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So huge, so beautiful: how classic ocean liners steamed into our hearts

So huge, so beautiful: how classic ocean liners steamed into our hearts

By Ian Jack

I was lucky enough to cross the Atlantic on the QE2. Now a show at the V&A rekindles that era's impossible glamour 'The art deco, cigarette-holder elegance of liners in their 1930s heyday". The SS Normandie arrives in New York. Photograph: Collection French Lines Until the recent advent of other kinds of vessel - vast tankers and container ships - ocean liners were the largest moving objects that humans had ever made. They were also very beautiful. How was it, then, that when the last great transatlantic liner was being built, only a few miles from where I lived, I never went to see it on the stocks? That my glimpses of it were always distant and accidental? Guardian Today: the headlines, the analysis, the debate - sent direct to you It was as though there was nothing exceptional about the sight of a steel hull and superstructure rising at a slant above the rooftops of Clydebank, the bow pointing inland towards the Dunbartonshire hills. Other famous liners had risen in the same way at the same place - the Lusitania, the Aquitania, the Empress of Britain and the two Queens - and smaller ships of the Canadian Pacific and Cunard fleets still regularly anchored downstream off Greenock to pick up passengers bound for Canada. By 1967 we must have known that jet aircraft were bringing these patterns of industry and travel to an end; even so, I was careless enough to be in a Glasgow dentist's chair having a tooth pulled - personal decay at odds with a great historic moment - when the Clydebank hull at last slid into the river as the QE2. That was also the year of the Sgt Pepper LP. History is more permeable and never as neatly divided as it likes to pretend: new bits flow into older bits. When the first Queen Elizabeth was launched, three decades earlier, for example, four-masted sailing barques still raced to Europe with grain from Australia. It takes time to discover what we shall miss or regret what we never saw, but some things, by being loved when they lived, stake their claim sooner than the rest. They include the sailing ship and the steam locomotive - and not least the ocean liner, which is celebrated in a magnificent exhibition that begins today at the V&A in London. It is a work of cooperation between that museum and the Peabody Essex, in Salem, Massachusetts; and it will move to the Scottish V&A in Dundee when that venue opens later this year. Ocean Liners: Speed and Style is the first international exhibition devoted to the subject - a surprise, given that maritime disasters, onboard romances and the bright poster art of shipping companies have been part of popular culture for so long; that the very word "style" suggests the art deco interiors and cigarette-holder elegance of liners in their 1930s heyday, when rival British, French, German and Italian ships dashed across the Atlantic at average speeds of up to 31 knots (36mph) with their first-class cargoes of celebrated actors, society beauties and millionaires. (To be continued)

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