Last weekend Margaret and I returned from a transatlantic cruise on the Queen Mary 2 celebrating the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Cunard line. Most of it retraced the original route from Liverpool to Boston via Halifax, Nova Scotia with the addition of extra stops at Hamburg, Southampton and New York.
The voyage was epic with events at every port to celebrate the founding father Samuel Cunard and everything that is quintessentially British from serving cream teas to numerous renderings of Rule Britannia.. There were fireworks in two cities, a 21 gun salute, a Canadian warship joining a flotilla, a Red Arrows fly past in Liverpool and massed bands in every port.
This included a concert at Liverpool’s magnificent Anglican cathedral to celebrate the anniversary with Britain’s national treasure’s mixed with proud descendants of the Cunard family telling the story of the shipping line.
We had Carol Thatcher talking of the Mum’s sleepless nights in case the Argies sunk the QE II on its way to the Falklands; John, now Lord Prescott being surprisingly emollient about his former employer even though they kept him on their second league of liners because of his union activities as a bar steward. We had the former BBC’s Michael Buerk on the newsworthy side of the line and Jennie Bond, the BBC’s former Royal Correspondent on the Royals who used the Cunard liners.
The event ended with the cathedral being turned into the Last Night of the Proms with a union jack flag waving audience singing Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia. A bit OTT on the jingoistic side for us.
But here’s the rub. As the voyage progressed it became clear that we were not celebrating some brilliant British entrepreneur that had created these iconic ships. Samuel Cunard was the son of a Quaker German immigrant who fled his native land to avoid persecution.. His father settled in the US only to move to Canada as one of the Empire loyalists who were defeated in the 1776 War of Independence..
His son bought up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, quickly became an entrepreneur running ferry services and mining operations. He spotted that steamships could replace sail and bid for the first British Royal Mail service between Liverpool and Halifax. He won the contract.It was an amazing success, because his ships were not prone to sink, and by providing a service to Boston as well made merchants rich in the US overnight.as both goods and mail reached their destinations. The grateful merchants gave him the ” Boston Cup ” as a present in return.
He wouldn’t have necessarily approved of the present luxury liners – his Quaker upbringing led him to build ships that were austere and practical not comfortable and luxurious. That came later.. You certainly couldn’t eat for 22 hours out of 24 every day on his ships as you can on Queen Mary 2..
We are also celebrating a line now run by an American company, Carnival, based in Florida with a sales office in Southampton and a ship not flying the British flag but registered ( I suspect for tax reasons) under a flag of convenience in Bermuda.
And we are also buying nostalgia. They may in the past have carried monarchs, film stars and multi millionaires but you are not going to bump into Tom Cruise or Keira Knightly jogging on Deck 7 on the Queen Mary 2 or even Lord Ashcroft or Roman Abramovich in the dining room. They now have their own private jet or yacht..
Yet in a very clever sense Carnival has rebranded Britain to create an unique atmosphere.Even the Americans I talked to on the boat ( they are the second largest contingent) described sailing with Cunard “part of the British experience.”. For marketing Carnival deserve top marks, they rock you to sleep on an ocean of desire with sweet nostalgic dreams. Bon voyage!