Monday, 9 April 2012


Not surprising that the centenary of its sinking should prompt wall-to-wall coverage, especially since dramatisation revived interest in this ancient disaster story.  But what exactly is it that arouses such obsessive interest in these numerous re-tellings and re-imaginings - books, movies, TV, even this week's bizarre 'memorial cruise' retracing the ill-fated voyage - when other catastrophes do not?  Only the volcanic obliteration of Pompeii seems to exert a partly comparable fascination; certainly there seems no appetite for replays of the South Asian or Japanese tsunamis, with similar suddenness and far greater death-tolls.
I have little interest in the Titanic story per se but its reach is so great (presumably audience- or market-driven)  that one can hardly help knowing more than one needs to.  And I recently read Frances Wilson's book How to Survive the Titanic, which rehearses the familiar but still compelling tale through one significant survivor, White Star Line director J. Bruce Ismay.   It's an effective device, allowing due emphasis on the minute-by-minute narrative, on the social status of the first-class passengers and on the immediate public shock and recriminations.  These features - the speed with which the disaster unfolded, as if designed for movie or book related in real time,  and the class inequalities of those on board - do appear the main if not wholly sufficient reasons for subsequent and still-growing Titanicry.  A collective schadenfreude is surely also at play, revelling in the hubris of some plutocratic victims whose wealth was of no avail, as well as a form of silent tribute to the mostly unrecorded final moments of those passngers and crew who drowned, rather similar in manner to that for 'the fallen' in 1914-18.  Unfortunately the deeper themes of forfeited honour, survivor guilt, even trauma, were not to be found in J. Bruce Ismay's life and character, or rather were buried too deeply within his inexpressive self, both public and private.   Seldom has a historical figure seemed more like a waxwork.  Wilson's ambitious yoking of Ismay's fate, in the courtoom inquiry and subsequent obscure retirement, to that of his fictional precursor  Conrad's Lord Jim is rather forced, given Ismay's
marginal role in the disaster and might have worked better in a different narrative structure.  In the end the relentless censure of Ismay drives the reader almost to pity for this human iceberg.

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