As I Please: A Thought Or Two On Titanic Day

I saw bits of two Titanic films last night and began to realise why the event still has such moral force and the image especially of the band playing ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee’ on the tilting deck is so beautifully distressing.

It’s not because of the gallantry of the musicians, who know that they themselves will be dead in an hour, and their aim to soothe, uplift and sweeten the souls of their fellow travellers who have no longer to live. It’s not because the tune is so good, or the words so poignant. It’s because God, a caring God, was nowhere, truly nowhere, in the vicinity. He was far from the scene, he was out of business, he was long dead, and ‘Further, My God, From Thee’ was a fitter lyric for the sea-washed cock-up they were in. It was the first orchestral movement of the twentieth century’s atheism, of which the Great War was the second. And it was, of course, a masterful, dextrous act of Spin.

And it was Spin for the start of a century that used thereafter a lot of Spin. In Gallipoli, where no inch of ground was gained and more men died than in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden put together, while the Spin declared they ‘did not die in vain’. In America when the ‘homes fit for heroes’ were seized by the banks and the heroes of war went walking, a cardboard sign around their neck, ‘will work for food’, down the dusty lanes and rode the box cars of the New Oblivion. When millions of Jews after ‘relocation’ were promised a new life in Israel and ended, after chain-gang slavery, in the crematoria of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Where millions of Americans, sent to Vietnam in ‘a noble cause’, found it rather less than that, and came home deranged and brutish, wife-beating and suicidal after ten years of it, a war they lost, but will not admit they lost even now.

God was no nearer in any of those places, and a hundred million ordinary yearning sorrowful people died young for want of Him, and the Spin, nonetheless, went on. The Surge is working. The War on Drugs will be won. Afghanistan is winnable. Our task is to train the terrorists to kill us more efficiently, lest al-Qaeda be put out of pocket by their training. We must kill more Taliban, then form a coalition with them, trusting to their good humour and their kindliness to their enemies when we go away.

Titanic is also about incompetence, which became the larger story of the twentieth century. The hundreds of thousands of young men killed in the wire of No Man’s Land, ten thousand sometimes in a single morning, because three cousins disagreed. The hundred thousand men that surrendered to twenty thousand at Singapore. The Agent Orange meant to ‘defoliate’ Vietnam that caused mutant children in millions on both sides. The tens of thousands of babies killed in their humidicribs for possessing Weapons of Mass Destruction — atomic bombs, that is — which were not there. The monthly killing in Gaza of children descended from Ishmael but not Isaac, a capital crime, we are told by the IDF; the Messiah, possibly, among them.

There were not enough boats on the Titanic, by a factor of fifty percent, in order not to complicate, we are told, the deck-promenades of the first class passengers in the cool of the day, and a lot of the boats left the ship half-empty, dooming hundreds of immigrant children who might have improved American life as architects, musicians, rocket scientists, had they survived. As Kenneth More said last night, there were only seconds in it. If they hadn’t been speeding, or had seen the iceberg two seconds earlier, there might have been no need for evacuation, in freezing temperatures, at midnight, of women and children first, and First Class women first, nor the Class War on the deck for anguished young stewards forced to choose which poor infants, and which poor old women, would die in an hour as they themselves would die.

Incompetence is the tale less often told of that night, and the following century.

And it is the tale, a hundred years on, a hundred years this morning, we still are in.

Leave a comment ?


  1. True enough Bob; but as with the media what we get to hear about are the disasters; “No-one died today in Sydney” doesn’t cut it as a news story.

    History is usually written as a narrative of tragic events, the newsworthy items of the day turned into a coherent narrative, as humans always seek to do -

    “This happened, then that happened as a result, causing this to happen, and that’s why we are where we are today.”

    The seeking for a coherent narrative is one reason why religion is so attractive : we always seek to put things into a context, fill in any gaps in our knowledge with informed guesses, and when that fails, with supposition, and when that fails with “faith”.

    So the narrative is formed, disaster after disaster, tragedy after tragedy. Strange really when the overarching narrative of the last thousand years has been of a steady rise of civilisation, from so-called dark ages to our present levels of sophistication, learning, health and prosperity - at least in the western world. And the east is catching up as fast as they can go.

    Some issues there for discussion, I think.

  2. On LNL last week they replayed an interview with Frances Wilson on her book about J Bruce Ismay (link below)- “the first victim of a press hate campaign”. It might interest you.

    Incompetence is always the tale less told.

    • As I should have mentioned earlier, ‘Titanic’ has been one of my obsessions for decades. I’ve read all the evidence to the Board of Trade Inquiry and most of the better sources on the subject. Ismay was a survivor in all senses of the word, and it is truly amazing that he did not commit suicide over his role in the Titanic disaster. Perhaps he was a member of the order of psychopaths - ie those with no real compassion, empathy or emotion, and untroubled by conscience. (Australia had two of them facing off across the Dispatch Box for 6 months or so fairly recently, but that is another story.)

      • Is that a harsh judgement, Doug Quixote? On the LNL interview Frances Wilson describes him as “one of us, he’s everyman, he’s an ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances, and he behaved as an ordinary man would. None of us is good enough.”
        That last sentence echoes with Lord Jim, with whom she ties his tale. It concludes with “Nobody, nobody is good enough,” and perhaps our greatest illusion is that we are.

        • I have listened to it too, F.I.K. since writing the above. She sounds like a fool, I’m sorry to say. It doesn’t take a genius to write a history book, just determination and an ability to string sources together in a coherent narrative.

          Makes one wonder, does it not, about all the other history we accept so readily?

    • Oscar Wilde (1895), and Captain Dreyfus (1894) might disagree with her on that!

      • When people say “I’m sorry to say”, have you noticed that they seldom appear to be actually sorry to say it?
        She left me rather on her side. And I feel in good company, with The Guardian agreeing with me that it is a fascinating and plausible analysis of the man.
        To each his own: there’s plenty of room for plenty of opinions.

        • I’ve read it : show me where it says “it is plausible”.

          It says “fascinating” and it says “unusual and creative” but nowhere does plausible appear.

          It is a historical novel, and the author can take whatever view she likes. But she should not pretend that it is “history” in any sense.

          Take it all with a grain of salt, F.I.

          • It’s always helpful, DQ, to label those who fail our ideals as psychopaths, or monsters, or deviants or whatever.
            In the Titanic circumstance I would well have acted as he did. And may have afterwards, as she said he did, “collapsed into the intractable problem of his disappointment in himself.”
            Are you confident that in a calamity you would only act for the benefit of others?
            Well done you, if so,
            If not, perhaps rushing to judge those who do as psychopaths is not actually warranted.

        • It is not to do with his survival, that was window dressing. His crimes happened in the design and fitting out of the ship : to do with bulkheads and the number of lifeboats, and perhaps in his determination to arrive in New York if not in record time, then at least on time - certainly not to be delayed by icebergs unseen and hypothetical.

          I wonder how he could live with himself, if not psychopathic?

          PS Perhaps you should look up the definition - it is not an insult but a condition.

          • Of course I haven’t read the material that you have, DQ, so I will take your word for how much input a company chairman has into the design of a ship. Certainly, preserving deck space for the upper class sounds well, reprehensible: at the same time, it seems to be agreed that he kept more lifeboats than regulations required.
            If he had thought that the ship was in any way unsafe, would he have travelled on it?
            I am unsure how you know that he suffered no remorse. One doesn’t necessarily have to kill oneself to express that, surely? I hope do, anyway, few of us have nothing to regret.
            I’m also impressed by your perceptiveness in discerning that she “sounds like a fool,” something that P Adams, the Guardian, the telegraph and the BBC failed to notice.

            • The design of the ship, the intruding over public and parliament law concerning lifeboat number and hard learnt ocean law, the over riding of Captain competency, knowledge and rank and ocean law authority and common sense.
              I think it is a perfect example of privelaged, self righteous, self serving class intruding on sound and safe Governance.

              The degrading and extent may have been into grounds of scapegoat abuse but the direction certainly wasn’t. If anything the lies he had to fight may have taken him into grounds of surviving by standing up to those injustices giving his conscience room to move. Anyone other or not of his class or lessor,would have been physically dismembered or tortured to death.
              In the first WW, many noted and recorded that if a private had a nervous breakdown, he was a f##### rat.
              An officer suffering the same was a poor bastard.

              • That said,I’m one of the people that would’ve wished him well and peace in his life. Shelter if he needed it. If only he could have accessed class abuses and made intrusions in on it, the world may be 100 years ahead.

  3. I love the way M.A.S.H explored these questions and captured the frustration of people who have to deal with the consequences of the incompetence and decisions that others make at arms length and great distance.

    There’s nothing like working “at the coal face” to really see beyond the rhetoric and policy-wank that politicians and Ministers and bureaucrats go on with. But who holds them to account for that?

    Ah, Hawk Eye. No-one did cycicism as charmingly or as wittily as he. Sigh.

    • There was much myth in Mash. It was a very gentle reminder if not institution and health system propaganda of reality, and not a total portrayal of full circumstances. Politically correct. There is actual footage and documentaries of the Korean war and frontline politics and system failures.
      One instance- over 1200 soldiers went to sleep in the snow in minus 30 temperatures and froze in their sleep.A whole battalion of mostly young men. The public prefers Mash to total furious hell on Earth.

  4. Did any of you read the ‘new’ evidence of the titanic; how they’ve studied the tidal patterns and the earth being closer to the moon than in 100 years or some such scientific discovery?

    Apparently this series of events changed the way they could see ice-bergs, like mirages in the desert only opposite or some thing like that, and the ‘new theory’ is that without radar (another 30 + years away), it may not have possible to see the icebergs from the crow’s nest.

    And I don’t buy the class thing anyway. Get on a plane these days and see Labor and Liberal politicians up the front, able to evacuate first.

    It’s all about class and money, always has been when it comes to transport. Bob et al, have you ever travelled non-economy on a plane or train. Ever? I have once when accidently upgraded by a fool at Qantas who thought I was someone important. And if I had the money, I’d fly first class too!

  5. Studies and practice have shown that your more likely to survive a plane crash if you have a tail seat.
    Me, I want to sit in the black box but they’ve never let me.

  6. This not about Titanic, I just want to thank Bob for telling me: Go and see it.After that blunt order I did go and see Marigold Hotel (as you say, a silly title), but there’s nothing silly about this movie, it’s indeed funny, and wise and colourful, noicy, sad and romantic, but in a good way.
    Tom Wilkinson had me in tears, and Bill Nighy is sweet and laconic, Judy Dench is always good, they are all excellent including, Maggie Smith, and the Indian brother and sister absolutely beautiful, and Dev Patel lovable…
    Go and see it, I loved it, it’s very funny too, in that clever English fashion…

  7. What a powerful post - thank you!As you indicate, we seem to be obsessed with the centenary of this tragedy because of its meaning for us; just as Europe was sleepwalking into its own iceberg which finally hit in 1914, now the iceberg looms large again, clearly seen for many years, and there’s seconds in it.

Leave a Comment

* Copy this password:

* Type or paste password here:

49,795 Spam Comments Blocked so far by Spam Free Wordpress

NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>