'Ships are the nearest things to dreams that hands have ever made.'
Robert N Rose
In 1968, the QE2, last of the Clydeside liners, was in John Brown’s fitting-out yard, and as completion neared after many delays, thousands of Scots queued up for a conducted tour.
My friend Stewart Howard’s dad had some business connection to one of the innumerable sub contractors involved, and as a 12th birthday treat, he arranged for Stewart and three pals to see round the ship. I was one of them, and disappointed that, unlike for Stewart’s last birthday, we weren’t going 10-pin-bowling.
I remember the sheer size of the vessel, the impossibility that it existed, let alone floated on this sliver of river at Clydebank. The shuffling line of tourists, and the cramped disappointment of the unfinished interior – tiny cabins, the smell of plastic-protected carpet, miles of dangling cable. A swimming pool so small it seemed pointless.
The QE2, eventually passing her sea trials, entered service and became, for a time, the last of the transatlantic liners, as well as serving memorably as a troop ship, just like her Clyde-built predecessors Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. Now all three vessels are either lost, burnt and broken up, like the Elizabeth, or rotting tourist attractions (the Mary and, prospectively, the QE2). Stephen McCabe’s suggestion that the QE2 may return to the Clyde as a 'heritage’ symbol of everything industrial Scotland has lost is almost unbearably resonant with loss and regret.
She sits, ignored, in Dubai, filling with desert dust, her revolutionary aluminium superstructure creaking and cracking in the sun. Still beautiful. And in January, I read up on her specifications while sitting in the beautifully-appointed leather-and-mahogany library of her successor. More than 1,000 miles from land, near-hurricane-force winds sent the 150,000 tonne Queen Mary 2, made in Brittany, not from girders but sheet steel welded into boxes, wallowing and swaying heavily, like a skyscraper in an earthquake.
Almost half a century after that visit to John Brown’s, I wandered the unthinkably grandiose halls of the QM2, absorbing the way Cunard, now wholly owned by Florida’s Carnival cruising empire, has deployed 'Clydebuilt’ as a piece of branding. A front page of the Clydebank Press, blown up to three times its original size, is the last thing you’d expect to find on the wall of a floating five-star hotel. Or giant, grainy pictures of flat-capped riveters and hauders-on. But there they are, part of a constant barrage of references in sales literature and versions of the Bromsgrove Group interior designs found in the original Queen Mary, to all the 'three Queens’ that came before. And the industrial heritage that gave them birth.
Cunard’s 176-year relationship with the Clyde goes back to the company’s origins. Its first transatlantic service was established in 1840, using the Britannia, built by Robert Duncan and Co in Greenock, and then the Acadia, Columbia and Caledonia. Over the company’s existence, half of its 250 ships were built on the Clyde. John Brown’s predecessor, J & G Thomson, began working for Cunard in 1854, with SS Jura and her sister ship Etna.
Like many other Caledonian males, I grew up feeling tremendous pride in 'our’ ships, in the riveted and welded denizens of every sea and ocean in the world. Clydebuilt: It was a guarantee of strength, reliability, of industrial craft and world-beating success. Scotland’s glory.
And of course the Clyde shipyards begat a language, humour, art – culture, that awful word – that informs to this day what it means to be 'Scottish’. The nostalgia of the skilled hard man who set the world afloat. To see that effortlessly and stylishly turned into theme-park glitz on a Breton-built boat was...let’s say disconcerting.
Especially standing in my second-hand eBay dinner suit in six-storey the Grand Lobby of the QM2, waiting to have afternoon tea served – by waiters in white gloves – while a string quartet played. Or sipping a Cosmopolitan in the impossibly perfect 1930s Commodore Club. Or not dancing to the Cunard Big Band in the Queens Room. Or...
Not that I allowed myself to be terribly disconcerted for long. This was, after all a dream come true, a 60th birthday treat. If it was a 'heritage fantasy', then I was ready to live it out to the full. I never for a moment thought I’d ever get to travel to New York by sea, and I was overcome by that breathtaking arrival, scraping under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the Manhattan Skyline movie-perfect, the Statue of Liberty just…as you’d expect, only wee.
It wasn’t that expensive, not in January, when Cunard try to fill the big boat to its 2,600 capacity by offering deals which, as one elderly couple cheerfully told me, 'are a lot cheaper than a care home'. Indeed, we met folk who were bent on back-to-back world cruises as an alternative to residential care. Three meals and all the snacks you can eat, sheets changed every day, full free room service, medical and dental care. 'We try to get it down to £100 a day' one retired lady told me. 'And when the money’s gone, we’ll throw ourselves on the mercy of the state!'.
Seven days, six nights at sea. The actress Celia Imrie and the journalist John McCarthy were among various lecturers. You could learn bridge, poker, Monopoly, how to cope with terrorist kidnapping. A team of 'taxi dancers’ were available to waltz with single women. There was a prayer meeting and a 'Friends of Dorothy’ group advertised. The upmarket 'Grill’ passengers (on the QM2, you’re classified by where you eat) flaunted their unlimited wi-fi. People walked their dogs. I felt sorry for the border collie.
In the library I read the shelves of books about Cunard’s past. The Lusitania, the Aquitania. The stories about the old Queen Mary’s legendary ghosts. Not a mention, anywhere of the tragic beginnings of the Queen Mary 2, which saw 16 people killed when a gangway collapsed just before her maiden voyage.
Still, they’re justifiably proud of her in St Nazaire, where her prefabricated modules were welded together. Not a single rivet. Now she is The Last Liner (not, you are firmly told, a cruise ship), built to travel incredibly fast through very rough seas, all year round. Double-hulled, safer than houses, all-steel. She is extraordinary. As the bells on the seaway buoys tolled and we edged into New York, a German woman aboard gave birth in the state-of -the-art hospital. Mother, Johanna, and son Benjamin Brooklyn are both doing well.
In May last year, the Queen Mary 2 docked in Greenock, celebrating 175 years of Cunard’s connection with the town. She was impressive, but lacked the perfect proportions of the QE2 she lifts her design cues from. Steroidal. Top heavy. Too many cabins insisted upon by the Carnival accountants. And yet we watched her then with awe, astonishment and envy. One day, I promised myself.
But as she edged alongside at Ocean Terminal in Greenock on 21 May 2015, one thing was certain: The Last Liner wasn’t coming home. She was only visiting her dead sisters’ past.