In Finest Fig

E.S. Turner

  • The Liner: Retrospective and Renaissance by Philip Dawson, foreword by Stephen Payne
    Conway Maritime, 256 pp, £30.00, July 2005, ISBN 0 85177 938 7

The great ocean liners were the landmarks, grace notes and sometimes the agents of history. Born as I was in the Belle Epoque, admittedly in its dying days, I was well placed to marvel at the mightiest moveable artefacts of that time: the ‘floating cities’ of Cunard’s four-funnelled, five-syllabled fleet, Lusitania, Aquitania and Mauretania. They were the civil equivalent of dreadnoughts and they competed with an aggressive Germany for the Blue Riband of the Atlantic, a non-existent but highly cherishable award for the fastest crossing, which the Lusitania snatched from the Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1907. I was too young to remember the loss of White Star’s Titanic, but not too young to remember the torpedoing in 1915 of the Lusitania. Wars end with a forfeiture and redistribution not only of cities but of floating cities. So, in compensation for the Lusitania, Cunard accepted the Kaiser’s Imperator, and his Bismarck became White Star’s Majestic; his Vaterland had already been converted to trooping by the Americans and was plying as the Leviathan. The Aquitania, shedding her war paint, emerged unscathed from trooping as she would from the next world war. Shorter lived was the Mauretania, that long-time Riband holder, a proud vessel which, when asked by a French Caribbean island, ‘Which ship are you?’ replied: ‘Which island are you?’ After helping to work up the new cruising craze she went to the breakers in 1935.

In the early 1930s, which saw the dictators’ crack liners competing with the French for the Riband, a half-built, cash-strapped, giant hulk lay in a yard at Clydebank, known only as Cunard’s 534; it had the air of Milton’s ‘fatal and perfidious bark,/Built in th’eclipse and rigged with curses dark’. After a merger with White Star the vessel was finally launched as the Queen Mary, a choice of name not universally admired. In 1936 it was my good luck to sail on her maiden voyage to New York, arriving to a carnival of cascading fire-floats and swooping biplanes. Thanks to fierce competition, the Atlantic was now revelling in its own belle époque. Think of Beauty and Chivalry, in finest fig, summoned by gongs, bells or dulcimers, swanning down processional staircases, through high baronial doors to feast in a pearlescent glow on caviare scooped from the bellies of a carved-ice menagerie: that sort of thing. Or think of the manservants of more feudal travellers preparing special meals in special kitchens and bearing them direct to their masters, cutting out the ship’s stewards, a Cunard carry-on I did not know about until I read Philip Dawson’s The Liner. Perhaps such things also happened aboard the ‘ocean greyhounds’ of the Axis. Hitler’s dashing duo were the Bremen, which had a catapult-operated light aircraft, and the Europa; Mussolini’s matched pair were the Rex and the Conte di Savoia, rather sleeker and jollier. All four ships largely abjured Fascist emblems and stiff-arm saluting. Their daily newspapers were as anodyne as ships’ newspapers everywhere, full of pre-printed snippets. The only swastikas I remember on the Bremen were on the tiny flags which marked her progress on a map. Hitler’s portrait was there, of course, balanced by one of Hindenburg (the real begetter of the Bremen) on the other side of the main staircase. In those interwar years the French operated one ‘floating Versailles’ after another, culminating in the Lalique-laden, lustrous Normandie, which relieved the Axis of the Blue Riband on her first voyage. In 1940, stealthily, in time for trooping duties, there arrived the Queen Elizabeth (the name which, many thought, should have gone to the Queen Mary).

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