Friday, January 21, 2011

From the Deep

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: ' 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.'


Dan - Friday


  1. When James Cameron's movie, "Titanic" was released, millions of young, teen-age girls went multiple times to see Leonardo DiCaprio. "Titanic" made a fortune less because it was a great movie than because every middle school female wanted to be Rose. In all the prose written about the beautiful love story of Rose and Jack, whose undying love developed during a four-day relationship, the real love story was overlooked.

    Isidor and Ida Straus were German-Americans who had been married forty-one years. The Straus family owned Macy's department store in New York City. When the ship was sinking, Isidor tried to get Ida into a life boat; she refused. She would leave with Isidor or stay with Isidor but she wasn't leaving without him. Isidor helped Ida's maid into the life boat then the couple sat in deck chairs until they were washed overboard. That scene is played out in the Straus stateroom with the couple on the bed, holding hands.

    In an interview after he discovered the "Titanic" in 1985, Robert Ballard said that the crew was jubilant, celebrating the find. Then, seemingly all at once, they remembered that they were dancing on a grave. The small, personal items found in and around the ship brought home the terrible loss of life.


  2. The US Postal Museum had a fascinating exhibit once, telling about the postal workers on the Titanic. (RMS = Royal Mail Ship) One had switched with a friend to get on this trip, as his wife was ill in the States. All went down with the ship, though I believe they were able to save a bag of mail.

    The most personal description of the disaster I'd seen, and far more moving than the film.

  3. I'm also a Titanic nerd;although I've read far fewer books on the subject than you! You've raised some interesting points here. Thanks.

  4. Hi all.

    Beth, the Strauss story is very moving. Of course, for all I say about forbearance and stoicism, the fact there were people, who knew they were going to die, and choose to die together, rather than sbe eparated, could melt the stoniest hearts. You're right - that is true love. I could go into the movie in more detail - I have little against it, even if I think he skirted some of the thornier issues - but maybe another time.

    Dana, again I should have made an exception for those who continued to do their job as the ship sank. That was true heroism. The postal workers tried to save the mail, as was their duty, until it was too late to save themselves. It makes the negligence of those who caused the disaster even more shocking. I also think of 'The Black Gang' in the bowels of the ship, the firemen and engineers who rarely get their due, who worked to to make sure there was enough power to keep as many lights on as board as possible until the last moment to aid people's , even when it meant their certain death (though they weren't too know it until it was too late...)

    The bravery of the band too (though there is conflicting evidence over whether they did play as the ship went down) cannot be doubted. My beef is with those who seized on the story in order to celebrate the heroism and bravery of those on board, at the expense of asking the right and pertinent questions about how those people came to be in that situation in the first place. I'm reminded of the Zeebrugge Ferry disaster in the 1980s when many lost their lives due to negligence. A single was released to raise money for those involved, and the choice of song should was 'Let it Be' by The Beatles. Let it Be? Surely it should have been, 'Pursue the Matter to the Highest Court!' (a little known Beatles b-side...)

    And thanks for dropping by Elspeth.