The Only Way to Cross by John Maxtone-Graham
It seems like travel has become more uncomfortable with each passing year. I flew to New York recently in a seat so narrow it was nearly impossible to open a book and breathe at the same time. A good thing I hadn’t sneezed or I probably would have sent the person in the next seat sailing across the aisle.
The snack on this unlucky voyage consisted of a single pack of peanuts, and not a very large pack at that. It almost makes a person nostalgic for the “Bistro Meals” that planes were serving a few years back – a semi-stale sandwich in a paper bag passengers picked up themselves from a bin as they boarded the aircraft. Cost cutting efforts have gone a long way toward making travel miserable. One senses that very soon the airlines will dispense with seats altogether in order to squeeze more of us in. What we’ll end up with, I suppose, is a cattle car with wings. We’re nearly there now.
Once upon a time, human beings used to travel in elegance and comfort. And when it came to elegance, nothing beat the great ocean liners that used to ferry people back and forth across the North Atlantic. A wonderful book with over 200 photographs, The Only Way to Cross, documents this bygone era, written by maritime historian, John Maxtone-Graham. All the great ships are covered, from the Mauretania to the Queen Elizabeth 2 – the last of the great liners that is still running today, though as a cruise ship, not the working vessel it used to be.
John Maxtone-Graham is a fountain of information, giving us fascinating details, from gossip about the passengers to how these huge ships were designed, constructed, and finally launched – itself a mammoth task. All the famous Cunard vessels, for instance – the Mauretania, both Queen Elizabeths, and Queen Mary – were launched in narrow rivers, the Tyne and the River Clyde, where there were serious concerns about the ships colliding with the opposite bank and breaking in half. The engineering involved in building these great ocean liners, as well as the colossal turbine engines that made them run, is one of the marvels of early 20th century technology.
With so much expense, the trans-Atlantic vessels were visible expressions of national pride. England got the head start, but Germany soon entered the competition with liners like the Bismark, the Kaiser Wilhelm II, and the Bremen. France took luxury and the sheer beauty of nautical design to new heights with the Ile de France, the chic Normandie, and two separate ocean liners that were simply called France. Italy got into the game with such ships as the Michelangelo and the Conte Di Savoia, and America produced the fastest ship of all, the United States. It was a time when everyone was trying to outdo one another with sumptuous wood paneling, fabulous cuisine, swimming pools, evening entertainment, and palm courts where one could sip afternoon tea.
It all ended in the mid-1960s with cheap airfares and what used to be called Jumbo Jets. With competition from the sky, the ocean liners could no longer pay for themselves; in an astonishingly short period of time, they became floating dinosaurs and were eventually junked for their steel. “Progress” has made this form of travel part of a world gone by.
So the next time you’re squeezed into an airplane seat trying to tear open your single bag of peanuts, you might remember this: On the Olympic there was a spectacular gymnasium, if you happened to be in want of exercise. The Amerika boasted a restaurant staffed by London’s Ritz-Carlton Grill. The Titanic had Turkish baths and the Imperator had an epic Pompeian swimming pool on its lower decks.
Could it be that as a species we are de-evolving?