Drizzle percolates a winter's day. The savagely shaved pubis of Kentish downland is chopped off by the scuzzy cliffs of Dover. Our car zips past a café flying the Union flag, twists, turns and descends into the port. A petrol station, a fast food outlet, a parade of shops, a chorus line of Regency terraced houses, their cast-iron balconies like exposed corsetry. The Castle looms overhead, squatting on the cliff top like a fat Victorian general shitting imperialism. Before we know it - and this is, surely, the very point of mass transit - our passports have been checked, our ticket reference logged, we're joining line 122 behind a Toyota Previa and about to be absorbed into the P&O mother ship, a hulking vessel called Pride of Burgundy.
Ferries never quite make it into the pantheon of true seafaring. They're too rooted, too much like stepping stones or pontoon bridges. Blinkered sea-drayhorses, they cast off, trot through the waves, debouch their human casks, load up some more, trot back, and so on and on. I can remember that as a child the Dover-Calais ferry was still unstabilised and dashingly rambunctious. I have a vivid memory of clutching my father's arm in the bar as half-pint handled beer glasses exploded off the bulkheads, and the spew of fellow passengers spattered our faces. Happy days. Despite the dreadful capsize of the Herald of Free Enterprise (a hubristic name that cried out for disaster to strike) off Zeebrugge in 1987, drowning nearly 200 passengers and crew, cross-Channel ferries have not only managed to hang on to their image as the ultimate in dull transit, they've even enhanced it.
The Pride of Burgundy is a case in point. We roll on board, sit for 90 minutes, then roll off again, but the vessel never inclines more than a few degrees. The two vast and echoing naves of the car deck are like static thoroughfares, or sections of road tunnel temporarily entombed, while the ferry's superstructure contains a horrible simulacrum of every purgatorial shopping mall, motorway service centre, or airport terminal you've ever visited. The Pride of Burgundy is an unplace, with its duty-free shops, its food courts, the New York City Deli, Silverstone's Sports Bar, the Horizon Lounge, the Club Lounge, the Harbour Coffee Company and Oliver & Jones offering - preposterously - "traditional fine English food".
Then there is Langan's Brasserie, which is what - in part - I've brought my companion James Fox to see. On our way back from France in the summer I dined my older children at a P&O Langan's, but although they sensed the incongruity of this recreation of the famous Mayfair restaurant, they were unable to fully appreciate its cast-iron irony, its steely bizarreness. The celebrity snapshots framed on the walls, the tables with their brass electroliers, the whole ersatz urbanity of the eatery was, for them, of a piece. But James gets it. Gets it in the tender long view. James knew Peter Langan - the eponymous restaurateur - slightly.
"What was he like?" I ask him, as we stand in the afternoon emptiness of the entrance to the Brasserie, watching white-aproned staff lay stiff linen place settings. "What was he like?" James gets as near to a guffaw as he's ever likely to. "Impossible to say, he was so very drunk." Through a handy port-lozenge I can see the wine-dark sea course past. James is examining the menu which is topped by a watercolour of the late Langan deep in his cups, his chin resting on his fists, his face a vinous buoy topped by greasy combers of hair. "He was very drunk," James continues, "and of course famously rude to his clientele. You didn't feel you'd been to Langan's unless he told you to fuck off. Somehow I can't quite believe it's a policy followed by the current management."
"No indeed," I join in. "Didn't Langan die in a rather ghastly fashion?"
"Yeah, set fire to himself, drunk of course, burnt down his house." The staff have hearkened to our cheery tales of their founder and gathered about us in a little gaggle. "We'd be sacked as soon as the ship had docked," one of them ventures, "if we were rude to the customers."
"How many of these little Langan's are there then?" I enquire idly.
"Ten. Nine on the cross-Channel ferries, and they've just opened one on the Bilbao route."
"How long does that take then?"
The Tannoy sounds, calling us back to the car deck - we're about to land. Thirty-six hours, breakfast, lunch, dinner and breakfast at Langan's, then transfer to another ferry and more Langan's. Why, you could travel the European seaboard for years eating at Langan's Brasseries, remaining placeless, timeless and stateless. The P&O Langan's is a responsibility-free zone of franchised forgetfulness. I like to think of Peter Langan himself going back and forth across the Styx for an eternity, every millennium or so telling Charon to fuck off.
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