Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Oh dear, between them, the British Foreign Secretary, Mr William Hague, and the Daily Mail, have created a crisis of alarming proportions.
Confused Brits living in Greece are wondering what to pack and where to muster in preparation for evacuation; their prime concerns are of course for their pets and for the watering of their house plants.

But hold on there!
Things may not be what they seem.
A hail of scorn and abuse has descended upon the Mail and Mr Hague alike, and once again bad reporting and scare-mongering tactics have been exposed and condemned. There has been some confusion over what Hague said, what the Mail reported, what the Foreign Office recommends, and what conclusions we, the foreign residents of Greece, are meant to arrive at.

Those of us who have lived in Greece for a long time can remember that the question of evacuation was aired in the early days of the junta, when things were uncertain and could have become dangerous. It never became necessary however, and since then the only reasons for evacuation have been local and the result of forest fires or floods. The somewhat chaotic and volatile state of Greece’s political scene has never been a source of anxiety for its foreign residents.

Evacuation of its subjects, or citizens as we are now known, in times of tribal unrest or natural disaster is something that the British Government has always been quite good at, though more recently they seem to have lost the knack somewhat. Registering with the British Consulate has always been recommended and serves a number of purposes apart from evacuation and repatriation when necessary

In the good old days, before the powers and finances of the British Foreign Service were somewhat curtailed, it was essential to register with the consulate each year if you wished to be invited to the Queen’s Birthday Garden Party, or to be requested to attend a cocktail party each time a Royal Navy vessel visited Corfu.
As you would expect, the Senior Service do these things with amazing efficiency and enthusiasm, erecting awnings and building fountains and gardens on deck, even building a barbecue on deck on one occasion I remember.

Oh the glamour of it all! Not all ships were small enough to be boarded in a ladylike fashion, by stepping across a gangplank with a handrail. Some were quite huge and getting aboard was anything but ladylike. Arriving at the quayside, in tight cocktail dress and high heels, to find that you were expected to clamber up an almost-vertical wood and metal contraption, with slats instead of steps – was an experience similar to climbing up the side of a house. There were always plenty of willing hands, however, to see the ladies aboard safely. I often thought it would be more practical to take one’s purse between one’s teeth, hitch up the skirt, and board by scrambling pirate-fashion up the rigging.
The most often aired ‘joke’ of course, was ‘Are you going to pipe us aboard then?’ and indeed it did all feel rather surreal.
Invitations to the parties were highly sought after and favours were called in to obtain one. Everyone was encouraged to dress up for the occasion, one rather flamboyant Corfiot friend of mine even turning up in top hat and tails, with a long white silk scarf around his neck
The officers and crew were immaculate in their whites, eager to please, and desperate for some female company.

As many unattached females as possible would be invited along with the local dignitaries and crusty old ex-pats, There were no wallflowers at these parties! If you accepted the invitations to ‘show you round the ship’ you were conducted with perfect propriety into every cubicle and cubbyhole, where nothing was out of place and everything gleamed and shone – what you might call ‘shipshape’ I suppose..
Afterwards, if you accepted an invitation to go for a drink ashore with one of the ‘boys’, you would invariably be treated as a lady, but also as a shoulder to weep on.
Once, I received an emergency phone call from the Consulate in Corfu, begging me to round up all my girlfriends and bring them along to a party on a ship that had arrived unexpectedly. (Probably diplomatic-speak  for ‘we lost the fax’) I felt like a Madam, ringing up female friends and urging them to join me in amusing a ship’s company, and needless to say most of my friends who were married to Greeks were not allowed to attend. (My own husband had more faith in me).
The drinks never stopped coming. Pitchers of already-mixed gin and tonic, heavy on the gin and light on tonic, glass jugs full of ice=cold Horse’s Neck cocktail – brandy, ginger ale and a twist of lemon peel, and, in the Sixties, the only place to drink Pimms. The array of canapés was splendid, all quite delicious, and with plenty of caviar. The Navy did nothing by halves in those days.
There were other parties, on NATO ships visiting Corfu – perhaps one of the oddest that I attended was aboard an Italian submarine. My previous experience with Italians had not prepared me for their utter correctness, at least equal to that of the British sailors, harder perhaps to maintain in the confines of a sub!
Parties on board American ships were of course bigger and more spectacular, but not necessarily better – for one thing they were ‘dry’. They mostly took place on vast aircraft carriers, to which we were ferried by tender, and which we entered rather than boarded, by way of a metal stairway manned by very smartly dressed crewmen who addressed the women as M’am and placed white-gloved hands under our elbows to steady us as we climbed up what felt more like the side of the Empire State building than just any old house.
Fantastic American food, a bar that dispensed tea, coffee and milk as well as the inevitable Coke and Pepsi, the ship’s band performing jazz and rock, polite, attentive sailors and airmen who made you feel  ancient, so young were they, and the realization that this was a floating piece of the USA in every way. Much earlier, I had been shown a booklet, issued to all American sailors before they went ashore, listing (in very great detail!) the customs of the country they were visiting, including how they should behave with the local women, how not to give offence to anyone, what to do and not do – an amazing exercise in public relations. We noticed, too, on leaving the ship, that the last thing a sailor going ashore would see before boarding the tender was a notice in very plain English ordering them to take a supply of ‘protection’ with them.
The Americans loved to show off their computers and advanced technology (without compromising security) and one of my friends was treated to such a comprehensive tour of the computers (she was the first ‘geek’ I ever knew) that we didn’t see her again until the following day!

In March 2010, Royal Navy commanders were ordered to scrap the cocktail parties that had been held on board ships visiting foreign ports for over 200 years – Admiral Horatio Nelson met Lady Emma Hamilton at one such party held aboard ship in Naples, and it is said that he instigated the custom of hosting such gatherings on Royal Navy ships. Scrapping the traditional parties was said to be a way to help plug a ‘black hole’ in the MoD’s 36 billion-pound annual budget – a saving of between 50,000 and 70,000 pounds. A trivial amount compared to the amount of goodwill generated.
The outcry was huge and involved accusations of ‘scuppering’ naval tradition. The truth is that the ‘Cockers  P’, or CTPs, served a purpose – it allowed foreigners and British abroad to experience the impeccable good form of British naval hospitality, while making sure that the big guns and missiles were on view as a reminder of the iron fist in the oh-so-soft velvet glove of diplomacy.

Evacuation? Thanks, but no thanks – mine’s a gin-and-tonic, please, Chief Petty Officer!



  1. Brilliant, really entertaining read. vOne of the best, in a continuing supply of tittermakers, to quote Frankie Howerd!

    Please keepwriting them,found a publisher yet?

    Im sure someone must be interested.

  2. Very good mum! My own memories of the ships cocktail parties are a bit "naughtier" but oh...we had such great fun!!! I do miss those days! Maybe my own stories will make it into a blog in a few years time...!!!
    Jo xxx

    1. Miss Anonymous, did we not attend one of those same said parties on a British Vessel in sunny Cyprus? can just about remember the laughs and total black out afterwards.......Angela keep up these blogs they are fantastic ! love adele

    2. did we?? cant remember....must have been good!!!
      ha ha ha!

  3. Excellent! You reminded me of the time (somewhere in the 90s) when a visiting British ship had a blues-rock band on board made up of officers and sailors. They played a gig in Kontokali, I think in Locanda, and of course I went to see them. They wer sponsored by Peavey who make speakers etc. and the drummer was the 2nd in command! He was a little guy and he had a really small drum kit. The bass player had literally picked up the bass in order to play with the band, it may even have been an order!! They made a great noise but only had a limited repertoire. However they more than made up for it in enthusiasm, so they did 3 encores, essentially playing everything again 3 times... Also another funny story, I remember visiting HMS Ambuscade as a kid. Many-many years later I contacted a guy about some parts for my motorbike and he remembered having been in a sailor on HMS Ambuscade.

  4. Wonderful Angela - I knew it was your writing before I saw your name at the end.xx Paula

  5. Pass the Royal Jelly, Pats! Glad to see you haven't lost your touch. Eddie x

  6. Another Gem! I had an American experience aboard the USS Saratoga whilst it was in Palma in the 70's and its was exactly as you described and dinner was so EARLY!More topically the question of evacuation.... for Heavens sake is that what the Mail is reduced to to sell newspapers?!

  7. I love all your jottings. This one reminded me of the only time I received an invitation to a cocktail party on board a RN ship in Corfu. All dressed up and ready to party - arrived at the dock to find a notice apologising for the absence of the ship. It had been called away at the last minute.


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