Passengers boarding an ocean liner, 1925. Photo: Australian National Maritime Museum, via Wikimedia Commons.
It was for convalescent reasons that I lately undertook a resolutely up-market Mediterranean cruise, with a Greek classical bias, and since I thought of such a cruise generically as being a kind of packaged aging process, at first I decided for literary purposes to rename our ship the Geriatrica. Later I changed my mind.
It was perfectly true, though, as I had foreseen, that we formed a venerable passenger list, and sunset intimations were soon apparent. Hardly had we left the quay than a charming American senior citizen approached me as I stood at the rail, and said that since she heard I wrote books, she thought I might be amused by her favorite quotation from Groucho Marx. “It goes like this,” said she. “ ’Next to a dog, a book is a man’s best friend, but inside it’s too dark to read anyway.’ Isn’t that hilarious? I just love it.” I laughed politely, but I could not help thinking that with the passage of time the tale must have lost something in its telling.
Of course the passage of time had to be a preoccupation on board such a ship as ours. “Facing Up to Rheumatism” was one of our first educational lectures, and for myself I felt that the ancient seas through which we passed, seas of glory, seas of fate, seas where young gods fought and heroes died, were themselves allegories of mortality’s challenge. “Facing Up to Decay,” in fact, might have been a more apposite mantra.
Half of us faced up to it cockily. Vivid combinations of lipstick and wrinkle could be observed at the Captain’s Gala Dinner. Nautical-looking veterans with binoculars were up at crack of dawn to sail into Istanbul. Loud accents of the English fifties reverberated over gins and tonics through the Whaleback Bar. Proudly muscular old couples marched their obligatory exercise around the promenade deck (fifteen circuits to the mile) before, having dressed formidably for dinner, they joined their friends for cocktails by the pool.
The other half of us preferred resignation, and more often sat in discreet twos or fours over fruit drinks with flexible straws. They were very likely looking at maps of tomorrow’s classical site, or discussing the recent lecture about Theban mosaics. Some of the ladies wore shawls. Few of the gentlemen wore white dinner jackets. Unless there was a bridge game going, they usually went to bed early.
But the odd truth is, the two categories blended. The metallic bray of the home counties was subsumed into homelier vernaculars, a generally club-like air prevailed, and when the time came for the fancy-dress dance at the Seafarers’ Lounge, it was hard to tell which of my fellow passengers represented Defiance, and which were Resignation. This was because, I gradually came to realize, they were united in toughness, in resolution, and in enthusiasm. They were all there to enjoy themselves, and even the oldest among us, even the ones with Zimmer frames, even the palest convalescents, were out for a good time. They were docile in their obedience to the ship’s rules, but it was a willing suspension of liberty.
By Zeus, how terrific was their energy! Nothing dissuaded them. With earnest diligence they listen to the spiel of the tour guide. Like aging gazelles they spring up the tiers of the Epidaurus theater. We see them vivaciously haggling with Anatolian souvenir sellers, courageously experimenting with the effects of ouzo, returning to the ship loaded down with toys for the grandchildren, talking nineteen to the dozen, and ending the day with an enormous multicourse meal in the Geriatrica’s dining room, for which they boisterously thank the Filipino waiters like old friends and shipmates (which, after half a lifetime of cruises, many of them are).
By the time we reached our port of disembarkation, I was quite won over. The sprightly enthusiasm of it all had seduced me: the fertile mix of Carnival and Palm Court, and the determination to make the most of everything. On our last day aboard, that delightful old American lady approached me again. “I knew I’d got that Groucho story wrong. I’ve been thinking about it all this time, and this is how it should go: ‘Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend, but inside it’s too dark to read anyway.’ ”
This time I really did laugh. I marveled that throughout our voyage, in museum, taverna, and Seafarers’ Lounge, she had been assiduously worrying out that joke; and even as she spoke my eyes strayed to the Sunshine Promenade above her head, where the passengers were seizing their last chance of seaboard exercise around the measured mile.
There they were in silhouette, as those gods and heroes might be on a Grecian vase: the mad sinewy sprinter overtaking everyone, the scholarly couple deep in talk, one or two young bloods from the entertainment staff, an old man bowed over another’s wheelchair, several solitary energetic ladies, a few game military men forever arthritically on the march.
I had grown to be proud of them—to be proud of us!—and as I laughed at the Groucho story, and admired that living frieze above us, there and then I renamed our ship. The SS Indomitable, I dubbed her then, and all who sailed in her.
Jan Morris (1926–2020) was a Welsh writer, journalist, and historian. She resided with her partner, Elizabeth Morris, in northwest Wales, between the mountains and the sea. Her many books include In My Mind’s Eye, Coronation Everest, and the Pax Britannica trilogy.
Excerpted from Allegorizings, by Jan Morris. Copyright © 2021 by the Estate of Jan Morris. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
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