Thursday, 14 April 2011

Wearing my other hat ...

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington and James Becker)

A couple of years ago I found myself on a cruise ship heading up the Baltic in the general direction of St Petersburg. In fact, that’s a somewhat trite statement. I 'found myself' on the ship because I'd exchanged quite a lot of folding money the privilege of being on board. And I wasn't by myself: my wife and her mother were with me, as well as an elderly friend of my mother-in-law, and one of my two abiding memories of that cruise was the two old dears getting gently but distinctly pickled drinking exotic cocktails while the ship was still tied firmly to the wall in Dover harbour. From that moment on, it went steadily downhill, at least as far as the consumption of alcohol was concerned.

My second memory was of the destination lecturer, a simply charming man who'd had a fascinating career living and working in places that to me were just names on a map, and who was without the slightest shadow of a doubt one of the worst and most boring lecturers it's ever been my misfortune to listen to.

And that was a good thing, because I felt sorry for him and talked to him afterwards. And then I discovered that being a lecturer was really quite a good number, as long as you liked being at sea. In my previous life I served in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, and I got a taste then for ships and oceans. Long story short time: I did a course that explained how the cruise ship industry worked, and what the cruise lines expected from their lecturers, and signed on with an agency. Since then, I've almost lost count of the number of cruises I've been on, but I do remember that in 2009 I did a total of nine, from Norway, to the Mediterranean, to the Far East.

This year’s been a little quieter so far, but there was a sudden flurry of activity a couple of months ago, and I'm now doing lectures on three cruises over the next two months, starting tomorrow on the Fred Olsen ship Black Watch, going down to the Canaries. On 2nd May I'm on the Queen Mary II for a short north European cruise, and then on the 24th May I'm on the same ship again for a longer cruise up to Norway. If any readers of the Curzon Group blog are on these trips, please come and talk to me.

That's the plug out of the way, but what I was really going to say was how useful I find being at sea, especially with deadlines looming. On a cruise ship, the phone simply doesn't ring, and you check your e-mail perhaps once a day, ever conscious of the minutes racking up expensively on the satellite link. There is no housework to do (not that I do it anyway), because your bed is made, your bathroom is cleaned, and food and drink is available 24 hours a day.

And if you’re at sea, there are actually remarkably few distractions if you ignore whatever entertainment the ship has provided. I find it very soothing to simply sit in a lounge with a laptop on my knee, working away and occasionally glancing at the ocean passing by. I remember on one trip that I averaged over 3,000 words a day without much apparent effort, and peaked at over 5,500.

As a speaker, I have to stand up and talk to an audience that in the past has varied from 8 passengers (I counted them – twice) to over 600, depending on the ship and the itinerary. Each lecture takes about 45 minutes, say an hour overall, and the rest of the day is my own. It really is an excellent environment in which to write and for me, at the moment, that also is a good thing.

Two months ago, I was effectively out of contract with both my publishers, but now I've signed a new two book deal with Transworld and, as usual with that publishing house, the deadline is already looming for delivery of the first book. My editor wants it by the end of September, so that she can have the final edited manuscript ready by Christmas, for publication in April next year. If it's quiet on the ships, with any luck I'll be able to get the first part of the book knocked into shape by the time the third cruise comes to an end in the first week of June.

I suppose that lifestyle wouldn't suit everybody, but it certainly suits me, and it’s quite surprising how many people I've met on cruise ships who have subsequently started lecturing on them as well.

The other thing about cruises is that you can meet some really interesting – and often unexpected – people. I've encountered Gerald Scarfe; a former engine driver for British rail; Lord Archer; a man who advised the Home Office on drugs; Terry Wogan; a man from Florida who’d done over 50 world cruises – he was 94, but that’s still a hell of a lot – and the rabbi who was involved in the American hostage crisis in Teheran. It's difficult to think of another circumstance where such a disparate collection of people could be found in the same small space.

As they say, it's a dirty job, but I suppose somebody has to do it.

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