Walter Lord’s A Night To Remember

Audio One of my favourite moments in James Cameron’s Titanic is when Martin Jarvis wanders through as Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, the Scottish landowner. He has little to do other than be aristocratic, but I’ve always imagined it as a moment when this great Hollywood machine telling of the story somehow intersected with an imaginary 1980s BBC studio-bound adaptation of Walter Lord’s A Night To Remember in which Duff-Gordon is a central figure rather than the fictional character’s Cameron engineered to motor along his version of the story.

Jarvis also reads this AudioGo adaptation of Lord’s classic book, still one of the definitive pieces of journalism in relation to the disaster, which has of course already been adapted as the 1950s film for which the author was a consultant. But every film or television series since has it in its debt, building myth from its factual forensic account of the fate of the passengers and personnel from the moment in 1912 the iceberg hit this apparently “unsinkable” ship through to the arrival of those who survived in New York.

But these fictional interpretations can’t help informing a listener’s approach to this account as Lord lists, the image of the band playing as all hope was lost, the silence of the lifeboats drifting in the darkness of the open sea. Titanic is rarely thought of as a majestic piece of engineering now. Rather with its bow vertical in the ocean in those tentative moments before it found its own grave at the bottom of the ocean.

Unlike the film, which focused on the courage of a single officer, Lord sheds light on the experiences of dozens of people from all classes, skipping between them from sentence to sentence recording their reaction to events and often their multiple interpretations of each, highlighting how witnesses to history will always bring their own experiences and baggage to whatever befalls them. There are many “truths” but all of them “truths” from a certain point of view. Many of the people saved believed they were on the last lifeboat. There were many last lifeboats that night.

Lord travelled on Titanic's sister ship, the Olympic as a boy and that led to his fascination with the disaster gathering memorabilia over the years which making him an expert on the topic.  But that also means that he's just as interested in the social minutia and detail, spending paragraphs relating such details as what the passengers wore as they approached the deck of the ship once the scale of the disaster was known or the content of the meals they left behind.

I've seen criticism of that approach, perhaps from those more interested in the grand narrative, but what Lord fictional accounts will always gloss over the less dramatic elements such as how a particularly aristocrat liked their whiskey, even though its that choice which makes them an individual.  When Lord relates the simply conversation between officers, he's reminding us that this was not a "quick" disaster.  There was long enough for friendships to be made and broken.  Relationships forged.

Yet Lord isn’t afraid to be critical of the human condition. Statistics are utilised to damn those who were able to make it into what lifeboats had been supplied (not enough to save the whole complement) listing the percentage of the capacity of each not used which becomes important later when he notices how only one lifeboat agreed to return to check for survivors floating in the water. The rest were content to stay back, lest they be overrun with people clambering to get on board, content to listen to the screams of those close to drowning.

He also illuminates how history’s fascination has been with the first and second class passengers, the steerage class left misunderstood, not listened to. That’s been redressed somewhat since publication, but Lord notes how at the official enquiries the accounts of steerage passengers were barely considered, perhaps because of some embarrassment at how they were treated in relation to survival. Those in the bottom of the ship were underserved by lifeboats, aristocratic men more likely to find places over women and children from the lower decks.

But most of the time, Lord wants to describe the bravery of those left behind, those choosing to put other people before them. I can’t imagine setting aside the survival instinct as many of them man who were left standing on the deck facing certain death do. Each of them has a moment when it becomes apparently that they know with some certainty they have few moments left to them and simply make do, even if their fate is not what they might have chosen. Perhaps that’s what makes Lord’s account so important. It records the end of their story too.

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