Titanic Calling, the radio communications on that fateful night. This sounds a dry subject but really wasn't. We were left with a sense of the paradox of it all - what went wrong, what went right. What went wrong? Well, the iceberg warnings: did they reach the captain's bridge, were they given sufficient attention? The Marconi Company wireless operators were, after all, working in a commercial capacity. One of them snarled over the airwaves telling one of the ships to shut up because their signals were getting in the way of his contact with Cape Race, the land station to which he was sending the light, frothy society messages of people on board the greatest ship in the world on its first voyage. Secondly, when disaster happened, the nearest ship, the Californian, a mere 10 miles away, did not hear the Titanic's calls for help because it had switched its wireless off and the operator had gone to bed - leaving the much more distant Carpathia to react and to come, much later, to save those who could be saved. What went right is that there was radio contact at all - radio communications were still in their infancy. The idea of calling for help via a CDQ or SOS signal was new. The strange fact that radio waves travel better at night than during daytime also helped. The operators on the Titanic, Harold Bride and Jack Philips, were heroic - they kept sending messages as long as they could. Philips lost his life in the disaster.
Titanic: Last Night of a Small Town, picks a selection of passengers to illustrate the interaction of social class which is so powerful a part of our fascination with the ship as a microcosm of Edwardian society (see Julian Fellowes for extreme obsession with that in the current TV series...). He does this in order to explore not only class but migration, money, ideas of nationality.
Titanic on Trial examines the witness statements given at the inquiries held in America and Britain. This is a very moving book, in that he presents those accounts starkly: the people describe what happened in their own words - and what is very intriguing is that sometimes in the British inquiry they contradicted what they'd said in the American one, demonstrating how unreliable memory is, how we shape our own personal myths into a structure we can feel safe with. History is nothing but a game of Chinese whispers, after all, and you see that process at work here. Nic highlights the myths that have grown up - the officer who shoots himself, the steerage passengers being locked up ... Frances Wilson called it 'unconscious fabrication' and quoted Primo Levi as having once said that 'the problem with witnesses is that they were there'.
How to Survive the Titanic or the Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay, explores how Ismay (not in the least a likeable or admirable person) carries the collective can for bullying the captain into racing across the Atlantic and for the cowardice of his stepping into a lifeboat, leaving worthier people to die. How ever afterwards he had to bear the public opprobrium of that guilt, that permanent loss of honour. He seems to have been a wiggly worm always trying to justify his actions in an entirely self-serving manner. He seems to have put pressure on witnesses not to reveal just how slimy his behaviour had been. Not a hero - a character appropriate for the modern era, though. I was fascinated to hear that Joseph Conrad had been very interested in the Titanic and started a story about it. Frances drew compelling comparisons and contrasts between Ismay and the hero of Conrad's earlier novel, Lord Jim - a hero, like Ismay, who makes a disastrous choice in a situation of great drama and urgency. A choice that later persecutes him. The difference is that Jim does all he can to redeem himself and ultimately achieves a degree of redemption through headstrong and determined self-sacrifice.
So, a memorial cruise ship is currently steaming towards the fatal spot in the Atlantic. Wreaths will be laid, no doubt. Nearer my God to Thee will be played, no doubt. That poor ship on the seabed will in time be consumed by the iron-munching, rust-excreting bacteria which have clothed her outline with 'rusticles' . like metal wax. Will we ever stop harassing the shades of the dead? Will we ever stop romanticising the story? Probably not. Two moving thoughts: to commemorate her sailing one hundred years ago, in Southampton, they blew Titanic's deep and mighty whistle - it was a recording of it made after it had been salvaged from the seabed. Spooky. Secondly, another great ship, the Lusitania, also sank in the Atlantic, during the First World War. Similar numbers died. She went down in 18 minutes. Yet, her demise was thanks to an act of war. Somehow it's Titanic, always Titanic, that catches our collective imagination, steaming away over the horizon to her rendezvous with disaster.
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