Wedding aboard the Queen Mary 2

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On 14th November, my friends Jan and Tony (known as T) were married on the Queen Mary 2, mid-way across the Atlantic during the transatlantic crossing from Southampton to Brooklyn New York. The wedding was in the Atlantic room at the front of the ship and conducted by the captain in accordance with the laws of Bermuda – a bit like having a marriage certificate from the Bermuda triangle!
The room was only slightly large for our party of ten, the captain and the three ship’s photographers. A few of us had brought our cameras. I did bring mine, but I will also be relying on my friend Ben, who took some fabulous photos. I have included one lovely photo I took on my phone and I will upload additional images when the ship’s internet allows, or certainly when I’m back on dry land.
I was a bit overcome by the wedding because it was so lovely, and also somewhat unsteady on my feet, not because of champagne, as we had that after the ceremony, but due to my very high heels and the rough weather which is particularly noticeable at the front of the ship. Captain Christopher Wells, who has been a ship’s captain for 40 years, explained as I was wobbling around that standing with your weight balanced evenly between your feet and not locking your knees helps stability. This is more like a neutral pose for dancing or martial arts, rather than a natural way of standing. It definitely helps. The Order of Service for the marriage included the precise location of the ship: latitude 52°28’1” N, longtitude 024°01’4”W.
It was a beautiful ceremony, the nicest and happiest civil ceremony I’ve ever been to, and there was a lot of giggling. Jan wore a sexy red satin dress, which suited her slim but voluptuous figure and bubbly personality. T was remarkably steady on his feet, and they both held it together pretty well. The two moments where everyone seemed to struggle not to burst into tears was when Stuart, Jan’s best (boy) friend, walked her up the aisle to give her away, and the reading, by Carol, who has been best friends (and colleagues) with Jan for 16 years, of ‘Love me when I’m old’, a funny and slightly naughty poem. It was so perfect that it got to us all and is the reason for my lack of good wedding photographs.
After the wedding and a lot more photographs, we all went to the champagne bar, which was brilliant. The girls – Carol, Stella and I – helped Jan choose a gorgeous designer watch as her wedding present for T. We then went to the Todd English restaurant, where the food was far superior to the Britannia, for a celebratory dinner. My previous reference to the passenger demographic of the ship was about the soft food, this time it is about attitude not age. Apparently the restaurant had some complaints about the laughter emanating from our table. Yes, of course we were drinking champagne, telling funny stories and laughing a lot, but it wasn’t late or raucous and I cannot comprehend how anyone on holiday could object to a happy wedding party.
After dinner we went on to a comedy show in the Royal Court Theatre. Jon Courtenay, pianist and comedian, played beautifully and shared some great gags about the QM2. I particularly recall two involving toilet humour: the first was about mishaps concerning the vacuum toilet system – umm, it’s important to get up before you flush and someone apparently tried to sue Cunard because they got stuck on the toilet! They were physically ok, but incredibly embarrassed because they had to call for help! However, I am reliably informed that this could not have actually happened as all the unfortunate passenger would have had to do to free themselves is lift the toilet seat to release the vacuum – assuming they weren’t sitting directly on the porcelain! The other story was more resonant. Jon recalled getting out of bed to go to the toilet and finding his bed had been made when he returned. This too is probably not true, but every time I go back to my stateroom, five seconds later the steward knocks on the door. This is solicitous, but can be awkward depending on the reason for returning to the room. If I’m online, it’s quite expensive as internet access is charged per minute, but it could be a lot worse!
Our champagne fuelled party giggled more than anyone, and I think Jon appreciated this as some of the audience looked like they were dead – I was quite relieved to see them getting their kicks in the casino later.
Silliness – nosing the captain! T’s daughter Alyssa has been doing this prank where you go up to people, including total strangers, and prod them with your nose! This can be done by going straight up to them and doing the deed, or in a ‘subtle way’, for example by dropping something on the floor and prodding them with your nose as you get up, so that it looks like you’ve touched them by mistake! And Alyssa managed to nose Captain Wells! This happened without any warning, so none of us captured it on camera!
Silliness 2 – stories about Jan and T. Carol related the story of how the happy couple met, from an office point of view! Jan and T met at a business event and it was love at first sight, or certainly lust! For the first time ever, Jan called into work to say she couldn’t come in – “I just can’t get out of bed,” she said. This was true, but she was not calling in sick!
Everyone around the table recounted how we had met Jan. For me it was pretty straightforward as I had interviewed her for a magazine. It was a phone interview and we got on so well that she invited me to her office for coffee the following week. We have been friends ever since.
There were a few stories of Jan being a bit of a heroine at parties and industry events, most of which involved champagne and people in various states of undress. I didn’t tell mine because it is not a wedding kind of story. But Jan has been my heroine too. Some years ago, I unwisely became involved in an upsetting situation with a deeply vindictive individual. Although at the time we had not been friends for very long, Jan was the first person to call me to check that I was ok. She was there for me immediately. There are times when you find out, among other things, who your real friends and heroes are. Years later, all of our circumstances are very different; with 20:20 hindsight, I’m so glad I found out. It is one important reason why I am where I am today.

All at sea – like sleeping with someone new

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This is the first instalment of my blog from the Queen Mary 2 transatlantic crossing from Southampton to Brooklyn, New York. The first night on board was disconcertingly like sleeping with someone new – I am not referring to sex, but the intimacy of sleeping together – and I have a cabin to myself! It was a stormy night and the bed was full of unfamiliar movements that were disturbing, in a vaguely exciting way.
This is my first ever sea voyage, a trip organised to celebrate the wedding of my friends Jan and Tony, known as T. Jan is English and T is American, and they decided to get married mid-Atlantic. So here we are. My blog about the wedding is to follow.
The first thing I noticed on arrival at Southampton was the sheer size of the ship, and the number of people who choose this way to travel to America in November. We are a mixed-age group of ten people ranging from early twenties to early fifties – the youngest being T’s daughter and her boyfriend – but we all felt very young as we boarded given that the majority of passengers seem to be retired people.
The time difference is disconcerting as the clocks go back one hour each night, but not every night, so that we arrive in New York without jet lag, which would be a bonus except that I am flying straight back to London.
On the first morning I got up an hour before I had ordered coffee in my stateroom, terminology for the luxurious cabin. I have an ocean view balcony stateroom – having taken the advice of the travel agent, and a colleague in the travel industry, I opted for a midship stateroom with a covered balcony, which was completely the right thing to do as it has been raining heavily on and off ever since we arrived, and I can stand outside and look at the sea without getting completely drenched.
The sea was foreboding before we left and on the first morning it was rough enough for several of the decks to be closed due to ‘inclement weather’. I took a walk on the soaking wet decks before they were closed. There were a few runners out, but I didn’t feel stable enough on my feet to run. My walk brought me to the gym and I managed about ten minutes of wobbly trotting on the treadmill and a slightly awkward stretch.
Every night we meet for dinner in the Britannia restaurant. There are two sittings, and we chose the late sitting at 8.30pm. We are seated together at the same table which is perfect because we are travelling as a group. However, if you were travelling alone or with just a few people, you might have to share a table every night with random strangers, which could be great or not so great depending on who you were seated with.
It is fun getting dressed up for an elegant dinner every night, but the downside of the passenger demographic is that the food is all pretty soft! On the first night I chose steak and chips which looked like it was going to be one of the few non-denture-friendly options, but that was soft too. Apparently, according to some who travel this way regularly, the first two days of this crossing were exceptionally rough, and on the second night of soft food and rough seas, I had to leave the karaoke bar early. I was concerned enough to get some seasickness pills from the purser, although I haven’t resorted to using them yet.
I found the spa, and bought a membership. In rough weather this is a better option than the gym, as it has Jacuzzis, saunas and massages, none of which require too much balancing, and the beauty salon, where I booked a manicure and hair styling – no scissors, as that would be risky given the movement of the ship…
To be continued…

Disrupting disability and making a wish come true

On Friday night I was invited to a fundraising dinner for Reverse Rett, which supports research into finding a cure for Rett Syndrome, a debilitating neurological disorder. Rett Syndrome is not inherited; it is a spontaneous chromosomal mutation which prevents nerve cells in the brain from working properly, causing profound physical and communication disabilities. Research so far indicates the possibility of reversing the mutation and its effects.

My friends have two daughters and the youngest, Amy, suffers from Rett syndrome. She is only seven and she cannot walk or talk. She is permanently confined to a wheelchair. A couple of years ago her sister Abby (who is able bodied and very pretty and chatty) did a sponsored silence. She wrote on her fundraising page that she wished her sister could talk so that they could chat together.

Tobii PCEye GoThe Reverse Rett fundraiser included an auction and a raffle. I bought some raffle tickets and I won the big prize: a piece of eye-gaze  technology – Tobii PCEye Go – which will allow Amy to communicate with the outside world, and chat to her sister.

As you may or may not know, professionally I write a lot about technology and communication, so it is pretty cool that the combination of a sophisticated device kindly donated by Tobii and my bit of luck will turn Abby’s wish into reality. The PCEye Go works with a laptop,  but it also works with a Windows 8 tablet and has a wheelchair attachment for mobile communication.

Once Amy has got to grips with the PCEye Go, the plan is to get her a Surface Pro or other compatible Windows 8 tablet  This would allow her to communicate when she’s not at home or at school and would bring her life a lot closer to normal.

A mobile communication device will mean a lot more to Amy than our smartphones mean to us as for the first time it will give here the ability to communicate quickly and directly with people around her. She will also be able send texts and play games. Basically, it will make it easier for her to socialise.

I wanted to share this because disruptive technology is a central theme for technology writers. It is so great that technology can also disrupt disability to transform the lives of Amy and others like her and help their bright minds and personalities shine through their physical limitations. And it will help two little sisters chat together at last.

http://www.reverserett.org.uk/

Andrew Marr’s six rules of leadership

IMG_3509A friend invited me to Steria UK’s Great Minds dinner at Simpsons on the Strand. It was an interesting and enjoyable evening, not least because the after dinner speaker was political commentator Andrew Marr. I knew Andrew from my days as a reporter in the House of Commons. He was editor of The Independent, and we often sat next to each other in the press gallery in the optimistic early days of Tony Blair’s New Labour government. It was great to meet Andrew again 17 years later. The time gap disappeared instantly; we fell straight into conversation – about politics, of course – and he was as forthright and insightful as ever.

Andrew gave us a short talk about politics, which included six rules of leadership. Although these are derived from 30 years of observing and commentating on political leadership, they apply equally to business – or anything really. Still a reporter at heart, I jotted them down:

  1. Know what you are for. Margaret Thatcher made mistakes, but she knew what she stood for. While David Cameron is effective at running his office and getting things done, he is uncertain about what he stands for, which is why people don’t believe in him.
  2. Make enemies – at all costs! Tony Blair at one point tried to be friends with The Guardian and The Telegraph. He wanted everyone to like him. He pretended to agree with everyone, but journalists talk among themselves, and in the end nobody agreed with him. If you’re not prepared to offend some people, you will take your business nowhere. David Cameron has promised to negotiate with the EU concerning the free movement of people – a concept which is fundamental to the EU. He won’t manage it. He has to decide whether he really wants to take the UK out of Europe.
  3. Speak English! This means making sure that people understand what you mean. While John Prescott’s grammar was at best incomprehensible, we all knew what he was saying. Ed Milliband apparently has better people skills than David Cameron, but he is intensely unpopular because he avoids answering questions. This is a common trait among politicians, and it is also how they lose people’s trust.
  4. Keep people cheerful! Boris Johnson is underestimated because he plays the buffoon, but his ability to make people laugh underpins his popularity and his success. Andrew recalls watching him deliberately messing up his hair before Question Time! Nigel Farage has garnered immense support because he is likeable, even though in Andrew’s opinion (and mine) he is not a political leader because he has only one idea. Alex Salmond is another single-issue politician who has shifted public opinion (in Scotland) significantly. They keep people cheerful and that engages people and keeps their attention. Andrew asked: “Is UKIP popular because of Nigel Farage’s pint?”
  5. Practice selective deafness. This means not letting critics – or twitter trolls – affect you. John Major was famously upset by criticism and this only encouraged his detractors. This references back to points 2 and 3. If you are a genuine leader, you will know what you stand for and be able to communicate this, but this means not everyone will agree with you or like you.
  6. Get out quick! Margaret Thatcher always vowed to get out quick, but ultimately she stayed too long and faced a public humiliating demise. Tony Blair, on the other hand,  quit at the top. Many politicians are remembered for their leadership skills because they left quietly and their glory years were not dimmed by years of public failure.

Andrew’s closing words were a warning – that businesses and individuals have to get involved in politics beyond making trivial criticisms on social media and elsewhere. If we are unhappy with politicians, or the government, we should replace them. The danger is that we shall face the extreme political and economic consequences of doing nothing.

Thanks are due to Steria UK.

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