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The Independent Archive: 14 September 1987 - 'The Independent' sets out after the soapfish

James Fenton reports from Manila on the launch of his 'bangka': 'Morally speaking, it's a reprehensible boat. It's like me. It pretends to be working when it's just having fun'
A WEEK ago, in a simple ceremony, The Independent was launched. The priest baptised it with holy water. A godfather and godmother were in attendance. The godfather broke a bottle of beer over stern and prow. I threw a handful of small coins into the air. And then around 50 people pushed the bangka down into the sea, in which element it actually floated.

I wish I could report a feeling of simple delight at the occasion, but I have to admit that delight was compounded with a certain shame at being such a show-off as to have allowed such a bangka to come into existence.

My original idea had been to build a pleasure boat which would double as a business-boat, handling charcoal, copra and timber, pineapples, carabao and so forth.

Three people's fantasies combined in the construction: my own, those of the prospective captain and those of the carpenter. The nearer the fantasy came to reality, the greater the ripples of disappointment it created among those not involved, and the greater the squalls of possessiveness among the team.

The boat was being built, deliberately, in a poor part of the country. Handled, properly, it should provide a living for four or five families. As such, it represents a large intervention in the life of one village - the kind of intervention than can easily turn out to have been irresponsible. Sometimes I look at the boat and think, oh dear, I hope nothing goes wrong.

A bangka is an outrigger canoe. This one is 42 feet long, and sits high in the water. To maintain its balance and buoyancy, it performs the same trick as those tightrope walkers crossing over Niagara. It has three paltik, or braces, which are the equivalent of the tightrope walker's pole, and supporting the outriggers which are thick bamboo floats.

At the centre of the boat itself is the engine - a converted Isuzu diesel job, which is one of the main reasons why fishermen look at the boat and almost burst into tears at not owning it.

In the province of Bulacan, where we went for expertise, nobody gets tremendously worked up about such an engine. But, in this remote corner of Quezon, every machine is known and accounted for. Without looking up at the passing boat, a fisherman will tell you that such-and-such an engine is a Fuso or a Stratton or whatever else is in use.

When we did our lap of honour down the Polillo Straits, the inhabitants came out of their shore. I realised at that moment that I was the kind of slob you see poncing round the Mediterranean in a hideous, million-dollar, so-called yacht. It's simply a matter of relative scale.

All pleasure boats are, of course, ways of showing off. You can do it with a rowing boat. You can do it with a punt. This boat allows one the furtive thrill of a load of copra, when in fact you're just trying to impress your neighbours with a jet of spray. Morally speaking, it's a reprehensible boat.

It's like me. It pretends to be working when in fact it's just having fun. It conceals its motives behind a thicket of alibis. It wants admiration. It involves other people in its fantasies. It is designed for escape. It's a shocker of a boat.

And I have to admit I like it very much. It's going to introduce me to a world I only slightly know. There's something called a boring mussel. There's something called a horrid crab. There are sea squirts, worm sea cucumbers, squirrelfishes, soapfishes, diagram sweetlips, cleaner mimics and gobies.

There's exclamation coral and joker's boomerang coral. This is the world of the sea wasp, the pistol shrimp and the mulberry drupe - unless the tomato clowns get me first, or the unicorn surgeons, or the sailfish tangs.

From 'Out of the East' on the Foreign News pages of 'The Independent', Monday 14 September 1987. The Law Report resumes with the Law Term in October