It was a sad Christmas for anyone who loves ships, with rumours in the UK newspapers that the QE2 has been sold to Chinese shipbreakers. It was scarcely a surprise, for the post-career fate of even the greatest of ships is not often a long or happy one. The last great ocean liner to be built in the UK, the Queen Elizabeth 2 has languished in the Gulf since 2008, when in a fit of national absent-mindedness the British allowed a priceless piece of their maritime heritage to pass from her American owners to an improbable venture in that most implausible of places, Dubai.
If (as seems likely) her fate is to be cut up for Chinese razor blades, QE2 will be the victim of a strange sort of heritage snobbery, in which a fourth-rank country house or a work of the Quattrocento acquired on some long-forgotten aristocratic grand tour becomes an object of priceless worth to be saved for the nation, while the largest and most beautiful artefacts of Britain’s lost industrial genius are regarded as expendable. Of all the hundreds of stately passenger ships produced on the Tyne, Clyde, Lagan and Mersey in the century up to 1970, Britain has managed to preserve precisely none.