I have only ever been on cross-Channel ferries before, so this time when travelling to Spain I thought it would be interesting to take the two-night car ferry trip from Portsmouth to Bilbao.

Apart from being sick as a dog on the first morning of the outbound journey I have to say I really rather took to the whole ferry experience. I know I may be indulging in hyperbole here, but there seemed to me to be something mythic and timeless about traversing a great body of water like the Bay of Biscay, dark seas teeming with whales and dolphins, our seemingly tiny craft subject to elemental forces of wind and tide.

After all, Sayle is a Manx name and the people of that island in the Irish Sea are Viking folk, and truly I felt something of what they must have felt in their longships - even though the ship on which I traversed those angry seas, built perhaps 20 years ago, resembled nothing so much as a scruffy shopping mall in some run-down suburb of north Sydney.

Apart from the things that were happening on the outside of the ship - the wildlife in the unfathomable depths below us, the untamable weather all around us - it was also fascinating to note what was happening on the inside. Because they were in the same enclosed space for two days, the British passengers, normally so constrained by rigid notions of class and behaviour, rapidly forgot that they were in a public space and instead began to behave as if they were at home.

You started to see passengers wandering about in their slippers and underwear, talking to their families as they would normally do only when safe within the walls of their house and singing songs tunelessly to themselves. And since they were no longer wearing anything you could call clothes and since the cars which would normally define their social status were locked in the hold, the normal barriers of class which hold all British people in such behavioural straitjackets began to break down. Middle-class parents from the Home Counties started attending bingo in the Starlight Bar, chatting away to families from mining villages in the Welsh Valleys, asking them about their tattoos and wondering whether they could get one of Ruth Kelly on their bottoms.

The journey also had a profound effect on the young people. Since for most of the voyage their mobile phones were out of range they were forced for the first time in years to talk to people face to face if they wanted information, gossip or entertainment. Late on the second night of our voyage I came upon a group of youngsters from wildly different backgrounds squatting in a dark corner between the Silverstone Lounge and Café Olivio, telling each other the ancient tales that we thought had died out but which lived on in their race memories.

By the morning of the third day a gathering of the passengers had devised a community based on age-old tribal laws combined with more modern notions of anarchism, a society without leaders but with equal rights. Then the boat docked in Bilbao. Everybody got back in their cars, drove off and returned to the people they had been two nights before.


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