One afternoon, in autumn 1936, Mr and Mrs Curtis S Castlewood, a well-heeled young couple from Illinois, checked in at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Manhattan, preparatory to boarding the Cunard liner Queen Mary (81,000 tonnes) for a voyage to Southampton, England. Just 75 years later – the other day – I checked in at the Waldorf myself, preparatory to boarding the Cunard liner Queen Mary 2 (151,000 tonnes, and QM2 for short) for the very same voyage.
We never met, the Castlewoods and I, and, as a matter of fact, I have invented them for literary purposes; but I have been contemplating our two voyages, separated by a lifetime, and in my fancy sharing our experiences on the grand classic of all maritime journeys, the transit of the North Atlantic.
In 1936, half-a-dozen great liners, of several nationalities, were carrying passengers across that ocean. Nations and companies rivalled each other in the speed, size and luxury of their vessels, and the Castlewoods were happy in the knowledge that the British Queen Mary, completed earlier that year, was the grandest and most stately of them all (for they rather liked that kind of thing).
Seventy-five years later, when airliners criss-cross the ocean night and day, the QM2 is the very last ship, of any nationality, to offer an express passenger service across the North Atlantic. She serves as a cruise ship too but she was built specifically to sail across that demanding sea at speed to a fixed schedule. I am pleased to realise that next day I shall be sailing, in fact, aboard history’s final ocean passenger liner (for that sort of thing appeals to me).
It was natural, of course, since we were about to cross the ocean on the fabled Queens, that both the Castlewoods and I stayed at the Waldorf Astoria, in their day as in mine the grande dame of Manhattan hotels. We dined together, as was fitting, in its legendary Oscar’s restaurant, and in the morning the Castlewoods went off in their rented Packard limousine to “Liner Row” on Manhattan’s west side, where all the great passenger ships docked.
“My, Curtis,” I hear Debbie Castlewood exclaiming as they gaze up at the three great red and black funnels of the Queen Mary, “doesn’t it look real swell?”
The QM2 always berths at Brooklyn, and looks to me that morning rather less queenly. Her single funnel is red and black too but she is almost twice as big as her forebear, and burlier. The silhouette of the Queen Mary consciously echoed the style of far older Cunarders, built at the turn of the 20th century, while the QM2 strikes me as almost stridently contemporary. The old ship suggested stateliness, elegance, haughtiness, like a pavane perhaps; the new one is nearer rock ’n’ roll.
But the pursers who welcome us at the head of our respective gangplanks could be interchangeable, so schooled have they been over the generations in the manners of Cunard. “Welcome aboard,” they say in their gentlemanly way. “Why thank you,” reply the Castlewoods, “great to hear a British voice.”
In their day, Cunard was a truly British company, British to the core, building its ships in the UK and with headquarters in Liverpool. Today, though, it is part of a predominantly American international conglomerate. The Queen Mary was built on the Clyde in Scotland but QM2 was built in Brittany. The crews of the old ship were nearly all British, the crews of the new one are mostly not. Earlier this month, the QM2 and all Cunard’s ships were registered in Bermuda, rather than the UK, so they can perform weddings onboard, something prohibited by English law. The home port painted on the stern has been changed from Southampton to Hamilton.
So as the Castlewoods, when they settle into their first class Main Deck stateroom, are absorbed into an authentically British ambience, I myself, in my suite on Deck 9, seem to be in a sort of brilliant pastiche. The original Queen Mary was symbolically fitted out in a variety of 63 different woods, each one of which came from a different territory of the almost limitless British Empire. The QM2 is also replete with reminders of national grandeur, with portraits of kings and queens all over the place, with a Queens Room and a Princess Grill and a Churchill’s Cigar Lounge. But while on their ship the Castlewoods really might glimpse representatives of British royalty, who habitually sailed on the Queen Mary, I must make do with a kind of symbolic presence of monarchy – an ectoplasmic suggestion of Diana, Princess of Wales, perhaps, drifting always through the salons among her swooning admirers.
Never mind, both our ships are splendid, and when we sail out of harbour that day we are sped on our way by equally loyal armadas of tugs and fireboats and launches and yachts, friendly craft from a port that has seen Cunarders come and go for a century and more. In 1936, the Narrows, the grand sea exit of New York’s harbour, had not been bridged, but since 1964 it has been spanned by the mighty Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and the QM2’s passage beneath it has acquired an emblematic majesty. As my ship cautiously approaches it (only 7ft to spare), a hefty truck begins to cross the bridge on its way to Staten Island. Its driver slows to watch us pass below and greets our approach with a merry honking of his klaxon.
For a moment or two we respond with dignified silence, but just as we pass beneath the bridge itself, the foghorns of the QM2 reverberate a deep, noble reply. One component of that great blast comes from the original foghorn of the old Queen Mary, lately bequeathed to its successor, and I am much moved, because it seems to me that the two ships are exulting in unison, across the decades, in those long-familiar waters.
The Queen Mary had won over the Castlewoods long before, at the moment in fact when they entered her monumental Grand Lobby and saw before them the whole panoply of sea-going opulence. It was just the right mixture, they both thought, of tradition and modernity. “Don’t you just love that Merrie England picture in the gym?” said she. “Just great,” he agreed. “But what about the staircase down to the restaurant – I’m telling you, honey, you looked just like a queen yourself when you came down those steps.”
Such of course was Cunard’s intention in the 1930s, to capture the grandeur and gracious living of England. In the time of art deco, the Cubist tendencies and dazzling colours enlivened the decor of the ship. What could be more proper for the grand Main Restaurant of the Queen Mary than the immense pictorial map of the North Atlantic, in the moderne manner, upon which, dinner-time by dinner-time, a mobile illuminated model showed Debbie and Curtis precisely where their ship lay?
Well, I was impressed by the interior of my Queen Mary, too, but in a less precise way. The Castlewoods’ restaurants and staircases were decidedly of their time, jazz with decorum, Charleston and protocol too, the whole tinged already with nostalgia for statelier eras. The interiors of my ship were just as imposing but less definitively. No particular age or conviction, it seemed to me, was expressed in the palatial arrangements of the QM2, only display, size and expense.
As first-class passengers on the Main Deck, the Castlewoods had a pleasant two-bed cabin with a white telephone, two large portholes, an electric fire, toilet and a big coloured print of flying ducks above their beds. I found myself in a Queens Suite with a private balcony and all possible permutations of convenience, including a most obliging butler.
Mind you, class meant more on a Cunarder of 1936. In those days, the three classes of accommodation (Cabin, Tourist, Third) were physically segregated one from another. Deck partitions made it clear where one class began and another ended, and your cabin made it obvious where you stood on the liner’s social scale. Things are different on QM2. This is officially a one-class ship, and any passenger is free to wander through all the decks. A sense of decorum is maintained, however, by culinary divisions. The more you pay for your cabin, the grander your allotted restaurants – from the relatively intimate Queens and Princess Grills at the top end to the enormous Britannia Restaurant at the other, where they have two specified sittings.
It is true that many eating places on the ship are open to all-comers but those posh enclaves of haute cuisine are not (“They’re just for the toffs,” as a mordant fellow passenger warned me). As a sort of honorary toff, courtesy of Cunard, I ate my sumptuous fare in the Queens Grill, but I rather preferred to mingle with the wider public in the Kings Court, open to all, where one queued for one’s victuals with a plastic tray and cutlery but could expect to meet a happily eclectic clientele of most ages, origins, tastes and tempers.
Dress codes, in 2011 as in 1936, applied in all three restaurants, and were meticulously defined. Formal meant black tie and evening dress, semi-formal was jacket-and-tie and cocktail attire, elegant casual allowed jackets without ties (but in 2011 the code strictly forbade the wearing of jeans, a solecism unforeseen 75 years ago). “Well, dear,” Debbie says to Curtis on the Queen Mary, “you certainly looked handsome in your tuxedo dining at the captain’s table. Quite to the manner born.” “And why not,” he retorts. “Was there not a Castlewood on the Mayflower?”
If there was a captain’s table on the QM2, I was not invited to it but I queued along the red carpet to shake Captain Kevin Oprey’s hand at his welcoming reception – preparing to meet the captain felt privilege enough, not unlike, I would imagine, waiting to be ennobled at Buckingham Palace.
The Castlewoods very much enjoyed all this. It was, they told themselves, the British way, and one would hardly expect the Rockefellers or Cole Porter to share a dinner table with any Tom, Dick or Harry, would one? Why, even the cheapest cabins on the Queen Mary looked comfortable enough, with perfectly nice double-bunks, and what was there to see out of a porthole anyway?
In any case, for them as for me, there was any amount of organised activity between meals. There were lectures and tea-dances, art classes, shuffle-board competitions, films, darts at the Golden Bull Pub, string quartet recitals, needlework get-togethers, table tennis tournaments, Roman Catholic masses, and bingo. I went to an excellent performance of Much Ado About Nothing and joined in The Last Night of the Cunard Proms the day before we docked. Curtis and Debbie repeatedly let their hair down to dance to the rhythms of Hec Jenner and his band, particularly when they played “Somewhere at Sea”, the official signature tune of the Queen Mary, especially composed by Henry Hall and obtainable as sheet music at six pence a copy.
So we followed the Great Circle Route between the continents. The Queen Mary averaged nearly 30 knots, and took four days to make the crossing, the QM2 travelled at a more economical 22.5 knots, and took seven days. And all that time, until the moment when the Castlewoods and I said our imaginary goodbyes on the quayside at Southampton, during every hour of the day passengers on those two great ships, while the bands played and chefs cooked and navigators on their high bridges watched their instruments – during all that time, almost without a pause, passengers had been striding round and round their respective promenade decks, as tradition decreed.
I always felt that in exercising ourselves we were somehow contributing to the energies of the ship itself. We were not mere wastrels or hedonists. We were part of a great hereditary undertaking, handed down the generations, and whenever in my fancy I passed the Castlewoods, going the other way on that other Cunarder long before, we exchanged the comradely salutes of shipmates.
Actually I often thought of them, too, when I lay between the cool white sheets of suite 9070, and turned the lights out for a peaceful sleep. While I was soothed by the just discernible vibrations of mechanisms far below, now and then I felt a pang of complacent sympathy for Debbie and Curtis, across the waters of time. For if there was one drawback to an Atlantic passage on the old Queen Mary all those years ago, it was the persistent nauseating tendency of that vessel to roll.
Jan Morris was a guest of Cunard (www.cunard.co.uk), the Waldorf Astoria (www.waldorfny.com) and British Airways (www.ba.com). A seven-night New York to London cruise on the Queen Mary 2 costs from £999 including a one-way flight. She will make 20 trans-atlantic crossings in 2012. Doubles at the Waldorf Astoria cost from $349. BA flights from London to New York cost from £466 return; the airline operate 12 daily departures.