Disaster that occurred in 2011. For anyone British we’ll have it etched in our memories for as long as we’ll surely live and it certainly requires no explanation, nor anyone to go to any trouble bothering to add it to any history textbook. For, as sure as we all know the alphabetical list of every Prime Minister since Walpole; and that that the Union Jack, when flown on land, should be referred to as the Union Flag; and that to hang it upside-down is the historic secret sign of a British man in distress, then we all remember where we were when we heard of The Great British Disaster.
America has had their fill of memorable events: the JFK assassination; the release of the moon landing video; 9-11; and who shot JR, but I get the impression that the Americans may be a little light on World events so, for the benefit of those across the pond, I’ll elaborate upon it here one last time.
There’s a lot of British cultural events and artefacts that the Americans just don’t get. I once knocked about with an American girl for a short time and casually dropped the concept of Teletext into conversation, as you do, and to quote the late Bill Hicks she looked at me like a dog that’d just been shown a card trick. She didn’t have a clue, when I uttered “I’d look it up on Teletext”, whilst I was staggered by how novel such an age-old concept must have appeared to the uninitiated: Like a primitive number-punching proto-version of the internet. And obviously very British. Perhaps I should have called it Ceefax and seen if that would’ve helped.
There’s a joke on this theme in The Completely Useless Encyclopaedia (Chris Howarth and Steve Lyons, 1996) about Blue Peter which I imagined to the unknowing foreigner might be looked upon as a genuine recommendation:
“Anyone who considers themselves a Doctor Who completist should really feel obliged to collect the entire run of this programme too.”
So much so that I’ve always though if an American asked me what I wanted for Christmas I’d think it amusing to ask for the complete box set of The Shipping Forecast. That’s funny, but they wouldn’t get it, and how do you explain the concept of The Shipping Forecast to someone who hasn’t grown up with it in the late hours, when you should be asleep, listening to a Sony Walkman under the duvet?
Tyne, Dogger, German Bight.
How do you explain that?
North Utsire, South Utsire, force 8 rising, squally showers later.
I mean really?
The other way in which The Shipping Forecast entered the British public subconscious is through its constant interruption of Test Match Special on Radio 4 long-wave at periodic intervals no matter what’s going on in the cricket.
Now cricket is, I believe, said to be impenetrable to the average American what with all that You go in, until you’re out, and when you’re out you come in nonsense. But on top of that add on the group of elderly broadcasters who form Test Match Special (TMS) who follow the game around the globe to give ball by ball commentary for the best part of a week for every game on the “action” taking place on a mostly empty field.
I sure that sounds like nonsense, even though it’s at the very heart of the British psyche, and yet must surely seem as ridiculous a concept as giant planes flying in the sky. But then we do all know that they can only do that through a mixture of science and denial: as if everyone on board should realise at the same time that they’re all suspended in the air, in the belly of a giant metal bird, then they’d surely plummet.
And so we come to the eventful day in 2011. It was ominously windy at the Test Match. England were playing. It was so windy that the wooden bails were blowing off the cricket stumps and the umpires had take action and call for the heavy bails.
This gave Christopher Martin-Jenkins the chance, again, to explain how the heavy bails were made from lignum vitae, Latin for the wood of life, and the heaviest of traded woods with a density greater than one gram per millilitre and resultantly would sink in water.
Then he added, without a thought for the effect of his words:
“And I certainly wouldn’t like to get on a boat made out of lignum vitae.”
And then, after a natural silence, someone leaned in behind him, it may have been Vic Marks, and he uttered the profound question that brought about the Great British Disaster:
“What about metal?”
“Metal’s denser than water…”
“They make boats out of metal!”
And for a few seconds there was a silence. Dead air. Although as this was Test Match Special it’s generally made up of wonderful Pinteresk silences – they do have to fill eight hours a day live – so it went unnoticed.
And then there was a joint realisation made by everyone listening on the radio, as they all saw this to be logically true.
Ferry passengers in the English channel, tuned in like any common-or-garden British person, realised that they were travelling on a ridiculous notion only previously kept afloat by joint-ignorance and group-stupidity.
Only they weren’t ignorant any more…
Fifty-thousand people drowned.
It wouldn’t have been so bad, but all the trawlers were tuned in waiting to catch the Shipping Forecast.