City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Fire, water and the ‘Queen Mary 2’

Written in


Regular readers of The New Yorker will not be surprised to learn of today’s findings by BBC News that there’s a fire risk in the fixtures and fittings of the Queen Mary 2 ocean liner. Simon Schama wrote a fantastic article about the magnificent ship’s maiden voyage in the May 31 edition of the magazine which featured, amongst other things, an aside about a fire risk on the QM2.

Schama described the monumental weather conditions suffered during the voyage:

"(O)ld man Poseidon, evidently assisted by Tritons with serious attitude, was crashing the scene. On the Beafort wind scale of 1 to 12, this one, howling around the ship like a marine banshee was a 10, eventually getting up to seventy miles an hour, which is not far short of hurricane force. Likewise, the motion of the sea is measured by a range going from Moderate through Rough to High, the last going well beyond Very Rough. That night and much of the following day, our piece of the Atlantic was Very High, beyond which the only available term is Phenomenal, and by then your cabin is probably filling with water and men in tuxedos are ushering women and children to the boats."

So the scene is set, Schama nestling in his cabin, becoming "unhappily reacquainted" with his mango-and-crab salad, and then:

"(A) message came over the P.A. system from the Officer of the Watch, whose voice, ressembling that of a firm but fair English schoolmaster, had already established itself as authoritative. It was not reassuring: "Code Bravo, Code Bravo, Code Bravo." And then it added, "Control group to muster." True, it spoke without much inflection, as if reporting a cricket score from a sticky wicket. But since the same announcement had been made earlier that day, followed by the information that this was a practice, repeat practice, fire drill, a real Code Bravo was not what anyone wanted to hear in this situation. An hour later, the announcement "Stand down" was heard, and another announcement, a bit later on, referred to a "minor incident, now completely under control."

"The thing about a crew of thirteen hundred – which includes, after all, masseurs, cabaret singers, and wine waiters – is that not all of them are trained, in the British merchant-marine tradition, to keep mum about trifling things like a fire at sea on a maiden voyage in the midst of a Force 10 gale. It was, I was assured, a teeny-weeny fire, just a razor socket burning up in a crew cabin."

So I’m not awfully surprised about today’s news about fire risks. The real reason to read The New Yorker, though, isn’t to get an early sighting of next week’s news, but to rejoice in writing of the calibre of Schama’s (OK, I’m a big fan of Schama). Much of his article is actually about how great the Queen Mary 2 is – and once this trifling fire risk thing is cleared up, long may it remain untarnished.

Schama writes as beautifully as ever about the ship, the experience of this form of travel, drawing from Charles Dickens’ recollections of crossing the Atlantic in 1842 on the Britannia, and naturally, Evelyn Waugh, who almost single-handedly created the mystique of high-quality travel that the QM 2 tries to recapture. It almost manages to conjure Waugh, by the sound of it, but the real art, style and beauty is in the ship-as-machine as Schama makes clear:

"What there is on the QM 2 is grandeur: lashings of it. Bel-air epoque, heavy on the upholstery. The dominant style is offically described as "Art Deco," but is more le grande style Ginger et Fred: sweeping staircases (especially in the triple-decker main restaurant); long, curved bars (very handsome in the Chart Room); leopard-patterned carpets; and, in one theatre, bronze bas-reliefs that feature disporting deities, as in the pre-multiplex yesteryear, though the athletic statuary posted at the doors summons up Albert Speer and "Honor the Komsomol," rather than Garbo and Groucho. Over the shipboard "art" a tactful veil should be drawn, but there is great art on the Queen Mary 2; namely, the exterior of the ship itself – a thrilling scarlet-and-black tower of a funnel and four heroically scaled brushed-steel propeller screws mounted on deck seven, as mightily torqued as anything from the hand of Richard Serra."

That’s beautiful – and similar to sentiments earlier expressed by Adam Greenfield as the QM 2 eventually departed New York harbour. Leave aside those "leopard-patterned carpets" and revel in the real essence of trying to defy the power of sea with a machine like this. Schama, finally:

"(T)here are worse things than being made to sit down and fill the eyes with nothing but sky and rain and wind-whipped water as a hundred and fifty thousand tons of big ship does what it can to ride it at thirty-five miles an hour. In fact, there are few things better."


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: