H M S Cumberland had been the guard ship off the Falklands. The war there had finished and even though there was not much appetite for further Argentinian adventures, the Royal Navy was taking no chances patrolling the channel between West Falkland and the enemy coast. She was coming home, calling at Ascension Island and then a run ashore was planned for Lagos. The sailors were looking forward to Portsmouth but had to do a bit of diplomatic duty first. Cumberland was dirty, rust streaked and was exactly as a frigate should look after a stormy 9,000 kilometres. The deck crew were lined up in tropical whites looking at the steaming land that was coming closer. She started attempting to reach the military dock in the Naval Dockyard on Victoria Island and hoisted the White Ensign and port flags of Nigeria. Her gas fired turbines slowed, beating the thick sludge water and soon she was secured. Nigerian workers heaved greasy ropes around chipped painted bollards and looked in amazement at the power being brought to their country.
The British Consulate had decided that value for money would be achieved with a trade and diplomatic few days. The officers were to host a cocktail party on board, the ratings would let off steam by local football matches and a party for all would then be held at the Lagos Yacht Club. I had registered our names at the Consulate and luckily the steward at our villa had not washed my dinner jacket and I had packed my regimental tie. It took only a few hours for a messenger in dull khakis on a smoking motorcycle to deliver two stiff invitations to cocktails on behalf of the Consulate and the Captain of H M S Cumberland. It took me a minute to reply yes, and it had been a long week buying and selling worthless Nigerian Naira.
On the day of the party the ship had been opened to the local population and the queues had started to form in the early light of the morning. Whether the ship’s crew had realised what would happen is still a question no doubt unanswered by the Board of Inquiry. As the gates opened a snake of swaying enthusiasm flowed onto the ship. Within minutes anything that was not bolted down was being rocked and wrenched out, from searchlights to compasses, ropes and of course any food from galleys. The Hong Kong laundry men who had pledged six years service aboard H M ships in order to gain a passport had barricaded themselves in the dhobi rooms, fearing that even their machines might be stolen.
By the time we arrived the beleaguered Royal Naval Police were inducing the few remaining potential stowaways from the short rigging and the hiding places in storm lockers and even the bridge to leave. We were piped aboard, my white jacket crisp and I was shown to the aft helicopter desk where under a blue striped awning the great and good of expatriate society were drinking Star beer and rusty nails. We were served by female staff from the Consulate and in the dying heat of the day the Royal Marines did a Beating of Retreat on the dockside. As the Last Post was sounded, the Ensign was taken to safety and with my head swimming with drink it was hard not to feel proud of England and what it meant to be on a great frigate representing all that is best in us.
I was poured off the ship and shared a taxi to another party hosted by the Russian Embassy in a flat overlooking the twinkling lights of Lagos. Thick set bouncers ensured that we did not spend too long chatting and dancing with the doll-like girls from Turkmenistan who were twiddling around the room with trays of canapes and vodka. How I returned home is a blur, I had lost David but would sort that out later. I finally hit my bed. Next week the proof of the teaching had to be put to the test.