Time and place: the fateful night of April 14, 1912
First sentence: “High in the crow’s nest of the New White Star Liner Titanic, Lookout Frederick Fleet peered into a dazzling night.”
Verdict: A very interesting little book.
A riveting account of Titanic’s last moments, as seen through the eyes of the people on it. The book was written in the 50s, at a time when many of the survivors were still alive, which means that the author had access to first hand information, the way we no longer can have today. Sure, some people’s memories have blurred in the intervening years, as there a few discrepancies between some accounts of the events and the others, but it is still probably the most comprehensive description of that particular night.
Since this is always mentioned as being the go-to book in all matters Titanic, and as the Titanic centennial was a short while ago, I figured that now would be a good time to read this. Although it is non-fiction it is written in a very easy to read manner, and it was quite a fast read. I don’t think I’ll manage to keep all the characters straight (even now, merely two weeks after I read it, I cannot remember most people’s names), but I do believe I have learned quite a bit about the event, and I am happy it is so.
Steven Biel has described this book as “an imaginative approach to time and space in which hours and minutes prove extremely malleable, [where] the ship itself seems almost infinitely complex, and the disaster assumes order and unity from far away“, and this is, I think, the best way to describe it. The last few hours are chronicled from more than one point of view, as we get to see what each of the people interviewed were doing; it is like being able to see everywhere at once, and it was quite an interesting approach.
The narrative also covers what happened on the two ships nearby, the Californian (the one who could have saved everyone but did not realize anything was amiss), and Carpathia, the rescuer. A bunch of people on board of the latter have been interviewed — usually they and their reactions to the tragedy go overlooked, but it was interesting to find out a bit about how the passengers of Carpathia received the news: how they saw preparations being made and they worried that something was wrong with their own ship, especially as they could not believe their ears when the crew told them the Titanic sunk, and they thought it was just a story to fob them off.
The author then goes on to address the reasons why the sinking of the Titanic was/is considered such an important event: in many ways it was, as they say, the end of an era. The first world war had followed soon after; the class differences began to blur. Soon
Overriding everything else, the Titanic also marked the end of a general feeling of confidence. Until then men felt they had found the answer to a steady, orderly, civilized life. For 100 years the Western world had been at peace. For 100 years technology had steadily improved. For 100 years the benefits of peace and industry seemed to be filtering satisfactorily through society. In retrospect, there may seem less grounds for confidence, but at the time most articulate people felt life was all right. 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. But it went beyond that. If this supreme achievement was so terribly fragile, what about everything else? If wealth meant so little on this cold April night, did it mean so much the rest of the year?
It was also interesting to see how the maritime regulations have changed after the disaster. Some of the changes were rather obvious ones, such as keeping the radio communications supervised by an operator around the clock, so no distress signals could go unheard; the mandatory number of lifeboats was raised; the most interesting change however I thought was this one:
After the Titanic sank, the American and British governments established the International Ice Patrol, and today Coast Guard cutters shepherd errant icebergs that drift toward the steamer lanes. The winter lane itself was shifted further south, as an extra precaution.
I couldn’t find a confirmation, but I think this means no other ships were sunk by icebergs ever again (well, in that part of the world at least). While it would have been great if those measures have been implemented before the Titanic sunk, the fact that they were implemented at all makes me feel like in a way there was a purpose to the tragedy, you know? Like all those people have not died in vain because their deaths were a trigger for these regulations to be introduced, regulations that presumably have saved countless other lives in return. Although, of course, we will never know for sure.
Recommend it to?
Everyone interested in finding out more about the sinking of the Titanic.