Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Transatlantic Theatre

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything for this blog. The quadcopter project has been stalled, work has intervened but now it’s time for our holiday. And Gerlinde and I are on the Queen Mary 2. 

So what is the character of shipboard life in 2015? The QM2 is a modern vessel with diesel electric propulsion yet styled to recall the great days of the transatlantic ocean liners, the machines that dominated and enabled world travel until the jet airliners came and made them all but redundant. They were reinvented, eventually, as cruise liners largely used in coastal waters - floating hotels with the novelty of a constantly changing outlook. 

But the QM2 seeks to recall the days of the ocean liner as a means of transport and that special era between the two world wars when they reached a peak of prestige. A time with which through film and childhood memory we can still feel tenuously connected. The ship is decorated in the grand Art Deco style and numerous posters reminding us how once ocean travel for leisure purposes was the providence of the super rich. And, although other nations ran a few ocean liners, Cunard was top dog and quintessentially British. It provided the means to tie the British Empire together as well as run Royals and Hollywood movie stars back and forth across the Atlantic. 

The new ship bears an external resemblance to it’s namesake of some 80 years earlier.  The ship features the towering dark sides that we all recall from iconic poster art. And, from the shore, we see the curved hull sides arching over us. Higher still are the decks of passenger cabins with balconies. Finally, at the very top, is the bridge with radar scanners and the spheres containing satellite dishes.

In the old days, the original Queen Mary carried 2000 passengers in 3 classes. Today we all have spacious accommodation and cabins are equipped with the sort of facilities that one would find in any modern city hotel room. 

Each cabin, or stateroom as Cunard like to call them, has a TV showing movies, programs and lectures produced on board. There’s a channel showing the ship’s position, course and speed.  And yes, we can be connected to the internet and our phones work via a ship based hotspot satellite connected to the world. We are crossing the Atlantic anachronistically slowly but this is what Arthur C. Clarke called the Total Communications age, and we can stay in touch with the world via our phones and laptops.

That modern sea travel includes such features as incidentals would have astonished the travellers of the 1930s. Not even HG Wells, who invented so many science fiction tropes, imagined such things. While we have Facebook and SMS messages the Duke of Windsor or Barbara Hutton would have had to send a servant to the radio room with a telegram form.  With short wave radio subject to the vagaries of the ionosphere even Morse code communication was an uncertain business. In the here and now I find myself muttering if the internet browser is a little slow to refresh.

The enormous crew of waiters and cleaners are the face of the international service economy, asian and east european and all unfailingly courteous. Perhaps, within the mythology of the 21st century ocean liner they must stand in for Britain’s lost empire. The earlier vessels were built in the industrial Britain of the day, the shipyards of Scotland, Newcastle and of course Belfast. But the QM2 was built in a French shipyard. The Cunard name is now owned by the American leisure company Carnival and the ship is registered, not in Liverpool or Southampton but Hamilton in Bermuda. The captain and the name RMS Queen Mary 2 (Royal Mail Ship) are resolutely British but much of else is theatre.

But, charming theatre nonetheless. The restaurant is a stylishly art-deco palace two decks high. It is spectacular with grand entrance steps spiralling down from the upper deck. The ship also has a glorious wood lined library, calm and comfortable and 6 decks above the waves. One of the bars features artwork, paintings of the famous movie stars of the 1930s. Yet these are done by a Chinese artist and his version of Marilyn Monroe and the other Hollywood stars have a distinctly oriental look. This version of the glorious age has that Made in China aspect which is so ubiquitous  in our modern world.

And if the beautiful people of the 1930s were the face of transatlantic travel they are not much in evidence today. The vast bulk of the passengers are in what one must describe as late middle age and some are pretty ancient. The modern liner must make provision for wheel chair access. Of course, such travel demands two things: money and time and while many young people have the money they’ll not spare the time for a 8 day transatlantic crossing.    

We started off from Hamburg and the departure down the Elba canal was a spectacular one. It was dark and small boats followed us with the strains of God save the Queen carrying across the water to us from the hotels on the banks of the Elba. Hamburg is a northern seaport, smarter than Liverpool but sharing it’s latitude and something of its character. The Beatles must have felt at home there in their early years in 1960. The shore staff in Southampton seemed largely composed of baby-boomers, now in their early sixties. And I rather fancy, rather proud of their association with the last echoes of the British Empire. Our departure from Southampton featured none of the razzmatazz of those excitable Germans in Hamburg. It was all, ‘Keep calm and carry on. Suggesting that some of that shipboard theatre had leaked onto the shore.

All in all it is a strange and pleasurable experience. Last night we dined in the Britannica restaurant and chatted with Americans from Arizona and Washington DC. Black ties were mandatory and quite a few of the geriatric crowd then went on to the dance floor and tripped the light fantastic. The theatre as the Queen Mary 2 provides requires participation by the guests as much as it does by the crew. 

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