This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
I'll admit, this edition of Britain Is a Weird Place is a bit of a nostalgia trip for me. In my youth, I got to ride all the way to France on the great white vessel known as "the Bretagne" at least once a year. The smell of the oil and petrol on the car gangway up to the parking levels, the deafening hum of the ship's innards adding a weird heat to the odors, making it feel like you were trapped in a sauna for cars—I have a lot of strong memories bound up in the cross-channel ferry, maybe because it's so intense. Half a day in the middle of the sea, while everyone around you drinks their weight in gin and tonics, is quite full-on for any child whose gray matter is still a mush of jelly and strawberries.
But more than that, the point of this column is to explore the quirks of British days out, what makes them special, why they exist, what they say about how we, the inhabitants of a tiny island nation that has always punched above its international weight by grafting its ass off, choose to spend our free time. The overnight ferry, to me, is more than just a journey to somewhere else, it's a day out in and of itself. Spending eight hours anywhere can be considered an activity. And activity abounds on these ferries. I have fond memories of being a child and watching magic shows in the ferry bar while my entire extended family all got absolutely shit-faced and smoked their lungs dry.
But does this ship still represent, to me and many others, the best continental pre-lash that sailing has to offer? I was going to find out, though first I had to journey to the port, which, sadly, was in Portsmouth.
Portsmouth. If ever there were a place that was grossly unwelcoming, aesthetically nauseating, and desolately, malignantly depressing, it's this southern port town. It's a Hampton Court maze of brown block buildings; winding, dead roads; cars in a rush to nowhere. It's the nightmarish moldy crust on England's ham sandwich and I hate it with all my soul. But it's where the ferry port was, so I had to trudge through it towards the check-in desk.
The departure lounge was deserted. Most people drive onto the ferry because the offload point, St. Malo, is more a place to drive away from than to remain in. As I remember it, the dockside paddock where the cars wait to board acts as a kind of highly concentrated version of England: dads smoking en masse as they proudly guard their family saloons; kids with their hands lodged permanently in packs of Monster Munch; moms, uncles, dogs, and nans queueing quietly even though they're desperate for a piss; everyone seeming to want to wallow in and fortify their own Englishness before braving foreign terrain.
None of that for me, though. I was going to spend 24 hours on this boat with not a motor to my name. I joined the small crowd of people in the outside pedestrian area (which, bizarrely, you weren't allowed to smoke in) and we just stared silently out to sea, hands in pockets, as if we were waiting for a ghost ship holding some dead beloved to moor.
And in a sense, we were. I walked out onto the reception deck and all the childhood memories started flooding back. The duty-free shop; the little kiosk selling magazines, 'papers and, weirdly, Tamagotchis; the smell of sausages and cheese in the self-service canteen; the dance floors I'd skidded across on my knees and more things that sound like punchlines from a 2005 Peter Kay stand-up set.
I went to my cabin on deck two of eight, which, I suspect, was underwater. Not having a window was a bit of a bummer to be honest, I felt like I was trapped in some nightmarish hinterland between Butlins and Das Boot, perhaps not a perfect vibe for all the knackered/drunk parents trying to sedate their sugar-crazed sprogs before settling down for the night.
That wasn't my plan, though. I was ready to hit the tiles, or, rather, the soiled carpet.
I went straight to the arcade, the kid's casino, the little Las Vegas that gets rid of all the change your mum picked up from the bowling. I dropped a quid into the Terminator shoot-'em-up machine and picked up the gun. It swallowed another three quid before registering any of my money and after five more minutes trying to start the game, it transpired that the reload button didn't work. I died and I could do nothing about it.
No matter. There was still the air hockey. Another dubloon was dropped into the game slot. Only a light breeze came from the perforated surface and the puck barely moved. I hoped that the machines the captain was using to steer us to the mainland were better maintained than these.
I went outside into the pitch-black night. I felt better out on the deck but the nagging inside remained. Could it be that Britain's seaborne playpen had been neglected over the years? How long has it been since love was lavished on its chugging entertainments? I started to fear that this floating Butlins had gone the way of the land Butlins, consigned to a retirement spent as whipping boy for stuck-up comedians on crap panel shows. Surely the magic show—the peak of wonder aboard this ship—would still be enjoyable?
Instead of being full of jovial families drinking too many brandies, the bar was sparsely occupied by a smattering of grey-haired couples, silently sipping small white wines.
The magic show was in full swing, and the magicians, a female duo called "Illusioness," did a valiant job of trying to engage a crowd that was largely unmoved, bar a crew of dirty old men in one corner being weird. Guffawing at each other in a circle, pints glasses touching, it felt like a grim metaphor for the disgraced era of British light entertainment, or like being at a working men's club in the 70s. I was half expecting Bernard Manning to waddle out and do a joke about watermelon.
The show ended and I applauded extra hard; regardless of how many people are on the boat, they have to perform the show every night. I felt for them, no one had even bothered to remove the Jack and the Beanstalk sign from the pantomime that had been on earlier.
Having gone quite late in the summer season, it's understandable that the night boat wasn't teeming with life. In my memories the ferry had always been a place of hothoused familial hedonism but most people on here seemed to be either lorry drivers or couples in their twilight years who can, at their leisure, fuck off to France for a few days. I guess that doesn't exactly read back like the guest list to Warehouse Project.
The final insult came when a packet of Maltesers got lodged behind its impenetrable glass case. The universe was conspiring against me, and I was drunk, bored and tired enough to let it win.
I wandered into the lift with a small wine of my own, down to my underwater bunker in the bowels of the boat, and called it a night. Perhaps the 45 minutes I had to spend in St. Malo would reinvigorate me. I had my heart set on a ham and cheese galette completè.
I was to again have my heart broken. I shouldn't have been surprised; anyone who knows anything about the French knows they don't get up for shit. They close shops for hours at lunchtime and they don't open up their creperies until midday. I sat in the cold outside a café, drinking an apple juice. For fuck's sake France, you just couldn't give me this one thing, could you?
And then it was time to re-board the boat. I walked up the Everest-like gangway, back to the desecrated waterborne cathedral of my childhood memories.
I sat and ate a fry up looking out of the window. How could I have gotten it so wrong?
Then the biggest smack in the mouth of all came hurtling towards me: the boat was absolutely teeming with children. Hundreds of little Joes from yesteryear laughing and clapping and dribbling and running around and shouting. It was absolute hell. 'Why do they have to run everywhere?' I thought. 'Where are they going? What's so important that it requires them to be at a constant level of high speed?' At one point I heard a small boy demand of his dad that he be allowed to "buy some money." Truly, I was in several different circles of hell all at once.
A few hours into the journey home I went out onto the deck. It was a sunny day and a couple of the dads had their shirts off. I looked out at the sea, which was reflecting the strong sunlight. And though I was in the middle of the channel, I felt strangely at home.
That was the real beauty of this trip. Seeing the sunlight bounce off the waves, and the moonlight the night before, was so calming. I had to fight back the constant urge to dive into the giant foamy layers of surf and float away in silence to nowhere in particular.
It may sound clichéd, but standing there facing a disappearing Europe, until it just becomes a wobbly, solitary marine plateau is a more powerful experience than it's given credit for. Britain has a long and illustrious history with the sea, and that relationship seems to endure today, even if like my own love affair with the channel it's one formed mostly of memories. I guess the difference is that while the country remembers taking to the waves to colonize continents, smash armadas and bring cigarettes and spices ashore, I remember watching magic shows and my mom get hammered before making a three-units-over-the-limit early-morning drive to some crumbling gîte in the middle of nowhere. I guess that's what makes us islanders.
It was good to see you again, Brittany Ferries. Perhaps we'll reconvene when I have some ankle biters of my own, pestering me for money and chocolate and absolute tat like this surely-destined-for-a-copyright-lawsuit "daft cat" T-shirt.
Follow Joe on Twitter.