When an anniversary such as the sinking of the Titanic occurs, we all go to town - documentaries, books, articles, DVD's et al and sometimes there is so much overkill we can shy away. I find this quite distressing as we should never forget, amongst all the hoop-la, the appalling tragedy of it all. I will admit to finding the idea of a shipping line offering a Titanic Cruise rather distasteful and, though I should not make prejudgements on those who paid to go on it, I am afraid I do. Pictures the other day in a newspaper of those on board sunning themselves on deck were utterly cringe-worthy, though I am pretty sure the paper in question felt this too and this is why this particular photograph was shown.
A month or so ago I was asked if I would take a book on the Titanic for review, I said yes and it duly arrived via courier. When I opened the package I just gaped at the book inside. Titanic Remembered 1912-2012 by Beau Riffenburgh, published by Andre Deutsch is quite sumptuous - presented wrapped in tissue paper in a box in which the names of all those who perished are listed. I lifted it out of the tissue and opened it and was immediately caught up by the magnificent photographs and details set out. As well as the straightforward narrative of what happened, from the day it sailed to its ghastly end, it is full of the most wonderful pictures, many of which I have not seen before. I find it difficult to grasp just how big and how magnificent this ship was; this book certainly helps. Last year when I was in Sydney the QEII was in harbour and people flocked to see it. When I stood next to it and looked up at its staggering size which, again, you cannot get from looking at a picture or watching the TV, I remember thinking that if I felt this now when we are used to liners and all things magnificent, what must have been the thoughts of those embarking on the Titanic on its maiden voyage? The excitement, the thrill, the heart stopping moment when you arrived to embark and saw it for the first time - I feel that this is what makes the loss of the ship so much more distressing than the norm; the hopes and dreams that went down that day in 1912, makes it even more poignant.
There are detailed plans of the different parts of the Titanic, architects drawings, fold out pictures and diagrams and I spent an afternoon sitting on the floor with the book open and pulling everything out of the envelopes bound into the book which contained facsimile copies of menus, tickets, passes for the Turkish baths, a postcard sent home saying 'we are having a jolly time' and so much more. It is a large book and sitting on the floor with it all spread around is probably the best way to read it.
This is an expensive book and a one off, but it is an account of a night that nobody will ever forget, be it one hundred or two hundred years. The Titanic will never be forgotten and I cannot imagine that this book will be bettered.
My second Titanic book of the day is quite heartbreaking. Titanic on Trial by Nic Compton, published by Bloomsbury. This is an account of the sinking told through the testimonies of the passengers and crew. Difficult to pick out which letters and accounts to quote as they are all, without exception, very moving. Moving in the matter of fact way in which they tell what happened. Written in straightforward prose they have more impact than the most flowery words could do:
"I want to say that there was nothing but the most heroic conduct on the part of all men and women at the at time, where I was at the bow on the port side. No man asked to get in a boat....no woman every sobbed or wrung her hands and everything appeared perfectly orderly. Lightoller was splendid in his conduct with the crew and the crew did their duty" Archibald Gracie - First class passenger
"They tried to keep us down at first on our steerage deck. They did now want us to go up to the First Class place at all. I cannot say who they were - I think they were sailors.....the gate was not locked at the time we made the attempt to get up there but the sailor, or whoever he was, locked it. So this fellow went up and broke the lock. All the steerage passengers went up on the First Class deck when the gate was broken. They all got up there. They could not keep them down...." Daniel Buckley, Third class passenger
A ship, the SS Californian, was not far away but it seemed did not realise the ship they located was the Titanic, nor that it was in trouble.
"I was talking with the engineer about keeping the steam ready and we saw these signals. I said 'there is a steamer passing. Let's go to the wireless and see what the news is'. On our way down I met the operator coming and I said 'Do you know anything?' He said 'The Titanic'. I said 'this is not the Titanic, there is no doubt about it" Stanley Lord, Captain SS Californian
"About 20 minutes past one the second officer remarked to me that she was slowly steaming away towards the south-west. He said 'Look at her now; she looks very queer out of the water; her lights look queer'. I looked at her through the glasses after that and her lilghts did not seem natural. She seemed as if eh had a heavy list to starboard.....we were talking about it all the time, till five minutes past two, when she disappeared. I did not think she was exactly in distress. Just that everything was not right with her. I thought she was a tramp steamer and told him so" James Gibson - Apprentice, SS Californian
Difficult to read this without thinking well why the hell didn't you go and see what was going on? The captain is quite keen it seems to me to defend his lack of action and find excuses. HIs crew could see the distress rockets and had reported this to the captain but nothing was done. Seems hard to believe.
These two books are totally different, not only in size and presentation but in content, and yet the feeling of sadness and total disbelief that this tragedy happened is evident from both. If you have read my previous post on the Titanic you will see that I do have a connection, albeit it tenuous, with the Titanic but I have found the dreadful fate that befell this ship and all its passengers incredibly moving and it has fascinated me most of my life. I am certainly not what the papers call a 'Titanorak' and I am not a ghoul relishing all the minutiae and details, but there is something about this tragedy that strikes a chord in most of us. That superb ship, full of light, laughter, luxury, hopes and dreams steaming away into the night never to be seen again, all so unbearably sad....