CROSSING & CRUISING. By John Maxstone-Graham. Scribner's. 311 pages. Illustrated. $30.
The other experts on passenger ships have disappeared in the wake of John Maxstone-Graham.
Mr. Maxstone-Graham has the job you want. Half the year, accompanied by his wife Mary, he floats about the world on cruise ships, checking out their sight lines, cuisine, entertainment and comfort level. He hobnobs with captains, pursers, fellow passengers, and he almost never goes ashore. The destination is of less importance to Mr. Maxstone-Graham than the vessel. (As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote 101 years ago, "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.")
The other half of the year, M-G writes books about ships and delivers lectures, usually accompanied by slides from his own extensive collection of ship memorabilia. He edits the newsletter of the Ocean Liner Museum, a museum without a physical home but with a spiritual home on the decks, in the lounges, dining rooms and staterooms of passenger ships.
M-G's "The Only Way to Cross" dealt with life on board North Atlantic liners, starting with Cunard's Britannica 150 years ago. In "Liners to the Sun," M-G bade farewell to all but one of the trans-Atlantic liners - only Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2 has managed to survive the jet plane - and followed the ships of the cruise industry into the warm waters of the world.
This third volume in the M-G trilogy is a hybrid. Chapters alternate between revisits to some of the author's beloved but now departed vessels (Cunard's Aquitania, the French Line's Normandie and the France - which survives miraculously as the Norway) and visits to today's floating hotels - miniships such as the Sea Goddess I and II and megaships such as the Sovereign of the Seas.
Throughout his trilogy, M-G is torn between a tendency to see the passenger ship as the exclusive playground of the rich and sophisticated - people very much like John Maxstone-Graham - and his understanding that the staid cruise industry will not survive if it does not cater to ordinary tourists. M-G deeply regrets the vulgarity aboard some of the ships and the disappearance of old traditions such as formal dinners with the captain. If the author had his way, there would be no "vulgar camaraderie" around the piano bar, no choreographed "Broadway reviews" after dinner. Casinos would be deep-sixed (among other things, they make too much noise), and people would not scamper about restaurants and lounges in scanty bathing costumes.
Yet one of the first chapters in "Crossing and Cruising" is a generally admiring treatment of Carnival Cruise Lines, which M-G concedes has brought cruising within reach of the pocketbooks and tastes of the Peregrinator americanus - cruising American, who accounts for the vast majority of the world's cruise business and without whom there would be no cruise industry.
"Who embarks on the Fun Ships [of Carnival]?" M-G asks. "Everyman from Everywhere, U.S.A. From the beginning, Carnival has cast its unique marketing net over virgin waters. 'We are selling cruises,' explains Tim Gallagher, Carnival's director of public relations, 'where no one had ever thought of selling cruises before. In the middle of the country, far from the sea."
At the other extreme is the Sea Goddess, an elegant yacht carrying at most 116 passengers who are treated to exquisite service, food and drink (as much as one wants when one wants, all included in the hefty fare, so that there is no exchange of money or receipts on board). No vulgar floor shows here, no bingo, none of the "megaship's Brueghelian hugger-mugger." The Sea Goddess I and II, smaller, quieter, more select and luxurious, are the very reverse of the megaships' economy of scale. M-G calls the concept "extravagance of scale." (And passage requires a corresponding bank account.)
Much of this book is about ship architecture. M-G not only visits ships; he visits shipyards, and he watches the way vessels are designed and built. "Crossing and Cruising" documents numerous design flaws, from the small and insignificant - doors that don't shut, drawers that don't open - to the large and significant - lifeboats obscuring every public room window, a lookout lounge from which there is no lookout. The dolphin-like profile of the new megaship Crown Princess allows no passenger to look forward.
Mr. Maxstone-Graham can be all too precious. One attraction of the dearly departed Normandie, he writes, was "her unique interiors, combining, as they did, stunning monumentalism with brilliant detail, like a cascade of rich ormolu adorning the corners of a Louis Quatorze chest." Huh? But he is so knowledgeable that a reader cannot help but admire. Veteran cruisers will be swept up quickly in the spirit, remembering ships and friends of voyages past.
A ship is an island, M-G quotes Sir Hugh Casson at the outset of Chapter 8, "inhabited yet mysteriously unexplored, self-centered, secretive, wonderful, unique. Situated against a sunset horizon or towering white-topped above a quayside, ablaze with lights or gay with flags, it seems cut off in time as well as space - a presence whose scale is impossible to grasp, and whose indifference to admiration is as maddening as a cat's."
Mike Bowler, a member of the Ocean Liner Museum, edits The Baltimore Evening Sun Op-Ed page.