A lot of steam

Yesterday, while walking along the dock towards the SS Great Britain, I overheard a conversation between a young father and his toddler daughter. We were passing the reproduction wooden sailing ship The Matthew which was open to visitors. The father, with keenness in his voice and expectation in his heart, asked his daughter if she’d like to go aboard and have a look. He asked her a number of times but she was more interested in talking about the seagulls. He was behind me and yet I could feel his disappointment.

The Matthew

Today, basically, I learned that steam replaced sail because it meant you could run to a schedule. That’s the whole story. In a nutshell. I did learn lots of other things but I want to begin with the negatives just to leave the end for a bit of joy.

To illustrate this point, one of the speakers gave us a very helpful, early steamship timetable for the trip from London to Hong Kong.

Steamship timetable

The above was one of the better slides.

My wife doesn’t use Powerpoint slides. She rarely uses notes. She knows her subject and wants to impart her knowledge as effectively as possible (this isn’t the negative bit) and, it is said, is a great communicator and teacher. She thinks it’s because she comes from a theatre background. She might be right. All of the people speaking today could do with a bit of helpful direction.

All of them spent more time looking at their notes than us (in one case only his notes), in most cases the slides had far too much information on them (one memorable slide contained two quotes which were so long that they were a strain to read, the font being so small) and they all seemed to lack confidence. This last is a direct result of the former.

Without picking on any individual, one chap, and this is not an exaggeration, said ‘umm’ at the end of every sentence. It wasn’t because he didn’t know what he was talking about. It wasn’t because he was floundering. It was a strange vocal tic which he, apparently, was unaware of. It just needs someone to point it out to him; a friend, a colleague, a family member, anyone. Mind you, he was also far too fast.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed it and this is a short list of things I learned today:

  • The safety of paying passengers meant the conditions were improved for the seafarers.
  • Steamship companies pushed the emigration of people as a way to increase passenger numbers and maintain their profits
  • Steamships increased the spread of disease and, as a bi-product you could get an injection in Liverpool for syphilis, a booster shot in New York then a return shot in Liverpool on your return trip.
  • Steam made for an incredibly boring trip consisting of sleep, food, food, food and then sleep and repeat for around two months with nothing but the unchanging sea to watch. (I disagree with this point because it would have been worse on a sailing ship particularly if you hit the doldrums.)
  • We experience the concept of the future depending on our experience of the past.
  • Maersk swapped from sail to steam because he didn’t want to die at sea like his ancestors.
  • Keeping afloat in Falmouth Harbour is all about the dredging.
  • Isambard Kingdom Brunel invented the Stealth ship.
  • Steamships increased racial segregation in the US because the blacks weren’t allowed to go to school and learn how to operate the new machines and, therefore, had to remain in the lowest jobs.
  • Iron and steel hulls create condescension and no-one wants soggy heroin.
  • The final freight handling sailing ship was the Pamir and it was lost in 1957.

The view behind me was pretty good. Between speakers, it was a pleasure to get up, stretch your legs and look out the big doors.

Throughout the day I compiled this short list of Gary Conferencing Awards. It should be noted that the best speaker, overall, was a woman.

  • The best speaker was Danish
  • The most punctual was German
  • The fastest was American
  • The funniest was the oldest (he was responsible for the soggy heroin line)
Morten getting pointers from Graeme

All in all, a lovely way to spend a day in Bristol though afterwards I was more than ready for a beer (or three). I returned to the hotel to rest up before venturing out for dinner.

My first thought was to eat in the restaurant in the hotel but this seemed an awful waste when I was in the city of Bristol on a Saturday night and it wasn’t even very late. Besides, I’d spotted a sourdough pizza place from the Japanese container last night which had my mouth watering. Obviously that is where I headed.

Not really a restaurant, Pizzanova has seating outside of a very high kitchen counter where chaps take your name, your order then call you when it’s ready. You can then take it away or eat it on the seats.


Rather than a menu of familiarly named pizza toppings, they make a basic Margherita and have a long list of ingredients to choose from. This is called a ‘Your’ pizza. The only disappointment was a lack of an egg but, otherwise, it was delicious.

I sat and devoured my reasonably priced and sized pizza, washing it down with a pint of pilsner. I tried to read but it was easier just watching the crowds wander by on their way out to the container restaurants or along the wharf. Like last night, there was a lot to watch.

Walking back a little later, I popped into a delightful freehouse not far my hotel. It’s called the Golden Guinea (it’s in guinea street though I don’t know what’s named for what) and is a real old town pub with a fine selection of beers. I had a crisp, citrus IPA the name of which I’d forgotten as soon as I left.

The bar at the Golden Guinea

The other day my wife ventured that if I didn’t have this inexplicable interest in all things maritime, I’d be fascinated by trains. Then today, this happened.

Overheard during the lunch break by an ex-Royal Naval chap with a very impressive beard: I’ve been fortunate in my life. I’ve ridden other people’s horses, sailed other people’s boats and flown other people’s planes.

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