Not until the last five minutes did the awful realisation come that the end was at hand. The lights became dim and went out, but we could see. Slowly, ever so slowly, the surface of the water seemed to come towards us.
Robert W. Daniel
As many people do, I have a ‘Memory Box’ or, more accurately, a ‘Memento Box’. It’s not large — I tend to travel light through life.
Within that box is an eclectic mix of objects and items from before my birth to more recent times. My great-grandfather’s pocket watch (that’s wound using a key). Some cards my grandfather sent from the trenches of the Great War. My father’s medals and my mother’s ID card from the Second World War. Also, some shrapnel from a German bomb. I wouldn’t be writing this if it had exploded closer to her. When it comes to my lifetime, there’s my school reports, a FA Cup Final programme from 1974 and various other bits and pieces. One is a ‘Boarding Pass’ for the Titanic Hotel and Museum in Belfast.
A thoughtful birthday gift of some years ago from my wife Sarah as I have a keen interest in that famous ship. The Titanic Hotel was once the offices of Harland and Wolff, the ship’s builders. The museum, just next door, is a striking building whose star-shaped design has ‘sides’ that are the exact dimensions of the ship’s bow.
I’ve been fascinated by the story of RMS Titanic from my youngest days and my watching of a ‘Night to Remember’, starring that British stalwart actor Kenneth More in the role of Second Officer Charles Lightoller. The film is romanticised but still far superior to the more recent offering by James Cameron.
A young teenager, replete from Sunday Lunch, I settled down with my parents to watch a Black and White ‘classic’ that in the late 1960s was the staple of BBC Sunday afternoon viewing. ‘A Night to Remember’ gripped me for the next couple of hours. A year or so later, I read the book of the same name by Walter Lord, on which the film is based. Since then, I’ve read much about the short-lived life of the Titanic. From its inception to its demise. In my opinion, the most definitive book on the subject is ‘Titanic — Triumph and Tragedy’ by John P Eaton and Charles A Haas. Over the years, I’ve also read biographies of passengers and crew. Because of the 1958 film, Charles Lightoller is well-known; however, the individual that sticks in my memory is Violet Jessop — ‘Miss Unsinkable’. Violet lived to tell the tale(s) after surviving the sinking of the Titanic and its sister ship Britannic (it hit a German mine rather than an iceberg). Violet was also aboard Titanic’s other sister ship Olympic when it collided with HMS Hawke.
Interestingly it was the ripple effect of that collision that led to the Titanic meeting the iceberg. Repairs to RMS Olympic delayed work on Titanic by three weeks, thus pushing back its Maiden Voyage from March into April. And who was the captain of RMS Olympic when the collision occurred? None other than Captain Smith. Who then met his fate as captain of Titanic.
I don’t have much time for the more recent Titanic film as someone deemed it necessary to plot around a fictionalised story for some unknown reason. This, despite an abundance of engaging true stories about the people who sailed on the Titanic.
For a love story, we have Mr and Mrs Straus. Married for over 40 years, they chose to stay together on the sinking ship out of love rather than be apart. For intrigue, we have John Jacob Astor. One of the wealthiest men in the world, who died, leaving his young pregnant second wife to face future ostracism by his family. For bravery, we have Lightoller himself. Once he’d seen the passengers away on one side of the ship, he tried to float two ‘collapsible’ boats before almost drowning. He then spent the night with many others standing on top of one of the upturned collapsible. For female fortitude, we have the ‘unsinkable Molly Brown’. But best of all, for humour, we have Charles Joughin. The ship’s baker, who stories say refused his allocated place, as a seaman, in a lifeboat. He then got drunk, stepped off the stern of Titanic as it slipped below the waves and ended up on the same upturned boat as Lightoller. There are many more such tales.
It’s not just the drama of events I find compelling. It’s the fact that the accident brought home to many of the time the class divisions in British society, and the aftermath played its part in challenging those divisions.
Women and Children First! Providing that is, they were first- or second-Class women and children. Indeed, a more significant percentage of first-class men survived than third-class children (also far more than second and third-class men). Did Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon pay money to the few crew members in his near-empty boat as compensation? Or a bribe, so they didn’t return to pick up survivors? As was the day’s custom, the White Star Line stopped the pay of all the crew, be they survivors or not, at the exact time of the Titanic’s sinking. Yet Bruce Ismay, the owner of the White Star Line, saved himself at the last minute by climbing into one of the boats. These examples and others drew attention to the difference between, and indifference of, the privileged to the lives of the less fortunate.
The tragedy also threw up many mysteries. What happened to the binoculars in the crow’s nest? How much of a part did the fire within the coal heaps below play in damaging the ship? Was the Californian as close to Titanic as reports suggest? Could its Captain have come to the rescue of many of those that lost their lives?
I have never quite determined why this historical incident interests me so much. Is it that I wonder how I might have felt and acted if Sarah, my wife, and I had been aboard Titanic? Two second-class passengers, we were both fast asleep in our comfortable cabin an hour ago. Dressed to impress, we'd dined well and enjoyed dancing to the band. Now torn from sleep and the warm comfort of our bed, I stand on the Boat Deck wearing a long overcoat over pyjamas. Looking across to Sarah, who sits in an open boat, I say goodbye. I call to her not to worry. That I will see her soon. As the crew lower the lifeboat towards the dark, icy water, I see her anguished face disappear. What would I then do? Go against all of society’s mores of the time? Attempt to get into another boat ahead of a woman or child? Or wait stoically on the deck and scan the horizon for a rescue ship. Hoping that if I did end up in the freezing water, my life jacket would keep me afloat long enough until rescue. Or would I give up hope and go back inside and hit the bottle (it worked for the baker!)?
No matter what we imagine, we do not know how we might act in the face of extreme danger. We might think the best of ourselves, but we too might do as Bruce Ismay did in the early hours of that fateful morning.
And as a footnote, the sinking of the Titanic was not Charles Lightoller’s final act when it comes to the rescue of others. He also skippered a ‘little boat’ during the Dunkirk evacuation twenty-eight years later. He and his ‘Sundowner’ (capacity of twenty-one people) saved one hundred and twenty-seven service personnel in a single trip. Lightoller even evaded, by some intelligent sailing, a bomb dropped by a Stuka.
That led again to the ‘portrayal’ of Charles Lightoller on the Big Screen. This time by Mark Rylance in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’. For dramatic purposes, Rylance’s character has a different background, and ‘Sundowner’ becomes ‘Moonstone’, but what happens in the film is close to the truth of Lightoller’s escapade. However, I confess that, as with the film Titanic, I prefer the 1950s version of ‘Dunkirk’.
I guess I’m (literally) just an old traditionalist.