An engaging story
Dr Vaidehi Nathan
Titanic – The Last Night of a Small Town, John Welshman, Oxford University Press, Pp 368 (HB), £18.99
Everything about the Titanic was humongous. As the name betrays. When built, it was the largest ship. Its tragedy too was equally massive. The ship sank on its maiden voyage, on the fourth day. Between the crash it had with an iceberg and the final sinking were less than three hours.
Titanic – The Last Night of a Small Town by John Welshman re-lives the horror of the last moments of the tragedy, through notes, dairies and narrations of survivors. Several books have been written on the wreck and a block-buster movie has been made. And yet, there are more stories to be told. Welshman picks up the stories of the ‘middle class’ passengers, the ones whom he says have been least discussed. There have been the stories of some of the richest who were travelling in the liner and the disturbing stories of the poor passengers, who were largely left unattended, mainly because they were in some of the farthest corners of the ship. The book he says “seeks to re-balance the narrative, away from First Class passengers towards the experiences of those in Second and Third; away from men, towards women; away from adults, towards children; and away from the experiences of people from Britain and the United States towards those of other countries.”
There is a selection of 12 stories, including that of the crew and the passengers. The description of Titanic as a small town was given by historian Walter Lord, considered the best author by far on the Titanic. The ship was carrying enough food to feed a small town when it sank. From the laying of the hull to the launch took twenty six months. Its various parts were manufactured in different places. There were three anchors – one for the stern and two for the bow. The stern anchor weighted 16 ½ tonnes! Each of the chains was 900 feet long and were of 3 ¼ inch diameter of iron. When it was made it was thought that Titanic was unsinkable. That probably was the reason why the captain ignored the warnings he received from other ships, about deadly icebergs ahead. Titanic rammed into the iceberg in full throttle, damaging its hull at many places.
Welshman narrates the story of the select passengers, going back into their lives before they boarded the ship, into the reasons why they boarded it. Among the Third Class passengers were a mother (Hanna) and her children. The ticket bought by the family had cost £15 4s 11d. She was from Lebanon and had travelled several days to board the ship at the French post Cherbourg. She was going to join her husband who was in Dowagiac, Michigan (America). In fact it was her brother-in-law had sent her the money, in order to give a pleasant surprise to the brother.
According to the gripping description in the book, the night when the tragedy stuck, the sky was clear, the water looked like a glass sheet, reflecting stars and there was hardly any movement. If there had been waves, they might have hit the icebergs and pushed back, showing it up. Most people were not aware of the impact for a long while. Then the panic began. The ship sent several SOS. But before any ship could come for rescue, Titanic had sunk and the people who hit the water died of hypothermia. Hanna and her two children survived and the family was reunited.
The sinking of Titanic has been retold several times from different angles. Welshman has chosen one for this book. There is nit-bit information that is interesting and the descriptions are gripping. Once hooked to the selected passengers, one is curious to know if they made it or not. A racy read.
(Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2 6DP)