The Titanic Museums in Belfast and Southampton

Titanic Belfast tells an important part of the Titanic story, bringing to life the building of the ship in the Harland and Wolff dockyards. I liked the first gallery you go into, which is about life in the city at the time, with shadows walking back and forth on the walls and a Marconi machine you can try; I especially liked the three-sided video projections that let you travel up inside the ship from boiler room to bridge; and the final gallery with the underwater footage of the wreck is eery and fascinating.

I was less impressed by the ride round the shipyard, partly because half the projections weren’t working when we were there, but also because it just felt like a cheesy fairground ride. Also, the sinking of the ship is handled weirdly with an animated graphic showing how the water flooded in and caused the ship to upend and break in half, but I was distracted by the fact that in the graphic all the lifeboats are still in place as she sank – which is, of course, wrong.

It’s inevitable that there will be early teething troubles in a project as ambitious as this. It would be good to get more of a transport and coffeehouse/restaurant infrastructure out there in the docks. When we arrived at 4 in the afternoon the museum coffee shop was shut and there was nowhere else to get a drink. The only other quibble is from local people, who complained about the fact that the signage is only in English, not Irish. Perhaps they’ll fix that in future.

One of my books on display in Southampton’s SeaCity Museum.

Southampton’s SeaCity Museum existed before 2012 but they’ve just spent £15 million on a permanent Titanic gallery upstairs and a temporary one downstairs – and they are fabulous! It has a very different purpose from the Belfast one, which becomes apparent as soon as you walk in to find a wall of cards, each commemorating a crew member from the city of Southampton or the surrounding area. The card tells you the individual’s name, post on the ship, age – and whether or not they survived. Some have pictures but not many, and I’m told this is because the museum can’t afford the fees charged by photo copyright holders. You’ll find far more crew pictures in John Eaton and Charles Haas’s book Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy. It’s there that I came across the photo of the young man who became the inspiration for Reg in my novel.

There are some fantastic interactive items for children and an interesting plan of the ship showing how different areas were linked. The sinking is covered in a separate room where you can sit and listen to three local survivors describing their experiences, while looking at visuals of flowing ocean. The next section is the most moving of all, though. The floor has a street map of Southampton with a red dot on each house that lost someone on the Titanic – and there’s barely a row of three houses without a dot. You can listen to recordings of local people queuing up to read the lists of survivors, hoping against hope that their relative is safe, as well as local news reports from the time, and it’s incredibly sad. I had a huge lump in my throat.

And then you come into a courtroom where the British Inquiry is re-enacted, with a recording of actors reading different sections of the testimonies. Although I’d read it all before, this was strangely compelling and we found ourselves sitting listening for ages.

The downstairs gallery is all about the impact the sinking of the Titanic has had on the world since then: the films, books, games (yes, there’s a Titanic Monopoly!) and other merchandise, and it looks at some of the controversies (such as whether the rivets were to blame).

Both museums were absorbing in their own ways, and if I’m slightly biased towards the Southampton one you can blame the fact that my book is on display in their downstairs gallery! In an era when museum funding is at risk, it was great to see truly imaginative and thought-provoking displays that would engage adults and even the most computer-game-addicted child. Do visit when you can.

Are those with Titanic-themed products coming out for the centenary simply jumping on a bandwagon?

A cartoon in today’s Sunday Times books section shows a bookseller drowning under an avalanche of Titanic books. In fact, there are 78 books about the Titanic scheduled for publication in the UK this year, up from 68 last year and just 10 the year before. This ‘avalanche’ extends to virtually every other form of media, with James Cameron’s 3D feature film, Julian Fellowes’ TV mini-series, loads of TV documentaries, operas, theatre productions, concerts, new museums … see Greg Ward’s calendar of events at http://blogtanic.wordpress.com/events-calendar-2/.

Cartoon from the New York Herald, 17 April 1912.

I have written two Titanic books myself, one published last year and one coming out in 10 days. Have I jumped on a bandwagon, along with all these other writers, musicians and artists? The term has an implication of opportunism, a hint that we might not have chosen this topic were we not pretty sure that it would be popular – and I can’t speak for anyone else but personally but I would have to hold my hands up to this. I earn a living from writing and have to choose subjects people want to read about or my income will dry up. Publishers are on a regular look-out for anniversaries in order to hitch their wagon to publicity generated by other media, and my non-fiction Titanic book was the result of a commission from a far-sighted publisher back in 2009.

However, I don’t think anyone who has a Titanic product coming out around this time has created it without caring deeply about what happened in the north Atlantic on the night of the 14th/15th of April. You can’t immerse yourself in the subject without becoming emotionally involved. I also think most of us were already Titanoraks and the centenary just brought an opportunity to get our work out there. I’ve been passionate about the Titanic story since I was a teenager. Both my grandfathers worked in shipbuilding on the River Clyde and I grew up knowing about the great luxury liner that sank on its maiden voyage. The story really got under my skin when I saw the film A Night to Remember, and I think I’ve been waiting for a chance to write about it since then.

Of course, it’s important to remember that this is the centenary of a tragedy in which 1,500 people died, and many of them are still remembered by living relatives. There is a line that shouldn’t be crossed, so that we are commemorating events but without being disrespectful to the dead. None of the books and other media I’ve come across so far have been in bad taste, although there are forums where some argue that the costume cruises to the site of the sinking are a step too far.

The Titanic is part of our cultural memory. Before April 1912, the word “titanic” meant “colossal, strong, all-powerful”, after the Greek gods called Titans. Now it has become synonymous with catastrophic disaster, one that could so easily have been avoided. It is a subject that still creates controversy and makes us analyse our own moral values and, as such, a prime arena for artists working in all media. I welcome the diversity of artistic interpretations that is emerging and personally am going to take in as many of them
as I can.

Should women and children be saved first in shipwrecks?

‘Women and children first’ is a phrase that will be forever associated with the Titanic but it’s unclear whether this is actually what Captain Smith ordered as the ship was sinking. There was one precedent for it back in 1852 when HMS Birkenhead foundered off Cape Town with 26 women and children on board. Her Captain ordered that the men stand back while the women and children were loaded onto a cutter, and 450 men subsequently died – but the rule certainly wasn’t part of maritime law.

In some ways, it made no sense to save lots of women who would become widows, and children who would become orphans, because without a man to provide for them they might well not survive back in the old days when you needed a man to put a roof over your head. Many cultures decided it was more useful to society to save the men first, and there are documented instances in which this rule was followed in shipwrecks before 1900. The only way to justify saving women and children first is the argument that men tend to be stronger swimmers and more able to save themselves if they end up in the water; but in fact, swimming skills had nothing to do with survival on the Titanic. Once they were in the water, it was just pure luck if they managed to get onto a boat – and hardly any did.

Neither the American nor the British Inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic was able to establish whether Captain Smith gave the order to prioritise women and children. He was heard to shout “Be British” into a megaphone, but that can be interpreted in many different ways! Second Officer Lightoller, who was in charge of loading the lifeboats on the port side of the ship claimed that when the Captain asked him to load the boats, he queried: “Shall we load the women and children first?” and the Captain answered “Yes.” Eloise Smith, a first-class passenger testified at the American Inquiry that when she asked if her husband could accompany her onto a boat because she was pregnant, the Captain didn’t answer but shouted ‘Women and children first’ into a megaphone.

An underfilled lifeboat photographed by a passenger on the Carpathia.

Lightoller took the supposed order very literally, and the only men who boarded lifeboats on his side of the ship were the minimum number required to row them. This meant that many of his boats went off half-filled because there weren’t sufficient women around at the time of launching who were prepared to leave a luxurious liner and get on a fragile wooden rowing boat suspended 70 feet above the dark ocean. On the starboard side, Officer Lowe sensibly filled up available places with men. Captain Smith must surely be blamed for failing to ensure that the lifeboats were filled to capacity. Had that happened, another 467 people could have been saved.

What would happen in a shipwreck nowadays? It’s too early to know exactly what occurred during the evacuation of Costa Concordia, but it seems most people behaved very decently in helping children and those with walking difficulties to safety. Women took their place alongside men in the queues for the lifeboats, as of course it should be in a society where we demand equality of the sexes.