A sea of opportunity

A week in which Mark Latham becomes the Leader of the Opposition and begins talking about ‘rungs of opportunity’ to which the Prime Minister, riposting with, among other things, his Medicare reforms, announces that ‘a safety net can be a rung’ is a week of rare circumstance.

And sure enough, as if to put—in the argot of award-winning sportspeople—the icing on the cake, what should come sloshing into Melbourne’s Station Pier but the Star Princess. This is a cruise vessel that had all the pundits whipping through the Oxford Dictionary of Outrageous Hyperbole to embroider their already breathlessly overawed descriptions. The Star Princess, we were told, is twice as long as the MCG. No-one bothered to point out that the Star Princess could not possibly substitute for the MCG. For all its multi-decked extravaganza of astonishments, the vessel would be useless as a venue for football, cricket or athletics, whereas, as all those know who have spent hours and days of their life there, the MCG could quite easily be navigated up the bay and through the Rip, with 100,000 people on board (five times the number on the Star Princess), if this happened to become necessary. It’s just that the need has never arisen. Or am I missing something?

What is more, we were assured, if you stood the Star Princess on its stern, it would be some extraordinarily significant amount higher than the Rialto building. No-one mentioned that everything, including the water in the several pools, would crash down the vertical decks gathering up everything along the way and accumulate in a great heterogeneous lump at the blunt end. All of which is only to say that, take it for all in all, the Star Princess is a ship and is at its best on water, horizontal and far away from the playing fields of Melbourne, let alone Eton. Its essential distinctiveness will in the end belong not to its dimensions and accoutrements but to the way its cruising incumbents behave. And that’s another story.

Cruise ships, whether incomparably equipped or not, all have an uncanny capacity to transform their passengers.

Straggling grimly through an early morning Melbourne fog to board the SS Black Orpington or the MV Falling Star or the RSVP M. Aroyd—or, indeed, the Star Princess—passengers will be conservatively dressed, apprehensive in manner and generally resigned, as if in an eerie and reverse re-enactment of the convicts of yesteryear. Yet within a few days, once they have turned slightly green at the very thought of the Rip and sniffed a warmer air and glimpsed a bluer sea in the offing, the passengers all go mad. Dancing, boozing, groping, singing (in most cases against all sensible advice to the contrary), necking on the decks, bonking in the boats, yo ho ho and a bottle of Bollinger, your bunk or mine, a bit of how’s your father, you put yours there and I’ll put mine here, isn’t it lovely, only live once, wouldn’t be dead for quids … in a veritable crescendo of hedonism. Until, sheepish, hungover, they pick their way at cruise’s end back down the gangway to the grey wharf, carefully not catching the eye of people who, once again mere fellow passengers, were even as recently as after the farewell party, last night, shoving a pillow in their mouth to keep the noise down for the old couple in the next cabin.

Or so I’m told.

My theory, for what it’s worth, is that it’s not the classiness of their maritime surrounds but the sheer ubiquity of water that sends everyone half mad. Subconsciously, it’s like going back to the womb, or that’s how I see it. Surrounded afresh by atavistic amniotic memories of a fluid environment, people feel suddenly liberated, because everything is possible again, everything is potential, just like when they were waiting to be born. So they buy crazy drinks that they wouldn’t ordinarily contemplate, let alone pay for; and they behave in ways that they spend ensuing and respectable years trying to forget. (Luxury hotels, incidentally, work on the same water theory and send people comparably mad during their stay. Foyers are approximately eleven acres across and running with water. Fountains spurt upwards like columns, plummet down as waterfalls, leap sideways in sudden gobs, emerge from this or that cunningly concealed pipe as globes, spirals, corrugations. Water splashes, shooshes, gurgles, galumphs, whispers, tinkles: El Nino is not even a rumour here.)

In short, the continuous and in most cases entirely uncharacteristic trans-oceanic orgasm of the cruise ship is induced by—water!

It takes a very cold eye of a kind not available on the hot decks and in the rampant cabins of luxury cruisers to see through the kaleidoscopic phantasms that make up daily and nightly cruising life, the kind of eye Thomas Hardy, in his wonderful poem, ‘The Convergence of the Twain’, gave to fish
gliding curiously around the Titanic where it lay at the bottom of the ocean: ‘What does this vaingloriousness down here?’ they ask scornfully.

But, in the absence of a mordant latter-day Hardy, the cruise ship, and especially the Star Princess it would appear, provides just the environment in which anything can happen, in which a safety net can credibly and effortlessly become a rung. Johnny Howard would love it. 

Brian Matthews is a Melbourne-born writer who lives in the Clare Valley in South Australia.



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