East of Suez

<strong>Taken from the <em>New Statesman</em> archive, 22 May 1970.</strong>

This was an early tas

People used to go on cruises in the olden days from sheer boredom, to mend a broken heart, or to Get Over Some Rotter. Now they go because a cruise is a status symbol, a lazy man's holiday - places come to you, you don't have to go to them - or because they hear there is a wild dolce vita above and below deck. I went on a long sea voyage because my cousin in Hong Kong said do come and visit us and I did.

There was consternation about an unescorted lady joining the ship at Port Said. I tried to explain that I would sit quietly reading an improving book until the Good Ship Rangoon arrived, but it was still thought very odd, so I bowed to everything and took a terrible boat back to Marseilles to be in at the Start. It was just as well I did. I was put at a table where a Swiss banker and a horror-style American couple were examining the menu with disapproval. The Swiss said he hoped everything wouldn't be covered in sauce and the American wife said that she remembered the Herbert Hoover and the Woodrow Wilson (boats presumably) and described them in detail. The husband said he looked so young because he chewed every mouthful of food twenny times, and then by God if he didn't like it he spat it out. There would be four weeks of this, I thought, and asked could I go to another table.

The purser was distressed. Obviously, unescorted ladies were rated second to mutinies in terms of trouble. I could make one change, but that was all. I went to Tourist Class, to a fine multiracial table of men; I had dancing partners, escorts in Bombay and Singapore, arguments over the free wine every night and nobody even considered spitting anything out. The purser told the first three I wanted to perfect my Spoken Mandarin before getting to Hong Kong. They nodded and said that the Irish were quaint.

There was a swimming pool where we all spent most of the day in complete harmony, and if it was crowded at times nobody minded. One day a flying fish landed in the middle, causing shock to the swimmers, but a Nature Lover said it caused further shock to the fish so we didn't complain. At night when the official dance was over, we would have a tape-recorder on the deck beside the pool, and whiskey and sandwiches, and it was about the most sophisticated jet-set month of my life.

Among the passengers were a couple of American entertainers going to Vietnam, called Skip E Lowe and Margie MacGlory, and they turned Classe Économique into the In-place on the ship. Three times a week they organised a party and invited everyone, which was embarrassing as the Classe Économique swimming pool was very small, and they weren't allowed to use ours. Still we all went to their parties and smuggled individuals up to the First Class dance now and then, which they regarded as a lot of staid rubbish.

Valéry, the doctor on the ship, was the best-looking Frenchman I have ever seen. We would laugh wickedly over his youth and probable incompetence, and drink to the hope that no one would need anything more medical than aspirin. When I fell down the stairs and hurt my back, Valéry was by my bed when I woke. He had a single red rose which he had been keeping in the fridge in case of Romance, but it seemed that this was the time to bring it out. His first words were that he really did know a great deal of medicine and that I mustn't worry. It was a bruise, he said, a great bruise and that I would be all right. People would be coming in to see me shortly, he added, as a treat.

I managed a grin for the flow of visitors. Skip E Lowe and Margie MacGlory rehearsed some of their sketches on the grounds that if I laughed the American servicemen might too. I gave them a hard time. Valéry came four times a day and dragged me out of bed to give me a shower and dragged me back again. He decided it was not a bruise, but we would soon be in Hong Kong and everything would be all right. Two Japanese students came from Classe Économique and said that they had wonderful purple plasters that cured bruises and should they stick them on me. They did, and though they looked colourful they couldn't be expected to cure a broken spine, which was what it was. Even the Americans who chewed their food came, and said they hoped I had a smart lawyer.

I had to sit up in bed and talk like Peter Ustinov to ensure that the visitors kept coming. The bar sent me some drink to entertain with and there were times when I didn't feel that I would be dead when we saw Hong Kong. Valéry packed my cases, said he'd never forget me, and that I should get an X-ray at once.

I was out of hospital by the time the Good Ship Rangoon came back to Hong Kong. Valéry arrived and told me all the gossip. Everyone on board had thought I was arrested on arrival because I left on a police launch. The Captain had remarked that I had been very nice for an unescorted female until I retired inexplicably to bed. The chewing American and the Swiss banker had had a terrible fight on the last night; apparently it was something to do with the way the American used to eat his food. They had a telegram from Skip E Lowe and Margie MacGlory saying that they were doing a bomb in Vietnam and no one knew whether that was good or bad. It was very dull indeed going home by plane.