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“Gentlemen should emulate the starched collar and immaculate dinner suit of an Agatha Christie villain and ladies can take their inspiration from the silk and fur ensembles worn by the stars of the silver screens” read the dress code on the invitation for what seemed to be a cruise liner soiree. The SS Atlantica, a sumptuous art deco Thames clipper, was due to depart from the murky grey waters of Savoy Pier on the 10th September at 8pm. A friend and I arrived fashionably early, stepping up to the small cluster of partygoers already huddled by the river.
Despite the wheedles of the police sirens and buses roaring past, waiting by the pier felt like a charmingly early 20th Century experience, what with the sweeping gowned ladies, the dapper dressed gentlemen (some with canes!) and vintage furs aplenty. Never mind that tourists and austere Londoners alike were visibly staring at the collective: “Where are the people in fancy dress going?” someone asked, sniggering. To the 1930s! Ahoy!
The Silver Sturgeon boat arrived after some delay, by which point the crowd had grown exponentially, not a surprise considering the event was sold out. We walked down the docking platforms onto the boat, which was bobbing majestically, dimmed lights streaming out onto the filthy waters. As we entered the Silver Sturgeon the attendants handed us £100 vouchers to be cashed in at the roulette and poker tables. The interior of the boat was a visual buffet of cream leather recliners, mahogany panelling and oddly modern lighted glass staircases. It was luxurious, decadent – but not exactly the epitome of 1930s glamour. Where were the cigarette girls? The art deco lamps? The 1930s was a decade of excess, a breakthrough period post-Prohibition (ironically, the party planners behind SS Atlantica have also planned a Prohibition party to take place in a fortnight) that promised long nights of Charleston dancing and champagne swigging in coupe glasses.
At first glance, the boat was very beautiful but a little stoic and silent. Fortunately, the crowd brought the party in from the cold and within minutes the boat was popping with lively ambience reminiscent of the Jazz Age. Upstairs on the decks ladies and gentlemen were standing about in the (thankfully) temperate open air of the Thames River, enjoying the sights (and a slightly garish London Eye flashing the colours of the Union Jack). I heard a couple talking, the girl draped in pearl grey furs, the guy in a shrunken tux, moustache curling at the corners of his mouth, and caught the end of their conversation: “The entertainment’s meant to start fairly soon.” Ah, yes. The invitation stated that the night would “feature live bands, floorshows, casino tables, cabaret acts and dancing”. With that, I heard the strains of a jazz band starting to play and headed towards the dance floor.
The singer was a lady by the name of Tricity Vogue, sheathed in a very revealing, completely backless baby blue velvet dress. With flowers in her hair and a ukulele tucked under her arm she began her live show of 1930s renditions, complete with a backing band. A few couples ventured out onto the dance floor, but mostly everyone sat in their leather booths (me included). The adventurous ones had headed straight for the roulette tables and were spinning away the £100 vouchers (of course, the chips had no monetary value).
“Have another drink!” Tricity Vogue trilled as she strummed her ukulele. Not a bad idea. The two bars were now relatively empty compared to the literal human traffic jam earlier on. We sauntered over (sauntering was the walking style de jour, not only because it radiated 1930s hedonism, but it also helped combat the hazardous long hemlines). The party organisers had concocted 1930s nautical themed cocktails to suit the theme; we went for the ‘Atlantic Fizz’ which consisted of vodka, elderflower fizz, lemon juice and champagne. It was served in elegant coupe glasses and was rather worth the hefty £8.50 price tag.
At around half past nine the boat actually began to move from its dock at Savoy Pier. Everyone was in a slightly more exuberant mood now, loosening ties, tossing furs aside for an energetic go at the Charlestown (although one elderly couple insisted on dancing an extremely delicate waltz throughout the night). Ice buckets of opened Veuve Cliquots were being passed around. The Silver Sturgeon glided past historic landmarks like Big Ben and the Tate Modern with surprising sleekness; hardly a jot or tremble was felt.
We stopped off briefly at St. Katherine’s Dock then made our slow and steady way back to the Savoy Pier. Tricity Vogue took a break and returned with a delightful jazzed up version of ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ – yes, from the Jungle Book. She was very good but I couldn’t help but wonder where the rest of the promised entertainers (the cabaret dancers, the floorshow performers etc.) were. They never appeared, or perhaps we just missed them in the mass of glitter, fur and red lipstick. I couldn’t help wondering if perhaps some timely announcements would have been helpful, if not to give information then at least to present the night with splendour: ‘Welcome aboard the Silver Sturgeon!’
The clipper eventually docked back at the Savoy Pier around midnight. There was a small crowd by the pier waiting to get on, but about two thirds of the people on the boat were already getting their coats and lining up by the doors. The party was over; back to 2011 and reality.