A country that slipped away

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FOR those lucky enough to take part in it, the naming of the new liner Oriana by the Queen last week was a two-day excursion into an older British experience that many mourn and others wish they had known. It began with a special train from London to the dockside at Southampton in wood-panelled carriage with white linen tablecloths. Tea and scones came and went; a country brushed with white blossom slid past. Aboard the ship, there was champagne, and grace sung by the choir of Westminster Abbey followed by salmon and fine steaks. Then a flourish of trumpets and the toasts. Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor, proposed the health of the ship's owners, still pleasingly called the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. That company's chairman, Lord Sterling of Plaistow, toasted the guests. Lord Whitelaw replied. He was incomprehensible, spoke of this fine building rather than this fine ship, but received the loudest applause. The climax of the evening was a fireworks display, dazzling in the blackness above Southampton Water. The guests, in dinner dress and fabulous frocks, watched from the pristine teak of the promenade deck. One or two people said, inauspiciously, that it reminded them of those lavish, carefree Titanic scenes, pre-iceberg.

The Queen arrived the next morning in her own train and was preceded down the red carpet by the media, who were quietly booed by the guests - chiefs of staff, lord lieutenants, high sheriffs, mayors - seated in the stands. The Queen and the Bishop of Basingstoke blessed the ship. Everyone joined in "For Those in Peril on the Sea". Few could have remained unmoved. And yet...the ship was built in Germany, the event was private (special passes, handbags x-rayed) and over it all hung the sensation that we were witnessing something that, like the ship itself, would shortly slip away.