“We lose ourselves in books, we find ourselves there too."

This book review goes alongside a fact-file I’ve created regarding the Titanic on my blog page so make sure to check out A Night To Remember: A Titanic Fact-File.

On this day (April 15th) in 1912 (112 years ago), the RMS Titanic sank beneath the ocean and wouldn’t be seen again for another 73 years when Robert Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel located her final resting place on September 1, 1985.

As I wrote in my blog post, I went to Belfast with my fiancé, his sister and her husband earlier this year. One of our day outings took us to the Titanic Museum in Titanic Quarter, the ship building yard where she was built. Here we learned about the Titanic from start to finish – from the initial ideas and building in the dockyard to completion and setting off on her maiden voyage, a look at the cabins interiors for the different classes. After this we learned about her sinking step by step – the calls made to the Titanic warning them about icebergs in their vicinity, them hitting the iceberg and the subsequent distress calls made to alert nearby ships to help her. The most moving section was the wall of names. The wall had the names and ages of every single passenger who died on the ship including a system where you could search to see if any of your ancestors were on the Titanic and what their fate was. There were also excerpts and snippets of certain famed individuals. The wall also had other facts and figures which just bring to reality the extent of this disaster. Finally we went into a dimmed room where we could see artefacts such as a deckchair from the Titanic and a violin of one of the musicians which was recovered. The Titanic museum is a  must see for anyone visiting Belfast!

Titanic Belfast Museum Experience - A Review
The Violin in the Titanic Museum, Belfast. It once belonged to Wallace Hartley a musician on the Titanic.

But you’re here for a book review so let’s get to it! Whilst I was at the museum I got A Night to Remember by Walter Lord. First published in 1955, this book remains the definitive, classic tale of the sinking of the Titanic. Walter Lord interviewed more than sixty survivors before committing their searingly vivid recollections to his minute-by-minute account of the Titanic’s fatal collision and the experiences of both passengers and crew under pressure of the unthinkable: the swift plummet into icy waters of the ship promised never to sink. With the Titanic’s sinking being 112 years ago, never again will an author have the opportunity to speak to so many of them. Ultimately, A Night to Remember is about those inhabited the Titanic, from the first class passengers to the boiler room crew; the captain to the musicians; restaurant staff to the immigrants hoping for a better life. It is, for all intents and purposes, a survivors tale.

“That is why, to anybody who lived at the time, the Titanic more than any other single event marks the end of the old days, and the beginning of a new, uneasy era.”

When this book was published in 1955, Titanic was being forgotten. After a world war, a depression, and a second, bigger world war had killed, wounded, or dislocated tens of millions of people. This is further proven when Lord started corresponding with Titanic survivors, with many of them expressing skepticism that anyone still cared. People did. People cared a great deal and people still do.

“But legends are part of great events, and if they help keep alive the memory of gallant self-sacrifice, they serve their purpose.”

A Night To Remember, starts in the crow’s nest, moments before the collision with the iceberg. Fred Fleet a member of the crew in the crow’s nest, then segues into a short riff on First Class pets. Discussing John Jacob Astor’s Airedale named Kitty and Henry Sleeper Harper’s, prize Pekingese Sun Yat-sen. The ship carried at least twelve dogs, only three of which survived, one of which was Sun Yat-sen.

The three surviving dogs.

We then return to Fleet spotting the iceberg. Fleet warns the bridge and a tense 37 seconds elapse before the ship strikes the berg on its port side. At this point, Walter Lords tale starts to flower and expand. He leaves Fleet and the crow’s nest to tell the stories of other people on different parts of the ship: a quartermaster on the aft docking bridge; a steward in First Class; a night baker baking rolls; passengers from all three classes.

“Overriding everything else, the Titanic also marked the end of a general feeling of confidence.”

An overarching picture of the tragedy is created out of dozens of individual accounts woven together. For example, Walter Lord  describes the ship’s break-up,  by listing and contrasting all the different items breaking loose and crashing together, from the 29 boilers to a jeweled copy of the Rubaiyat, from 30,000 eggs to “a little mantel clock in B-38.” Lord managed to maintain the integrity of the personal observations of the survivors, while still delivering an exciting narrative and ensure this is a non-fiction success not a bore.

Yes, it is human tragedy first and foremost; but it is also tragedy in the dramatic sense: the noblesse oblige of “women and children first;” Guggenheim dressing in his best to “die as a gentleman;” Ida Strauss refusing to leave her husband, who was not allowed in a lifeboat; the death of a titan set to music, and rockets, and finally the screams of fifteen-hundred people dropped into a freezing sea.

Lord tells the story of the Titanic, as (I hope) it happened, use eye-witness accounts to fill his pages. Indeed a lot of the witnesses turned out to be pretty perceptive. The great mystery that Ballard solved in 1985 when he discovered the Titanic was that Titanic had broken in two. Of course, young Jack Thayer had already said that, seventy-three years earlier, because it had happened fifty-yards from his seventeen year-old eyes.

“The Titanic woke them up. Never again would they be quite so sure of themselves. In technology especially, the disaster was a terrible blow. Here was the “unsinkable ship” — perhaps man’s greatest engineering achievement — going down the first time it sailed.

What I loved about this book was the fact that no-one was left behind. The way in which Lord told this event from the eyes of different people who were in different classes and positions in the ship makes you realise that this really was the worst maritime disaster ever and ultimately lots of if’s and buts could have saved the Titanic.

“What troubled people especially was not just the tragedy—or even its needlessness—but the element of fate in it all… Had any one of these “ifs” turned out right, every life might have been saved. But they all went against her—a classic Greek tragedy.”

There were facts in this book that also shock you to the core. For example, the À la Carte Restaurant, an Italian restaurant open exclusively to first-class passengers and was staffed by external personnel, people who weren’t part of the crew. As a result of this, they had no rights and everyone forgot about them; the crew of the Titanic told them they weren’t their concern. As a result, of the 69 members of staff, only 3 survived. We forget how atrocious the class system was back then and reading it in black and white strikes something in you that feels like horror and chills you to the bone.

“But it went beyond that. If this supreme achievement was so terribly fragile, what about everything else? If wealth mean so little on this cold April night, did it mean so much the rest of the year?”

1517 lives were lost. First Officer William Murdoch was one of the most heroic figures of the Titanic. He saved many lives that night (contrary to the movies depiction of him committing suicide). Wireless operators and engineers refused to abandon their posts. The band played until the very end. 13 newly-wed couples, about to embark on the rest of their lives together, died that night.

We must never forget the tragedy of the Titanic, for it can never be allowed to happen again.

It was night
A starry moonless sight
Out in the mid Atlantic
There sailed a ship of light
She was big This ship of luxury
Everything was peaceful
No safer place to be
And she sailed
Through the night
On her way
Down among the dead men
Down among the dead men
The band played
She sailed the virgin
She sailed the sea
Down among the dead men
Captain Smith
The master in command
A man with wealth of wisdom
A fine upstanding man
But the fog He didn’t hear the calls
The ice mountain was waiting
For fifteen hundred souls
And she sailed
Through the night
On her way Down among the dead men
Down among the dead men
The band played
She sailed the virgin
She sailed the sea
Down among the dead men
Down among the dead men
And into history

– Down Among the Dead Men by Flash and the Pan

I recently watched a tv series by Julian Fellowes (who wrote the foreword in A Night to Remember) on ITVX. I would highly recommend it. Over the 4 episodes it tells the story from different points of views – those in first class, second class, third class and the crew. It is beautifully done and captures the tragedy perfectly.

You can buy this on Amazon

Until next time,

Keep Reading,

D x

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