Of fighting ships and standing ovations

Date:10 May 2010 Author: Alan Duggan Tags:, , ,

Many years ago, while working for a South African newspaper group in Fleet Street (formerly the centre of Britain’s newspaper world; now a sad shadow of its former self), I was invited to join a group of journalists on a jaunt to Portsmouth, where America’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS , had docked for its first official visit to the United Kingdom.

It was an awe-inspiring experience. Everything was big: the vessel displaced 88 000 tons, had a flight deck measuring 332 metres and carried a crew of 6 000 – including officers, ratings, doctors, dentists, cooks, engineers, pilots, entertainers, technicians, gunners, radar operators, at least one psychiatrist, and a host of other people required to keep the ship operating at optimum efficiency.

Launched two years earlier, it was the first of 10 so-called that became the pride of the US Navy and, incidentally, the world’s heaviest warships. It was also among the most formidable, carrying scores of fighters and other aircraft (the carrier currently accommodates 85) to hot spots around the globe at a cruising speed of 55 km/h. Although we were hardened journalists (for the record, this hardening occurred mainly in the Punch Tavern, and occasionally in a smelly dive called the Falstaff), every one of us was impressed.

At least, I thought so. Invited to assemble in a huge hangar below decks, we awaited the arrival of the captain with a real sense of anticipation. After all, this was the guy with absolute power over a stupendously powerful fighting ship and a crew big enough to populate a modest-sized town. When the crew spoke of him, their tones were hushed and disconcertingly respectful.

When he entered the hangar, officers snapped to attention and everyone jumped to their feet – everyone, that is, but the booze-raddled hacks representing the London tabloids. Not only that, but their disdain for military protocol evidenced itself in feet on chairs, uninterrupted conversations and even bursts of laughter. It was an amazing display of bad manners – not because they had failed to stand up (after all, I had stayed determinedly in my seat at any number of political meetings), but because they were in effect giving the finger to quite an important foreign visitor.

All of which, in an incredibly roundabout way, introduces the real subject of this blog: if you fail to rise to your feet when the rest of the audience does so, are you necessarily making a statement – or are you simply exercising your right not to say anything? Example: I get seriously pissed off when I attend a lacklustre concert or any other public performance and some dodo in the audience decides to stand up and clap.

Mob brain-death immediately kicks in, prompting row after row of people to join him, and all of a sudden it’s a standing ovation. If you decide the performance didn’t deserve this accolade and stay in your seat, it looks like you’re staging a one-person protest. If you rise to your feet, however, you’re a dishonest wimp.

Do have the courage of your convictions? Please drop me an e-mail and give me some ammunition that I can use the next time my wife hisses at me: “Get up, dammit you’re making a spectacle of yourself!”

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