“You have 15 seconds to capture someone’s attention,” crime writer Mark Billingham says. Outside, the ocean rushes by, waves flecked with white horses. The wreck of the Titanic lies 150 miles south.
Not a bad place for a literary festival
My friends Phreddie and Rosalind put me onto the Times and Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival at Sea. “Sebastian Faulks, Louis de Bernières, Victoria Hislop, P.J. O’Rourke – what can go wrong?” they said. I checked it out. The package included a flight to New York, three nights in a hotel, then seven nights on Cunard’s “Queen Mary 2” in the company of literary greats, plus a top team of Times and Sunday Times editors and journalists. I went for it.
Classic views as you leave New York
On board, I experienced one core problem: FOMO (fear of missing out). The QM2 is a massive, floating 5* hotel with remarkable service, surrounded by the North Atlantic Ocean. I wanted to spend 23 hours of the 23 available (the clocks go forward an hour most days) strolling around Deck 7, watching the waves; consuming cream teas in the Queen’s Room; drinking possibly the best hot chocolate on earth in Sir Samuel’s Godiva chocolate bar; reading my book on the aft deck as the waves rushed by; dancing (ballroom or nightclub); sampling the Martinis in the Commodore Club; munching the Cunard signature full English breakfast; and so on.
Mark Billingham’s awesome literary quiz
Meanwhile my “Literature Festival at Sea” brochure laid out a cornucopia of treats: Ben Macintyre talking about his latest book on the SAS; Mark Billingham’s workshop on plotting a crime novel; Tayari Jones discussing her Women’s Prize for Fiction winner An American Marriage with Times Deputy Editor Emma Tucker; Sunday Times Chief Fiction Reviewer Peter Kemp’s lecture on Victorian ghost tales; Louis de Bernières reading his poetry, or playing Spanish guitar; Victoria Hislop talking about “Fiction and Place”. Not to mention a fabulous round of movies, shows, music, and the rather marvellous “stateroom” (bedroom) with its view of the great grey blue ocean.
The view from the Queen Mary 2 is hypnotic
I opted for the best blend of competing pleasures I could manage. I heard Sebastian Faulks quote his favourite literary villain, Ronald Merrick from the Raj Quartet, as being “wound up wrong” (another character from the Raj Quartet, Hari Kumar, is an inspiration for the gay SIS officer, Ram Kuresh, in my thriller Blood Summit). I heard Tayari Jones talk about her life and writing (“a good book should be about people and their problems, not problems and their people”). Louis de Bernières explained how German/Italian conflict on Cephalonia in 1943 made him think “this would be a good setting for a Romeo and Juliet story”.
Victoria Hislop displayed disarming humility as she said “I thought I’d get the brush-off” when she consulted a world expert on leprosy to research her best-selling book “The Island”. Damian Barr talked about his romantic streak after being taught to read via Mills & Boon (“I just know the Captain of this ship will fall in love with me, if he hasn’t already”). I thrilled at Mark Billingham’s “shout-out line” for his first thriller, “Sleepyhead”: “he doesn’t want you alive, he doesn’t want you dead, he wants you somewhere in-between”. And I lapped up the dramatisation of “P.G. Wodehouse: All at Sea”. In what time remained, I gorged on scones, sipped Martinis, gazed at the ocean, haunted the Lookout and the Observation Decks, enjoyed the library, tested out the pools and whirlpools, wondered at the clockwork efficiency of the ship, and caught a few hours’ sleep. It is true, as Damian Barr observed, that the ship is fantastically romantic.
Mariella Frostrup, Julia Wheeler and Gina Bellman discuss”Wild Women and Their Amazing Adventures Over Land, Sea & Air”
A “Literature Festival at Sea 2020” is already planned. Will I be on it? Watch this space.
For: a wonderful week at sea, combining an awesome ocean liner and a fascinating festival. Hats off to the Cheltenham Literature Festival for making it happen.
Against: FOMO a real problem.
I was heartbroken when the voyage was over
For my reviews of writing courses, see:
- Arvon residential writing courses: review
- Pure writing inspiration: Loutro, Crete
- Dancing for New Orleans: Skyros writing course