THE BROADER PICTURE / Monarchy on the High Seas

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The Independent Culture
TURN ON your television today and you will see Her Majesty's Yacht Britannia steaming across the English Channel, the royal and political centre of the D-Day commemorations. She will be carrying various remnants of European royalty - the King of Norway, the Grand Duke of Luxembourg - and heads of state representing the Allies in the Second World War, as well (of course) as the woman for whom this beautiful but expensive piece of steam technology was launched on the Clyde 41 years ago. The Britannia, in these shaky days of the British monarchy and economy, represents different things to different people: a shameful waste of public funds to republicans and 'modernisers' of the Royal Family; a magnificent symbol of tradition to royalists; an annual bill of pounds 12m to the Ministry of Defence. To people who love ships, she is simply one of the most handsome vessels left afloat, a reminder that the marine architecture in which Britain once specialised had aesthetic as well as practical gifts. Thirty years ago, her lines, her raked funnel, her clipper bow and her steam turbines were merely powerful refinements of the same features in humbler ships. You could cross the Channel, the Atlantic or the Clyde in a kind of sub-Britannia and think nothing of it. Today you will be carried in a box with cars: square lines, square stern, vibrating steel decks, and diesel exhaust pipes poking into the air like old Chevrolet car fins. Le Corbusier might have approved - machines for sailing - but we can be fairly certain that the Prince of Wales's inclinations lie in a different direction.

So far, and probably wisely, he has not expressed an opinion on the ship's future - a question that, if it were a rare Victorian building under threat of demolition, would be provoking national disquiet. (Outrage here is easier. Buildings have architects and architects have names; ships, even great ones, make do with the anonymous collective of designers, craftsmen and engineers employed by their builders, in this case the defunct John Brown's yard at Clydebank.) The Ministry of Defence, meanwhile, is considering its options. The officers and crew of the Britannia number about 220. Its technology is splendid - voice-pipes, engine-room telegraphs, much brass to be polished - but labour-intensive and antique. The Royal Family inhabits its sea-going quarters for only about 30 days a year, and although the ship is used for other, more obviously useful purposes - hosting trade delegations in Bombay, selling whisky in Florida - the fact is that she spends a great many expensive days at sea, steaming slowly (the MoD restricts her speed to a fuel-efficient 12 knots, though she can cruise easily at 21 knots) to wherever the monarch and her relations happen to be visiting, by air. A refit is due in 1997. The last one cost pounds 17.5m. The options range from privatisation - step forward a conglomerate of wealthy industrialists - to the breaker's yard.

It would be a pity if she simply became a nautical mummy in a dry dock. Ships need to be seen sailing, the bow wave curving down the hull, standards crackling in the wind. People who have seen her at anchor at sunset in a foreign port, with the band of the Royal Marines beating retreat on the top deck, say that tears are difficult to resist. Today, when 500,000 poppies flutter down from a Lancaster bomber towards her in the Channel, emotional resistance will also be hard. The historic feeling within each of us is often inimical to reason.

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