Thursday, 12 April 2012

Oxford Literary Festival 2012: If It Isn't Dickens, it's the Titanic ...

We all know by now that mass hysteria has taken hold and the country has reached saturation point when it comes to dear old Dickens and the tragic old Titanic. That didn't stop me, during the Oxford Literary Festival, from attending more than one talk on each. I've already reported on the discussion of Dickens' legacy at the Sheldonian, featuring Philip Pullman, J.D. Sharpe and Christopher Edge. On Thursday 29th March, I went to hear Claire Tomalin talk about her biography of Dickens. This was one of the sell-out, high-profile events of the Festival: the giant marquee at Christ Church was packed. I've read her biographies of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy, her books on Mary Wollstonecraft and Nelly Ternan, so I knew her talk would be wise, informed, spirited and sharp. It was all of those. She put in an extremely professional performance. She discussed the maverick 'dandy' Dickens in all his familiar energy and complexity. His philanthropic activities, his endless walks and wearing, hyper-charged lifestyle. Lionel Trilling had said 'the mere record of his conviviality is exhausting' - Claire said it felt as if she were writing about five people, not one. Discussing his habit of writing novels in serial chunks, she told us he felt February was a bad month because there were fewer days in which to produce the instalment. She talked of his deep friendship with John Forster, telling us that Forster had suggested killing off Little Nell and writing David Copperfield in the first person (excellent suggestions both), but that he had failed to prevent Dickens following Bulwer-Lytton's sentimental notion that Great Expectations should have a happier ending than the one originally intended. There was some very brief discussion of his atrocious treatment of his wife, Catherine - Claire felt he needed to feel that he was in the right: 'It's not unknown for middle aged men ...' Noise of collective laughter from Garden Marquee audience.

Moving on to the ship of dreams. Now, none of that Kate and Leo nonsense here. The talks I attended turned out to be absolutely fascinating explorations of communication, really. First, on Sunday 25th March, two archivists discussed, in 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.

After such a catastrophe, there follows the inquiry. To this day we're still trying to understand the fatal blend of human hubris and sheer bloody bad luck that sank the ship. I attended a panel discussion on Thursday 29th March called Titanic Voices, which featured three writers who've written books which in their different ways analyse the significance of the event. Dr John Welshman in his brilliantly-titled 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.

Nic Compton's 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'.

Frances' book 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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Jenny Beattie said...

It is still so fascinating.

Last year I read 'And The Band Played On' by Christopher Ward which I picked up in a remaindered book store. It was a sort of memoir/biography of one of the young men that was part of the band that played until it sunk. Fascinating stuff simply because it delves into the lives of real people.

Lorna F said...

Sounds like an interesting read, Jenny. It's incredible how many books have come out about this event, some of course in a very calculated way as a means of cashing in, but as you say, the interest we have in the lives of real people compels that fascination.