Lecturer’s life on the ocean waves

The Times April 19 2004

Novelist and literary critic Michael Arditti takes to life as a lecturer on a cruise ship


Novel writing does not finance expensive holidays. So I was doubly delighted to be invited as a lecturer on a Swan Hellenic cruise, a heady mix of luxury and adventure with free drinks and laundry thrown in. We were to sail around the Aegean and Adriatic, visiting Istanbul, Athens, assorted Greek islands, Dubrovnik and Venice. With my background not just as a novelist but as a literary and theatrical critic, I was to speak about Greek tragedy, Lawrence and Gerald Durrell, Dante and Casanova. I had been booked on a similar cruise two years ago but was forced to pull out with a spine infection which has left me permanently incapacitated. My worries about mobility both on ship and shore were immediately relieved at Heathrow where I stepped onto a concourse full of sticks. For the first time since my illness, I was in the majority.

Cruising Is clearly an old person’s sport. One passenger gleefully described it to me as “spending the kids’ inheritance”. Age, however, proved no bar to agility. I watched in awe as eighty-year-old ladies hurtled up hillsides and a man whose titanium hips had caused havoc at Istanbul airport clambered up the Dubrovnik city walls.

Istanbul was where we boarded the ship. Rumbles of discontent emerged from Swan regulars (some of whom had cruised with the company for thirty years) about the lack of intimacy – and even of austerity – on the immensely plush new Minerva 1. They fondly described the past ethos as “plain living and high thinking”. But. while not averse to the odd high thought myself, I was happy to pursue it in one of the ship’s several Jacuzzis or nursing a Virgin Colada on one of its sun decks or simply gazing out to sea from my private balcony.

Life on board is at once carefree and carefully regulated The man in overall charge of the 600 passengers is the cruise director who, after introducing himself on the first night and warning us against such dastardly behaviour as rushing out to bag the best sun-beds, addressed us over the Tannoy several times a day. His perfect poise only shattered once, at the end of the cruise, when he announced that there had been unusually large number of requests for assistance at Venice Airport and urged those who could walk unaided to do so, “We know who you are,” he declared with barely veiled menace. “We’ve seen you out on excursions.” He was also in overall charge of the lecturers. We were a mixed bunch: Colin Babcock, a retired Winchester classicist, Martin Gayford, an art critic, Sophie Laws, a theologian and Hellenist, and the Right Reverend Mark Santer, the former Bishop of Birmingham. We were invited to bring partners At the introductory party, scandal was narrowly averted when the Bishop announced that his mystery travelling companion was, in fact, his wife using her maiden name.

The passengers were equally varied. I chatted to ex-ambassadors, academics, lawyers and company directors, not to mention a regiment of doughty gentlewomen who harked back to the days of Victorian lady explorers. A particularly happy coincidence occurred when our classical music trio, Terzina, announced that they were playing a Mozart piece in an arrangement by Evelyn Rothwell who, unknown to them, was sailing under her married name of Lady Barbirolli.

My fears that my lectures would be both unattended and unappreciated were soon eased. It was, however, disconcerting to discover that many people preferred to watch on the video screens in their cabins, not least when an elderly lady informed me that she and her husband had enjoyed the Casanova talk In bed. “Best place for it,” I declared, only to find that she completely mistook my meaning. “You’re wicked,” she said, hooting with delight.

! was thrilled to be among people with a genuine interest in books. I preened myself as people congratulated me on my novels, although the effect somewhat palled when one man told me that he had especially loved the film, and it became clear that he had confused me with the author of The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje.

Life on board was so congenial that it could be hard to work up the requisite enthusiasm for trips ashore. But culture called. The most intriguing city we visited was Istanbul where the streets swarmed with pedlars whose command of English (which stretched to “guidebook”, “dollars”, “bargain” and “Beckham”) faltered at the word “present”. The most beautiful Island was Delos, whose ancient ruins were covered with wild flowers. The most breathtaking excursion was to Vergina, site of Philip of Macedon’s treasure (easily the equal of Tutankhamun’s), where our guide described how she had been present on the day when, after thirty years of digging, the archaeologist had discovered the tomb.

I felt particularly privileged to be standing on the Bridge, giving a short talk as we approached Dubrovnik, in the company of a young Croatian officer who was returning home after seven months at sea. His palpable joy – not even clouded by memories of being a sixteen-year-old schoolboy during the Serbian siege – could no longer be contained when he trained his binoculars on his house and saw his parents waving a flag. I even forgave him when he later gave a series of extended blasts on the ship’s whistle, drowning out the end of my speech.

One passenger described a Swan Hellenic cruise to me as an “educate a granny” trip At 40 years her Junior, I soon discovered that it was educate a grandson too. I learnt so much both from the guides and my fellow lecturers, whether It was that Philip of Macedon was only 4’6″ tall or that “diplomacy” was the Greek for double-dealing, and from visits to sites such as the Parthenon where I found that, in architecture as in life, slightly bent gives the illusion of straight.

Another passenger expressed her relief that, on a Swan cruise, there were no fancy dress parties or funny hats That, however, did not prevent the evenings being entertaining for grannies and grandsons and everyone in-between. An excellent jazz quintet played standards and even offered the more intrepid members of the audience a chance to go up and sing with them.

More melodious singing was heard in three performances of comic songs and sketches by the brilliant Shakespeare Revue.  I felt a pang of jealousy that their joke about the eighty year old couple who finally divorced (“We wanted to wait until the kids were dead”) met with a roar of approval, whereas my bon mot that the precise number of spectators in the Theatre of Dionysus would depend on the size of Greek bottoms barely raised a titter. But then, as a colleague remarked, given the quality and the quantity of food on offer, obesity was probably a greater taboo than divorce.

Rarely has landing at Heathrow brought me down to earth with such a bang. I looked enviously at those passengers who’d taken advantage of a range of offers to stay on board for a further two weeks. Still, I only have to wait till next spring when I’ll be packing my bags once again, ready to discourse on women pirates in the Bahamas.

Michael Arditti’s short story collection. Good Clean Fun (Maia. £8.99) will be published in May.