Sailing across the Atlantic in the tradition of the greatest figures in literature

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I stand on a balcony on the Queen Mary 2 cruise liner as it leaves Southampton at the start of its six-day voyage across the Atlantic, its motion so smooth it is almost imperceptible. Playwright Oscar Wilde, who made the same trip in 1882, described the experience as “uninteresting”, with the ocean having no “roar”. But far from obscuring these derogatory thoughts, Cunard prominently displays Wilde’s words on one of the QM2upper decks in testimony to his long relationship with the world of letters. Since Victorian times, the 182-year-old company has embraced its status as the preferred way for authors and creative personalities to travel between Europe and America.

These writers were not short on opinions. Although some, like Mark Twain, praised the passage, Charles Dickens was harder to please. Sail from Liverpool to Boston on Brittany, Cunard’s first transatlantic ship, he described his cabin as “a profoundly absurd box” which “had not the slightest…connection with those chaste and pretty sketches” shown to him by agents in London. But 22 years later, in 1864, he changed his tune, reporting that his trip to RMS Cuba was much healthier.

Cunard was the first liner to launch a library on the ocean, in 1874, and its dedication to the world of books has never wavered. Each year, during its Festival of Literature at Sea, the best authors are invited to organize questions and answers, debates and conferences on subjects ranging from history, science and politics to arts and culture. literature. This year, passengers can expect panels with British novelists Ian Rankin, Maggie O’Farrell and 2019 Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo, among others. They are the latest in an illustrious list that has included Kate Mosse, Sebastian Faulks and Louis de Bernières.

During the six days of navigation, the ship becomes a destination in itself. My voyage does not coincide with the Literature Festival, but my time on board is always eventful. I stroll on the 13 decks of the liner, come across a dining room where passengers learn to paint with watercolors; elsewhere, the Royal Shakespeare Company organizes a playwriting workshop; in the small lounges and refreshments, a harpist and a string trio perform in front of an intimate audience. There are regular talks on a range of esoteric topics, from how to invest in art to insights into the world of TV news anchoring. I especially like to hear a retired cop talk about drug mules swallowing their contraband.

Some days the ocean roars, soaking the outside decks. The earth becomes a distant memory. The loudspeaker broadcasts the captain’s announcements. At one point, he informed us that the nearest mainland was the Azores, 700 nautical miles to the south. Its daily updates on weather and sailing conditions are accompanied by fascinating nautical nuggets; among other things, we learn about the “great circle,” a calculation used to steer a ship between two points on the Earth’s curved surface. Every day brings new knowledge.

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