Deliver some talks and you're cruising

February 13, 2004

Academics engaged in the time-honoured winter tradition of planning and booking their summer holidays might like to consider an all-expenses-paid lecturing stint on a luxury cruise ship.

Every year, the major cruise lines choose a select band of academics to take to the waves and deliver "pop lectures" to passengers on history, politics and culture.

Those lucky scholars enjoy all the luxuries laid on for fee-paying passengers: plush cabins, fine cuisine and visits to museums, monuments and achaeological sites when the ship is in port.

But winning one of these coveted places is not a transparent process.

According to the cruise line Swan Hellenic, which has been using guest speakers since 1954, candidates are approached on the basis of a recommendation from their peers. The company then tries to watch the candidate in action to ensure that his or her lecture style is appropriate to a holiday audience.

Carol Marlow, the managing director of Swan Hellenic, said the company had "a good few hundred" academics on its books, but many of them, she conceded, were from Oxford and Cambridge universities.

Sir Roy Strong, historian, diarist and gardener, has served as guest speaker for Cunard and for Swan Hellenic. He lectured on the "Grand tour" and the "Italian garden" during a cruise around Italy's coast last year.

"You have to be informed and a good performer, but they are not necessarily looking for the original," Sir Roy said.

"You have to be gregarious by nature, good at making conversation and interested in people. I rarely sit at a table where I don't find someone who has listened to me talk before or with whom I don't have a mutual friend."

After the pool, postmodernism

Piña coladas flow and a band plays under the tropical Atlantic sun for passengers by the pool on the Queen Mary 2 's stern terrace. But ten levels below, classrooms are being prepared for lectures on topics ranging from British comedy to modern art, writes Jon Marcus.

The classrooms on the Cunard cruise liner would be the envy of any university. There is even a 500-seat lecture hall that converts into a planetarium. The ship's academic programme is run with Oxford University's department for continuing education.

Cunard is banking on the Oxford name for business. Mary Thomas, the line's director of enrichment programmes, said Oxford and Cunard were a good match: "Both are pre-eminent British institutions of long standing."

The Queen Mary 2 , the world's biggest cruise liner, will make 26 transatlantic crossings next year. Its passengers tend to be well educated and interested in learning from high-calibre speakers, Cunard says. Its guest lecturers will include David Vaisey, retired Bodleian Library director, and physicist Geoffrey Thomas, director of Oxford's continuing education department.


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