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Monday, 1 November 2021

New Month Old Post: The Day We Saw The Queen Mary Sail

and C. P. Snow’s surprising digital footprint

(first posted 11th November, 2017) 

R.M.S. Queen Mary

My dad was captivated by ships from childhood, when ocean-going liners were the most exhilarating machines ever built. He knew the names and colours of the British shipping lines and some of the foreign ones too: Cunard: red and black funnel, yellow lion on a red flag; Union Castle: also red and black funnel, red cross on a white and blue flag; Peninsula and Oriental: buff yellow funnel, blue, white, red and yellow flag. It was partly why we found ourselves on holiday near Southampton, the first time we had ever been so far from Yorkshire. Once there, it was inevitable we would visit the docks.

As we approached Ocean Terminal, three towering Cunard funnels told us the Queen Mary was in port. Small boat owners vied for passengers to take to see her sail: an opportunity not to be missed.

Video - RMS Queen Mary arriving at Southampton 1967 Video - RMS Queen Mary departing Southampton 1967
RMS Queen Mary arriving at and departing from Southampton for the last time in 1967
(two videos, approximately two minutes each - click to play)

We boarded a launch and sped off down Southampton Water leaving the Queen Mary at the quayside. Any doubts as to why we had sailed so far ahead were soon answered. “The Mary’s moving,” our own captain announced, and within a short time she had overtaken us as smoothly and effortlessly as a huge white cloud in a strong breeze, a vast floating palace towering above. Her powerful engines were easily capable of 28 knots (about 30 miles or 50 kilometres per hour) compared to our 6 or 7. We were left bobbing like corks in her wake as she turned into the Solent. Dad remembered the day for the rest of his life.

Southampton pleasure boat

From photographs and postcards I can work out it was towards the end of August, 1960, during the last dying years of the transatlantic passenger trade. From genealogical web sites, I can pinpoint the precise date as Thursday 25th. The Queen Mary called briefly at Cherbourg before crossing the Atlantic to arrive in New York on Tuesday 30th, a five-day voyage. Not only that, but, incredibly, you can see the ship’s manifest listing the individual names and details of every one of the 1,024 passengers and 1,203 crew under the command of Commodore John W. Caunce. It is an incredible digital footprint.

Ships manifest: RMS Queen Mary, 25th August 1960

Many of the first class passengers are googleable, among them two writers, Charles and Pamela Snow. They were the distinguished novelist and scientist C. P. Snow and his equally-accomplished wife, the novelist and playwright Pamela Hansford Johnson, travelling with their son Philip and her teenage daughter Lindsay Stewart. Philip was just one of eighty children on board. Some of them stood on deck and followed that incomprehensible human instinct to wave to strangers in the accompanying flotilla of pleasure boats. I wonder if any of them noticed a ten-year old boy waving back.

At the time, C. P. Snow was enjoying the controversy caused by his Two Cultures lecture the previous year, in which he had lamented the gulf between science and the Arts which he, justifiably, believed he bridged. He had implied that many scientists would struggle to read a classic novel, and that many humanities professors would be unable to explain simple scientific concepts such as mass and acceleration, making them the scientific equivalent of illiterate. Most resented the insinuation that a poor knowledge of science rendered them uneducated and ignorant, including the acclaimed literary critic F. R. Leavis who let loose an astonishingly abusive and vitriolic response. Part of it went:
Snow is, of course, a – no, I can't say that; he isn't. Snow thinks of himself as a novelist [but] his incapacity as a novelist is … total: ... as a novelist he doesn't exist; he doesn't begin to exist. He can't be said to know what a novel is. The nonentity is apparent on every page of his fictions … Snow is utterly without a glimmer of what creative literature is … he is intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be.
Leavis continued the attack at length, giving examples of what he said was Snow’s characterless, unspeakable dialogue, his limited imaginative range, and his tendency to tell rather than show. Others jumped to Snow’s defence, suggesting it was in fact Leavis who could not write. It was brilliant, sensational stuff, still talked about decades later. Both academia and the general public, including my dad, soaked up the spectacle in pitiless delight, entertained by intellectual heavyweights slugging it out with metaphorical bare knuckles.

None of this meant anything to me at the time, of course. It would be another twenty years before I discovered and found it greatly entertaining, but my dad would have been fascinated to learn that Snow and his wife were on board. A little more googling reveals they were on their way to spend the autumn at the University of California at Berkeley. Before their return, both, along with the prominent English writer Aldous Huxley and the American Nobel chemist Harold C. Urey, took part in seminars on Human Values and the Scientific Revolution at the University of California Los Angeles on the 18th and 19th of December. The Staff Bulletin described it as “one of the most distinguished intellectual occasions in the history of the University of California”.

If it is possible discover this much about the activities of (albeit well-known) individuals in 1960, one fears to imagine what digital footprints we might leave behind ourselves. Much of what we buy, our social interactions, our medical and educational records, our motoring activities, and so much more, are now all stored on a computer somewhere, possibly in perpetuity. I wonder who is going to be looking at mine in sixty years time.

42 comments:

  1. I used to be quite a fan of Snow. He's quite right of course about the ignorance of writers, though that may have improved since then. He's definitely on the right side of history while Leavis looks like the pompous fool he was

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    1. Yes, but he could be entertaining.
      I've heard it argued that the gulf between the two cultures no longer exists. There are some excellent science writers, both of fiction and non-fiction. Instead, there is now a much larger gulf between the two cultures and no culture.

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  2. “I wonder who is going to be looking at mine in sixty years time.”
    Tasker Dunham’s father said to me, many times: “What will it matter in fifty years time?”.
    I use the phrase myself and thank him each time.

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    1. It will all end up outside the house smashed up in a skip, getting wet in the rain.

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  3. Southampton, my new football team!

    A very interesting post. We both know our blogs are of huge historical interest to future generations. Right?

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    1. Thank you. No doubt David Kynaston will be sifting through them.

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  4. The start of the big ships, floating wonderlands, now they are two-a-penny. Where did that sense of wonder go, perhaps because as children we grew up as technology and enthusiasm took off.

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    1. It's sad to think we might have lost the sense of wonder. I'm a bore when I see those unnecessarily powerful locomotives they've put on Transpennine Express, or watch Ice Road Truckers.

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  5. Luckily we're obscure and no one gives a flying fuck about what we do or did in our lives!

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    1. It might be family descendants (in the wider sense) tracing their genealogy, snooping on their ancestors and ancestors' siblings.

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  6. What a great and well put together post - thank you! It gave me a lot to think about while being entertaining and nostalgic at the same time, more than what can be said about some books I have read.

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    1. Thank you. It is a day I've always remembered too, but the link to the two cultures stuff fascinated me (Leavis really knew how to destroy the messenger rather than the message), although I don't know what impact this had in Germany or even what lasting impact it has here now.

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  7. Like your father, I have loved the history of old ocean going liners. My mother, a British war bride, came to the United States on the Queen Mary in 1946--it was still very much set up like the troop ship it had been during the war as it wasn't retrofitted for regular passenger service until later in 1946. Six years later, she returned to the UK (with her family--me, just two at the time) on the very new S.S. United States--the ship that broke the Queen Mary's record for the fastest TATL crossing. I've seen the Queen Mary where it now berths in Long Beach, California--a tourist attraction--but couldn't find it in me to go on board. Just happy that my mother had shared the memories of her voyage with me long ago. Thanks for sharing your memories.

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    1. There must be lots with personal associations with the QM like yours. It was painted all grey during the war. My dad was also facinated by the SS United States. I believe the QM, the Queen Elizabeth and the US between them cornered the Southampton to NY service for a decade or so.

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  8. Your father sounds like a man after my own heart.

    The first newspaper office I worked in stood across the road from Upper Clyde Shipbuilders.
    I covered the launch of the last ship, a very low key affair, because the buyers were Israel, and Black September was then a threat.

    U.C.S then started to build oil rigs; a couple of Texan millionaires came over, wearing suits and cowboy hats. The deal was on, the workers cheered. Scotland was then pre-Thatcherite and a good place to live.

    I am sure your Da and I could have talked about The Normandie and The Isle de France, about which songs were written and sung.
    I can sing J'irai Revoir Ma Normandie (YouTube) and These Foolish Things in French, although the first is about Normandy not The Normandie.

    I rather liked Leavis, who championed Blake and Lawrence.
    Someone said he looked like a gasman who had read Bunyan.
    He stood up to Wittgenstein when the philosopher behaved cruelly.
    Leavis was wrong about C.P. Snow as a novelist and critic of culture. Snow had literary people talking about science, a good thing.
    Haggerty

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    1. My dad knew about all those ships.
      It seems these academics could be very dismissive of each other. Not like that in the universities I worked in where few staff had the curiosity to be interested in anything other than meeting their targets.

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    2. My mother grew up in Yorkhill, near the Clyde docks, so she saw Chinamen and Africans get off the big boats, in her childhood in the 1920s.
      I had pals at school whose fathers worked in the shipyards as joiners, riveters and fitters.

      Snow was a good novelist. His Strangers and Brothers sequence show us the corridors of power as only the diaries of men like Oliver Franks and John Colville can do.

      Leavis was gassed in the trenches and may understandably have been bitter towards those men in power.
      Snow's wife, the novelist Pamela Hansford Jordan wrote well too.
      Haggerty

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    3. Correction. Pamela Hansford Johnson.

      An Impossible Marriage (1954) only seems dated, until you blow the dust off. Here is pre- and post-war England among the toffs.

      I liked her last novels very much: The Good Husband, The Good Listener, A Bonfire. Published in the 1970s.
      John Braine rated her in his book Writing A Novel.
      Haggerty

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    4. What we don't hear in the Leavis quotation is the theatre of his voice, which must have made it even more offensive than it reads.
      Talking about old Glasgow you sound like Ian Jack, a brilliant journalist, but then it wouldn't surprise me at all if you know him.

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    5. Ian Jack is a must read. I have never met him.
      The last words of his I read was his obituary of Kenneth Roy, who founded The Scottish Review, and died rather suddenly. A talent.

      Leavis looked for a visionary quality in writers, and might well have dismissed Graham Greene, Anthony Powell, Amis, though possible not William Golding, Doris Lessing, Ted Hughes.

      Someone said that Clement Greenberg went into a room in his mind, and never came out. I think it was the same with Leavis.
      Your post has me reading *Literary Criticism and Philosophy* and I am struck by how mild and relaxed Leavis can be.

      I wonder what he would have made of Harold Bloom, who wrote a strange book on Yahweh and Jesus, and somehow brought in Philip Roth.
      Bloom goes wildly off topic but made lit. crit. exciting again.
      Haggerty

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    6. Ian Jack continues to contribute occasional essays for the Guardian, most recently on the Saudi purchase of Newcastle United.

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    7. I must catch up with Ian Jack.
      I read *Before the Oil Ran Out 1977-86* and have stacks of old Grantas, many of which he edited. Too good to give away.
      Perhaps he is in Glasgow talking to the protesters outside COP26. The massive police presence is gone (Tuesday) though the Art Galleries, where the great and the good had their dinner, is still sealed off.

      The Leavis book I am reading is *The Critic as Anti-Philosopher*. Essays on Wordsworth, Coleridge, G.M. Hopkins, Arnold, Hardy, Joyce, Wittgenstein, Tony Tanner. The piano tuner's son from Cambridge is in mellow mood.
      Haggerty

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  9. She was a beautiful ship. They don't make such graceful ocean liners any more.

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    1. If only they were still sailing. I think there was a chance for the SS United States for a time but even that now seems to have passed.

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  10. That must have been a wonderful experience to see the Queen Mary with your family. Your Father's love and excitement of it must have enhanced your enjoyment! It is something to think about when you mention our digital footprint. These days there are cameras everywhere you go and more of our lives are somewhere on the internet than we might think. I can't imagine anything about my life could be of interest to anyone unless it was family. This is a very interesting post, thank you!

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    1. The ship appeared in a television documentary very recently, and, yes, I can think "I saw that". It was especially the size that I remember, compared to being in little boat nearby. And how quickly she was moving.

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  11. We found a stack of old "Fortune" magazines in an attic of a house that we are renovating. There are advertisements in it, wonderful old cars, liquor, cigarettes, but there are also advertisements for voyages around the world for $895. Imagine! I want to do a transatlantic voyage coming home from UK. The idea of being at sea for days just fascinates me. It sounds silly, I know.

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    1. Doesn't sound silly to me.
      In the very early days of the internet I met someone who had, for a very small sum, bought the rights to someold magazines. The vendor of the rights thought the articles no longer had much value. What they didn't realise was that it was the adverts were of most interest.

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  12. Once, long ago, my mother father and I along with my three brothers sat on the shore of The Solent and watched "The Queen Mary" go by. It could have easily been August 1960 and I am not kidding.

    In sixty years The Tasker Dunham Appreciation Society will be poring over your digital footprints, seeking more juicy tidbits to be used in the popular Netflix series: "Scandal: The Life and Times of Tasker Dunham".

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    1. Infamy, infamy, he's got it in....
      Debby's comment immediately above has had me looking on the Cunard web site. You've really got to want to do it.

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    2. We are probably going with Norwegian Cruise Line.

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  13. Thelma's comment about sense of wonder, and Jaycee's about 'they don't make 'em like that any more' got us thinking. Yes modern ships are less graceful, and modern cruise boats definitely aren't designed to instil wonder, but perhaps wonder had moved on to other subject material - like the age of space exploration.

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    1. My sense of wonder was definitely exercised by the space exploration books I wrote about not so long ago. I hope there aren't too many who are not in awe of anything.

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    2. I love that last line, Tasker.

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  14. I have crossed the Atlantic just once, just for the experience, and it did not disappoint. When we were exactly half way, before dawn on a flat calm sea, we were woken by a message on the tannoy saying, 'man overboard, man overboard. We were instructed to stand on our balcony and search for signs of life. Eventually a man was plucked out of the sea.
    British humour came into play the following day when the joke went round the ship that the man was one of the drifters. There was a Drifters tribute band onboard!
    Leavis - what a piece of work!

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    1. I hope he was OK.
      Before the 1960s most trips to distant countries involved long sea voyages which must have seemed like time-out from life. Imagine the weeks it took to get to Singapore or Australia. I think it's that timelessness that appeals. It would set you back around £1200 one-way to New York now.

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    2. Yes, the drunken fool was confined below deck and discharged, along with his party at the first landfall. I heard that there was a lifelong ban on his traveling with the shipping company again.
      I've produced murals and paintings for several of the Royal Carribbean cruise ships. Good fun as the briefings were very free and the money good! The ships were like floating gin palaces.

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  15. Dear Tasker, can you imagine that a few days ago I stood in Berlin's KaDeWe (a very big posh store, though not quite as big as Harrods) and waited, if - maybe - I had won a cruise trip for two on the Queen Mary 2 ?
    Cruise trip travelling is not the dream of my life - though the destination: New York, is - and the luck fairy must have known: so I didn't win.

    Thank you for your post, I learned a lot and was entertained!

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    1. I bet you would enjoy the Atantic crossing as well. Just imagine the footsteps you would be following. Thank you for your encouraging comment.

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  16. Another fascinating post, Tasker, but one that raises questions in my mind that I hope you can answer. Since the QM is permanently moored at Long Beach, California, which is on the WEST coast of the US, did her final voyage go across the North Atlantic and through the Panama Canal? If she couldn’t fit through the Panama Canall, did she go around the southern tip of South America to reac Long Beach? Or did her final voyage take her around Africa instead into the Indian Ocean, ultimately sailing eastward across the Pacific to reach her final home? I will not sleep until you provide me with answers to my questions. Sleep well, I mean.

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    1. Never mind, I found the answer. She sailed around Cape Horn, the southern tip of Sourh America.

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    2. I have to admit that is something I had wondered but not got round to finding the answer. Thank you for apprising me.

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