I have finally become an extremist. At one extreme I travel as a goodwill ambassador for Unicef to countries where they can’t send their celebrities. These destinations are either war-torn or land-locked, or in the case of Afghanistan, both. At the other extreme I set sail, in conditions of ridiculous luxury, to lecture on the cruise ships of Cunard and P&O. Which is the dream and which is the reality? I have a pretty good idea, and try to bring the one to the other, as video from my war-zone wanderings is played onto the big screens in the theatres.
I have a captive audience. Either they can look at the Bay of Biscay, or learn something of the plight of the children of Yemen, or the effects of a 20-year war in Somalia, or the ravages of the Lord’s Resistance Army in South Sudan. It may seem incongruous, but it actually works rather well. And I find the cruise ship audiences receptive. They are showing a certain interest in the world simply by going to sea.
I adjust the lectures to the ships. The P&O passengers tend to be flag-wavingly British. The Cunard crowd is more international. Our political scandals take a bit of explaining, even to Americans. And I avoid PowerPoint. There is no surer way to lose an audience.
Since the passengers are predominantly middle aged to elderly, I am among contemporaries. On one P&O ship the average age was 79, including a 90-year-old veteran of Dunkirk. And on the Queen Mary 2 recently I met an American who had fought against the Japanese in Guadalcanal and whose life had been saved by a flesh wound which took him out of the frontline. At this point the lecturer becomes a listener. There is so much to learn from old people.
To give three 45-minute lectures in the course of a ten-day cruise is hardly a gruelling schedule. The first is a guided tour of the war zones of our time, beginning in Vietnam and ending in Afghanistan, with Bosnia and Iraq along the way. The second is called “Adventures in Independent Politics,” with an inevitable detour across Knutsford Heath, and the events that led to me becoming an MP. The third is about my travels for Unicef. Some of the video is so affecting that it helps me to raise unsolicited money for good causes.
I also sign books without really having to promote them. The most recent, improbably, is a collection of light and dark verse—not an anthology but my very own, written mostly within the past year. And the balcony of a cruise ship, with the mind blown clear by half a gale, is a great place for versifying. On the P&O Oceana in October, somewhere in the Bay of Biscay, I reflected on the recent lobbying scandals:
And all who with the Devil supped, However long the spoon, Are rendered hopelessly corrupt And dancing to his tune
Cunard have kindly signed me up for the Queen Mary 2 to Vietnam in March. On the Oceana I replayed one of my reports from there 44 years ago. It seemed slow-paced, inept and unfeeling. It showed none of the country’s people, but only American firepower—like so much of the more recent coverage from Iraq and Afghanistan. At least Robert McNamara, the primary architect of the Vietnam war, admitted years later that they had made a terrible mistake. Another thought blew in on the sea breeze:
Now when will those who lead us, looking back, Admit their grievous errors in Iraq?
The extremes have one thing in common: they make you think.