At Queen Mary 2’s Royal Court Theater, three of my favorite crime fiction novelists–Ian Rankin, Mark Billingham and Mick Herron—are on stage debating the best TV sleuths. “Without question, it’s Columbo. We can all go home now,” declares Billingham, the stand-up comic-cum-author whose popular Thomas Thorne novels have sold millions of copies worldwide. But not so fast: Ian Rankin—Sir Ian Rankin, actually—who, in 1987 created the legendary Inspector John Rebus, counters with Jane Tennison, the hard-drinking detective that Helen Mirren brought to life in Prime Suspect, while Dead Lions author and Crime Writer’s Association Gold Dagger Award Winner Mick Herron prefers the dry wit and sharp mind of Agatha Christie’s Poirot. No clear winner emerges, but I am captivated by these masters of crime fiction defending their choices, pointing out nuances in each character’s behavior that had, until now, escaped me.
This session, “Watching the Detectives,” is my introduction to Queen Mary 2’s Literature Festival at Sea, an ocean-going celebration of literature, history, film and current events organized by The Times and The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival in partnership with Cunard.
QUEEN MARY 2—ALL DECKED OUT
It takes a lot to convince me—a small ship fan—to board a massive ocean liner like the 151,400 grt Queen Mary 2 for a six-night Atlantic crossing in December when rough seas are likely, but the impressive line-up of novelists, poets, journalists and classicists that would be participating in the Literature Festival at Sea was irresistible.
Dorie and I board Queen Mary 2 at Brooklyn’s Passenger Ship terminal on a rainy afternoon and find ourselves ensconced in a festive wonderland. Christmas lights illuminate everything in view; garland and ribbon drape wondrously from every rail and banister and wooden soldiers stand guard in spacious carpeted hallways. In the majestic Grand Lobby, a tree heavy with colorful ornaments soars up through the atrium while wreaths and bows adorn…well…everything. I’d been so excited about the Literature Festival at Sea that I had all but forgotten that Christmas is just around the corner!
Queen Mary 2 isn’t fresh from the shipyard. Introduced in 2004, the ship was designed specifically as an ocean liner (as opposed to cruise ship) to provide transatlantic service between New York and Southampton, England. As such, she has some unique characteristics, like two indoor pools to dive into during inclement weather (along with two outdoor ones) and a partially-sheltered wrap-around promenade deck that allows guests to get their “steps” in while avoiding the strong Atlantic winds.
Our obstructed-view cabin’s interior is stunning and spacious but its balcony is almost completely enclosed, a die-cut opening in its steel walls providing the view as we sail across the Pond. And, like ocean liners in days of yore, main dining is determined by each guest’s cabin category, with those in the loftiest suites assigned to the chi-chi Queens or Princess Grill while the rest—85%–are assigned to the still-lovely-though-less-intimate Britannia Restaurant. With the exception of The Verandah Steakhouse ($45 surcharge), or the Asian Bamboo ($25 surcharge), The King’s Court Evening Buffet and Pizza and Pasta at The Chef’s Galley are the only alternative dining experiences.
Still, fans of even the glitziest newbuilds will be dazzled by Queen Mary 2’s extravagant public spaces (including the grand and elaborate Queens Room—perhaps the most spectacular ballroom at sea) and overjoyed with her spaciousness–this 150,000 grt ship’s capacity is 2,600, thousands less than ships of a comparable size. They’ll be less dazzled, however, by the spotty on board wi-fi service.
“BOOKED” SOLID: CHELTENHAM LITERATURE FESTIVAL AT SEA
Queen Mary 2’s Literature Festival at Sea crossing, we soon discover, is not a full-ship charter. The theme, it seems, has attracted about half of the guests on board while our remaining shipmates had been unaware of the literary focus and booked the sailing simply as a holiday or a way to make their way to London without jetlag or the chaos that today’s air travel is fraught with.
In fact, all they need do is browse the handy, full-color 35-page Festival Guide they’ll find on the desk in their cabin to discover an extensive list of the literary experts who will enlighten us during this voyage and the conversations, readings, discussions, workshops, political and daily news analysis, book signings and more that everyone—whether they’ve booked the crossing for the Festival or not—is welcome to participate in.
There are even film screenings, like the 2016 film Me Before You starring Sam Claflin and Emilia Clarke, introduced by JoJo Moyes, author of the book that inspired it, The Times Crossword Puzzle advice, chess lessons (thanks to author Charles Cumming’s expertise at the game), fashion and beauty advice from The Sunday Times Style Editor Laura Atkinson and, in a nod to the season, nightly “Festive Delights,” like Ian Rankin’s delivery of John Julius Cooper’s hilarious parody of The Twelve Days of Christmas or a selection of holiday readings from Poet Laureate Simon Armitage.
While big-name authors may have been what lured me to Queen Mary 2’s Literature Festival at Sea, it is those sessions that zero in on literature’s reflection of today’s society that most captivate me, sessions like “My Literary Heroines” with The Sunday Times Literary Editor Robbie Millen and book world greats Lionel Shriver, Alex Clark and JoJo Moyes. This spirited discussion celebrates female characters, like the relatable Bridget Jones with her weight issues, booze and cigarettes and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s vengeful and angry Lisbeth Salander, who defy the stereotypes of what women are supposed to be. Damien Barr, Julia Wheeler and Okechukwu Nzelu give gender identification a similar treatment with “Queer Stories” and even food in literature is under the spotlight when Rachel Johnson, Pamela Paul and Ed Balls dissect “The Greatest Literary Feasts.”
The oh-so British flavor of Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 combined with the British roots of the Cheltenham Festival, the world’s oldest literature festival (formed in 1949), makes this crossing an ideal choice for North American Anglophiles. Some of the sessions, like “Can You Get to Number 10?” (as in Downing Street), hosted by Matt Chorley, host of Times Radio’s Quiz, and novelist/columnist Rachel Johnson (sister of ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson), do have a distinctly British accent, but the U.S.A. is hardly overlooked, thanks to expert-driven discussions that track the dollar in the globalized world or feature political experts like Ed Balls, ex-Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer for the Labor Party, exploring U.S. politics, “From Primary to President.”
Superbly representing the U.S. literary landscape is Pamela Paul, previously Editor of The New York Times Book Review and currently a columnist and author in her own right. In addition to contributing her powerful insights during sessions like “Books of the Year” and “Books of the Decade,” Ms. Paul, in a stand-alone session, shares some of her thoughts on the world before cyberspace during “100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet,” a fascinating look at the funny and not-so-funny losses we’ve endured since going online. And you thought Rolodexes, post cards and conventional dating were the only things we ditched with technology.
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL…WITH YOUR FAVORITE AUTHORS
Imagine honing your poetry writing skills with advice from UK Poet Laureate Simon Armitage or brushing up on your Latin with classicist Dame Mary Beard, as she talks you through the basics of how to read a Latin poem. You’ll certainly want to seize the opportunity to learn the art of writing a thriller directly from Charles Cumming, best-selling author of the Thomas Kell series or hear Ian Rankin reveal how he develops the plot detail, red herrings and clues that have triggered the sale of over 30 million copies of his Inspector Rebus books. Struggling with creating realistic dialog? Let award-winning novelist Okechukwy Nzelu show you how it’s done.
Now, imagine each of these experiences (and others!) in an intimate classroom setting with instruction provided by the master him or herself, your questions eagerly welcome.
Perhaps the most exciting feature of Queen Mary 2’s Literature Festival at Sea is its series of “master classes,” available, amazingly, at no additional charge, though reservations are required. (But even if a class is filled, pop down to the appropriate ConneXions “classroom” at the scheduled time and you’ll likely discover that a no-show results in your admittance).
It’s no wonder that our Literature Festival at Sea was filled not only with voracious readers, but writers hoping to learn what it takes to pen a successful novel!
Theme cruises can be iffy. During some, like a “Fashion & Style” cruise I did years ago which featured a grand total of two theme-related events with one of them (an excursion to the designer outlets outside of Florence, Italy) cancelled due to lack of participation, a guest can barely find related events. Other theme cruises, particularly full-ship charters like some rock music cruises, are packed with events but poor planning often results in long lines and waiting times and, often, refused admittance when the theater becomes filled to capacity.
Queen Mary 2’s Literature Festival at Sea’s organization was flawless! The Royal Court Theater, with its 1,000-guest capacity, was chosen as the venue for the more popular sessions, while the two-level, 493-seat Illuminations proved ideal for the more intimate ones. No lines, no waiting, attendees were invited to enter the theater and select their seats at leisure. Want to be up front? Enter the theater early. It was as simple as that.
And, to my delight, I found no overlap between sessions I was eager to see, eliminating the need to agonize over whether I’d attend a “conversation” with the hilarious Ladies Detective Agency author Alexander McCall Smith or one with The Great British Bake-Off’s Prue Leith. Try that aboard a rock music theme cruise!
Even book signings with the most popular authors were handled superbly. While lines did form, keen attention was paid to move the crowd along. “Does anyone have something for Mark Billingham or Pamela Paul to sign?” I heard a Festival member ask as she surveyed the queue. Clutching the copy of Billingham’s Their Little Secret that I picked up at Queen Mary 2’s well-stocked bookstore on deck 8, I raised my hand and was immediately ushered up front to Billingham who, along with Paul, had hit a break in their book-signing action.
LITERATURE IS JUST THE BEGINNING!
Often during Queen Mary 2’s Literature Festival at Sea, smooth sailing and calm seas made me forget I was aboard a ship sailing towards Southampton in December. In fact, I’ve felt more motion sailing the Med during the summer!
But, as the sun sets and Festival events conclude for the day, we’re back aboard ship as Queen Mary 2 puts on her own show. For some, it is in the guise of guests’ allegiance to classic cruising, pulling out all stops to adhere to the suggested dress for the two gala evenings on board: Red & Gold Gala Night and a Roaring 20s Gala Evening where, yes, many ladies don flapper dresses and decorative headbands. Those accustomed to the decidedly casual dress of today’s cruises will be surprised—and maybe even delighted—to see tuxedo-clad gentlemen and ladies draped in sequins and pearls but, rest assured, more relaxed attire is just as welcome.
After dinner, Queen Mary 2’s entertainment begins: a folk duo at The Golden Lion Pub, jazz at The Chart Room, classical music at the Commodore Club, a big band in the Queens Room or dancing to 60s and 70s hits at G32, where you just might share the dance floor with a few of your favorite bestselling authors.
Of course, you could simply retire to your cabin after dinner and curl up with a good book. And aboard Queen Mary 2’s Literature Festival at Sea, there’s an excellent chance that you’ll be able to discuss that book the following day…with the very person who wrote it.
Cover photo: Moderator Dharshini David leads authors Mark Billingham, Ian Rankin and Mick Herron in a debate of the best TV Sleuths.
(Queen Mary 2’s 2023 Literature Festival at Sea will sail from Southampton to New York November 19th to 26th. Confirmed speakers to date include the following: Lynda La Plante, Anthony Beevor, Literary Agent Luigi Bonomi, former Home Secretary and author Alan Johnson, Alan Titchmarsh, Daniel Finkelstein, Clare Mackintosh, Val McDermid, Kate Mossie, Richard Osman, Anna Murphy, and Hashi Mohamed. Additional speakers will be announced.)