Cunard literary cruise: luxurious literature

Picture of Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

Our Cunard Literary Cruise was utterly perfect, both as a cultural experience and a glorious exercise in pampering. I’d do it again like a shot. 

“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.

Cunard Literary cruise: Queen Mary

Not a bad place for a literary festival

The Cunard Literary Cruise

My friends Phreddie and Rosalind put me onto the Times and Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival at SeaSebastian Faulks, Louis de Bernières, Victoria Hislop, P.J. O’Rourke – what can go wrong?’ they said.  We 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. We went for it.

Cunard Literary Cruise: Statue of Liberty

Classic views as you leave New York

Cunard Literary Cruise: Fear of Missing Out

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 and perfecting my quickstep in the Queen’s Room; drinking the best hot chocolate on land or sea in Sir Samuel’s Godiva chocolate bar; reading my book on the aft deck as the waves rushed by; sampling the Martinis in the Commodore Club; munching the Cunard signature full English breakfast; and so on.

Cunard Literary Cruise: Mark Billingham

Mark Billingham’s awesome literary quiz

Ben Macintyre

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.

Sebastian Faulks

We opted for the best blend of competing pleasures we 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).  Tayari Jones talked 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

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”.  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.

The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

Mariella Frostrup, Julia Wheeler and Gina Bellman

For: the Cunard Literary Cruise was 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

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