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Cruise Columnist
An Interview with
John Maxtone-Graham

by Lisa Plotnick

[Lisa Plotnick with historian and author John Maxtone-Graham]

During our summer 2003 transatlantic crossing on Queen Elizabeth 2 (Lisa's QE2 review), I was privileged to meet renowned maritime historian, and one of my favorite authors, John Maxtone-Graham. A frequent lecturer on QE2, Mr. Maxtone-Graham regaled his audience with insights from his books The Only Way to Cross, Liners to the Sun, and Titanic Survivor. (Titanic Survivor, the memoirs of White Star Line stewardess Violet Jessop, was edited and annotated by Mr. Maxtone-Graham.)

While on our crossing, Mr. Maxtone-Graham graciously invited me to join him in an exclusive interview for our SeaLetter readers. I found him to be as delightful in person as he is through his written words. We spoke on a variety of shipboard-related topics, ranging from card rooms to lighting. Below are excerpts from our conversation.

LP: After I read the 2001 re-release of your 1985 book Liners to the Sun, I was curious as to why the revised foreword did not include your thoughts on cruise ship design since the book's original publication.
JM-G: Much of Liners to the Sun was historical, and that doesn't change. I would have had to add several chapters, which would have resulted in a heavy volume that would have been prohibitively expensive. We did, however, update the cover. The new cover is a photograph taken by son, Ian. It shows three passengers as they board this very ship, QE2, after spending the day ashore in Bermuda.

LP: What elements of new cruise ship design do you like?
JM-G: It's easier to say what I don't like:
  • What I find hopeless about contemporary cruise cabins is the limited amount of drawer and closet space.
  • The proliferation of alternative dining means that the work force is spread so thin that cruise lines must have open sitting breakfast and lunch. On NCL and Princess, passengers also line up for dinner.
  • Cruise line executives never sail on ships. They don't know shipboard. They don't know what makes a good voyage. New and different isn't necessarily better. People derive pleasure from being in a well-dressed, well-behaved group of people.
  • Nightly shows are very much the same. Every night they have to present something. I like jugglers and cabarets, but I don't go to shows anymore.
  • Today's card rooms are small and cut off from the rest of the ship. The best card room we've seen is on Royal Princess. It is a corridor between the Princess Court and the theatre. Therefore, there is a constant flow of people. This encourages spontaneous meetings, much like a sidewalk café.
  • The secret to good shipboard is isolation, but not to be sequestered. Shipboard should thrive on impulse.

LP: I imagine, then, that the Royal Promenade on Royal Caribbean's Voyager class ships would appeal to you.
JM-G: I haven't been on one of theses ships yet, but I like the idea. It's very similar.

LP: What bygone elements would you like to see restored?
JM-G: A barbershop for men. Consider that there will be 2,600 passengers and 1,200 crew on Queen Mary 2. Why not hire proper barbers? This would be good publicity, and unique. (Author's note: Mr. Maxtone-Graham shares his thoughts on barbershops in his book Cruise Savvy: An Invaluable Primer for First-Time Passengers.) I've mentioned card rooms. And lighting is mostly neglected today. There are no lighting consultants. Crystal Cruises, for instance, has a huge, bright, garishly lit lobby, bar and pursers' desk. It's always lit like Kennedy Airport. The lights are always the same; there is no nighttime cozy mode. I am a great believer in lamps on tables. I have seen this on Norwegian Cruise Line. Holes in the tablecloth surround the candleholders, giving a cozy warmth.

LP: What do you foresee for the 21st century? Any new itineraries, or perhaps a return to nostalgia?
JM-G: Nostalgia has always been there. New itineraries cite the "Big Band Sound." "In the Mood" is the most commonly played tune on ships. Similarly, "Art Deco" is used to evoke older times, although it's truly not Art Deco. Certain ports have mystical nostalgic magic, such as Rio, Venice, and New York. I once thought about portraits -- I met a wonderful painter -- and suggested it to Crystal for a feature of its world cruise.

LP: What new projects are you working on that we may soon see in our local bookstores?
JM-G: I just completed a book on Queen Mary 2 that [became] available to the public in April 2004. (Editor's note: Queen Mary 2: The Greatest Ocean Liner of Our Time is now available on Amazon.com.)

[Columnist's son with John Maxtone-Graham]

I offer my sincere appreciation to Mr. Maxtone-Graham for taking time during his crossing to share his thoughts on shipboard life.

( Lisa's review of Mr. Maxtone-Graham's Liners to the Sun may be found at:
http://www.sealetter.com/Apr-01/liners.html .)

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[Lisa Plotnick, SeaLetter Columnist and Forum Manager]
Lisa Plotnick, a writer who lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Neil, and young son, has written many SeaLetter Cruise Magazine articles, cruise ship reviews and book reviews. Lisa is a fan of the classic liners, unfortunately a dying breed in the early 21st century. The Plotnicks have cruised once or twice a year for the past twelve years and have been on most of the major cruise lines as well as several lesser-known lines.
Lisa is a SeaLetter Columnist and also assists in the management of the SeaLetter Cruise Forum. She may be reached for questions or comment at: lisa@sealetter.com

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