Here's Dave Selby's latest column, published in the September 2015 issue of Practical Boat Owner magazine.
England expects that you shan’t get found out…
I’m not sure I should be telling you this. In fact I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t.
You see, it involves a breach of national security and I’m not merely implicated, I was the perpetrator. I told a bit of a fib… an almighty whopper. Two in fact.
October 21, 2005 was a Friday, as I recall. As any sailor will know, that was the 200th anniversary of Nelson’s death at Trafalgar, and it’s a day etched in my memory.
Sailing clubs up and down the land had organised dinners to commemorate our greatest naval hero, but whenever sailing clubs have functions it brings on an outbreak of dark blue blazers with brass buttons and a bit of scrambled egg embroidered on the breast pockets.
These blazers, which suggest that the wearer is a wee bit ‘naval’ are 65% polyester and 35% crimplene. That adds up to 110% and brings out an allergic reaction in me.
When combined with nylon yacht club carpet there’s a serious danger of static discharge, possibly even fire. But there’s more to it than that. I wanted to pay Nelson a more personal tribute.
I took the day off work, togged myself up, and headed for St Paul’s Cathedral. Passing through Stratford shopping centre the thought occurred to me that Nelson deserved a floral tribute.
As you know, flowers for special occasions like girlfriends’ birthdays normally cost around £1.50 (£2 if you need to apologise for something at the same time). But this occasion deserved even more. I splashed out £2.50 on omething yellow.
At St Paul’s I approached a guards officer standing by a side entrance and asked for directions to Nelson’s crypt.
He spotted my extravagant blooms and asked: ‘Are you here for the memorial service?’
‘Yes,’ I replied. Whopper number one.
He summoned a young naval rating and instructed him to show me down to Nelson’s crypt. And there I was, all alone: just me, Nelson and my thoughts. But not for long.
A BBC film crew arrived, and slowly the crypt began to fill up with what can only be described as top personages, naval brass in fabulous gold-braided uniforms made of real wool.
Trouble was, I looked even more out of place than I do at yacht club polyester gala nights, cos when I get spruced up in my favourite 1950s check overcoat and correspondent shoes I tend to look like a Flash Harry St. Trinian’s-style black market racketeer flogging knock-off Rolexes and nylons.
As more glittering brass and gold-braid arrived with their magnificent floral wreaths I edged back into the shadows with my paltry yellow blooms. But there was no getting away from it.
I stuck out like a morris dancer on a Sunseeker (ironic really, cos if I’d been on a Sunseeker my look would have blended in perfectly). By now I was getting hot
under the collar, and I didn’t hold out many prospects for my fuchsias – my paltry posy was beginning to wilt.
I also sensed I was about to get rumbled by a dignified civilian gent who was eyeing me suspiciously.
He approached. My flowers flopped more.
‘May I ask in what capacity you are here?’ he queried.
‘Family,’ I blurted. Whopper number two.
That’s it, off to the tower, I thought. But he seemed satisfied, perhaps even a little embarrassed.
You see, I’m a bit of a Nelson fan, and I knew that although Nelson had no children with his wife Fanny, he had a daughter by Emma Hamilton, Horatia, who had 10 children.
What’s more, both Emma and Horatia were poorly treated by officialdom.
In any case, I was saved not by the bell, but by the bugler playing the last post, which sent a chill down my spine. It was one of the most intensely moving things I’ve ever witnessed. It was a privilege I didn’t deserve.
Then, one by one, we approached Nelson’s tomb, bowed and placed our flowers at his feet. I’ll never forget that.
And why do I recall that now, all these years later? Recently I came across an original invitation to Nelson’s funeral.
At the bottom it reads: ‘This Ticket not to be delivered to any Doorkeeper.’ It was the big ticket of the day, and perhaps, who knows, some of them came into the hands of interlopers like me.
I got in and I didn’t even have a ticket.