Vanity Fair, January 1923
Should Ocean Liners be Abolished
Showing That the Real Trouble With Trans-Atlantic Travel Is the Passengers, and Suggesting a Remedy
By P. G. WODEHOUSE
AS I read over this article for the second time—which I bet you wouldn’t care to have to do—it strikes me that I have allowed a note of veiled peevishness to creep in here and there. I may be wrong, of course, but that it is how it seems to me. Somehow I appear to convey the impression that I am not altogether my sunny self. If that is so, I attribute it to the fact that I wrote the thing in my stateroom on a table with five legs (four on the circumference and one in the center) which shook and slithered like a smitten jelly every time I tapped the typewriter. Why five legs, you ask. Because, I reply, it was a table designed for the use of passengers on an ocean liner, and everything intended for the use of that section of humanity is in a class of its own. Sleeping accommodation, for instance. If you, gentle reader, were building a bed which was to be slept in by a different person each week, would you take into consideration the fact that some at least of those sleepers would be apt to measure more than four foot eleven in length? You would. They would never think of a thing like that on a liner. They can’t think any higher than Ernest Truex.
But, there, one expects to rough it a bit when one sails the seas. The real trouble with any ocean liner is the passengers. In connection with which I have only one remark to make. That remark is, Where do they get these guys?
The Horrors of Deck Life
IT seems incredible that in this age of progress steps have not been taken to improve the standard of looks among ocean-travelers. Time after time I step on board, full of optimism and feeling that this trip at any rate my fellow-voyagers will be—I do not say human, but at least semi-human. And every time I stagger back with a hand over my eyes, moaning “No, no!” You may argue that it is not their fault that they look like that. I say it is. When you see a fat man in a yachting-cap, horn-rimmed spectacles, and side-whiskers, I maintain that there is convincing evidence of premeditation and that the matter should be firmly dealt with by the proper authorities. Either these people should not be allowed on board at all, or—if it is really necessary to get them out of the country—they should be hurried over the gang-plank with masks on and kept in irons below till the end of the voyage. It is no good calling a vessel The World’s Wonder-Ship if you permit these excrescences to wander at large about the decks.
There is no beating the game. If the weather is rough, they stay in their cabins. But so do you. And anything approaching fine weather brings them out in shoals. You would hardly credit the ghastly spectacle presented by the A. deck of a fashionable liner on a sunny afternoon half-way through the voyage. And if you stagger down onto the B. deck, it is just as bad there. And the Boat Deck is, if anything, worse, because you find them up there playing shuffle-board. And, if you hide in your stateroom, you meet them at meals.
This question of meals on board ship is a very vital one. At the beginning of the trip you go to a steward on the D. deck, and he assigns you to a table. And at that table you have to remain till the finish. Even if you have the good fortune to be herded in with a moderately attractive group, what charm they have is bound to wane after you have lunched and dined with them for six successive days. Take the case of the poor devils who have me at their table. What happens? On the first day of the voyage I imagine that they look over at me in a not unkindly spirit and say to themselves “Ah! Jolly old Wodehouse, eh? Capital!” The second day they feel that they have seen me before somewhere and that I am not nearly the thing of beauty they had imagined me. My fascination has begun to wane. Only a little, maybe, but still it has begun to wane. The third day a sort of nervous irritation floods over them as I sink into my seat and reach for the menu. Half unconsciously they begin to wish that my sister had not prayed for a baby-brother.
By dinner-time on the fourth day they feel that this has been going on for ever, that there never was a time when they were not sitting at a table with too little room for their elbows and my beastly face goggling at them from over the way. They look at me and marvel at that weird parental affection which kept my father and mother from drowning me in a bucket as a child. My bald head gleams at them in the light of the electric bulbs, and they wish they could hurl something at it. More and more do they resent the vacant stare of my infernal eyes behind their spectacles. The way I eat seems to them proof of a diseased soul. And all the time I am glowering across at them, astounded that the vigilance committees of their home towns have not taken steps to eliminate them years ago. Then the fifth day arrives, and the relief at the prospect of release induces a sort of grisly geniality. Finally, we go ashore arm in arm, inviting each other to spend week-ends.
A Simple Solution
BUT to return to the matter of improving the standard of personal beauty in ocean-travelers. I would not have it said of me that I am wholly a destructive critic and have nothing constructive to suggest, and so I put forward a scheme which would, I think, go far towards improving conditions on the modern liner. Already the authorities seem to be groping in the right direction. Before you can sail, you have to get a passport. And before you can get a passport you have to forward a photograph to the Embassy. You would think that the authorities would have taken the next step, so obvious is it, but no. The solution of a crying evil is staring them in the face, but they do not see it. What they should do is simply to take a firm line and refuse passports to all whose photographs fail to pass a Board of Censors specially created for the purpose of dealing with this matter. After all, we have censors for everything else nowadays. When I publish my thoughtful novel treating of sex-problems in the Middle West, Mr. Sumner takes a flying leap and lands on the back of my neck. When my movie, Scarlet Lips, is released, there are properly constituted persons to step in and blow the whistle. Why not, then, a censor for ocean travelers?
He would, of course, have to be carefully chosen. You could not select a man for a post like that haphazard. As regards the female passengers, it would be easy. Mr. Flo Ziegfeld is obviously the man to deal with them. But for male travelers it would be a good deal more intricate, this business of sifting. You would have to have someone with intelligence enough to see that it is possible for the masculine face to possess a certain rugged charm which amply compensates for an absence of more conventional good looks. I myself, for instance, am—strictly speaking—no John Barrymore. At first glance you might say to yourself that I am just the sort of man the censors would have to take a firm line about right away. But do not be too hasty. Wait a bit. Wait till you have seen me in my new Fall suit, the blue with invisible red stripe. Suspend your judgment till my last lot of collars come from the makers. Ah! you hesitate. Exactly. Mine is a style of beauty which grows on you. It has to have time to get its effect. And there are many more like me. It would be fatal if the Board of Censors contained men of hasty and impulsive judgment. They would need to be cool, canny persons, with educated eyes.
The Penalty of Delay
BUT in the main, of course, their work would be fairly simple. Two chins or more would automatically disqualify the intending traveler. Horn-rimmed spectacles would only be allowed if the face was thin. Ears that stuck out at right angles would get a black mark, and would have to be made up for by singular beauty in the nose and mouth. There would be a standard measurement for foreheads, and it would be easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a camel than for a gold tooth to win its way across the gang-plank of the Aquitania.
It may be that there are objections to such a scheme, of which I know nothing. I merely throw out the suggestion and leave it to the authorities to adopt it or let it go, as they please. But I do say this, that it is either a question of creating this Board of Censors or of abolishing ocean-liners altogether. If things are allowed to go on as at present: if small men with thin legs are permitted to roam about the decks at will in plus-four golfing knickerbockers: if there is no bar to a man with a face like a Florida sheep’s-head fish sitting opposite you in the smoking-room; then—and I say it with all the impressiveness at my command—something will snap. Human nature is like Cousin Egbert. You can push it just so far. One of these days, unless something is done, when the Berengaria ties up at its slip, those on shore will notice that the scuppers are red and dripping. Headless corpses will dot the settees in the lounge. Mangled remains will be among the features of interest in the saloon. And a few hundred gargoyles will have made their last trip across the Atlantic. Let the authorities act while yet there is time.
Ernest Truex: American actor (1889–1973) usually in comic or milquetoast roles, 5′3″ tall. Created the title role in Bolton & Kern’s Very Good, Eddie in 1915.
The World’s Wonder Ship: Cunard liner RMS Aquitania was advertised with this slogan. Launched shortly before World War I, she was converted to a troop transport and hospital ship, returning to civilian liner service in 1920 through the Second World War. In the 1920s she carried 610 first class, 950 second class, and 640 tourist class passengers.
my sister: Wodehouse was the third of four brothers, but had no sister.
a photograph to the Embassy: Though living principally in America at this time, Wodehouse was still a British subject; he and his wife took out American citizenship in 1955.
Mr. Sumner: John S. Sumner (1876–1971) succeeded Anthony Comstock as Executive Secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1915, retiring in 1950. The group was quasi-governmental, empowered to recommend prosecutions for obscenity.
properly constituted persons: The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America was set up in 1922 under Will H. Hays to serve as the film industry’s self-censorship board, in order to pacify public opinion and ward off government censorship after several Hollywood scandals and the increasingly risqué content of movies.
Cousin Egbert: A character in Harry Leon Wilson’s 1915 novel Ruggles of Red Gap, who “can be pushed just so far.”
Berengaria: Another Cunard liner, originally built for the Hamburg America line as the SS Imperator in 1912, but handed over to Britain as part of war reparations and renamed, sailing from 1919–38 under this name.
—Notes by Neil Midkiff