The floating hotel

This is probably going to sound terribly snobbish but I want to talk (or substitute “rant” if that fits better with your take on things) about cruise ships and liners.

Many use the terms “liner” and “cruise ship” interchangeably but there is, in fact, a world of difference. Sad to say, the liners largely belong to history. Magnificent ships that they were, they were principally conceived to transport people across the great seaways, their raison d’être being created back when air transport across the Atlantic was still a little haphazard and, to some degree, a good opportunity to put your affairs in order.

Airliners of that post-war ilk were prone to the vagaries of the weather in the north Atlantic. Even the title – airliner – suggested an entirely erroneous kinship with the true liners. While the airliners lurched, creaked and yawed their way from cloud to cloud, they might be serving dinner at the Captain’s table twenty thousand feet below. No trays on laps, like TV dinners, with the true liners making their way majestically across from Southampton to New York. If you travelled first class, dinner jackets and ballgowns all the way, you felt like royalty. Indeed many travelling first class were actual royalty.

Of course travelling by liner was preposterously expensive. But then, airliners were also costly, seeking to make a virtue out of necessity, emphasising in their promotional material the value of shaving four days off the crossing (much as Concord, in its own day briefly offered the international traveller). Transport cost more in real terms then than now.
The reliability of long range jets polarised travellers into one of two groups – those for whom the destination was the key and those others for whom destinations were immaterial. The first group was well served by the Boeing 707 and its progeny, while the latter group and its less sophisticated needs spelt the gradual demise of the great transatlantic liners.

Even the names – Queen Elizabeth, Normandie, Titanic, Canberra, Olympic, Oriana – spoke of pride in their construction, hinting at aquatic nobility. While Cunard and the White Star Line largely dominated the transatlantic market sector, another market existed between Europe and the Far East, under the aegis of the Pacific and Orient Steam Navigation Company (P&O to you and I). Nevertheless, the ethos was the same – to get you from A to B, in style rather than at speed.

And of course the ships got bigger. The Olympic, built by Harland and Wolff of Belfast in 1910, for the White Star line, weighed 46,440 tons and carried 1447 passengers. Half a century later, at the very zenith of the industry, Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth II, built on the Clyde and launched in 1967,, tipped the scales at 70,327 tons and carried 1877 passengers. But by the late 60s, the transatlantic liner industry was going nowhere. Doubly ironic then that this decline should be paralleled by a huge expansion of the cruise lines – ships that more or less literally went nowhere or, at least, nowhere that mattered.

It’s no use lamenting the passing of the great transatlantic liners. Difficult though I find it, these new ships, floating hotels in reality, are a huge success. After all, why carry a thousand passengers for five days, when you can carry five times as many for twice as long. On mathematics alone it’s a no-brainer. To me these floating hotels (for that’s what they are) are a blot on the seaways. Gone are the beautiful sleek curves of the QE2, replaced by the vertical sides of a tower block, some 20 levels high.

Take the latest floating hotel, Wonder of the Seas, operated by Royal Caribbean line upon completion in 2022. Sister ship of Allure, Symphony, Harmony and Oasis (all of The Seas), this behemoth weighs in at 236,857 tons, and carries marginally under 7000 passengers. Oasis? Seriously? Do the operators know what an oasis is? Or should that be holidaymakers because the word passengers suggests destination and of course there is none.

But if ‘going nowhere’ is your thing, if 14 days of still blue ocean and white beach floats your boat, then listen to this. Wonder of the Seas, soon to be replaced by an even bigger ship, boasts (and that is very definitely the word) four swimming pools a basketball court, children’s waterpark, out door aquatic theatre, a children’s playground, a surf simulator, a 10 storey zip line and two rock climbing walls. Along with the usual themed restaurants, cinemas, and theatres. It doesn’t say so but I imagine there is a golf course in some form. A putting green at least. And bars – did I mention bars? Themed after popular television series perhaps? Casinos? There is even a ‘Central Park’ with more than 10,000 plants. Presumably there you can recreate an authentic New York style mugging experience at knifepoint?

And then there is all the ruckus over these giant ships making their way down the grand Canal in Venice, leaving a trail of ecological destruction behind and dwarfing from the 20th storey structures meant to be seen from the ground. These Tyrannosauri of the oceans somehow manage to skip over the Venice of Canaletto, Bellini or Titian. No wonder the locals are so embittered.

Joking aside, you do have to ask yourself the obvious question – is this what people want? And the answer to that is very much so. I may be the last man sat at the Captain’s polished mahogany table in my dinner jacket, sipping a Negroni, while the captain regales us with genial anecdotes from a lifetime at sea. Fast forward 50 years – I am sat in what appears to be a burger restaurant, tucking in to my McAwful or whatever it is. I am dripping with chlorinated water all over the bright orange plastic chairs and table with designs of cartoon fish. Nobody cares. The ship’s crew love it. Nearly all from the hotel and catering industries rather than maritime types, they can hose down the area at the end of the day. Waiters and housekeepers are fine until you run into difficulties. Since the ship’s crew speaks as many languages as the tower of Babel, let’s hope the lifeboat drill doesn’t prove necessary.

To me, this kind of populist holiday making and alcohol-fuelled bonhomie is a Dantean vision of Hell, no more no less. But numbers talk. The aged liners are now largely rusting hulks or long since scrapped. Ecological timebombs also, riddled with blue asbestos over their corroding skeletons. These new ships are mostly full of hedonistic ‘fun’ seekers. It’s all too much – I shall have an attack of the vapours…

I have been thinking about the next ship in the line. ‘Sick of the Seas’anyone?

Hungry Heart

With artists who have recorded many singles or albums, I often like to think of say a dozen of their songs that, if I was ever asked, would happily form a ‘best of’compilation album. Many artists would fit that category, perhaps none more so than Bruce Springsteen, the legendary ‘Boss’ of rock, ever since Jon Landau proclaimed him ‘the future of rock ‘n’ roll’ in 1974.

Rock ‘n’ roll is about relevance. It’s about recognising characteristics in your audience and playing appropriate music. But it goes beyond there. That will grant you success perhaps but it makes no promises about longevity. This year’ bright tie-dye T-shirt is soon enough faded and torn,, wiping down garden furniture on the patio.

Songs about Emmy Lou’s bronze skin in the sunset, fumblings in the back seat of a ’63 Chevy’s give way to families, employment and unemployment. Then the internal diatribes about enlistment and foreign wars, unemployment and disillusionment. Laments about friends lost literally or metaphorically in the jungles of Southeast Asia. And before you know it, the city skyline and bustling noise has given way to tumbleweed, dust storms and crystal meth. A life outside the American dream.

Somehow Bruce manages , nearly 5 decades after Landau’s review, to still be relevant. After all who else could start a song with the words “you do the drying, I’ll do the dishes”and get away with it? In anybody else’s hands it would be trite. In Bruce’s hands it becomes a sorry vignette of a failing marriage and the desperate need to believe that all is well. Bruce lays bare the American dream. There is no deerhunter Thanksgiving dinner. Bruce consistently eschews the fairytale endings, leaving the gritty perseverance of the working man.

It’s hard to see how this man with personal wealth of some $650 million can, in any way, be relevant to a steelworker in New Jersey or a border drug runner in New Mexico, or any one of the disenfranchised to whom his songs have spoken. And yet it is. And he speaks in a way that makes every song seem to have been written specially for each listener. There is perhaps nobody who could not find his own song among the many.

Bruce found the pulse some 40 years ago, stripping away many of the more complex instrumentations of the first three albums in favour of the leaner and darker psychosocial simplicities from Darkness on the Edge of Town onward. And he got it right.

Bruce’s longevity is somewhere beyond astonishing. Not only does he appeal strongly to my generation (sixty somethings) but also my children, who grew up to the sound of Bruce on the car stereo on the way to school. When a new generation finds continued relevance and meaning in his songs, you know that he has hit the mother lode.

Here are my favourite songs – my compilation album if you will. I’m sure you have others.

Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, Philadelphia, Living Proof, Ties That Bind, Downbound Train, Born In The USA, Adam Raised A Cain, Promised Land, Independence Day, Brothers Under The Bridge, Nebraska, The River.