My first event of the book festival last night! I love the book festival – such a massive programme right on our doorstep (though I was also lucky where I lived before, which was midway between Hay-on-Wye and Cheltenham).
The talk was entitled ‘The Sinking of One Man’s Reputation‘ but I guess the title of the book itself ‘How to Survive the Titanic‘ is more of a headline grabber. Frances Wilson has written a biography of the chairman of the White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay, who escaped the Titanic in one of the last lifeboats and was vilified for it afterwards.
The historical setting was really interesting – it’s amazing that people keep coming up with new angles on the Titanic story. Ismay himself never wrote about the Titanic, unlike many of the other survivors. And the US inquest seemed likely to blame him for the entire accident as he told the captain not to slow down when they knew they were getting near to the iceberg (in the end, it decided that he was not ‘responsible’ but may have had an ‘unconscious’ influence over the captain).
Wilson’s approach is to concentrate on that moment that he stepped into the lifeboat and go into all the things that may have influenced his decision. I had nitpicky objections to a number of these as described in the talk – posthumous medical diagnoses by a non-psychiatrist being one of my particular pet peeves. Also there seemed to be an attempt to garner sympathy (“He had fallen in love for the first time!” “He was socially excluded at boarding school!” and, most weird of all “He was 49! That’s an important age for a man!”) These didn’t sit well – you probably could have made similar comments about any of the 1500 who died. Everyone had something to live for.
I enjoyed a particularly thoughtful round of audience questions and comments, including from Ismay’s great-grandson. I’d definitely be interested to read the book, to get more of the nuances of the story. It’s amazing how the Titanic still fascinates us as a culture, and this certainly adds one more perspective.
Upcoming: today I’m excited to see A.L.Kennedy, my writery friend Martin Macauley is reading today’s Story Shop story at 4pm in the book festival Spiegeltent (come along! It’s free!) and I’m off to a mega Blind Poetics tonight before hitting the book festival again tomorrow for Clicket. Probably no blog till Wednesday.