Death off The Lifeboat

Post my visit to Belfast in Northern Ireland and the Titanic Museum, followed by reading Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember and Christopher Ward’s The Band Played On I have continued with this reading theme with Charlotte Rogan’s novel The Lifeboat, which felt like reading the next chapter of a Titanic story, the one that hasn’t been written to my knowledge, the story of what might have occurred had the lifeboats and their inhabitants been left overfull to roam the high seas.

 Set in the summer of 1914, the story centres around Grace Winter, a 22 year widow; right from the beginning we understand she is one of three women being held in prison while on trial for a crime that is alleged to have occurred while they were afloat on a lifeboat after the sinking of a grand ocean liner they were travelling to New York on.

Thirty-nine people started out in the boat, but a lot less than that survived under somewhat suspicious circumstances. As the trial progresses, to aid her defence her lawyer asks her to record the days as she remembers them in a kind of journal, and so simultaneously we too read her re-enactment of what she perceives happened as if it were happening now.

At the same time it occurred to me – and it must have occurred to Mr Hardie as well – to wonder if Rebecca was the victim of some sort of natural selection and to think that if she had fallen overboard, maybe it was for the best.

Having suffered one family tragedy already and seeing their prospects dwindle after the death of their financially troubled father, Grace’s aspirations had been in the ascendant after marriage to the young, successful Henry, although all is not clear around this, it is a subject she neglects to delve into in great detail and neither subsequently do we hear much of either her own family or her in-laws. Only her ruthless determination to marry the already engaged Henry, rather than follow her sister’s example and seek a governess role or other employ. Marriage was to be her saviour and Grace exhibits ambition had used her resources stealthily to achieve it.

It is an interesting premise, the concept of floating at sea for days on end, death never far from seducing some, and destroying others in dramatic fashion. This story pits men against women, the strong against the weak and the cunning against the calculating. I did wonder about its authenticity when they decide very early on, in the first hours to abandon a child clinging to some debris, it is clear the child will perish and even if the boat is hopelessly overfull, it is hard to accept that women in particular could be so in shock as to allow such a young soul to be left.

Later, Hannah stamped her foot against the floor of the prison van and cried, “What is this, a witch trial? Is the only way to prove our innocence by drowning?”


Note: This was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Titanic Revisited Part II

There are so many untold tales and now 100 years on from the Titanic tragedy, stories continue to be retold and others narrated for the first time, linked to the events that unfolded in the wake of the tragedy. Not only do we read accounts of those who were on the boat, but the event is used in fiction, a convenient device for eliminating a character such as the loss of the cousin and heir in Julian Fellowes Downton Abbey series, this event triggering the inheritance crisis that is at the centre of this drama. I read that if all the characters from fictional novels were indeed on the Titanic, it would more than triple the number of passengers she carried and sink it for sure.

Christopher Ward’sAnd the Band Played On’ relates what happened after the sinking, the confusion and sometimes fictitious messages portrayed by the media, the arrival of the rescue ship SS Carpathia and the subsequent sailing and controversy surrounding the decisions made on-board the Mackay-Bennett, commissioned to return to the site to retrieve bodies. The author is the grandson of Jock Hume and Mary Costin; Jock was on the Titanic and his fiancé Mary awaited his return, three months pregnant with their first and only child.

The Daily Mirror assured its readers that all 2,209 passengers and crew on board the Titanic had been saved  and that ‘the hapless giant’ was being towed safely to New York.

Jock Hume was a 21-year-old Scottish violinist who had made many sailings across the Atlantic; it is believed he lied about his age as he first went to sea in 1905, when he was 14 years old. On the Titanic’s embarkation list, his age is given as 28. He stood on deck with the other members of the band and they played music until it was no longer possible, the band knowing that their act of altruism would likely be the death of them. It is a memory that many survivors recalled, those who were fortunate enough to be waiting in a lifeboat, watching the tragedy unfold before them to tunes that would forever haunt them.

Jock Hume & fiancé Mary Costin

When it was no longer possible to stand, they strapped their instruments to their chests and jumped into the freezing cold waters together. None of the band members survived, however two of their bodies were recovered, Band Master Wallace Hartley (his violin case still strapped to him) and Jock Hume. Hours after the Titanic sank, White Star Line commissioned the Mackay-Bennett to recover the bodies of victims. Of the 209 bodies they brought back, 150 were laid to rest at three Halifax cemeteries. Jock Hume was buried in the Fairview cemetery, a site where visitors still pay their respects today.

The book shares little of the lives of Jock and Mary and focuses more on Jock’s father Andrew Hume, who was also a violinist. He paints an ugly picture of Andrew Hume as a difficult father, a fraudulent businessman and profiteer of his son’s death who rejected Mary and made disturbing accusations against her and the unborn child.

Ward recounts the trial of Jock’s 18-year-old sister Kate who pulled a prank on her father and stepmother in the form of a letter informing them of enemy involvement in her sister’s death during WWI; this escalated into a national outrage and the risk of contravening a newly passed Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) which gave the government wide-ranging powers for the duration of the First World War. Anyone charged under the Act would face a military trial by court martial with a maximum sentence of death by hanging or firing squad.

Heroic Musicians of the Titanic

The account of well researched historical facts following the sinking of the Titanic, lend the story a credibility that kept me interested throughout the book. What left me somewhat bemused was the sense of judgement against the Grandfather Andrew Hume. True, he appears to have been less than the perfect father, but he was a successful and motivated businessman and musician, even if exaggeration and a few lies did assist him (doesn’t that continue today?). However, between these pages, there is little room for compassion for the man, we only see him in the most negative light, which I find a little sad in a story portrayed by his great-grandson. To lose a wife, a son and be subject to the murderous revenge of his daughter surely deserves an ounce of compassion, no matter how unscrupulous he was as a person.

Titanic Revisited Part I

The significance of the Titanic continues to intrigue, or I should say has begun to intrigue me more since a visit to Belfast, Northern Ireland, the city in which it was built, a city which itself grew on the back of the growing shipyards and connected industries associated with it. Between 1851 and 1901 the city’s population increased from 87,000 to 350,000 and was the fastest growing city in the British Empire during that time.

Abandoned shipyards

From the top floor of the apartment in the Titanic Quarter where we stayed, I looked down on a vast, empty space, a maze of square and rectangular footprints of buildings and thoroughfares, once a labyrinth of busyness, that filled with the more than 30,000 men and women who would cross the bridge and walk or cycle down Dee St to work.

I contemplate that wasteland with its perpendicular lines; the skyline still dominated by two tall, bright yellow Harland & Wolff gantry cranes, a symbol which continues to salute the past, and I try to imagine the hive of activity that it once was.

Turning the last pages of Walter Lord’s ‘A Night to Remember’ I read in the end chapter Facts About the Titanic that she was launched at the Belfast shipyards of Harland and Wolff on 31 May 1911. The date rings a bell and I look in my diary and see that my daughter and I arrived in Belfast on 31 May 2012, exactly 101 years on from that auspicious date.

Julian Fellowes, creator of the series Downton Abbey and the film Titanic asks in the foreword why this tragedy still haunts us, as it does and certainly the opening of the significant Titanic Belfast museum is a testament to that. He suggests:

Maybe it is because the ship seemed, even then, to represent that proud, pre-war world in miniature, from the industrialists and peeresses and millionaires and Broadway producers who sat around the vast staterooms in first class, to the Irish and German and Scandinavian immigrants packed into third, carrying with them all they possessed, on their way to a new life in America….And as they headed for destruction, so did the larger world they represented, which would soon hit its own iceberg in the shape of the First World War.

Ist Class cabin on board Titanic

Walter Lord’s book is really just that, a factual account of what happened interspersed with the comments to create a narrative of various passengers and crew throughout the two to three-hour ordeal, from the moment of impact when the ship sideswiped an iceberg, until the Carpathia arrived in dock at New York and the truth about how few survived from the more than 2,200 who had been on board when she set out was revealed. He shares the reflections of many people from all classes, providing an overview of the atmosphere and a brief introduction to the individuals thrown together in this catastrophe.

One of the significant complexities which the Titanic represented, was the separation of the classes, the architectural blueprints clearly show the delineation between 1st, 2nd and 3rd class and the museum today exhibits perfect replicas of the rooms they inhabited, complete with holograms of talking passengers. This distinction also carried through to influence the evacuation of passengers, with 1st class women and children given priority, no children from 1st or 2nd class were lost, while 53 children in 3rd class were lost (23 saved).

Titanic Belfast Museum

Even as the Mackay-Bennett returned to the scene to retrieve bodies, similar principles were applied. There were too many bodies to cope with, so many were buried at sea, arbitrary measures were used to try to decide which bodies should be kept, those with tattoos were identified was 3rd class citizens and given a prompt sea burial. At the time it wasn’t criticized, but the sinking of the Titanic could be said to have been a turning point in this respect, it was the end of the Edwardian era, just before the outbreak of World War I and many things would change in the period that followed from a social perspective.

Looking at that period from 1900 to 1912, I noted that there were many exciting and exhilarating firsts, the Wright brothers first flight in 1903, the NY subway opening in 1904, the first European country to give women the vote in 1906 (Finland), and the first electric washing machine released in 1907. Ford introduced the Model T in 1908 and electricity was becoming more widespread.

Titanic Quarter

By contrast, in the years that followed the Titanic, personal income tax was introduced in the US in 1913, World War I started in 1914 which propelled women into roles they had never considered before and equality between the classes and the sexes began its long path towards some kind of rebalance.

Now that I have the context of the ‘Night to Remember’, I have started to read ‘And the band Played On’ an account written by Christopher Ward, grandson of the 21 year-old violinist Jock Hume, who together with the other band members of the Titanic, kept playing until the ship disappeared.

Summer Reads

I’m not one for compiling lists of what I am going to read ahead of time, because I value too much the freedom and spontaneity of a vast sea of choices each time I finish a book, and often the reading experience will lead me on to the next thing.

Like reading Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Prodigal Summer’ straight after ‘The Namesake’. How could I know that after listening to the group discussing the book I would have a conversation with a local poet about the beauty of sentences and Jhumpa Lahiri’s essay and that she would tell me I must read Kingsolver’s book.  It was sitting on the shelf unread and thus I abandoned all other reading ideas and jumped straight into it.

100 years on, Titanic Belfast Museum

But I do love looking at the lists, always feeding into the mental TBR list, noting books I might wish to read or to keep an eye out for.

I could say I have intentions for summer, like the two Titanic inspired books I bought on a recent visit to Titanic Belfast, the excellent museum opened in March this year.

‘A Night to Remember’ and ‘And the Band Played On’ also seem appropriate companions to Charlotte Rogan’s ‘The Lifeboat’ which I have on kindle.

To help you decide, I wanted to share this excellent flowchart designed by to encourage students to find a book of their choice, there are 101 books shown, inviting readers to consider fiction versus non-fiction, classic or contemporary and many other options.  I keep coming across it and there’s something appealing about viewing images of covers rather than just a list of titles, so enjoy and I hope you find something for your own summer read!


So do you plan your reads or are you open to the spontaneous?
Summer Reading Flowchart

Via and USC Rossier Online