Last Saturday afternoon, in Venice, 31 Spectator readers, plus Martin Vander Weyer, the great Taki and I came aboard the Cunard cruise ship Queen Victoria for the inaugural Spectator Mediterranean cruise. The first chance we had to get to know one another was a pre-dinner drinks party in Hemispheres, the ship’s nightclub. I was late, and apprehensive about how things would go. The ship’s commodore, a lonely, courtly figure encased in a starched white uniform, was there in the Spectator readers’ midst offering his right hand to anyone who wanted it. I removed a flute of champagne from the offered silver tray and plunged in.
The first reader I spoke to said, ‘My name is Fanny and I am bisexual so there’s hope for you yet.’ The second reader I spoke to pulled me slightly aside from his wife and said, ‘Why don’t Sussex girls like gang bangs?’ I shook my head. ‘It’s having to write all those thank-you cards afterwards.’ The third, a big South African, nearly broke my hand and said: ‘What is the point of being alive? Jeremy, let me tell you in one word: pussy. The rest is all bullshit, my friend.’ From this moment on, I thought that the cruise was going to be just fine.
Then I saw that the great Taki was in the room. Thrilled to bits, I went over to greet him. His journey by air from Switzerland had been fraught with delays and difficulties. He had boarded the ship seconds before she sailed. And the ship’s authorities had insisted he suffer the indignity of a lifeboat drill. Able seaman Taki had had to practice putting on a life jacket. His eyes looked pleadingly into mine. ‘Jeremy, I have been sailing all of my life. I have my own 160-foot schooner. And they want me to do a lifeboat drill on my own. No, I told them. They can all go fuck themselves.’
After the party we trooped upstairs to the exclusive Queen’s Grill for the first dinner of the cruise. I joined a table of eight which included Taki. As I was being helped into my seat, I saw his fountain pen poised over a sheet of the ship’s headed notepaper and I heard him addressing his waiter thus: ‘Now listen, waiter. Your boss Nancy Cunard was a great friend of mine. She was the most promiscuous woman the world has ever seen. I want you to deliver this letter to her. Will you do that for me?’
The grub started coming and the wine began to flow, loosening inhibitions. Polite, neighbourly conversation became a hubbub of general chatter, then uproar. The Canadian doctor seated on my right transfixed me with an account of how he won US$70,000 at a chemin de fer table at the Sands Casino in Las Vegas in the late 1950s. He was not a gambler particularly, and the win changed the course of his life. With his winnings he set himself up as a general practitioner to the casinos and to the Mob guys who ran them. Coincidentally, the last book I’d read was Nick Pileggi’s enthralling Casino, a tale of how the Mafia ‘skimmed’ the takings from its Las Vegas casinos in the early Sixties. To be hearing it again a fortnight later right from the horse’s mouth was amazing. From this moment on I knew the cruise was going to be just fine.
Suddenly the ships horn let go three tuba-from-hell blasts which rattled the silver and disturbed the ice cubes in my glass of Polish vodka. ‘What in Heaven’s name was that?’ said an alarmed lady Spectator reader. Old salt Taki leaned forward and placed a reassuring hand on her forearm. ‘Please don’t worry, my dear,’ he said kindly. ‘They blow the ship’s horn like that every time the captain has an erection. Three blasts for a full erection and two for a partial one. It is the law of the sea.’
Every morning since then I have woken up with the same hangover, but in a different country. Today is Friday. As I write, the Queen Victoria is berthed at the port of Kusadasi in Turkey. The 2,000-plus passengers have all swarmed off the ship to visit the splendid ruins of Ephesus. Outside on the balcony it is 100° Fahrenheit. High on the parched hill overlooking the port is a statue of Kemel Ataturk, his arm outstretched in a priestly fashion. Inside the cabin it is as chilly as a crisp English autumn morning and gay with flowers bought for next to nothing yesterday in the market at Rhodes. On my wrist is a ‘genuine fake watch’ bought in the gift shop at Knossos. I’m wearing a fez. Tomorrow the cruise finishes at Piraeus, Greece. My apprehensions have turned out to be baseless. It’s been terrific.
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