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).
If Winston Churchill was right, the two Queens, by virtue of their speed and ability to carry 15,000 men each, shortened the war by about a year. That much admired high prow of the Queen Mary also shortened the lives of three hundred sailors when, on a zigzag c0urse to elude U-boats, it bisected the anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Curacoa. The Bremen, caught on the hop when hostilities began, ran for Murmansk before homing to Bremerhaven, where she was bombed and burned; the Rex and the Conte di Savoia (my honeymoon ship) were strafed and sunk in shallow home waters. At the war’s end came another redistribution of what was left afloat. The Europa, which had served as a trooper, was handed over to the French, who renamed her Liberté. Numerous French ships had been seized in American ports. The Ile de France became a British troopship and the Normandie was accidentally burned out in New York while being converted into a trooper to be called Lafayette. The war at sea had some rum features. Holland had been occupied, yet her popular Nieuw Amsterdam served unharmed as an Allied trooper while apparently remaining in Holland-America service. The Kungsholm, pride of neutral Sweden, was sold in mid-war to America, converted to trooping as the John Ericsson, then sold back after the war to her original owners.
In a burst of postwar activity, before the jet age took over, the Americans made the running on the Atlantic. In 1952 the United States, ‘long believed … fast enough to exceed the US highway speed of 55 miles per hour’, made an eastward crossing in an astonishing three days, ten hours and 40 minutes. After 1958 more people flew the Atlantic than sailed it, preferring the discomfort of being squeezed into a metal tube, with stops in Iceland and Newfoundland. The situation now resembled that of the eclipsing of stagecoaches by the railways; the coaches were superseded when they were at their fastest, most comfortable and most reliable. Yet the French and the Italians continued to fling new liners into the battle; 1965 saw maiden voyages by the elegant Michelangelo and Raffaello. After 12 years they were sold to the Iranian Navy as officers’ quarters and perished miserably.
Today we are seeing a curious exercise in turning the clock back. More than a century and a half after Samuel Cunard inaugurated the first scheduled weekly Atlantic service in 1848, the ‘world’s only scheduled transatlantic liner’, the Cunard/Carnival Queen Mary 2, is plying for custom with slogans like ‘Visit New York – No Flying!’ Her maiden voyage to that city was in 2004. Though a ‘scheduled’ liner, she still undertakes cruises, so this is no round-the-year service as Samuel Cunard saw it. The crossing takes six days, and the passengers are deluged with unprecedented delights, including a planetarium. What next can the ‘wow factor’ invoke? Jokers suggest a dolphinarium, a velodrome or a grand mosque. The graded accommodation includes duplex apartments and penthouses, with ‘butler and concierge service’. Remember that it was Cunard which used to grudge passengers their dinner napkins, a director explaining that ‘going to sea is a hardship’: if passengers wanted to wipe their mouths at a ship’s table they could use their pocket handkerchiefs.
Mountain-high above the sea, today’s passengers may not notice the first intimation of a New World close ahead, the Sargasso Sea of spent condoms washed down from those topless towers (‘Are you seeing what I’m seeing?’ … ‘God, Aldous Huxley would love this!’). It may be different now. What is not different is that the Atlantic can indulge the foulest of moods. Do the occupants of duplex apartments ever worry at the prospect of lying paralytically seasick at the cost of many hundreds of pounds a day? What dire disorientation may not grip the passenger caught in a planetarium in a high gale? What will happen if the crew fail to empty those five swimming pools in time? For a description of the rigours of a storm at sea in a hell of luxury look no further than Brideshead Revisited. Charles Ryder, desperate to commit adultery in the whirlwind, dare not trust himself to use a safety razor, so sends for the ship’s barber, a man with the agility of a swordsman in a ballet, who shaves him in bed with an open razor; meanwhile the crew are being hospitalised as they fight with cables to anchor two swinging bronze doors which threaten to crunch any passing prey. There used to be tales of passengers pursued and pinned to the wall by grand pianos. Aboard Europa I was at a cinema matinée when the floor began to tilt, the statuary to quiver and the faces on the screen to go in and out of focus. Then came the thuds as unseated passengers hit the deck and tried not to roll in the aisles. Suddenly the screen went blank, followed by an announcement that the film would be shown again the next day, weather permitting. Just a stiff blow, really; not to be compared with a historic moment on Brunel’s Great Eastern, when a cow was tossed from the farm on an upper deck through a window into the Ladies’ Cabin, followed by an angry swan which crashed into a series of mirrors.
Migrants in their millions kept the transatlantic shipping lines in business: asylum seekers from the Scottish and Irish clearances giving way to an unstoppable diaspora from the bursting, Jew-bashing cities of Northern Europe. By comparison, the servicing of empire by the opulent liners of P&O seems a minor traffic. Dawson rates as ‘the world’s last great emigration by sea’ the subsidised £10-a-head rush to Australia after 1945. Aboard the Canberra the sexes were segregated, though unofficial ways were found to assist honeymooners. Old traditions died hard. It seems the ship’s engineers had to lay on extra hot water throughout the ship for Saturday bath night.
Which brings us to class distinction at sea. In pre-Cunard days steerage passengers knew better than to yammer for human rights. If Dawson is right, they were ‘mercilessly flogged’ for disobeying ship’s orders. Wielding the knout on the cheap-fare passengers strikes me as a decided low in maritime travel. These wretches had to supply and cook their own food and had nowhere to sit except on lockers or coils of rope; for days they might be battened down in the dark. Later, in Victorian times, they were issued with a pannikin and a tin cup, along with rudimentary rations. Tourist third, later called tourist class, did not arrive until the 1920s. It proved to be something of a social revolution, beginning as a slightly more civilised form of steerage and ending up as a not too diluted version of first, without the winter gardens and boulevards. As the author explains, it attracted students, teachers, lesser academics and those with generous holidays; it also attracted those like myself with limited holidays, who felt that for four crowded days in New York it was worth spending seven days going there and seven coming back. I travelled tourist class under the flags of four nations. Always our names were printed on a smart passenger list. We were warned against card sharpers. To show we were not peasants we put on black ties each evening; it was, I suppose, a comical sight to see four male strangers, who never normally dressed for dinner, struggling and elbowing in a tight-fitting cabin as they fumbled with dress studs. The food in tourist was far from contemptible. At best it would consist of a wake-up sandwich, a multi-course breakfast, bouillon and sandwiches at eleven, a multi-course lunch, a copious afternoon tea, a multi-course dinner and perhaps late-night sandwiches or sausages. If boredom attacked, one could think of an excuse for invading first, like sending a cable or attending a church service, but an excuse was hardly necessary. I was never asked for my cabin number. The degree of boredom often depended on the type of people the purser assigned to one’s table, but some voyages could be lively enough. We in tourist were much envied, on an Anchor liner out of Glasgow, which had only two people travelling in first, a young couple sometimes tipsy. There were not always enough Beautiful People around to justify first. But the old three-class divisions were a long time dying. A cutaway illustration of that late-arriving Michelangelo shows a first-class children’s room, a cabin-class children’s room and a tourist-class children’s room. There was also a teenage club, possibly classless. The child-free ship was yet to come.
Dawson’s The Liner, richly illustrated and authoritative, will amply satisfy anyone avid for details of ships’ design, decoration, layout and propulsion. The Queen Mary 2 boasts the latest in azimuthing pods, making her ‘a pioneer of podded propulsion’, but the less technically minded may prefer to read of how ships were powered in simpler, more heroic times. In 1856 Cunard’s Persia made a record crossing by burning a ‘horrendous’ 150 tons of coal daily for nine days. Did the stokers get a bonus? I doubt it. There is light relief also in contemplating the curious range of domestic problems faced by ships’ designers. Do we really need dog kennels? Must we have a cold room for ladies’ furs, as the Queen liners did? How much shoe space is needed by a woman on a world cruise? Are table fiddles really necessary? What about ‘his’ and ‘hers’ bathrooms? And bidets? Does it matter if there is no natural light in the grill room bar and the synagogue? (Was there a synagogue on the Bremen? I can’t remember.) The designers of the United States, keen to use aluminium everywhere instead of wood, wondered whether they could have an aluminium grand piano. Theodore Steinway ‘flatly refused’.
Anecdotes are not Dawson’s speciality, but he has an enchanting tale about an American world-wanderer identified only as Orville. Heading home from Europe during the Cold War, Orville found that his mobile home was too wide for the vehicle hatch on the Queen Elizabeth 2. He had no choice but to board a ‘Commie’ liner newly plying the Atlantic, the Alexandr Pushkin, popular with the left leaning. Convinced that his cabin would be bugged, he chose to remain in his mobile home, well stocked as it was with canned pork and beans and Budweiser. They hooked him up to the ship’s power supply and let him borrow books from the library. Orville ‘seemed generally to have enjoyed the voyage’ and the Russians looked on with ‘benign amusement’.
My mind keeps turning to the abject fates which often overtake great liners. With luck Queen Mary 2 will escape being turned into a troopship, but can she avoid eventually becoming a hotel, a conference centre, a barracks, a museum, a prison or a university? Or, when the last passenger has left, will she be sent straight to that dreadful strand in Pakistan, to be picked apart to the last rivet? The Great Eastern became a draper’s bazaar and advertisement hoarding in the Mersey. Not even the Royal Navy could control the fate of its veterans. When Nelson’s Foudroyant, a Blackpool attraction, half-capsized in a storm, her upturned hull was used to advertise Beecham’s Pills.