All through our summer of low comedy –
with knave competing with knave for the
approval of a paltry coterie
of complacent fools and fearful bigots,
justifying thievery and ignorance,
jingoism, contempt and cruelty,
with the Queen finally awarding the prize
to the witless winner then promptly dying –
I have dreamt repeatedly of the French
Blue Riband ’30s ocean liner
the transatlantique SS Normandie,
sailing Le Havre-Southampton-New York.
Its suites de luxe were equipped with baby grands
and servants’ quarters. Its first class dining room
was three decks high, and its crew outnumbered
all of its three classes of passengers.
The government borrowed to build the ship
pour la gloire de France. Critics berated
the debt acquired in the Depression.
By chance it was docked at Pier 88
opposite the Jersey shore when the Nazis
invaded Poland, and France declared war.
The USA prematurely ‘interned’
the vessel, renaming it USS
Lafayette, with a view to transforming it
into a troopship. Out came the pianos,
the Lalique, the thousands of bottles of wine.
A vast glass mural in a corner
of the Grand Salon ended up at the Met.
But incompetence set the ship on fire.
Water from the hoses turned it on its side.
It was righted in ’43; considered
redundant; and scrapped in ’46.
…I am driving on the West Side Highway –
not as it is now but as it was then –
and approaching Cunard’s Pier 90,
where the Lusitania used to dock,
when I see smoke ahead, and crowds watching.
The Chrysler behind me rams my Buick.
The driver gets out. It is The Joker…
…The ship is on its side in the icy mud
of the Hudson. Batman and Robin
are trying to right it. Meanwhile Poison Ivy
is making off with the Art Deco light fittings…
…I have been cast adrift by the Penguin –
and other deranged, illustrious
inhabitants of Gotham City –
in a flimsy craft in the English Channel.
Bearing down on me is Adolphe Mouron’s
iconic poster advertising
the SS Normandie’s maiden voyage.
The elegant blade of the bows –
lit on one side, shaded on the other –
is almost upon me. Silhouetted against
the dark side are thirteen white birds. Their cries
are almost the last I hear except
for the Marseillaise – ‘Aux armes, citoyens,
Formez vos bataillons, Marchons, marchons!‘…
Adolphe MouronBatman & RobinCunard's Pier 90Elizabeth ReginaGotham CityPier 88Poison IvySS Normandiethe Blue Ribandthe Jokerthe PenguinTory Party leadership contest