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Jane and Brian Barder

This comes to you, if at all, from the Queen Mary 2, Cunard’s newest and most enormous liner, sailing eastwards from New York back to her home port of Southampton, where we’re due to dock early on Sunday morning (6 May), three days after the Scottish and local elections (doom forecast for the Labour Party) and perhaps two days after Blair announces the long overdue date for his resignation as leader of the party and later as prime minister, so we’ll be missing a lot of the fun. (Good neighbours the Mumfords have however promised to keep the principal cuttings for us.)

The ship is indeed huge — longer from stem to stern than the Eiffel Tower from top to base, probably almost as high too: we passed under the lofty Verrazano Narrows Bridge with what looked like a few centimetres to spare, those crowding the upper decks to admire the splendid views of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline instinctively ducking as the funnels just scraped underneath. We have what’s pretentiously called a stateroom, not a vulgar ‘cabin’, which is a good deal bigger than our bedroom at home, and certainly has a much bigger double bed. There are a dozen or so wireless hotspots scattered throughout the ship for internet access via passengers’ own laptops (including ours, if this reaches you): for the lesser breeds without wireless-enabled laptops, there are banks of computers provided, but you can’t use them to write messages offline as you can with your own laptop, so it’s liable to come pretty expensive at 50 US cents a minute if you want to write anything longer than “Am on QM2 twds S’hampton ETA 6th”. (It’s a bit cheaper per minute if you buy a block of time in advance.) Because of the limited bandwidth of the ship’s satellite connection to the internet, there’s no VOIP such as Skype for making online telephone calls, probably just as well for a connection charged by the minute.

In addition to these technological marvels, the ship “boasts” (as the estate agents say) seven or eight bars, five or six restaurants, four swimming pools, a group of classy and expensive shops, a vast theatre (with stalls and a grand circle) and almost equally big cinema: a large Uruguayan lady of a certain age who plays popular Latin American music on an electric harp, a Ukrainian string quartet, the usual troupe of frenetic dancers in exotic costumes, a full-scale orchestra and a dance band, a group of actors recently graduated from RADA and a posse of lecturers headed, improbably, by the Afghan Ambassador (to which country? we shall probably never know). The long list of daily activities has them all overlapping with each other, making choice so difficult that we end up at none of them, like Balaam’s Ass. And there’s a well equipped gym, so I have no excuse for failure to resume my masochistic Wandsworth Health Club régime, hoping to offset a tiny proportion of the damage being done by the obligatory piggish eating (my two thick slices of medium rare beef last night were as good as any I have ever had).

We had a tremendously enjoyable and busy six days in New York, staying at a 2-1/2 star hotel on the upper west side found for us by NY daughter Louise which turned out to be clean and comfortable and ideal for our needs, only a shortish bus-ride across the park from Louise’s and the granddaughters’ apartment on the upper east side. We squeezed in two theatres and a song recital by Dawn Upshaw, back onstage after many weeks of chemotherapy and in excellent voice, affectionately welcomed back by an enthusiastic audience, and singing an uncompromising programme; one gutsy lady. We had a private conducted tour of Coney Island, Brighton Beach and most of the rest of Brooklyn at the expert hands of Louise’s partner David, and a delicious New York Sunday brunch with our oldest New York friend, Barbara. We visited the Barcelona exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum with David’s splendid Mum (or Mom), who had done a five-hour train journey from Vermont to meet us. The diner next to our hotel served good traditional pancakes and bacon with maple syrup for breakfast and just about anything else for the rest of the day, all in mammoth servings. It wasn’t the diner’s fault that one granddaughter discovered a small but still wriggling worm inside a strawberry on her cheesecake, causing a good deal of New York-type hubbub and shouting. It’s still surely the noisiest city in the world, beating even Lagos in that respect. Indeed it’s still very much what it has always been: it changes less than anywhere else, except on the surface. You can take any page of the New York Times and it will closely resemble the Times of the mid-sixties when we lived there: same size paper, same greyish layout, same fonts, same ads even. Every letter published is prefaced by a whole line declaring that the letter has been addressed “To the Editor”: imagine a British national newspaper continuing that reckless waste of space, when (a) it’s pretty obvious that the letters have been sent “To the Editor” and (b) by eliminating each of these superfluous lines the paper would be able to fit in at least one more letter in each issue! But that’s how the NYT has always done it, and no doubt that’s how the NYT will continue to do it.

The animosity towards George W Bush in general and the Iraq war in particular seemed palpable, even allowing for traditional liberalism, at any rate by US standards, in New York City. Tall well-groomed men in Brooks Brothers shirts stand on street corners in Manhattan, and even at Coney Island, inviting signatures on petitions to impeach Dick Cheney or President Bush or both. When we told one of these preppy types that we shouldn’t sign because we weren’t American citizens, the preppy type said jovially: “You help us get rid of Bush and we’ll help you get rid of Tony Blair!” To which the only answer was: “It’s a deal.” Not only the NY Times but also the radio and television seem full of withering indictments of the administration and above all of the war. But of course things may look and sound very different in Peoria, Ill.

This is more than enough for a slowish satellite connection to a hotspot in one of the QM2’s bars or lounges. We’ll be back in touch properly some time early next week once we have ground our way through the waiting snail-mail mountain, gruesome task. Meanwhile we are revelling in the life of leisure and luxury here on the briny. We hope you all thrive too.

[Sent on May-Day, 2007, tenth anniversary of the election of the Blair government for better or worse. Some of each, in truth.]

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The satellite internet connection from the ship turned out to be terribly slow: so much so that, after sending our ‘post-card from the Atlantic’, it proved impossible to download the mass of e-mails (mostly but not all spam and duplicates) already accumulated after last Sunday without staying online for an impossibly expensive hour or three. So if anyone thoughtfully replied to our post-card, or has sent us an e-mail since last Sunday, or sends one to us now, it’s very unlikely that we’ll have read it until after we get home and sort ourselves out, i.e. not before Monday 7 May. Sorry about that.

We’re enjoying beautiful sunny weather as we pass the half-way mark between NY and Southampton at about noon on Thursday. I alternate between eating, the gym and the heated swimming-pool under the retractable (but not retracted) glass roof which magnifies the warm sunshine. Jane alternates between eating and the ship’s enormous library. We both alternate between eating and the various entertainments on offer, varying from wonderful kitsch to — er — less wonderful kitsch, including a soi-disant ‘classical’ pianist this afternoon who played so perfunctorily and with such vulgarity that it seemed almost a relief when he addressed the audience between pieces with unparalleled contempt (“I wonder if anyone here has heard of a Russian composer called Rachmaninov?”). Awful.

Enough, enough. Back Sunday, splendidly relaxed (with luck!). We hope the Scots won’t have declared UDI before we get home.

[3 May 2007]

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Back in good shape — at any rate, not much worse shape than when we left — from six days in New York to see daughter and granddaughters and other family and old friend from the 1960s, ending with six fairly luxurious days and nights aboard the newest Cunard cruise and transatlantic crossing ship Queen Mary 2, arriving Southampton an hour early at 6 a.m. this morning, Sunday. Our local minicab office driver fetched us from the cruise terminal at Southampton and drove us home in record time, for several stretches at 100 miles an hour, in a smallish Toyota. He’s about to take charge of a major business in Sri Lanka, if he survives. This time we all did.

We had six delightful days at sea, eating and drinking just a little bit too much and socialising with some very nice and interesting people, British, American and French among others. We had a comfortable cabin, much more spacious than we had expected, and enjoyed some but not all of the ship’s extensive entertainment schedule (among the worst was the series of lectures by the ambassador of Afghanistan to the US who read out unchanged the lectures that he delivers to American audiences on his travels round the US, all of them wholly unsuited to a gang of cruise-ship hedonists — and wholly unconvincing to anyone who has ever read a serious newspaper). There was also a classical pianist who played in an insultingly perfunctory manner, omitting many notes and including several wrong ones, all easily spotted as almost everything he played was familiar and hackneyed. He also played his own arrangement of the main themes of the songs in Kismet stolen from Borodin (Prince Igor and a Borodin quartet) in which every heavy chord (and there were many) was played arpeggio, one note at a time, so self-indulgently that it was difficult not to laugh aloud. However the ship’s own teams of dancers and singers (mostly Russians and Ukrainians) were good looking and excellent performers, and it was anyway more enjoyable getting some exercise working out in the ship’s gym or striding round the open promenade deck, or swimming in the smallish pool, or using the limited facilities of the ship’s wi-fi computer centre, than sitting in lectures or third-rate piano recitals in the enormous theatre.

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We had some essentially minor gripes about the QM2 and shall be rather glad to return to the welcoming arms of P&O (like Cunard, American-owned now; a bit like saying that Buckingham Palace or the RAF is American-owned) for our cruise to Venice and Dubrovnik and other stopovers on the way out and the way back in September aboard the P&O ship Arcadia, recently described in an e-mail from a highly experienced cruise-friend as ‘tacky’ — but aren’t they all ever so slightly tacky, really? Part of the charm. But we enjoyed the enormous QM2, ate, drank and swam well, worked out in its gym (him only), enjoyed its terrific dance troupe (mainly Russians and Ukrainians), and got additional exercise walking along the 1-1/2 mile corridors to and from the dining-room and bars or round the promenade deck. (The corridors can’t actually be that long, can they? Seemed it, though. Some corrective statistics are below.)

I’ll try to put something on my neglected-looking blog about New York and the QM2 Experience in the next few days when I have finished unpacking and deleting the accumulated spam and answering the hundreds of accumulated e-mails and letters and getting used to not eating again, or anyway trying to eat more prudently again. (The notice in the main QM2 swimming pool listed the various physical conditions that made swimming in it inadvisable, finishing: “In any circumstances guests should not use the pool if their health would be in any way affected.” But what other purpose would ‘guests’ [or passengers, as we call them in my country] have for using the pool but to affect their health by improving it?)

On the whole the entertainment on the QM2 was not up to scratch. And one of the annoying things was that, unlike our other cruise ships, they didn’t produce programmes or biographies, for the shows or lectures. But the dancers were really excellent and reminded us of A Chorus Line. They were knife-sharp drilled and very innovative. Only after their last performance did the hopeless ‘Cruise Director’ (cruise-speak for entertainment manager) introduce them all. They turned out to be Russian, Ukrainian and Romanian, plus an Argentinean. There was one English girl who was their manager and the Dance Captain was a Russian. We had been wondering why there were no black people in the line, as you would expect from either an American or British troupe. That was why – they were all eastern Europeans who are now taking over every role in British life. They are our cleaners, our plumbers, our dentists, our footballers, our billionaire owners of our football clubs and Kensington mansions, our bar staff. And now they are our entertainers. If they are all this good we are lucky to have them.

They were teamed up with four singers, two Australians and two English, also very good though possibly not as outstanding as the dancers.

The QM2’s theatre stage is very high tech, revolving, stairs appearing and disappearing, platforms full of performers rising up from underground. We meant to do one of the back-stage tours but decided to sleep on loungers round the pool, and in B’s case swim, under the retractable glass roof, instead.

Some ‘Believe it or Not’ facts about this vast vessel:

Length: 1,132 feet [1 mile = 5,280 feet]

Beam: 135 feet (Beam at Bridge Wings: 147.5 feet)

Height (Keel to Funnel): 236.2 feet

Gross Tonnage: Approximately 151,400 gross tonnes

Guest Capacity:

2,592 lower berths; 3,056 maximum capacity (Including third and fourth berths)

Crew: 1,253

* QM2 is five times longer than Cunard’s first ship, Britannia (230 ft.)

* QM2 is 113 feet longer than the original Queen Mary

* QM2 is more than twice as long as the Washington Monument is tall (550 ft.)

* QM2 is 147 feet longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall (984 ft.)

* QM2 is more than 3½ times as long as Westminster Tower (Big Ben) is high (310 ft.)

* QM2 is only 117 feet shorter than the Empire State Building is tall (1248 ft.)

* QM2 is more than three times as long as St. Paul’s Cathedral is tall (366 ft.)

* QM2 is as long as 41 double-decker London buses (31½ ft. each)

* QM2’s whistle is audible for 10 miles

PS: Two memorable snippets from different American fellow-passengers:

* first, a late-middle-aged lady, had read that the UK had recently changed the picture on the twenty-pound note (from hyper-English Elgar to hyper-Scottish Adam Smith, Gordon Brown doppelganger) and tried to persuade the Purser’s Office to exchange all her Elgar notes for Smith ones, despite assurances from the entire Purser’s staff and several dozen passing passengers that her Elgars would remain valid currency for the duration of her visit;

* secondly, the elderly American retired chemist (who was continuing the voyage on the QM2 after Southampton to the Mediterranean and who was spending today ashore in Southampton ‘sight-seeing’) told us that he had been advised by a friend back in Brooklyn, who knew Britain well, that the essential visit in Southampton was to Woolworths, partly because Woolworths had closed down in the US, and partly because it was the place to buy candy. (Actually, it may well be the case that Woolworths is the most exciting beauty spot and historical monument in Southampton.)

We’re conscious though that the Brits must generally seem to have even more bizarre ideas about America than some Americans do about Britain. Innocent entertainment for both nations.

[6 May 2007]

Postscript: You may be able to browse through some of our New York and QM2 pictures (three ‘pages’ of thumbnails – click on any of them to see a bigger version) at

http://www.flickr.com/photos/31594242@N00/tags/nycandqm2iv07/

— unless Flickr has perversely decided, since being taken over by Yahoo, to demand a username and password before allowing you to see them.

London, May 2007

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