Part 7.5 – The Ship in a State
Note: for people who may be of a classical turn of mind, this chapter is written as Baroque Opera.
The set: think Pirates of the Caribbean; think Johnny Depp…a large and sea-stained galleon, hawsers securing this hulk awkwardly to a filthy quay, riddled with rats and orphans. There can be no doubt the SS Feather is a sorry sight. Shot full of holes from her many battles (both internal and external) she would, were she ever to attempt to set sail, sink in even the calmest of seas. Her sails are mere threads clinging to worm-eaten masts. Everywhere there is evidence of neglect, and the “Outstanding” banner nailed to the remains of the mizzen mast as a pennant does nothing to enhance the general air of eccentric dishabille.
On the quay hawkers sell decapitated salmon and perch, singing their traditional songs “Rotting Fish Full of Pish/ a Fiver gets you your Death Wish”. (The fish are not doing the singing. The hawkers are.) Prostitutes of all genders hawk their wares singing their traditional songs, “Fresh syphilis! Special price, this week only. Herpes free with every me!”
In the last act the previous Captain, in a heartrending finale, was forced to walk the plank. The crew – a mutinous bunch on the whole, but also containing several of the sleeping and the dead, knew that the new Captain (bass) would bring Changes in the key of C.
Act 2: Scene 1
The Captain calls the crew to a meeting in the waist of the ship. “Behold!” He sings (many Baroque operas start with some god or goddess or shepherd jumping into centre stage and singing “behold!” A great example being Handel’s Semele. The High Priest sings, “Behold! Auspicious Flames arise!” He is, I think, sacrificing the heroine on a burning pyre.) “Behold!” Sings the Captain, “Auspicious flames arise!” Pointing to the pyre on the poopdeck upon which the previous captain, Terror Dix, burned merrily. Yes I know I said she was forced to walk the plank. What the hell. You decide.
“Too long, too long!” He trilled, (recitative) “there will be changes made!
By Dix betrayed/ Trust me – /This ship will hit/ The Sea!
….the buggers at the Borough have dictated our captainship policies for ages and it’s now time to escape this so-called safe harbour, and set out!”
From his kennel on the main deck, the Quartermaster (soprano) piped (recitative) “do you mean Brexit my capitain? / To set our sail for the Spanish Main?” The quartermaster, it must be said, also known as the Thin Controller, was responsible for Infrastructure, extrastructure, superstructure and Curry Planning. Under the Dix his job had been to say to every request (and there were many! Sometimes the long line of sailors waiting to see him sparked rumours, but I assure you, most of them left his company intact) and it became his catchphrase, “but will it generate cover”. No-one knew what that question meant but everyone realised that if you said Yes, whatever you had come to ask him would be responded to with No. And vice-versa.
“And will it, my lover/” he added, “generate cover?”
“Never Again,” the captain sang, and this Aria will become one of the staples of the repertoire for years to come.
“Avast dear men and women too
This old port is full of poo
Too long have we, or rather Dix,
Followed all those lunatix
Lefty loons they try to make
Us the reason for their mistake!
Always telling us what to do
It’s time to cast off, toodleoo!”
“You’re off your head!” The Union Trio sing,
“Once we sail into the drink
– We’ll sink!
Our hull is gone
Our crew is sick
Our sails are torn
You’re the lunatic!”
The Union Trio: Fletcher Kristalson (castrato) is the biggest Union Rep, one of the trio known as Hearnoevil, Seenoevil and Speaknoevil. These names had been given to them as commands by the Dix, who had of course removed all their testicles and eaten them. (An historical note: in the Baroque period young boys were castrated by the thousand in the hope that they would become superstars of the Opera business, with their peculiar high voices. If you don’t believe me, Google Farinelli.) (I do not know if their testicles were eaten). (Had Dix been around they would have been).
The other members of the Trio are Pandy Monium, (tenor) the official train spotter which is amusing, because in the Baroque Period the train has not yet been invented. As a result, Pandy dashes about ship and shore in a confused frenzy, looking for them and is often described as Off the Rails. I forget the third member (baritone) though he is perfectly lovely.
Chorus of Guvs:
“Dearest boy you’re the new man here
What right have you to shake and stir
What so long has been a place of fear!
With trembling men and women too
A sail-less ship without a loo!
Our Captain told us what to do
And all along we did her will
But now she’s gone, don’t do us ill!”
Up stands the Chair of Guvs, our old friend Prendergast-Huffington (mezzo). She is costumed as Britannia, carries a trident and has both her breasts exposed.
” Why complain, oh might and main
We’ve never been too happy here
The smell of fish, the rotting brain,
It’s just no good to moan complain!
The cargo rots below this deck
We always get it in the neck
I’ll tell you what, it’ll never last
Our only skill
Is getting nowhere, fast!”
(First satirical reference to the Pupils, dear reader. Note! The purpose of a ship is transport! It exists to take people from A to Z and all the letters in between. Now referring to the pupils as “cargo” is terribly disrespectful, but think about it: ok, the metaphor makes them passive, which they ain’t. It doesn’t take into account how we the crew do all that value-added stuff. So as a metaphor it’s shit. Well you don’t want me to reveal the SS Feather was a Slave Ship, do you? So I won’t mention it.)
All: Poor crew, oh what to do, sing or swim? He had them by the throat – nothing left to do, but vote!
The Captain’s Cabin, night.
The Captain sits at his desk, deeply depressed, his head on his hands. He sings.
A loan, a loan, my headship for a loan
My vessel is quite broke, I have no other home
To fix this ship would take take all the gold
I could never get, for what’s in the hold!
So whatever the crew and the governors too
Vote, this sinking ship will never float…”
Twinkling flute with harp, then a cymbal clashes. Suddenly a cherub appears, all in a golden glow. With a deeply traumatic shock, we realise this naked cherub is none other than Michael Gove, counter-tenor (castrato) waving a glowing wand and wearing a halo.
“Do not despair Mr Whatwhat and Where
The golden glowing Goveman is here!
I feel your despair -”
“Oh Gove the nude, oh fortune’s hood
Could you make our shitship good?”
“Fear not oh Whatwhat, oh Whatwhat Where,
The Dee Eff Ee despite what they say,
The Dee Eff Ee is here to stay!
We’re here to help so Whatwhat you want
I’ll give you cash -”
“Oh no, you can’t!”
“Sure I can, but listen here, there’s a price.
I can get you out of this hole.
For cash I want – ”
“It’s a heavy price…”
“Be nice, be nice! And one more thing you must give me
You’ll call yourselves……Academy!”
“It’s just a word. So – how do you feel?
Do we have…..a deal?”
At this point I have to drop the Safety Curtain. In the next scene, the new Capitain announces that he has fistfuls of money and of course, with the glorious prospect of repairs to the hull, re-sewn sails, new cannon, a partial replacement of the crew and the enlistment of the Cargo to row – yes I know galleons didn’t have oars you pedant! This is Opera, for godsake. Well, there was a vote for Brexit. Sorry, I mean Academisation. In the final glorious scene of Act 3, the renovated ship rows off into the sunset to a riveting triumphal chorus of drums and trumpets. And so another gorgeous Baroque Opera ends with curtain calls and bouquets, to the sound of whips and groans from the Cargo.
If you enjoyed this opera, why not try Handel’s Semele? Or Acis and Galatea? You may also find at least the first act of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo to your taste, or try anything by Purcell. Baroque rocks!