Sunday, March 23, 2008

RMS Queen Mary, Long Beached, California

stern funnel, RMS Queen MaryI should have started this blog a long while ago as so much comes from sleeplessness, then, when I did start writing, I didn’t post it. Whatever, here’s that post.

Long Beach, California, October 2007: 16 time zones adrift after a 10 hour flight from Narita. The southern skies were thick with smoke from burning wildfires all personalised with names like Witch and Orange. Blue from above, brown from below – creating a curiously rounded diffuse light, saturating colours. And what sunsets! Particles in the atmosphere turned dawn and dusk into theatre, with the sun rising and setting an improbable crimson.

The Queen Mary became a permanent part of Long Beach in 1969, casting off her glory days as a transatlantic liner to become a floating hotel. As a child I’d seen the Queen and the other vast liners cruise by my grounded summer holidays on the Isle of Wight, always wondering what it could be like to be a passenger. Blackboards announced names and times, and I could never get over the speed of the liners’ surfacing from the horizon, funnels-first. I’d wait for their wakes to hit the beach well after they’d disappeared towards Southampton. So I couldn’t miss the opportunity to spend some time on board, especially as I could get a large cabin with two portholes overlooking the harbour.

I was reading a novel* about an amnesiac (Yambo) who was trying to regain his life by rereading books and magazines he’d had stored since childhood. After a while I realised that I’d read at least part of this actual novel in my past, it was just like remembering a movie you’d fallen asleep through on a plane. Of course, this was all happening in the middle of the local Californian night when I should have been asleep…

Yambo describes his lost past as an impenetrable inner fog, he reels off fog-related quotes from poems and novels, and is rather pleased to be told that he has a collection of over 150 pages of these quotes. Fog prevails the early pages of the novel.

I wake that morning to the sounds of very large, very close diesel engines. Dawn has stealthily insulated the ship in a chilly fog denying locating the source of the now very irritating drone. Starboard is devoid of references to land, just flat Pacific and pallid cormorants. We were virtually, silently underway from the muggy heat of greater Los Angeles, haunted by a ghost ship.

The Queen still sounds her massive fog-horns in fair weather, not when fog is officially present lest she confuse shipping. A sleek cruise ship appeared beyond our stern when the fog cleared that morning – the continuing source of the noise.
portholes in a First Class State Room, RMS Queen Mary
As I about to check out of my ‘quarters’, two young men arrived in the next cabin their repeated expletive shouts of “are sum” indicating their pleasure with the cabin, especially the opening portholes. I thought it good to leave when one dared the other to dive out…

The next sleepless night in my land-locked Hilton, my amnesiac was recounting Jack London’s “Martin Eden” – who killed himself by diving out of a porthole in a ship crossing the Pacific… It seemed as if my world and Yambo’s were somehow synchronising. It’s unnerving to become part of a book that you are actively reading.
a curious figure striding out into the ocean - the Sandman?
Though he had never really featured in my life, I cursed the absence of the Sandman in my need of regularised sleep. Until I looked more closely at a photograph on my bedroom wall and it appeared that the Sandman had left Long Beach sometime before 1920. There's an odd figure striding out into the ocean, against the tide, and away from the photographer (the image was provided by the Long Beach Historical Society).

*The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana,” Umberto Eco

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