It seemed a good idea at the time. I would kidnap my 19-year-old daughter before she vanished to be an undergraduate at Harvard. I’d already conceded her for four years at St George’s, a Harry Potter-esque boarding school in Newport. It was delightful to have her home consorting merrily with her older brother George, when they both had college breaks, but I was tired of the tight female complicity with her mother who was always whisking her off to secret girls’ weekends for a visit to the Brontë’s House in Haworth or gallivanting to the literary festival in Jaipur (where they stole an extra three days trolling flea markets).
No sooner had Isabel (now Izzy) graduated from St George’s in May last year than I felt I was losing ground to concerts for Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift and annoying do-gooder gap year excursions to locations anywhere but New York ...
“Hi, Dad, I’m going to Costa Rica. Just for a few weeks.”
“Well, you see there’s this group building houses for the poor.”
“Uh, uh. Build well.”
“Dad, great news, I’ve got an internship in Washington.
“Izzy, it’s very cold in DC in winter, even with all the hot air gushing from the Hill.”
“Well, that’s just it. I’m a volunteer with Vital Voices trying to get our government to do something to stop the shocking murders and rape of women in places like the Congo. Don’t you agree it’s an outrage?”
“Yeah, but ... ”
“But first I’m going to be in India ... ”
“I suppose you and your friends are going to rebuild the Taj with your bare hands.”
“Heh! There’s a trek up the Himalayas and I think I need the exercise. Remember, you keep reminding I must get more exercise.”
I lost every ping pong match. And having spotted a reading list in English Literature and Islamic Studies for a July course at Brown – aka hitting the party scene in Newport – I suspected that, for the last embers of summer, I’d lose her to the clash of civilisations.
The only escape I could think of was the Atlantic Ocean. Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 was scheduled to sail from New York one Friday and unload its passengers a week later in Southampton. Seven days was too long for my wife Tina (Brown) to be away from feeding the Daily Beast, her news site, but Izzy was not due at Harvard until late August and, if I could convince all concerned, she could share a cabin with her father for a week on the ocean, without a rock band or worthy cause in sight. I could beat back the objection that it was now possible to cross the Atlantic in a single day. The surgeon who had just given me a new knee had banned me from flying for six weeks.
The timing of the Cunard crossing was perfect too. I was due at the Hay Festival for the June paperback publication of My Paper Chase. I reckoned the crossing would satisfy Izzy’s travel lust and the festival itself would surely appeal to her literary curiosity. Who, I reasoned, could turn aside from Hay tantalisers: the uncensored life of Jane Austen! Beethoven was one-sixteenth black! Sex and Stravinsky!
And so we set to sea. Instead of sweating through New York’s ghastly airports, it’s exhilarating to take a taxi from our apartment to a downtown pier and, 30 minutes later, find seclusion in a midships cabin. We stack (competing?) piles of books on bedside tables. On top of Izzy’s, The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot and The Carrie Diaries by Candace Bushnell, on mine Paul Berman’s Flight of the Intellectuals and Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes’ novel of a Marine company in the Vietnam war.
It’s a sublime evening as we walk the breezy length of deck seven to the Princess Grill for a father-daughter date, a tête-à-tête, perhaps, on George Eliot versus Jane Austen. “Let me show you to your table,” says the maître d’, courteously proffering a chair to Izzy. Who are the four diners already seated? My heart sinks.
The two well-dressed couples of advanced years beam a welcome. Any hope I have of keeping Izzy to myself vanishes in a buzz of conversation. Izzy, alas, is the instigator, exhibiting more good manners than her grouchy father. I brood that she may be the victim of a genetic disorder for gregariousness passed on from my talkative father, a gene I am furiously suppressing as the conversation turns to where each couple met, and what they think of the Queen Mary.
Walking back to the cabin through gently rolling corridors, Izzy talks about what she’s picked up at dinner while I resolve to have an urgent conversation with the maître d’ about finding a table for two. Izzy, the great conciliator in our family, worries that we will offend our new companions.
I make a deal with her. I’ll explain to the foursome that we’re on a long-promised father-daughter voyage, but might we stop by each evening for coffee? Success! At the table for two we acquire, we look out over the wash of the bow and have sight of spectacular sunsets. Izzy wants to know more about her family tree. I make the mistake of showing off by proclaiming the difficult name of my grandfather’s birthplace. “Well, I never,” a voice booms from the next table, “we know Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, you see we’re both from Wales ... ”
I guess I can’t blame Izzy that she wanders off to look for action. Or that her wander yields an encounter with a group of green musicians, the Ginger Ninjas, who, she tells me eagerly, are going to cycle round Europe and pedal on the bikes to power their amplifiers. I am a man pursued.
By day, we’re both deep in our books, taking the sun on the balcony. I expostulate on Berman’s exposé of the moral cowards who defend radical Islamists. Izzy dreamily recalls the love triangles of Maggie Tulliver.
For the vulnerable evenings, she comes up with a fresh idea that we should dine early, then adjourn to the privacy of the cabin to explore classic movies she’s too young to have seen and I can barely remember. She’s even brought the DVDs. We start with Dr Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and unite in marvelling at the genius of Peter Sellers, falling about with laughter at the frightfully proper RAF Group Captain Lionel Mandrake who jolly well protests at the idea of starting a nuclear war because our precious body fluids are being siphoned off by the Russkies.
Next night, watching Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, she is so into the story I restrain an impulse to describe my own encounter with Cary Grant’s delectable blonde seducer, Eva Marie Saint (when I was editing the memoir by her friend Marlon Brando). Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and the contemporary dark comedy, A Serious Man, complete the bonding and, alas, the end of our journey. The father-daughter idea worked after all; we even have a collection of in-jokes no one else can share. “Let’s do that it again,” she says as we arrive at the festival tents pitched in Hay’s meadows where a mother waits to reclaim her daughter.
Sir Harold Evans is author of ‘My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times’ (Abacus, £9.99), which is also published in the US by Little, Brown