The great ocean liners were the landmarks, grace notes and sometimes the agents of history. Born as I was in the Belle Epoque, admittedly in its dying days, I was well placed to marvel at the mightiest moveable artefacts of that time: the 'floating cities' of Cunard's four-funnelled, five-syllabled fleet, Lusitania, Aquitania and Mauretania. They were the civil equivalent of dreadnoughts and they competed with an aggressive Germany for the Blue Riband of the Atlantic, a non-existent but highly cherishable award for the fastest crossing, which the Lusitania snatched from the Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1907. I was too young to remember the loss of White Star's Titanic, but not too young to remember the torpedoing in 1915 of the Lusitania. Wars end with a forfeiture and redistribution not only of cities but of floating cities. So, in compensation for the Lusitania, Cunard accepted the Kaiser's Imperator, and his Bismarck became White Star's Majestic; his Vaterland had already been converted to trooping by the Americans and was plying as the Leviathan. The Aquitania, shedding her war paint, emerged unscathed from trooping as she would from the next world war. Shorter lived was the Mauretania, that long-time Riband holder, a proud vessel which, when asked by a French Caribbean island, 'Which ship are you?' replied: 'Which island are you?' After helping to work up the new cruising craze she went to the breakers in 1935.
LRB 20 October 2005 | PDF Download