I'm a bit of a Titanic nerd. Or at least I am now. I was always interested in the sinking, but, because of the project I'm involved with, during the past year or so I calculate I've read more than twenty books on the disaster, as well as a number of journals and newspaper cuttings, archived records and online reports. It's an endlessly fascinating saga, which throws up so many questions and mysteries (not just the obvious ones about why it was going so fast despite all the warnings about ice, but less explored conundrums, such as: given all the ice warnings, and the fact other ships in the area saw numerous icebergs and fields of pack ice, are we really expected to believe that Titanic hit the first berg it came across? The reality is almost certainly that the ship was passing icebergs right and left before it struck the fatal one, which makes those responsible even more negligent and reckless.)
However, reading all these books, and there are several new ones released each year, addressing all these unanswered questions, watching documentaries about people diving to the bottom of the ocean searching for clues as to why it sank, it becomes easy to forget that what caused it to sink isn't really that important. The time for justice has passed. Lessons have been learned. What is often glossed over is that Titanic was a human tragedy, a loss of life on a vast scale. Talk of floating palaces, icebergs, confused helm orders and watertight compartments forget that men, women and children, many of them the poorest on board, died freezing, agonising, often prolonged deaths. In all the theories and conjecture, much of which seems to have been hijacked by naval architects and engineers intent on arguing the toss over at what degree angle the glancing blow was struck, the simple story at the heart of it all gets lost, and that's the tale told by the passengers.
I was reminded of this when I went to the Titanic Artifact exhibition at the O2 in London this week, a collection of objects salvaged from the deep over the past 25 years. Items like small pieces of hull, or onboard equipment like the crow's nest bell are all fascinating enough. Yet the real impact comes from the human items that have been recovered: a crumpled top hat; a boot; a pair of ladies' stockings; tiny vials of perfume; a postcard of the Houses of Parliament; endless mundane little objects that formed part of the luggage of those one board. It was enormously humbling. Around me schoolchildren scampered to and fro, burbling excitedly; ordinarily at an exhibition this would be unbearably annoying, but seeing them so rapt by what they were witnessing was actually very encouraging.
Much is made of the lessons learned from the sinking of Titanic. It has become a cliche; anything of any import that meets a sticky end trails with it a reference to the Titanic (my favourite subversion came via spoof chat show host Alan Partridge, when a guest indicated his dire opening show meant his new series was about to endure the same fate as Titanic. 'Titanic? Titanic?' he rants. 'Let me say this. What people forget about the Titanic is that there were four days of very serene, pleasurable cruising before it hit the iceberg.') The fact is, we do ignore the lessons at our peril. It might never happen again, but you don't have to look far to see that man's hubris, his willingness to ignore the power of nature, has hardly died out. A volcano erupts in Iceland, bringing the airline industry to a halt across much of Northern Europe. Rather than sitting in awestruck wonder at ability of nature to remind us her of her powers, the newspapers are filled with moaning minnies complaining that we are too mollycoddled and weak to even put ourselves at the slightest risk. I'd like to think the kids staring at that crumpled top hat, or putting themselves on the deck of the listing ship, being separated from their fathers and brothers, and loaded on to lifeboats in the middle of the night (if they were lucky) might grow up with a different view.
But I hope the lesson they don't learn is one that many books preach and celebrate, about forbearance, the stiff upper lip, meeting one's doom with a brave face and other baloney. I can live without reading one more word about stoicism and the heroism, and all the myths and tales used to prove it, like how the band played as the great ship went down. 'Music to get drowned by,' Joseph Conrad called it: '...it would have been finer if the band on the Titanic had been quietly saved, instead of being drowned while playing - whatever tune they were playing, poor devils...There is nothing more heroic in being drowned very much against your will, off a holed, helpless big tank in which you bought your passage, than in quietly dying of colic caused by the imperfect salmon in the tin you bought from your grocer.'
Hear, hear. Reading through much of the contemporaneous reports and inquiry transcripts, a rather nasty, snobbish racism emerges; the upper class English speaking folk took their fate like they should, without much ado, or any kind of show, unlike the 'continentals' and the penniless who screamed and ranted, and tried to get off the ship in all kinds of ways, even - shock horror - jumping into the lowering lifeboats! Egads. 'Be British,' Captain Smith was rumoured to have urged crew and passengers at one point, which presumably meant meekly and humbly accepting your death at the hands of others incompetence and negligence. I'm reminded of the joke: 'I hope I die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather. And not shouting and screaming like the passengers in his car.'