Friday, July 3, 2015

Titanic: A Night Remembered


Rating: 2 Stars


I don't even know where to begin with this book and I am not sure how it has received such high ratings. There are so many things wrong with it, I don't even, just, wow. But here goes.

Firstly, throughout the entire book I wanted to say, "Look here lady, EVERYONE not living under a rock or in a barn knows about 'the James Cameron film, released in 1997'. She seriously said that every. single. time. Little repetitive garbage like that drive me crazy. Every chapter, she made sure to remind us that James Cameron directed a little-known film about the disaster. SERIOUSLY.  

I had just finished reading 'Unsinkable' the day before I began this one. That book was published in 1998, 6 years before this one. That is why it is curious to me that whole phrases seemed to be lifted straight out of 'Unsinkable'. Not direct quotes from survivors, but the phrasing from Butler/'Unsinkable'. It occurred mostly throughout the retelling of the sinking itself, prior to the author delving into specific mini-bios of the so-called 'heroes and villains' of the tragedy. It amazes me how this could be possible, but it happened enough times that I had to check the cover to make sure I hadn't grabbed 'Unsinkable' by mistake.

Throughout, the author seems to repeatedly overlook Chief Office Wilde and his apparent lack of ANY action that night. Survivors (both crew and passengers) recounted their memories of who was where, doing what, and when. Time and again, there are mentions of Captain Smith, Officer Murdoch, Officer Lightoller, Officer Lowe, and so on. But there is almost nothing as related to Chief Officer Wilde, SECOND IN COMMAND - except for those who recall seeing someone shoot themselves on the bridge not long before the ship went under. Some say that was actually Captain Smith, some even claimed it was Murdoch. I can not understand how the author can devote whole chapters to the mistakes of Smith and Murdoch, and not try to put together Wilde's course of action from the time the ship struck the iceberg to the time she went under. Here we have the officer who should have been the example for all the officers below him, loading boats, guiding passengers, etc., and he actually appears to be the least useful officer in the midst of the chaos. The author lambasts so many for their inaction and failures that night, but her silence on Wilde seems to absolve him of any responsibility in her eyes. At least, that is how it looks to me.

I appreciated the focus on some of the individual figures who were key players that night - incidentally, none of them survived. Phillips, Hartley, Andrews, Smith, and Murdoch. What I did not like, however, was the author asserting the fact time and again that what Phillips and Hartley did, the things that made them heroes in the eyes of the world, were irrelevant. She maintains that Phillips continued to send distress calls even though no ships besides the Carpathia were responding. She also completely ignores the position of the Californian and the fact that the ship was roughly 10 miles away; it makes sense to me that he would try to continue to reach ships that might be closer, ships that might be entering the wireless range. Additionally she claims that Phillips "prevented ice warnings from getting to the bridge". I am pretty sure that is a fairly serious accusation. In the same paragraph she says that Marconi operators are trained to deliver messages relating to the functioning of the ship - LIKE ICE WARNINGS - before dealing with the trite messages that passengers wanted to send to family and friends, bragging about their travel. So, which is it? Did he do his job or not? It would seem that he delivered the messages to the people who he was supposed to, can he be blamed if the officers didn't deliver them to the bridge? or was it the job of Phillips and Bride to give them directly to Captain Smith? That is not discussed. So, this whole aspect of the story is not told in full.

She treats Hartley accordingly, even going so far as to say that the band leader and fellow musicians contributed to more deaths but lulling people into a false sense of security. Seriously? Perhaps if more had been done to assist those in 3rd class trying to navigate the decks of the ship, more people would have been saved, as the lifeboats could have been filled. The musicians seem to me to be the last people to blame.

I don't see how Ismay can't shoulder a good portion of the blame. Complacency on the part of Captain Smith due to his many years at sea can account for a portion, but without a doubt Ismay had a heavy hand in it. But there were so many missteps that night on the part of many individuals who had the power of life and death at their fingertips - particularly those loading the boats - and some which occurred long before she had ever set sail. The most appalling fact will always remain that there were not enough lifeboats/seats for every passenger and crew member. How this was acceptable, how these regulations were done by some ridiculous calculation and not that actual number of people on board is baffling.

In addition to the above issues, I found the author to be contradictory. One example again involves Phillips and Bride. In an early chapter dedicated to Phillips, the author makes a statement regarding Bride and Phillips and that it was the 'last time Bride saw him alive'. Yet in Appendix I regarding which passengers escaped in which boats (sorry I'm not sorry, but this is so tacky), she clearly lists both Bride and Phillips being on Collapsible B. In parentheses she indicates Phillips possibly died on board. First of all, Collapsible B was never launched in the way all the other boats had been, as it fell from the roof of the officers' quarters upside down and unable to be righted. The men survived by sanding on top of it through the night. Some accounts I have read say that Phillips was alive but passed out and fell into the water at some point. Other accounts say that no one actually saw Phillips on Collapsible B. The author does not address these inconsistencies and makes herself look contradictory, first by the statement of Bride not seeing Phillips again, but then by placing them on the same lifeboats.

Another bothersome fact throughout was incorrect facts. Near the end the author refers to the Titanic being rammed into an iceberg by her British owners. Yet she clearly states elsewhere prior to this that JP Morgan's IMM owned White Star, and had since 1905. So, I guess that actually makes the owner AN AMERICAN. Little stuff like this just kept popping up and it was terribly distracting.

One thing I did appreciate is that the author took a look at three cities who all had connections to Titanic - Belfast, where she was built; Southampton, where so many of her crew came from; and Queenstown/Cobh (Cove), where she last left port. It is so heartbreaking to read of so many families in Southampton who lost fathers, sons, brothers, uncles. Unfortunately I have to be cautious in accepting the things the author says in these chapters, given the numerous other issues described above. I can't be sure what is factually correct or what she has left out in only telling the partial story. I especially liked that Cobh was addressed, as I was able to visit this beautiful city a few years ago with my mom (different trip than the Scotland one!) and see some of the sites. We were not able to visit Belfast due to time constraints in our schedule, but I am determined some day to see the dry docks and the place where she came into being. It is on my bucket list!

The following photographs were all taken by me in July, 2010 in the city of Cobh.

The former White Star Line offices, now converted into a restaurant and bar.

A wide shot of the harbor where Titanic last dropped anchor. The former White Star Line offices pictured above are just to the left of the light pole. The water was too shallow for Titanic so she was anchored off-shore. The dock where passengers waited to be ferried out to the ship are still standing.

The dock.

A close-up of the dock.

We visited the museum in Cobh, which details the history of Cove/Queenstown/Cobh, the "City With Three Names". Not only were there exhibits devoted to Titanic, but to the the numerous citizens of Ireland who emigrated to other countries.

Finally, I feel like I need to address the author in regards to the "1997 James Cameron film". She presents it often as this British vs American battle, and I realize that it kind of what it became in 1912 in the aftermath of the disaster due to the inquiries. However, that is not how I viewed the movie. She specifically uses First Officer Murdoch as an example, saying he was not depicted in a positive manner. Both in real life (by survivor accounts) and in the movie, it became sheer chaos at the end when people realized all the boats were nearly gone. In the movie, it is clear (at least to me) that even though Cal gives Murdoch the money, he does not put much stock in it. And in real life it is unclear how many actually knew there were not enough boats, it is something I don't know any of the surviving officers ever commented on - particularly Lightoller, the highest ranking officer to survive. Then, when Murdoch shoots Tommy, it is clear it was an impulsive reactions after the crowd had become unruly. Otherwise, he was presented as doing his job fitfully - doing all he could as soon as the call came to the bridge that the iceberg had been spotted, to loading passengers. I never interpreted this and then Murdoch killing himself as 'British cowardice'. Having read so many books on the subject, I interpreted this scene in the movie as using the accounts of an office committing suicide. As I mentioned before, different accounts said it was Smith, Wilde, or Murdoch. Seeing as Wilde was pretty much absent from the movie, and Captain Smith was shown in the wheel room, that left Murdoch. Anyone who relies on non-fiction for their facts about events in history is likely to come to the same conclusion.

Anyway, over all this was not a good book and I was disappointed. There are many other things I could touch on; the Duff Gordons' treatment, more on Ismay and Smith, what the band was playing when she sank. But I think this is enough. I really want this one to be good and was so looking forward to it, but when I read the SECOND LINE of the introduction (hardcover edition), 

"Although I agree with those critics who faulted the film for its clumsy dialogue and hackneyed, melodramatic plotline, I also readily grasped the key to its overwhelming popularity."

It was a bad omen, here she is knocking the very movie that the 15 year old girl in me will love forever. I should have followed my gut and quit then. But I stuck with it because, despite not being 15 anymore, I still want to read anything and everything I can about this tragic event. In the end, it is not worth the time. Pass. There are better books about the Titanic.

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