My son was three and my daughter five. It was the summer of 1997. James Cameron’s film had not yet appeared, but a great human tragedy was unfolding on our living-room carpet.
‘Here it comes!’ said my son to his sister, and began to push a small toy ship across the floor from the direction of the television set. ‘Here it comes, brm, brm, brm,’ (the noise of marine steam engines, as a three-year-old thinks of them). My daughter moved a scrunched-up ball of white paper towards the course of the toy ship. They would meet, there would be an accident. My son swung his boat to the left, but the paper ball was too quick for him.
‘Bang! Crash!’ my son said, tilting his toy up and turning it over. ‘Glug, glug, glug.’
‘Let’s get the passengers into the lifeboats,’ his more humanitarian sister said. ‘Look at all the people in the sea.’
We needed to imagine them, just as we needed to imagine the carpet as the North Atlantic, the paper ball as the iceberg, the toy boat as the Titanic.
‘Don’t worry,’ my son said. ‘Here comes the Carpathian.’ Another toy was being pushed across the carpet to the rescue.
They played the game on many afternoons, but there were dissatisfactions. No detachable lifeboats; a funnelling discrepancy. The model ship had three funnels (it was based on the Queen Mary), whereas the Titanic had four. I explained to my son that the Titanic didn’t need four to suck the smoke from its boiler furnaces – one funnel was a dummy – but that there was a fashion for over-funnelling in the Edwardian age – ‘a long time ago’, I said – when numerous funnels implied grandness, size and speed; the more funnels the better the ship. Of course, this was just an impression, the equivalent of go-faster stripes and spoilers on family saloons at the other end of the century, but for about twenty years (like many other fashions, it died with the First World War) it held sway among the public and the premier passenger lines of the North Atlantic. Germany’s Norddeutscher Lloyd line started the trend with the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse in 1897. Britain’s Cunard Line followed after the turn of the century with the Mauretania and Lusitania. When the White Star company came to order their trio of Titanic-class ships from Harland and Wolff’s yard in Belfast in 1909, four funnels were the only way to go.
‘Doesn’t matter. We’ll just pretend it has four funnels,’ said my son of his toy. But I could see that it was niggling him and when, a few months later, I spotted a model Titanic in a junk shop window in Lancashire, I went in and bought it for £9.95. It was new – the Hollywood film was out by then and Titanic souvenirs were everywhere – and, oddly, made of coal, or at least a sort of coal-based resin. ‘British coal’ said the label on the back with its Union Jack. The same shop window had coal railway locomotives, coal vintage cars and coal English country cottages – all a dull black, like Victorian memento mori. Coal had fuelled Britain and its industrial revolution; when the Titanic was at speed, the ship’s 196 stokers had shovelled up to a hundred tons of it through 159 furnace-doors during each of their four-hour shifts. Now, to judge from the display in the window, it had dwindled from the country’s leading power source to a raw material for folk art. Further back in the shop, I could see shiny brass coal miner’s lamps, equally new, which people could put on their mantelpieces above their ‘coal-effect’ gas fires.
The shop was in a back street of an old cotton town, Nelson, which is high in the Pennines and close to the border with Yorkshire. Nelson had been a considerable town, growing in the last half of the nineteenth century from a crossroads with a pub (the Lord Nelson, from which first a railway halt and then the town had taken its name) to an industrial settlement of 30,000 people, twenty mills and 26,000 steam-driven looms weaving specialist cottons for the clothing trade: flannelettes, poplins, ginghams, twills. But that Nelson had gone. A few old weaving-sheds and their mill chimneys still stood; terrace houses of the local millstone grit still ran straight up the hillside towards the moors; there were still a few Nonconformist chapels, churches and municipal buildings in the centre (though many more had been demolished and replaced by roads and a sad concrete shopping mall).
The shop, like many other shops in small English towns where trade in essentials has been drawn away by supermarkets, sold ornaments – strange and sometimes florid objects in porcelain, clay, wood, imitation bronze, and (in this case) coal, which could be placed on a domestic flat surface and regularly dusted. Many were old, or imitation-old. ‘Vic-toari-ana’, said the elderly Lancashire man who ran the shop, deliberating over the word, ‘they’re very keen on it round here.’ He was happy to see a customer and even happier to sell me the Titanic. A hunch had been proved right. ‘I ordered a few of these,’ he said as he placed the ship in its cardboard box, ‘I thought it would be topical, like.’
At home in London, the coal Titanic steamed across the carpet on many voyages, all of them fatal. So many sinkings took their toll on its most vulnerable parts: the funnels. One by one, they split from the upper works. When there were three, my son sometimes imagined his toy as the Queen Mary; when there were two, it became the Queen Elizabeth; when there was one, it stood in for the Carpathia, the single-funnelled Cunarder which had picked up the Titanic‘s survivors and sailed with them to New York in April 1912. It could be all these ships to my son and still, when required, be imagined as the Titanic. Then the last funnel came off. A ship without funnels was . . . a wreck. This was the coal Titanic‘s final form, as a discard buried deep in our cellar, a tiny replica of the funnel-less, broken hull that Dr Robert Ballard and his expedition eventually discovered 13,000 feet down on the seabed of the North Atlantic in September 1985.
In 1998 in our house – in millions of houses and thousands of cinemas, wherever the sea rushed in, the stern tilted vertically, and Rose called to Jack from the screen or the video recorder – art continued to imitate death.
The film Titanic, directed by James Cameron and funded by Twentieth Century Fox, is said to be the most commercially successful film of all time. This is a questionable claim; when American receipts are adjusted for inflation, Gone With the Wind comes first and Titanic fourth. But at least in the span of the 1990s, no other film comes near it. By the end of June 1999, it had earned more than $1,835 million at box offices worldwide and repaid its costs ten times over. Other large sums came from the video release, compact discs, books and general merchandising which ran the gamut from Titanic champagne flutes to Titanic yo-yos. It won eleven Oscars – only Ben-Hur forty years before won as many and no film has won more. Young adolescent girls formed a large part of its audience; newspaper reports from several countries – India, Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom and the US – said that some had watched the film scores of times, mainly to see its young lead actor, Leonardo DiCaprio.
But its phenomenal appeal was more than hormonal. According to the London Evening Standard (27 April 1998), the Chinese president, Jiang Zemin, saw in the film a parable of the class war, in which ‘the third-class passengers (the proletariat) struggle valiantly against the ship’s crew (craven capitalist lapdogs and stooges)’. In a statement published in Beijing, the president applauded the film’s ‘vivid descriptions of the relationship between money and love, rich and poor’ and urged all fellow socialists to see it. The French also considered Titanic in political terms. Serge July, the editor of Libération, wrote: ‘The subject of the film is not – this is obvious – the sinking of a famous ship, but the suicide in the middle of the Atlantic of a society divided in classes.’ In Germany, according to the New York Times (26 April 1998), ‘heady articles . . . with no discernible tongue in cheek, have spoken of the movie as an emblem of the Zeitgeist, an allegory that provides catharsis for all, a surrogate myth in a trivialized era, an icon at the end of history’. In Die Zeit, Andreas Kilb, the paper’s cultural critic, wrote that the key to the film’s appeal lay in its representation of a ‘lost wholeness’. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, again in the New York Times, compared the durability of the Titanic myth with the transience of modern catastrophes, and wondered if the contrast demonstrated that we were losing a proper sense of history. (My son also became a critic. Owing to a lapse in parental attention, he watched the video. We worried that he might have been affected by the disaster and death which Cameron had so realistically evoked, as well as – though this, I admit, was ridiculous – the sight of Kate Winslet’s bared breasts. But he was chuckling on the sofa. ‘They had smoke coming from the fourth funnel. What a mistake!’)
James Cameron’s own gloss on his film was similarly myth-driven. He wrote in the ‘production information’ (the press-pack for critics and other journalists): ‘April 10, 1912. Technology had been delivering a steady stream of miracles for the better part of two decades and people were beginning to take this never-ending spiral of progress for granted. What better demonstration of humanity’s mastery over nature than the launch of Titanic [the missing definite article was important to the film’s marketing; ‘the’, presumably, carried too nautical and traditional a ring], the largest and most luxurious moving object ever built by the hand of man. But four-and-a-half days later, the world had changed. The maiden voyage of the “ship of dreams” ended in a nightmare beyond comprehension and mankind’s faith in his own indomitable power was forever destroyed by uniquely human shortcomings: arrogance, complacency and greed.’
Then, perhaps aware that public chastisement had not made good box office since the time of Savonarola and John Knox, the director added that his film was also ‘a story of faith, courage, sacrifice and, above all else, love’.
Most of those latter qualities enter the film through its fictional story, a shipboard romance. Briefly: Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) is a seventeen-year-old, upper-class American girl, ‘suffocating under the rigid confines and expectations of Edwardian society’ according to the press-pack, who meets a free-spirited young American from the Midwest called Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio). Rose is travelling first class and Jack steerage. They fall in love, have sex, and then, when the ship begins to sink, help each other to survive a villainous sub-plot. In the sea, Jack urges Rose to hold on to life and the wreckage. Jack drowns, but his love and her freshly discovered will-power enable Rose’s survival. The story is framed by the present or the near-present. Rose, rediscovered in her hundredth year, narrates the events of the voyage from a perspective which suggests that both experiences – forbidden love across the class boundaries, the awakening of a tougher, unladylike strength – have turned her into a prototype of modern, independent womanhood. The title song, ‘My Heart Will Go On’, is sung by Celine Dion, but the same sentiments, to better music, can be heard in Edith Piaf.
I saw the film twice at the cinema. There were many things to admire in it. The ship was wonderfully and faithfully recreated (the fourth funnel, in fact, carried the fumes from the kitchen fires; smoke was therefore a possibility). Some scenes had a painterly touch. The Titanic overtaking a tiny yawl as the liner leaves Southampton; an officer in a lifeboat casting a torch-beam on the sea to scan it for survivors – scenes such as these could have come from the easel of a Victorian narrative painter seeking, in contrary moods, to capture technological triumphalism and maritime peril. The cleverest aspect of the film, however, depended neither on computer-created images, nor on expensively researched historical detail, nor even on the ninety per cent scale replica of the ship itself, with the stern that tilted almost to the vertical – people falling screaming from it, bouncing from the propellers – before it slid under the sea. Its cleverest aspect, I thought, was how it had taken a previously masculine story – male blunder, male heroism, male sacrifice in that most male of environments, the sea – and feminized it as a monument not to the dead but to a modern notion of . . . ‘girl power’ is probably the phrase.
The true opposition was not between classes (pace the president of China), just as the film’s true subject was not the ‘suicide’ of the society that produced these classes (pace the editor of Libération). In Cameron’s film, the armies that clashed on that calm north Atlantic night represented youth and age, the new and old. To be young and new (to be, in a sense, now) was to smoke and spit and wear a flat cap and no tie like Jack; to be creative, an artist, like Jack; to be free and resourceful like Jack; to have heard, improbably, of Picasso and Freud like Rose; to make love in the back of a car, part of the ship’s cargo, like Rose and Jack; to drink and dance Irish jigs in the steerage; to be Irish or Italian or Scandinavian or American (though not clipped, rich, East Coast American – Anglo-American). To be young and new was to have, as your soundtrack, the ghastly Celtic-twilight pastiche of James Horner’s music.
And to be old? That was to lose, to be part of dying things, an ancien régime; to be repressed and repressive; not to have heard of Freud; to have as your soundtrack the hymn ‘Nearer My God, To Thee’, like Captain Smith (Bernard Hill) as he stood stoically, purposelessly, in the wheelhouse and saw the sea come crashing through its windows; to be smug and autocratic like the ship’s officers and owner before the disaster, and then to be weak, brittle and cowardly after it; or to be weak and servile like the crew, before and after.
In other, shorter words: to be old, to be the enemy, was to be British.
I watched the film and felt a slight sense of ancestral, racial injury, and eventually took the train to Lancashire.
Four days out from Southampton on its maiden voyage to New York, the Titanic hit the iceberg at 11.40 p.m. on Sunday 14 April, and sank at 2.20 a.m. on 15 April. Its last known position was 41° 46’ N, 50° 14’ W; about 350 miles south-east of Newfoundland and 1,000 miles and three days away from New York. According to the British Board of Trade inquiry, 1,503 passengers and crew died and 703 were saved. The Titanic had steamed into an ice field at twenty-two-and-a-half knots; it had ignored ice-warnings tapped out in Morse from other ships; its lifeboats had room for only 1,178 people; its watertight bulkheads did not rise high enough in the hull. But these reckless errors of navigation and flaws in ship design were largely ignored in the immediate British coverage of the disaster. Tragedies needed heroes. Titanic‘s band supplied them. To preserve order and calm, they had started to play soon after the iceberg was hit and had gone on playing until the very end, insouciantly, stoically, and finally religiously and comfortingly. Their last number was said to have been the hymn, ‘Nearer My God, To Thee’.
‘Why is it,’ George Bernard Shaw wrote in the Daily News and Leader one month later, ‘that the effects of a sensational catastrophe on a modern nation is to cast it into transports, not of weeping, not of prayer, not of sympathy with the bereaved . . . but of . . . an explosion of outrageous romantic lying?’ Shaw listed what he called the ‘romantic demands’ of a British shipwreck. The first was the cry ‘Women and Children First’ and the second that all the men aboard (‘except the foreigners’) should be heroes and the captain a superhero. Finally, Shaw wrote, British romance demanded that ‘everybody should face death without a tremor; and the band, according to the Birkenhead precedent, must play “Nearer My God, To Thee”.’ The Birkenhead was a troopship which foundered off the South African coast in 1852. While the women and children were got off in the boats, the troops held ranks at attention on deck. In Victorian Britain, the story had a powerful effect.
The evidence from the Titanic, according to Shaw, ran in the opposite direction. ‘The captain and officers were so afraid of panic that, though they knew the ship was sinking, they did not dare tell the passengers so – especially the third-class passengers – and the band played Rag Times [sic] to reassure the passengers, who, therefore, did not get into the boats, and did not realize their situation until the boats were gone and the ship was standing on her head before plunging to the bottom.’
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle replied to Shaw’s attack in the Daily News of 20 May.
‘Mr Shaw tries to defile the beautiful incident of the band by alleging that it was the result of orders issued to avert panic. But if it were, how does that detract either from the wisdom of the orders or from the heroism of the musicians? It was right to avert panic, and it was wonderful that men could do it in such a way.’
Shaw, as usual, was being controversial; he was England’s leading controversialist. But he was also being brave, because in the middle of this still familiar London newspaper phenomenon, the columnar spat, the body of its chief subject, the leader of the Titanic‘s band, had been unloaded from a ship in Liverpool and taken by hearse inland across Lancashire, up past the noisy weaving-sheds of Preston and Blackburn, Burnley and Nelson, to the town of Colne. If disasters need heroes, heroes need burials, and burials need bodies. The body of Wallace Henry Hartley, violinist and bandmaster, had been retrieved from the sea and brought to Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 30 April. In Halifax it had been coffined and taken by train to Boston, and from there shipped by the White Star’s Arabic to Liverpool, where it arrived at South Canada Dock on 17 May.
Even before his body had been found, Hartley was a hero. Reports of the band’s behaviour, how they had continued to play, first appeared in the New York Times on 19 April, the morning after that newspaper’s reporters interviewed survivors who disembarked from the Carpathia. Newspapers in Britain magnified these reports – Shaw was right about ‘outrageous romantic lying’ – until Hartley became the man who not only went on playing his violin when the ship began to settle by the bows, but continued playing even when he was waist-deep in water.
On 18 May, Hartley was buried in Colne. About 26,000 people then lived in the town. The local newspaper, the Colne and Nelson Times, estimated that a crowd of about 40,000 attended the funeral, drawn from across northern England by trains and trams. They made Hartley’s funeral the largest single solemnization of the Titanic disaster on either side of the Atlantic. The Colne and Nelson Times reported that the town had reached ‘the highest eminence of its character and tradition . . . The whole world has been at the feet of Wallace Hartley; then why wonder at the jealous pride of Colne?’
In Lancashire, I went first to Liverpool to consult the newspaper archive and look at the Titanic monuments. The city has two of them; the ship, like all of White Star’s fleet, was registered here (when the last of the hull slips under in Cameron’s film, the sight of the word liverpool on the stern jolted me into remembering that this was a city of global importance, once). Many Liverpudlians were in the crew, especially as firemen and coal-trimmers in the stokeholds, and it was a Liverpool musical agency that recruited the band. One monument stands at the Pierhead, originally intended for the ship’s engineers (no engineering officer survived) but later modified before its unveiling in 1916 to take account of the First World War and ‘honour all heroes of the marine engine room’. In the bas-reliefs, stokers with bare chests stand with rags and shovels in hand while an officer in a naval cap and jacket holds a spanner. They stare out at an empty river – a process of desertion which began when White Star moved their finest transatlantic liners to Southampton, so that they could cross the Channel to Cherbourg and embark the rich passenger trade from continental Europe. The legend beside them reads: the brave do not die/their deeds live forever/and call upon us/to emulate their courage/and devotion to duty.
Inside the city, away from the waterfront, a bronze plaque to the Titanic‘s musicians is fixed to the wall in the foyer of the Philharmonic Hall. There were eight of them: Wallace Hartley, violin and bandmaster; Theodore Brailey, piano, of Ladbroke Grove, London; Roger Bricoux, cello, of Lille, France; Fred Clarke, bass, of Liverpool; John ‘Jock’ Hume, violin, of Dumfries, Scotland; George Krins, viola, of Brixton, London; Percy Taylor, cello, of Clapham, London; Jack Woodward, piano, of Headington, Oxfordshire. They performed in two groups, as a trio and a quintet, in different saloons of the ship. All of them died. The legend in art-nouveau lettering said they had ‘continued playing to soothe the anguish of their fellow passengers’, followed by the words: courage and compassion joined/make the hero and the man complete.
According to the Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury (18 May 1912), ‘scenes of a very affecting character’ had been witnessed in South Canada dock when Hartley’s coffin came ashore. His father, Albion Hartley, had come from Colne to Liverpool and paced the floor of the dock shed as he waited for the casket to be swung from the ship’s hold to the quay. He was, said the Daily Post’s report, ‘a pathetic figure . . . suffering from intense mental agony . . . as he signed the receipt for the delivery of the body his hands quivered with emotion . . . his eyes filled with tears, and he walked away broken with grief’. Before he left, however, Mr Hartley ‘communicated a few particulars with respect to his son’s personal history’. These included: that his son had been engaged to be married (Miss Maria Robinson of Leeds); that his son had regretted moving from one of the Cunard Line’s bands because the switch to White Star meant that his home port became Southampton rather than Liverpool, taking him further from his parents’ home; and that a gentleman who regularly travelled by Cunard had told him, Albion Hartley, that he had heard his son play ‘Nearer My God, To Thee’ several times on board the Lusitania. (The last seemed to be offered as evidence to doubters. Already there were doubts).
Then the hearse’s two horses began the slow fifty-nine-mile pull to Colne, where the coffin with Hartley’s bruised body inside arrived at one o’clock the next morning.
It was dark when I got there; two changes of train, then a long ride up a bumpy single line which ended at a bare platform. The terminus: Colne. I walked across to the Crown Hotel – Victorian, built soon after the railway came in 1848 – where I’d booked a room for the night. Two women were propped against the hotel wall, pawing each other.
‘You’re a bitch, you’re a bitch,’ one woman was saying.
‘And you’re a right cow,’ said the other.
In the hallway, a man in a white shirt and black tie ran past me with blood dribbling from his cheek. In the bar, several men, also in black ties, were talking softly and urgently to their womenfolk.
‘Now love, just shut it . . . have another drink and then we’ll get a minicab.’
All the men were small and dark, as though they belonged to the same large family. A life-size model of Laurel and Hardy stood in one corner of the bar, and next to it (or next to Hardy at least) these men looked like angry jockeys.
‘He’s coming back in,’ said one man, who was watching the door.
‘Nay, he’d never, he wouldn’t dare,’ said another.
Eventually the Crown Hotel’s manager appeared and took me upstairs to my room. ‘It’s not usually like this,’ he said, by way of apology.
Outside the window I could hear a woman shouting: ‘Don’t give me that shite. You wanted to shag him, didn’t you, you bitch.’
The manager smiled and said: ‘It’s a funeral. Drinking and that. I think it got a bit out of hand.’