Remembering the Titanic

Titanic from Wikimedia Commons

Titanic from Wikimedia Commons

I’m not old enough to remember the sinking of RMS Titanic: a fact which may surprise some of the younger readers of my blog who probably regard me as prehistoric. I don’t actually think there are many people around who can now recall the “night to remember”; a century after she went down in what is arguably the most famous shipwreck of all time. The centenary has been marked by a considerable number of documentaries and publications, and it is astonishing what a grip the tragedy holds on the popular imagination, even after one hundred years. It’s a story almost everyone recognizes: there is something almost archetypal about it, like a modern day Tower of Babel myth about man’s technological presumption in the face of uncaring deadly nature, and I found the Twitter posters asking “it really happened? It was not just a film?” literally unbelievable. Sure outside of England, Canada, Ireland and the USA the story may have less resonance, but I suspect the posters were taking the mickey. Then again, maybe not. Why would they know about a century old tragedy, when the remainder of the 20th century had so much more horror in store?

There was a bit of a note of desperation in some of the coverage to show how relevant it was – “the early 20th centuries equivalent of 9/11” seemed to be a phrase that recurred time and time again in the narrations. Um, maybe. In fact there was an unpleasant tone to some of it too — the story is a fable of rich and poor dying together in luxury, amidst heroism, and some would argue villainy. It is unpleasant in that it is such a romantic, heady fable, that the real deaths and utter misery caused by it are forgotten in our joy at hearing the old story retold. There is something slightly voyeuristic, unpleasant about it; but then I watch Air Crash Investigation, and am fascinated by it (I also have a morbid fear of flying though.)

Titanic leaving Belfast from Wikimedia Commons

Still my friend Andrew Oakley’s complaint that many of the media talked of a celebration of Titanic, when they meant a commemoration rings true. The British are good at costume drama, and love heroic failure — Titanic lets us indulge both sins. Yet I feel a slight tinge of guilt at the number of books I have picked up over the years on Titanic – always remembering my grandmother Alice’s complaint that the 1958 film A Night To Remember on the tragedy was “too soon”. Well it was 46 years after the sinking, but many alive must have seen themselves portrayed – it does not seem that many years since the last survivor died now, and yet in an age when we have Hollywood films about 9/11, my grandmothers annoyance and horror at the 1958 film seems a bit quaint. (She must have been annoyed, because she mentioned it to me repeatedly as a young boy in the 1970’s and 80’s, decades after the film came out.) She died before James Cameron’s Titanic, but I know it would have offended her horribly, as making a romance out of a tragedy. That is an ancient human preoccupation however, and not limited to Titanic in any sense. Romantic tales of tragedy might actually serve some cathartic function, releasing societal anxieties and tensions, creating teleological narratives that make sense of the senseless? I don’t pretend to know.

In Belfast, where she was built by the great shipyards, celebration could legitimately be in the air. They were marking the awesome achievement of building the ship, not her tragic end. A peculiar choice to celebrate – RMS Olympic her sister ship was a great success, albeit commercially unprofitable in the end; the age of super-luxury liners for transatlantic travel was fairly short I think, and replaced by that of aircraft in less than half a century, and other lines picking up White Stars lost traffic following the disaster. I was amazed to learn in one documentary that a £12 passage in 1912 is roughly equivalent to £1000 now – as I think the cheapest berths were about £7, even steerage class was not cheap back then?

So given my somewhat ambivalent feelings about our fascination with this disaster (it is bizarre — we don’t pay half as much attention to the sinking of the Lusitania, or the worst of all in lives lost MV Wilhelm Gustloff, perhaps because both happened in wartime even though they were civilian ships) — anyway, given my ambivalence, why write about the media coverage?

Well I think I have already really noted why – my grandmother Alice Bentley, with whom I spent large parts of my youth, sitting in her little front room, listening to her stories. She was about to turn 12 on the day the papers headlines read “Loss of the Titanic: dreadful loss of life” — and she was profoundly shaken by the tragedy. In later life she met a woman who had booked passage on the Titanic, and had not sailed on her for various reasons — but my grandmothers emotional response seems to have dated from the actual time of the disaster. Now she was thousands of miles away, safe in Bury St Edmunds – yet her accounts of hearing of the Titanic sinking did seem to emotionally outrank the Zeppelin raid on Bury a few years later, and pretty much anything to do with the First World War but the flu epidemic. Maybe it was her age at the time it happened, but she was very distressed by the Titanic, taking solace in the fact the band reportedly played a hymn as it went down. As a young boy hearing her tell the story it affected me too, and since that time I have taken an interest in the whole sad affair.

Of course the myths about the Titanic are endless: even before the romance of Cameron’s Titanic, a film I had best note now I have never watched, partly out of deference to Alice’s sensibilities and sense of appropriateness. Perhaps the greatest is that she was classed as “unsinkable”; others are that her launch was a huge event in popular consciousness – it wasn’t, her sister ship had been sailing the route for a while and was almost identical.

There are others, so many others — could SS Californian, just ten miles away, have responded in time and saved everyone if the radio operator was not off duty? Probably not – most modern experts think she would have arrived about an hour after the sinking, though perhaps she could have arrived as Titanic went down — survival time in the waters was less than an hour, and many would have succumbed within 15 minutes to cold. Oh and of course not all that many Titanic victims drowned – there were plenty of life jackets. I also wonder if they could have launched more lifeboats even if they were available – the collapsible were launched right at the end as it was, and there were not enough available able seamen to crew them. Luckily she was going down in a manner which allowed the lifeboats from both sides to be launched — but I am far from certain everyone would have got off the ship even if she had enough for everyone, as lots of people really did not want to, believing she would last till a ship arrived.

What else? There was a considerable delay between the impact and the first distress message, but even if sent earlier, I fear there would have been little difference. As to the fact she should have slowed down, none of the captains of the day felt that was needed in ice, and if she had actually steamed straight in to the iceberg, there would have been some fatalities, but she would probably have stayed afloat and made New York or Halifax. If you are interested in the myths about the Titanic I must highly recommend Tim Maltin and Eloise Ashton’s (2010) 101 Things You Thought You Knew About The Titanic But Didn’t. I still think the best general read on the subject, long outdated but still excellent, is Walter Lord’s (1956) A Night To Remember, and the 1958 film adaptation is excellent too (sorry nan!), just don’t take it too seriously.

Prioryman's excellent wikimedia commons map of the Titanic's voyage.

Prioryman's excellent wikimedia commons map of the Titanic's voyage.

Actually it just occurred to me that some people may not have heard what at first sounds like one of the battiest conspiracy theories of all time: that the Titanic actually never sank at all. If you don’t know this one, take a look at Robin Gardiner’s book Titanic: Ship That Never Sank . Once you understand the explanation it makes a lot more sense – a ship did definitely sink, with immense loss of life, but the question is whether it was actually Titanic, or a sister ship renamed that just before the maiden voyage, for fairly convincing reasons. Now OK, I freely admit it still sounds bats, but there is still some controversy, despite Ballard’s discovery, and I have seen people argue the evidence from the shipwreck both ways. I’m not convinced, but it is well worth reading anyway.

Finally, before I start on the recent media coverage, don’t forget the wonderful online resource that is Encyclopedia Titanica. That one can keep you busy for days, possibly weeks or months. 🙂 You have missed @TitanicRealTime on Twitter – enjoyable, but the timing seemed hours out: the collision at 11.40pm, the sinking at 2am-ish, all that stuff – it is ship’s time, not GMT. Then on top we have as Ash Pryce points out to compensate for British Summer Time not existing in 1912 – so the collision with the iceberg was several hours later that the @TitanicRealTime version. I looked at the US inquiry and the evidence given there which seems to suggest that ship’s time was 2 hours ahead of New York time, and eventually managed to work it out I think – the ships time was based on the estimated likely position of the ship at noon the next day, and the clocks adjusted at midnight, but they did not update them on April 15th 1912, because, well, they were sinking. Maltin has ably calculated the ship’s time to be 2hrs 5 minutes ahead of New York, which seems to fit perfectly. So @TitanicRealTimes decision to stick to GMT equivalents (@Titanicafewhourstooearly would have been more accurate?) is entirely reasonable, given the fact the few hours of frantic sinking most Twitter followers were waiting for happened in what would have been the very early hours of the morning our time, when almost everyone was abed.

Plan of the Titanic

Plan of the Titanic

So what of the TV shows I watched? Len Goodman’s Titanic is worth catching — only thirty minutes, with the perhaps to be expected emphasis on Wallace Hartley and the band. Three 30 minute documentaries, with little new but well presented and with real feeling by the likeable Goodman, and certainly worth the effort. Recommended, not least because to Goodman this is a tragic story, and you sense he feels it deeply. Before becoming a dancer Goodman was a welder with Harland and Wolff, and he also has experience of life on cruise ships, having been a professional dancer on them. It was nice to see him on the Queen Mary 2, the closest thing to Titanic around today I guess. Affectionate, well presented, sentimental but not afraid to cast stones – White Star come out of this really badly, as do Black & Co. the musicians agency. I’m not quite sure what Goodman’s take on Bruce Ismay is, but I have always felt sorry for him, and I think Goodman does too. You can catch this on IPlayer, along with A History of the Titanic in 30 Pieces, a series I have not viewed yet so won’t comment on.

Words from the Titanic was truly excellent, and if you are not really familiar with the story of what happened as the ship sank, well this is probably the best place to start, as it is a series of narratives from those who were on the ship – the usual suspects, Archibald Gracie, Violet Jessop, etc. The acting was first rate, and it was quite moving to see some of the narratives read by descendants of the titanic survivors or lifeboatmen etc. A good mix, that followed a seemingly deliberately non-controversial line – nothing on what the band played as she sank, or the more controversial aspects of the conflicting narratives of the night that I noticed. An hour long show I could happily watch again, and would be tempted to get on DVD, even though I know the accounts it features fairly well. And really, the acting was superb — especially the lady who played Violet. This was on ITV – I’m pretty certain you will be able to view it if you search, and it’s well worth seeking out. Excellent.

What else did I view? I didn’t watch Julian Fellowes creator of the ever popular Downton Abbey or whatever it’s called Titanic drama – did not appeal at all. From what I have seen of the viewing figures it’s hard not to make jokes about sinking here, in terrible taste. Besides there were so many documentaries to watch! Another one, I forget the title but think it was on cable, told the moving story of Wallace Hartley and the band, and his links with Colne, Lancashire — and while this was the best treatment I have seen on TV of that aspect of the tragedy, and dealt with the confused accounts of what the band did,what they played, etc, etc, they missed out one fascinating story which came up in the last documentary I shall mention. It was competent stuff, but I was a little bored by it — but then there was little new to interest me here. It may have been called “and the Band Played On” or something?

More interesting was Titanic: the Final Secret on National Geographic. I notice this is currently available on YouTube, and it’s worth a watch. I have always tended to avoid programmes about the exploration of the wreck of the Titanic – I’d like it to be left in peace I guess as a grave, though I appreciate Robert Ballard’s extraordinary achievement in finding it and the new information the wreck has given us. Somehow, while I really usually enjoy engineering shows, mos of the “anatomy of a disaster” shows on what the wreck tells us just bore me — it is the human stories that intrigue me I guess. This one was different — it featured the recently declassified story of how Ballard was funded by the US Navy, but first carried out secret missions to the wrecks of two famous US navy submarine wrecks, the Thresher and the Scorpion. As I have always been interested in the mystery of how they fell below crush depth and were lost, I enjoyed the show. It was completely different to all the other documentaries I watched.

Captain Smith

Captain Smith


Still, my favourite I think this week was the utterly, unrelentingly grim Titanic: The Aftermath. Unlike Words from the Titanic, I would not want to watch it again for a long time I think — but it is a wonderful antidote to all the romantic-tragic fluff. This one starts here the others leave off – as the Carpathia picks up the survivors, 1500 bodies are floating in the Atlantic Ocean. It chronicles the SS Mackay-Bennett’s voyage to recover the corpses, the euphemistically named “rescue ship”, and while i know of the story of the embalming, the controversy over the decision to bury around 50 unidentified victims at sea, and the wonderful efforts made by Halifax, Nova Scotia to bury the dead, this horrible, grim and seriously tragic story is worth telling. A great piece on one of the musicians from Dumfries, John Law Hume, and the identification of his body – and the tale of his pregnant girlfriend left at home, despised and ignored by his family — the case ends in court. The mutiny on the Olympic gets a mention — that rarely happens! — and many other aspects of the tragedy never normally covered were given good examination. It was grim – you see reconstruction of frozen bodies, mortuary tables, the real graves in Halifax, and later on actual photos of Titanic corpses used to identify the dead. Actually it was all horribly, horribly grim — and that is why I think it was the best documentary of all. Some of it looked low budget, compared with the lovely sets on other productions this week, but this one brings home the most important thing of all – that the Titanic was a horrendous, horrible tragedy, where people lost their lives not a romantic fiction.

It may have been painful and unpleasant to watch, but I think Alice would have approved, because it actually caught the pain that the Edwardians felt, and shocked us in to the reality of the horror of that night, and the reality of the deaths. The corpses in the water, the bereaved and the heartbroken left behind – that was the real legacy of this terrible maritime tragedy, and this was it, raw and real.

cj x

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About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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4 Responses to Remembering the Titanic

  1. Stephen Atty says:

    The Titanic at 100 on History Channel (I’m in Maine at the moment) was pretty good. They debunked the “not enough lifeboats” myth pointing out that Titanic had all the lifeboats required – they were designed to ferry passengers to a ship close by, not for evacuating the whole ship. They also pointed out that unlike many other ships (Including the Costa Concordia) Titanic stayed upright right until it sank so all lifeboats could be used. Most fascinating was the work they did on the “unzipping rivets” myth – they built a replica of the seam that split when it was hit by the iceberg and at 35,000 pound per square inch one rivet blew but the rest held. Even when they found the drawings for the last minute change for the seam due to a leak on Titanic’s sister ship and they remade the join to that design they were unable to get it to fail.

  2. Will Stevens says:

    One issue which was raised in an article in this week’s Sunday Times is the differential survival rates of men, women and children. According to the statistics which I’ve seen, in all classes, the women and children did significantly better than the men. The article claims, though, that this wasn’t due to ‘women and children first’ gallantry; instead, it was due to the men being held back at gunpoint.

    Yet, as far as I can recall, this doesn’t feature much in the accounts which I’ve read and seen. I should have thought that, to make the substantial impact on survival rates which it did, it wouldn’t have been enough for the odd ship’s officer to wield the odd revolver. Presumably, it would have needed the coordinated efforts of a number of armed men. I’d also suppose that there would have been some injuries or fatalities among the men trying to board the lifeboats, for, surely, it would have been necessary to shoot one or two ‘pour encourager les autres’?

    This leaves me thinking that, either the Sunday Times story is untrue, and the outcome was due to genuine gallantry, or else some nasty and discreditable stuff has been expunged from the accounts.

  3. Rick says:

    The titanic dramatisation was pretty awful I have to say… that said, the ‘completest’ in me meant that I had to sit through all four (or was it three?… see, it was that bland!) episodes, on the off-chance it got better. I didn’t!

    I thought I’d scoured all ‘catch-up’ TV for Titanic related shows, but it appears I missed out on ‘Titanic: The Aftermath’. If anything, this is the area I’m least knowledgable about on the whole subject mater – so am looking forward to checking it out…. all be its grim subject matter!

  4. Ash pryce says:

    Thanks for the mention! I only just stumbled across this – vainly googling myself

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