Sunday 26 May 2019

The Titanic and the sinking of a golden era

Non-Fiction: The Darksome Bounds of a Failing World

Gareth Russell

William Collins, hardback, 464 pages, €35

Jewel in the crown: the Titanic was built in a prosperous Belfast that was pulling away from the nationalist South
Jewel in the crown: the Titanic was built in a prosperous Belfast that was pulling away from the nationalist South
The Darksome Bounds of a Failing World by Gareth Russell

The satirical American magazine The Onion once poked fun with the headline "World's Greatest Metaphor Hits Iceberg" above a picture of the Titanic. It was a deadpan joke about the frequency with which the sinking of this great ship in 1912 was used as a metaphor or simile in everyday conversation.

How many times have we heard the expression "he's just re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic" to describe superficial repairs in the face of impending catastrophe. Naturally, Brexit has ensured endless recent usage, with comparisons between the 'arrogant ship' of Britain's exit from the European Union despite the obvious risks ahead. "Icebergs be damned, this ship will never sink", seems to be the attitude.

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On an actual and more serious level, the Titanic sinking does offer a metaphor for its era and for the hubristic imperial and industrial forces behind it. Many authors have referenced this, but Gareth Russell is the first I am aware of who has comprehensively explored these and charted in detail the context for the Titanic's construction, launch and eventual sinking - and the grief-laden reaction. The golden Edwardian era was apparently over and world war, recession and social division loomed.

Russell does this deftly and intriguingly by picking a number of key characters and their families, and charts their journey: both literally, on the doomed ship, but also, metaphorically, in terms of life, love and commerce. These include silent movie star Dorothy Gibson, American businessman and philanthropist Isidor Straus and most evocatively, proud Ulsterman Thomas Andrews, who had presided over the ship's construction. There was also the fashionable but formidable Countess of Rothes who defiantly sang Christian hymns like 'Lead, Kindly Light' as the ship went down.

It is a wonderful, multi-angled view of history and grips the reader as compellingly as a pacey historical or epic movie. It does take time to get going - Russell goes into considerable detail about the ship's steerage and accommodation - but this build-up effectively echoes the very experience of such a passage itself.

The Titanic 'movie' has been made, of course: twice over, and more. Indeed, there is little about the disaster that has not already been documented. There is even a busy Encyclopedia Titanica website. But it is a tribute to this young Northern Irish historian that he has unearthed much original research and insight and, more crucially, woven together the different historical and social elements as background.

Russell sets the scene in his native Belfast where the Titanic was built, and he describes the city's modern history with much affection but also realism. By 1912, the Home Rule crisis was under way and a prosperous, industrial Northern Ireland was pulling away from the predominantly Catholic, nationalist and poorer South (another metaphor here?) Belfast's Harland and Wolff shipyard, which built not just the Titanic but many great ships, particularly for the Titanic's White Star Line, was a jewel in the crown of this industrial and imperial achievement. Thousands of workers were employed there. They saw their employment, and the construction of the huge ultra-modern Titanic, as a physical embodiment of the success of their imperial and ambitious culture. It was similar to the Manifest Destiny philosophy in the US which was also bound up with white, Protestant and capitalist ambition.

The American link is important for although the operators of the White Star Line were British, by 1903, the overall owner was the US tycoon JP Morgan. Economic power had already begun to slip from the UK to a rising United States, but far from creating envy, this reshaping of the Anglo-American relationship was welcomed and one of the Titanic's owners described the immense ship as a perfect symbol of the bond between the "greatest empire in history" and "the mighty republic in the west".

However, there were chinks in the armour of this complacency and Russell describes the growing labour unrest, including among aggrieved ship workers, and rising anti-Catholic sentiment in Belfast which forced Catholic workers out of shipyards. However, one is surprised at Russell's claims about the harshness of conditions for industrial workers in the US, as opposed to Europe. Is there a danger sometimes of seeing things from our own, more civilised, present?

Having said that, the hubris behind the Titanic project is a salutary reminder, even for our own times, of man's laudable but often deluded sense of ambition. Russell's title refers to the tale of a Viking king who, when he saw a field of icebergs, turned back because he realised man cannot defeat nature - a lesson that modern man, to his peril, seems to have ignored. Just like the Titanic, which went down with 1,500 dead. Russell has written a wonderful book, full of personalities, history but most of all suspense.

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