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When the great ship went down

The looming centenary of the world’s most notorious shipping calamity, when the Titanic ruptured its starboard flank as it scraped the side of an iceberg on its maiden voyage in April 1912, presents publishers with a tactical challenge.

20 August 2011

12:00 AM

20 August 2011

12:00 AM

And the Band Played On Christopher Ward

Hodder, pp.274, 20

How to Survive the Titanic Frances Wilson

Bloomsbury, pp.328, 18.99

The looming centenary of the world’s most notorious shipping calamity, when the Titanic ruptured its starboard flank as it scraped the side of an iceberg on its maiden voyage in April 1912, presents publishers with a tactical challenge.

The looming centenary of the world’s most notorious shipping calamity, when the Titanic ruptured its starboard flank as it scraped the side of an iceberg on its maiden voyage in April 1912, presents publishers with a tactical challenge. Almost as many books and articles have been written about the stricken liner as about Jack the Ripper — and for the same reason. Like the Whitechapel murders, the deaths at sea of 1,517 souls created a media storm which has never abated. The challenge to find anything new to say is best met by an oblique approach: by taking some specialised theme; or fixing on an individual whose experiences personalise and intensify what happened.

Christopher Ward (whose article on the aftermath was published in The Spectator 6 August), has written a poignant memorial to his mother’s unmarried parents. His grandfather, Jock Hume, was a 21-year-old violinist from Dumfries who learnt just before he embarked as a bandsman on the Titanic that his glove-maker fiancée Mary Costin was pregnant. After the collision the band calmed passengers by continuing to play until shortly before the liner’s final plunge. With stalwart camaraderie they then jumped overboard together. Eight days later Hume’s body was found floating in the Atlantic, upright in its life-jacket, besides those of two other bandsmen, with his violin case strapped to his chest. Ward’s book contains new information on the retrieval of Titanic corpses from the ocean, with macabre details about freezing to death, but is chiefly a work of family piety, with the sinking of 1912 providing a pretext for publication.


The pre-eminent figure is Andrew Hume, the bandsman’s father, a pianist, banjo-player and ogre, who told bragging, childish lies, mulcted the Titanic Relief Fund, devised an insurance scam after his son’s death, and stole from his grandchild. Christopher Ward has disinterred these obscure ignominies with discreet reverence: his family sentiment never plunges into sentimentality; but the luckless young violinist had little significance outside Dumfries.

Frances Wilson, by contrast, has written a book that is expansive and resounding. Her protagonist, Bruce Ismay, was a central figure in the calamity. He inherited control of the White Star Line, which built the Titanic, and ran it on behalf of Pierpont Morgan’s shipping trust, which bought White Star in 1902. He took the decision, in accordance with maritime regulations and orthodox ship design, to provide only 20 lifeboats rather than the number necessary for rescuing all passengers and crew. For this he was condemned — ‘someone ought to hang,’ wrote a vindictive journalist, ‘1600 men and women have been murdered on the high seas’ — although the fact is that the liner sank before two lifeboats could be launched, and there was insufficient time to save everybody. More inexcusably, so far as cut-and-dried moralisers were concerned, Ismay survived the sinking by stepping into the 14th lifeboat as it was lowered hurriedly with empty places. For his acts and omissions he was viciously scapegoated by rabble-rousing American senators whose attacks on White Star resembled President Obama’s opportunistic denunciation of BP after the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Frances Wilson depicts Ismay as intelligent, dutiful, negative and unfulfilled. Bullied and disliked by his self-made millionaire father, he became in turn a hectoring, irritable husband and parent. He was supremely anomalous: misplaced at home, at Harrow, in business, and on board Titanic, where he was neither paying passenger nor in charge.  Before leaving on the maiden voyage, he had notified colleagues that he intended to retire as White Star’s chairman.  

Titanic sank because it was speeding through a stretch of ocean known to be full of icebergs.  Ismay denied that he discussed the speed of the ship with its captain, but Wilson notices that he blurted out under cross-examination that he had discussed it with the chief engineer. She believes that he was smitten during the voyage by Marion Thayer, wife of an American railroad man who was lost in the sinking. Through the intervention of the novelist and literary scholar Katherine Bucknell, Wilson has read Ismay’s later correspondence with Marion Thayer. The extracts from these letters reveal his abiding loneliness, self-restraint and dissatisfaction: the stilted cravings and frosty kindliness of top-notch Edwardians are vividly shown.  

Mulish, hard-line Titanic buffs may dismiss Wilson’s digressive chapter on Joseph Conrad and Lord Jim as airy-fairy time-wasting: other readers will be relieved not to be pelted with facts about bulkhead rivets and davit design. She provides an exact description and lucid explanations of what happened. Her prose is poised and elegant: she expresses a sprightly joy about the human comedy, tenderness about human frailty, and calm wisdom amidst all Ismay’s sadness.


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