On board MS Queen Victoria
They remain engraved on my brain, like something out of a Greek tragedy, so beautiful, such legends, and then they were gone. I am referring, of course, to those ocean liners of a bygone era, those romantic boats that dreams were made of, a fantasy world of Aubusson carpets and Lalique lamps gone to sea. As an impressionable young boy crossing the ocean with my parents, there were no finer rooms afloat, and every couple dancing at night in the various ballrooms looked like Fred and Ginger — elegant, romantic and as graceful as the ships.
The first time I crossed was 1952, on the Constitution, delivered that year from Bethlehem Steel, a cool beauty with the classic counter stern and a noticeable rake on her superstructure. Two multicoloured funnels distinguished her from afar. She had red-topped circular cocktail tables and steel panelling, giving her a futuristic look that an impressionable young boy did not soon forget. This was an unforgettable trip, and a beautiful young Texan, Isla Cowan, played a large part in making it unforgettable. On the return, it was a Norwegian’s turn, Olga’s girl, Olga being a famous ship owner.
After that came French liners, whose china, silver and furniture were of the highest quality, with creaking wooden panelling, the mandatory three classes, first, cabin and tourist, and the inevitable shipboard romance. Those were the days, carefree, irresponsible as hell, and with unsurpassed service. The stewards on board in first class were all Jeeves’s doubles. Nothing ever went missing, every bit of clothing was cleaned and pressed in no time, and their discretion made a deep-cover CIA agent look as conspicuous as a barker at the fair.
Mind you, the elegance was also on the part of the passengers. Because of the shipping connection, I was seated more often than not on the captain’s table, along with other swells and a film star or two. It was black tie at dinner except for the first and last night on board. First class consisted of about 250 people, many of them familiar to each other. It all came to an end with the jet age that began in earnest during the late Fifties. By the mid-Sixties the writing was on the wall and the cruising had begun. Most of those incredibly graceful beauties of the seas were demolished, turned into scrap and sold for a pittance.
Which brings me to today. Sumptuous three and four stackers are no more, replaced by smoke-free liners with swivelling pods at the stern that push the ship through the water, eliminating shafts and rudders. They are in reality floating resorts, towering multi- decked behemoths, pseudo lavish lounges, and the class system is gone with the wind. Close to 1,000 feet long and 120 feet wide, they are taller by 50 feet than the Statue of Liberty, carrying more than 2,000 people, all classless, pun intended. Theseus, who solved the Minoan labyrinth, would not have made the cut on board the Queen Victoria, where the Spectator group met last week for a memorable get together. First the good news.
It might sound a bit toe-curling, but I have yet to meet a nicer and more joyous group of people, full of life and not an unearned swagger among them. I will only mention Christian names, Arnold and Penny from South Africa, Andrew from Australia — incidentally, a great cross-country skier, champion and coach — Maureen and David from Liverpool via Edinburgh and Surrey, James and Pat from Biarritz, Fanny and Sue from Belsize Park, and Elizabeth from New Zealand, who flew 16 hours in order to meet a couple of goofballs like Jeremy Clarke and yours truly. She breeds thoroughbreds. Ken and Caroline from London, Woodie and Nicola, and Philip and Renee from Cape Town, and many others who loved our Martin Vander Weyer’s speech, and Jonathan Ray’s too, and even laughed at my rather ribald story of Spectator life since 1977.
I have left many names out because the dinners were jolly affairs with booze flowing like Niagara and the poor little Greek boy incapable of keeping notes and records. One thing is for sure, and I mentioned this in my Demosthenian speech, I have yet to meet nicer or friendlier people. And the good doctor Ivan with his beautiful Thai wife, who gave Jeremy and I good advice on how to keep up the drinking life without kicking the bucket any time soon.
And speaking of my Low life colleague, I tried throughout the trip to trip him up because as we were both writing about the same subject — and poor little me always being France to his Germany and coming out second best — but no cigar. I even locked him in his cabin on the last day so he would not be able to file, but he somehow slithered out. I hate him.
The bad news is that the ship was much too organised, and Speccie readers do not like to be herded. Our hostess Philippa tried her best but company policy comes first. A schedule is a schedule, and for someone as recalcitrant as I am, it put a damper on my concept of freedom of movement. Never mind. We all got to know each other and we felt a wonderful bond being Spectator readers. The jokes went far into the night and I only hope I meet them again before the man in the white suit pays me a visit. Long live the Speccie and its readers.
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