Read Only Way to Cross by John Maxtone Graham Free Online
Book Title: Only Way to Cross|
The author of the book: John Maxtone Graham
ISBN 13: 9780020960102
Edition: MacMillan Publishing Company
Date of issue: April 1st 1978
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 437 KB
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Reader ratings: 3.1
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The last time I went to Europe, I arrived at the airport two hours in advance. I waited in line only to use a self-help machine to check my bags. I waited in another line at security, stuck behind a man who apparently – judging by his failure to empty his pockets – did not realize where he was, or what he was doing. To get through security, I had to stick my arms in the air, as though I was being arrested, while a government machine took my naked picture. Thankfully I have absolute faith and trust in the government that the file is deleted. After that, I spent another hour sitting in the waiting area, afraid to leave my seat lest it be taken by somebody’s bag. There I got to listen to dozens of overloud cell phone conversations, each one – to justify by their length and volume – of life-altering implications. Then we boarded the plane – another line – and I took my too-small seat next to a too-large person. I was forced to put my carryon beneath my seat because, foolishly enough, my carryon was actually appropriately sized, and I was getting bumped by wardrobe-sized roller bags. Need I mention the reclining seat? For eight hours I carried on a silent, desperate war with the asshole in front of me. This would be a horrible way to die, I thought, Surrounded by the collective annoyances of the last several hours. I made a resolution: If the plane goes down, I’m choking out the guy in front of me, before we hit the sea. If I have time left over, I’ll make a phone call.
That’s travel in the 21st century. Treated like animals. Acting like animals.
It was different back in the olden days. During the Golden Age of Steam, from the Mauretania launched in 1906 to the Queen Elizabeth 2 launched in the midst of the Jet Age, travel was a different beast. Huge floating palaces transported people back and forth across the Atlantic. Passengers did not have to worry about baggage fees; they showed up with mountains of luggage. There were still fights over seating, but these involved tipping stewards to get the best deckchairs. There were divertissements aplenty: gymnasiums, swimming pools, Turkish baths, reading rooms, smoking rooms, gambling, silly hat contests, and getting drunk and peeing over the side of the ship (I assume). No need for Two and a Half Men reruns on a five-inch seatback screen here! Also, no bags of pretzels. Dinner was a formal affair, announced by bugle and requiring a tuxedo and black tie. Oh sure, every once in awhile your ship would sink, and you’d be required by breeding and social custom to either meekly enter a lifeboat or cheerfully drown. Most of the time, though, it was just caviar and champagne and attentive stewards and putting a fiver into the daily distance pool.
That’s the traveling life described by John Maxtone-Graham in The Only Way to Cross.
In a way, it’s total rot – an extended bit of moneyed nostalgia – but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
The first thing to note about The Only Way to Cross is that it's a mash of different genres.
It is mostly straight history of a niche sort, covering steam travel from 1906 to 1969. It describes the design and launching of the famous passenger liners that plied the Atlantic and offered incredible amenities. There is a chapter on the Titanic because: obviously. But despite the book’s opening line (“The North Atlantic is the most dangerous ocean in the world”) this is not a compendium of shipwrecks and disasters. A lot of time is spent on more mundane matters, such as international competition between shipping lines.
For instance, there is a whole chapter devoted to Germany’s behemoths, such as the Imperator, which would have dwarfed Titanic had she lasted more than half a voyage. These German ships were so German it almost hurts: emblems of both technological prowess and aesthetic tackiness. (I don’t know why, but I find Germans being Germans both horrifying and hilarious, in equal measure).
Though the Atlantic is ravaged by storms and studded with icebergs, the most dangerous thing upon the seas is man; thus, a lot of the history in The Only Way to Cross concerns the two World Wars. In each conflict, these beautiful ships, with their raked lines and lavish appointments were turned into auxiliary cruisers or troopships or hospital ships. Many turned into casualties. Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic, struck a mine. Both the Carpathia (which rescued Titanic’s passengers) and the Californian (which ignored them) were torpedoed and sank. Most infamously, the torpedoing of the Lusitania (sister ship to the Mauretania) turned world opinion against Germany in 1915.
The Only Way to Cross is also part travelogue, interspersed with Maxtone-Graham’s own experiences as a traveler. For obvious reasons (I am not 100 years old; I am not from old money; I am not from new money), I have never taken a transatlantic steamer. My interest in the sea really begins and ends in the great shipwrecks, specifically the Titanic. However, I found it quite appealing (or refreshing) to actually learn about a normal voyage, rather than a doomed one. I enjoyed the sections on the quotidian rituals of daily life on a passenger liner: the formalities of dinner seating; the jockeying for the best deck chairs; the tactics used by professional gamblers to make their marks.
Maxtone-Graham writes about this in the past tense, a time already gone; but at times he slips almost unconsciously into the present, so that he’s presenting the material like a guidebook. When he writes about tipping your steward or getting through customs, it reads like advice. This might sound strange, but it gave me a pleasant sense of wistful melancholy to discover the rituals of a dead tradition. At times I almost felt like I could book a ticket and show up at the dock with a carload of baggage, board the ship with confidence, and comport myself properly at dinner. (And also avoid the professional gamblers. I’d know them right off because they’d let me win a bunch of games first). I can’t, though, because that time is gone and those ships are gone. The lucky ships got turned into scrap and were recycled into other things and so disappeared. The unlucky ships rest on the ocean floor, turned to rust and haunted by ghosts. This Golden Age feels both recent and a million years ago.
At a certain level, the thesis of The Only Way to Cross is crap. Yes, travel was just this luxurious, this ritualized, this dreamlike…For the one percent who could afford it. For the wealthy first class passengers on the upper decks. But to take this fraction of a fraction and offer it as representative of an age is utter mythologizing, if not downright dishonest.
Maxtone-Graham makes a couple of feints in the direction of reality. He starts the book with Charles Dickens’s miserable 1842 voyage on the Britannia, to show that things were not always so genteel. He also includes a solitary chapter on steerage passengers. This is a rather short and lonely passage, especially considering the fact that shipping lines (not unlike today’s airlines) made their money by packing people into steerage.
The thing I found most interesting about this section was the way Maxtone-Graham wrestled with his own elitist prejudices. Within the span of two pages, he grapples with the conditions in Third Class (“vaguely prisonlike” but “clean, honest and reasonably priced”), muses about the reactions of steerage passengers to their quarters (“My own suspicion is that…these grateful people would have settled for anything”), announces that steerage-class women would time their pregnancies to give birth during the voyage, with the ostensibly higher level of medical care, and finishes his thoughts with an admonishment to the upper classes: Don’t go slumming. (I’m looking at you, Rose De Witt Bukater from James Cameron’s Titanic).
This is more an observation than a call to class warfare. I enjoyed The Only Way to Cross for what it is: a nostalgic look at a time most of us missed, and could not have afforded anyway. Maxtone-Graham is passionate about his subject, and passion is infectious.
(Note to self regarding things to do with time machine: (1) win money by gambling on World Series games; (2) use money to buy First Class passage on the Olympic; (3) make sure that ticket says Olympic, and not Titanic or Britannic).
Modern air travel is a nightmare for most of us. It’s not just the cramped seats, the lack of legroom, the rude fellow travelers, or the death-by-a-thousand-surcharges. It is also a lack of control, a sense of helplessness, the feeling that we are being treated like bulk freight by a faceless corporate entity.
Modern air travel is also a freaking marvel. As Louis C.K. famously rants, “You’re sitting in a chair in the sky! You’re like a Greek myth right now!” Despite all the petty degradations, you are able to travel affordably and safely from one part of the world to another, all in a matter of hours. When it comes to air travel, the motivational posters have it all wrong. The journey isn’t the destination. The destination is the destination. (And may we reach it, before I develop an embolism in my leg).
Maxtone-Graham takes us back to a time when the journey meant something, at least to some. If his vision is a bit sepia-toned, so what? Sometimes, the past can be a pleasant place to visit. And it costs a lot less than a plane ticket to Europe.
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