Allow me to dangle before your eyes the prospect of an entirely new life. A life under foreign suns, beyond far horizons, with four decent meals a day and snacks in between. A life that feels like one luxury holiday after another, because that’s exactly what it is. And it’s yours for free.
Fellow would-be sybarites, you will win this new life for yourself the day you sign on as a guest lecturer aboard one of the world’s constantly expanding fleet of cruise ships.
Does it all sound too easy? No, because by heaven, it is easy. All you need to know is, you need to know something about something. But surely everyone knows something about something. Jane Russell movies, origami, goat rearing for pleasure and profit… there must be something you can talk about with authority. And that’s all you have to do, three or four times a cruise. In return you get the cruise for free.
I did it for five years. Until I was 60, I hopped off one cruise liner only to hop back on another, seeing the world for nothing and, being nominally a member of the crew, paying only 50 per cent of my bar bill.
For my cruise ship talks I chose a subject that fascinates me. Myself. Or to be more precise, my career. After 30 years of writing television comedy I had enough showbiz stories, jokes and video clips to keep my onboard audience on the safe side of mutiny.
I wasn’t the first comedy man to pull this trick. An older and more distinguished writer was finally banned by one major cruise line because he took a little drink one night, sat in the audience during the evening’s entertainment, and shouted obscene abuse at the comic.
Now, shouting obscene abuse at the comic comes naturally to any comedy writer, believe me. But the ship took exception, and he paid the penalty. I laughed when I heard this story, little knowing that I too, dear reader, would one day suffer a similar fate.
So what made me give up this semi-permanent taste of Nirvana? I think firstly I had too much of a good thing. For some this is unimaginable. There’s a legendary lady passenger aboard the QE2 who has a permanent cabin and never really gets off.
And I can’t deny there were some memorable moments in my voyages. I got up early to watch dawn break as we entered Hong Kong harbour, a vista beyond description. I wandered, hopelessly lost, in the back alleys of Dakar. I took a wild pillion ride through the desperate streets of Da Nang, and found myself in a back street café eating delectable little blue crabs and drinking fine Vietnamese beer.
I’m not forgetting the lectures. I’m aware that some people would rather gouge out their own eyes with a pencil than stand in front of strangers and talk. But only the first time. The second time is just ordinary agony. The third, a breeze. And fourth time round you might start to enjoy it.
Therein danger lies. To quote Hilaire Belloc: “Oh my friends, be warned by me!”
It was on one long transatlantic voyage home, in grim weather with no ports of call, that my little lectures became more than popular. Passengers, frantic to escape boredom, queued to get in and jostled each other for seats. Even the lady who sits in the front row and goes to sleep before you’ve said a word (there’s always one) stayed more or less awake.
I was a success. And the result, inevitably, was hubris. I began to think I was good at this lark. And instead of sticking to the old jokes, I began to make some new ones. About the cruise ships themselves. A case, you might think, of biting the hand that feeds you. Indeed, the hand that feeds you four meals of very rich food a day.
Matters came to a head aboard a P&O liner. Perhaps I shouldn’t have described the luxurious Oriana as a converted dredger, but it got a laugh. Shortly after my lecture ended, I was summoned to the office of the cruise director.
I happily went along, as the cruise director was a well-made blonde of some 30 summers, with a gleam in her eye. But she wasn’t there. Instead there was a man in a suit. He was, he said, the head of P&O onboard entertainment.
“I joined the ship at Madeira,” he said, his tone cold and quiet. “I have just listened to your lecture.”
“Oh. Um. Did you enjoy it?”
He leaned forward, with that same expression I saw on the face of the man who fired me from my last proper job, in 1974, and he said: “P&O don’t like jokes like that.”
P&O had had enough of me. I realised I’d had enough of them − and enough of cruising. When we docked at Southampton I came ashore with all the determination of a marine at Guadalcanal. And if anyone wants to get me back on a cruise ship, they’ll have to send out the press gang.