|THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE. EXHIBIT 280 AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY.|
It's in Room 1 – the print room – high up and out of the way so you can marvel at Tracey's calligraphy and Humphrey Ocean's little dog etching, but just visible enough to make out the subject. Also, I've had emails from satisfied customers telling me of their connections with the liner, or various officers. Someone was once a neighbour of Roger de Grey, the last captain of the Royal Academy; under whose stern eye my big painting of the Modern Jazz Quartet, The Ministry of Jazz, failed to get sea room in this illustrious people's palace. But times change.
You might have read this before. It hasn't...
This is one of my first memories brought to life. They're gone forever now, the giant, heavy ships built with a billion rivets and stuffed with the posh pamperatti of the day, ploughing the Atlantic between the wars. Cruise liners today aren't the same; they aren't built to take a sea; the Queens and the Normandie were over-specified in every way; they were solid sea-going hotels where half the crew would labour by firelight below the waterline to keep those huge propellers churning at full speed for three thousand miles of deep water.
Living as we did, very near the sea, we took them for granted, and though their time was nearly up, you still saw a lot of very grand traffic. My Dad once told me that when he was a kid he heard that the Mauretania came through the Solent a tad too briskly after winning the Blue Riband, and just before powering down to take the corner into Southampton Water, she created so much wash that Cowes got flooded. News like that does tend to stoke a ten-year-old's imagination!
They had so much mystique, these quiet leviathans, and maybe none more than the Queen Mary; for some reason the most popular liner of them all, even though not as chic a Deco fun palace as the Normandie, or as new as the Queen Elizabeth; she saw service as a troopship during the war. Painted grey and crammed with thousands of GIs, she swept to-and-fro across the pond with almost brutal impunity. There's no way a U Boat can snare anything, even a small city when it's travelling at 40 miles an hour.
Some time in 1953 or 4, I was sitting with my mother on a bus looking down at the vast empty beach of Ryde. When the tide's out there's a good half mile of sand; I could see a tiny figure at the water's edge who was probably digging for bait but I didn't understand what Mum and her friends were saying. I was about 3 years old and what I found disturbing was the sight of this huge red-funnelled ship, luminous in the thundery light, going so close to this oblivious, industrious figure – bending, digging and probably smoking...
I've given Ryde Pier the luxury of a couple of paddle steamers as they shuttle between Ryde and Southsea laden with trippers and luggage, augmenting the diesel ferries by a healthy and quite an aesthetic margin. Gouts of smoke show a fresh load of coal's been shovelled into the boiler as the paddles serrate the green channel, getting briskly underway to give the passengers a close up of a looming national treasure.
A warship hurries West, raising spray – (another early memory I have is of a destroyer blowing up depth charges, near another horizon, then sending a boat to the beach at Bembridge which picked me and Dad up and other nosy sunbathers to have a look round. I think it was the Vigo...) occasionally you heard their siren whips as they came and left Portsmouth Dockyard. How comforting that aggressive, shepherding racket must have sounded to a nervous merchant seaman on the way to Murmansk, crawling slowly across the crosshairs of a periscope, You want some?
I used to wonder at the life on board the liners, the people and their wealth; trying to fathom their infinite happiness at being where they were, being who they were...
I think somewhere on board, lighting a cigarette with the last black coffee of the day cooling on the teak rail, squinting at the shore, is a very famous Hollywood actor, coming back after an absence so long he feels apprehensive and tense, not only from too many piano bar martinis, but at the thought of setting foot ashore in England once again, the place of his birth.