Monday, November 14, 2011

The Queen Mary; Deck 1

Here’s a funny thing.

The medical centre on this ship is on Deck 1, the lowest platform of the vessel. It is a funny deck, being home to pallets of vegetables, bits of engine, mysterious boxes with funny labels, rooms named after “Kensington”, “Chelsea”, “Belgravia” and “Knightsbridge” - some of London’s most salubrious suburbs and the medical centre.

I know this only because I was exercising. Yes, I know. However, as part of my regime I spent some fifteen minutes on a treadmill, not normally a dangerous pastime. Excruciatingly boring, yes, but not inherently death-defying.

However, on board a ship that lurches gently in unpredictable parabolas, one finds one’s feet searching for land, and in extremis, finding one’s ankle tendons being left far behind, flapping in the proverbial wind. Hence my trip to the medical centre.

Now, what is really odd about it is that the elevator (or” lift” as it is called on this splendidly British ship) only goes to a couple of points Deck 1, neither accessible to the medical centre. No, to get medical help, one has to go to Deck 2 and walk down two flights of stairs. I hobbled down, clutching the railing in a somewhat melodramatic manner to emphasise my plight, wondering how someone with a serious injury would be able to access the doctor. Would they slide down? Are there special “buckets” in which the wounded are propelled to Deck 1? A system of weights and pulleys? Enquiring minds need to know.

However, the doctor was very good, the ankle duly bound and now a wheelchair to look forward to at the airports en route home. At least the immigration queue will be short.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Queen Mary 2; sailing across The Atlantic

Buffets on board ships are terrific places to observe eccentricity at play, and the Queen Mary is no exception.

Unleashed from the constraints of conventional food-pairing, buffet-grazers are free to tickle their taste buds as they fancy. One sees chicken curry sploshed on a plate alongside pizza and little pickled fish, roast beef garnished with macaroni cheese and any number of wonderfully personal combinations. It does make one question how the more common and pedestrian combinations, so beloved of the processed-food industry came into being; certainly not from the observation of folks in a buffet line when free to choose the combination that most appeals.

Eccentricity is actually in pretty short order here; at first glance it is a fairly homogeneous crowd, particularly at dinner where 80% of the men aboard wear evening dress. However, there are glimpses of individuality; a novelty bow-tie or two, a cummerbund discreetly sporting the crest of a secret society, or perhaps a football team. There are those who choose to dress like an old photographic negative, exchanging black suits for white, and white shirts for black; even the odd cuff-links, indicating a wearer with personality, and of course, one or two gentlemen discreetly sporting medals.

The medals are interesting and food for speculation. Are they indeed war heroes or wearing some bauble of Soviet-era industrial success picked up in a Moldovan market place? One hardly dares to ask.

Our 2,491 passengers are apparantly drawn from twenty-nine countries, including, a touch mysteriously, six Maltese; Brits far outnumber the rest, with 1,488 in their number, compared with singletons from Estonia, Hong Kong, Romania, Singapore and Swaziland. Does the Estonian make up a party of four with the three identified Finns? One never knows, but days at sea sharpen one’s curiosity.

The passengers are a mixed bunch too, with a myriad of reasons to be ploughing across the North Atlantic in November. There are many who simply “don’t fly”, and for whom the QM2 is the only way to regularly get to America for business, to see family or to simply sightsee. There are those here to celebrate anniversaries or, by the disconsolate looks of some couples at the bars, to try and repair relationships. There are those who are on board, it seems, to play bridge endlessly, some dance for hours and some simply read.

It is a great attraction of this ship that so many tastes are catered to. There are no assertively smiley folks trying to make you have more fun than you might want, and the shopping is limited. It is not a circus, more a country-house hotel than an all-inclusive, and a very pleasant way to while away a week.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Europe - November 2011

It is difficult to be in Europe for a couple of weeks and not realise that they are in the middle of an economic and political crises of stupendous proportions. That is, if one reads and believes the newspapers; real life, if there is such a thing, seems to be a little different.

It is not that times are harder than before; they appear to be so. Primark, London’s major discount store that sells goods faster than China can make them now, seems, by observation of shopping bags in Oxford Street, to be doing a very robust business. So do the rather more chic bags emanating from Aspreys, the more discreet tailors of Jermyn Street and London’s finer milliners.

It is something else that is missing, and it is difficult to put one’s finger on it with any precision.

Conversation is often of frightening times; of disappearing savings, of increased prices, of riots and even the spectacle of “economic collapse”. What exactly the world would look like in the event of any of these apocalypses, however, is unknown and terribly speculative. Does it mean a grinding decade or two of no growth, grumpy unions and increasingly pointed barbs at the older folks who have, quite understandably, got most of the wealth? Obtained wealth, it must be added, through dint of hard work, saving before spending and the absence of credit when they were in their twenties.

Now we have the spectacle of a United Kingdom that requires both increased savings and growing spending to stave off the crises.

But what, exactly is the crises? Rampant riots, bank accounts that implode, worthless pieces of paper held by Financial Institutions? Are we talking about thinking more about the price of the food that we buy, or having a go at the neighbour’s dog?

And lest Brits be too cheery about not being in the Eurozone, which they are not and probably fortunately for both the UK and the Eurozone, the economy appears to be tottering close to collapse triggered by rampant lending to an obviously uncreditworthy Greece and the legendary escapades of Italy’s Lotharian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Really, you could not have made this stuff up.

The Powerful Ones, notably the EU commissioners and Angela Merkel, the wannabe powerful ones, Nicolas Sarkozy and the IMF line up to wag their fingers at Greece and Italy. The Greek Bailout (which appears to me to be more of a bailout to the reckless banks who lent them all the money)will cost the diligent burghers of Bavaria and Prussia a great deal of money, The Italian Job, unfolding as I write this, will cost a whole lot more; and meanwhile, the voters are getting grumpy. It seems to be commonly agreed that a plebiscite of any kind would be unkind to the vision of European Togetherness; as soon as the Greeks decided to hold one, it only took a few days before the idea was firmly squashed and the prime minister disrobed.

God forbid that democracy comes to Europe, and that the voters are invited to actually make a decision.

In the meantime, bankers get enormous bonuses, senior civil servants getting salaries in excess of £150,000 are firing those making less than £15,000; offshore capital is piling up faster than leaves in the autumnal wind and folks are getting disillusioned and angry. With something, although exactly what is not quite certain.

It is my belief that the laissez faire model of capitalism is in its dying throes. Capitalism is, of course, only a form of Darwinism practiced among companies. As many regulations and ways of conducting commerce were thrown away in the 1980s, greed became rampant, and companies, as they should in the Darwinian world, simply became bigger. Financial institutions became evermore skilled and vacuuming up cash from the economy, and now, it appears, that “they” have indeed won. They have all of the money, and nobody, absolutely nobody has any idea how to get it back into circulation.

We read of company coffers stuffed with cash; of cash balances in the offshore centres bulging with some of the smaller islands sinking under the weight of the cash. And what are we to do? We will happily congratulate them at their brilliance at winning all of the toys; we will even give them bonuses for having reached the pinnacle of some challenge or other.

We have not “lost” money, as if blasted off into outer space. No, we have allowed a smaller and smaller number of corporate titanics to hoard all of the wealth, and placed absolutely no obligation on them to put it back to work.

That is the problem.