P and I married back in 2019, a happy Hogmanay gathering of friends and family. We had booked a Queen Mary 2 (QM2 to her friends) literary cruise in 2020 as a honeymoon, part organised by the Cheltenham Literary Festival. After lengthy discussions with CLF and with Cunard, the new paperback edition of Major Tom’s War was due to be the book club choice on board.
In March 2020, however, COVID hit and everyone’s world, including that of Cunard (part of the massive Carnival Group) changed.
Every time since that initial cancellation it proved feasible to rebook a cruise (and it was any cruise at that point to be honest, he wasn’t fussy) P. did so – Transatlantic, Canada, Suez… I had to witness his disappointment (and feel guilty at my own relief) every time it was cancelled. Until this year I just did not feel that the benefit would merit the risk of sailing.
So here we are at last on our four-times-postponed honeymoon, having once more ‘crossed the pond’. As I write this we are chugging down to the Caribbean on board the last ocean-going liner in the world, the Cunard Line’s QM2.
I am not a natural cruiser and so my condition of travel for a long journey this time was that I work my passage! I brought my laptop, which I have never done before. Writing and blogging as we travel helps me feel less indolent, less guilty. On board QMII (and no other cruise ship) one can still feel like a voyager at sea and not a tourist.
I suppose I feel about QM2 rather as I feel about HM The Queen, Elizabeth II. Both are the real deal for me; QM2 is a true monarch of the seas, and not some jumped-up -commoner-princess cruise ship. While I cannot possibly comment on the proportions of her (real) Majesty’s bottom, QM2 has the deep keel of an ocean-going liner, complete with a reinforced icebreaking hull, just in case.
Beside her, bog-standard cruise ships are just so many multi-storey hotels at sea: my nautical father might have referred to them disparagingly as ‘flat-bottomed b*st*rds’. We have tried many of these too, including Cunard’s other two luxury vessels, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth, but we come back to the QM2 when we can as we feel at home here.
People change when they board QM2 and it is a joy to witness. Often tetchy and tense from a long journey, the lines of the face will soften as the voyage unfurls. On gala nights one dresses formally for dinner (as rare now as the correct usage of ‘one’): stiff backs straighten and sore feet glide in spangled silken slippers across the dance floor. It is a small and just-about-still-affordable miracle.
For me QMII is particularly special because I boarded her in Southampton 2010 with the tiny itch of an idea for a book in my head. It had been tickling away for years but I had never had that precious period of time or that amount of spare head space to scratch it. I had not really planned to write, but did so, and found myself wandering around the ship begging sheets of plain white A4 paper from kindly crew members. I wrote a chapter longhand, then another, with one of the trusty black and gold Cunard pens (long since consigned, I suspect, to history by post-COVID cutbacks). Soon the Pursers’ desk team were handing me a pile of sheets of paper before I had even asked.
No surprise then that my books invariably feature travel by sea, on vessels ranging from horse transport across the English Channel on a converted dredger to P&O rustbuckets out of Calcutta and even, yes, Cunard First Class from New York.
Like Her (real) Majesty, QM2, launched in 2004, is understandably feeling her age. There is for example a strange metallic grinding sound emanating from above our cabin (which Cunard will keep calling staterooms, a misguided Americanism here when room proportions are modest and there are thousands of them on board) which may be a lifeboat scraping against a bulkhead. Such things may irritate for the first 24 hours, but after that become part of the soundscape of the ship. I’ll probably even miss it once I am home. The odd blind is broken. Rust is showing along many decks and seams. The hull is flaking paint. Maintenance is ongoing, and she is only sailing at 2/3 capacity.
This is also partly due to COVID of course. We wear masks onboard constantly unless in the cabin or eating/drinking, and thank God we do – it keeps everyone safe. In the first few days self-appointed mask vigilantes roamed the passenger lounges snarling at elderly ladies who removed their mask in what they deemed to be the wrong location. The psychological scars left by Lockdown run deep but after the first week the miracle of the cruise begins to work and it seems to have stopped happening.
In spite of testing at the ports and repeated antigen testing on board (in The Queens Room, previously only associated with elegant afternoon tea and ballroom dancing), we do have a few COVID cases on board. Everyone holds still as the announcement is made after the latest tests. Bing-bong. Would Mr and Mrs Geoffrey Burton of Deck 11 and Jane Smith and Peter Jones of Deck 5 please return to your stateroom and ring the Purser’s Office on 22200 (in order to have your holiday ruined for the next week or so…).
Collective exhalation when everyone else learns they have been spared.
Infected passengers are moved to an isolation quarters with a balcony. These isolation cabins are discreetly tucked away aft (wind direction?) behind storm doors usually only closed in very rough weather, which means some lift exits go nowhere. Meal dishes are delivered to and removed from little tables outside the doors. We have seen an occasional crew member in full HazMat spraying down a vacated cabin. All this is praiseworthy and vigilant activity on the part of Cunard and does not dent our cruising pleasure one iota.
There is of course still a small risk that those incubating COVID on arrival (ie who only just tested negative at the port) will transmit it on board. We sanitise hands before eating every time and only remove masks to eat and drink yet still it seems to spread among us. Access to certain islands – Curacao, Dominica – is apparently limited to Cunard trips only, but that appears to be the only restriction still in force.
It is a real delight to find that the ship is packed with staff and the legendary QM2 service is unaffected by economy in staffing levels. I would rather eat slightly more repetitive food and slightly less tender beef and see dozens of nationalities in employment – over 60, I think the chatty and charming Azerbaijani Captain Azeem Hashmi said. Mentions in despatches so far to Ukrainian sommelier Sergey, his family stuck in Odessa; friendly egg chef Sheryl, who treats everyone at breakfast as individuals; the long-suffering Commodore Club bar staff who no longer dare serve P his single malt whisky over a tumblerful of crushed ice; and the diminuitive Rosalina who rules her guest cabins with a cheerful rod of iron (and keeps hiding any shabbier undergarments, but I don’t hold that against her).
As I write this the ship eases her way (well offshore to avoid the northbound Gulf Stream) southwards into warmer seas and skies. New York was bitingly cold. After our stroll around Central Park we stood and awaited the Macys Shuttle back with flurries of snow cutting short each breath.
The weather can be unpredictable Transatlantic so onboard speakers need to be a resilient lot as I know from personal experience. A mixed bag this time: a slight surfeit of a charming retired NASA director; not enough of a fascinating prison governor; a rather embittered Titanic bandsman descendant; a posh but not entirely engaging Chelsea Flower Show garden designer; and an intriguing lady adventuress so excited about the tales she has to tell that she was slightly falling over herself to get them all out (will buy one of her books).
There is still a slight feeling of the second-eleven about the speakers and entertainment on board. It may be that the A team is as yet reluctant to travel. And speakers are only as good as their presentation skills – as I know from experience. Those who inflict death by Powerpoint and read aloud dull and text-laden slides should be keel-hauled pronto.
My only target for now on this outbound leg of the journey, however, is to write a chapter a day – and so far I am 28 chapters into The Patiala Letter. A conundrum I had faced at the end of the plot has just been neatly solved by a chance conversation about RMS Titanic with a charming couple encountered on Deck 8.
So God bless QM2 and all who serve and sail in her.
Major Tom’s War was first published in hardback in 2018 but the editions I recommend are either the ereader edition (2019) or the paperback (2020). All are available from my publisher http://www.kashihouse.com and other online retailers.