BBC Radio 4, 9-13 April 2012
Presented by Jeanette Winterson in the run-up to the centenary of the
sinking of the Titanic, this series looked at the disaster in context. The building of the ship was seen as an exercise
in Empire-building, a celebration of the fact that Britain really did rule the waves. It was the largest passenger ship ever
built (albeit with American money), and would hopefully break the record for the quickest crossing of the Atlantic. The whole
enterprise was designed to deflect attention away from current disputes that prevailed at that time, including the debate
over Home Rule for Ireland, and the struggle over votes for women.
None of this was actually true, of course. Britain's economy was on the decline,
while thr ship itself was just too unwieldy to sail successfully. J. Bruce Ismay, the chair of the White Star line, that built
the ship, knew that the ship would sink if it encountered any disasters at sea. Once the Titanic struck the iceberg,
the crew's management of the disaster was lax, to say the least: the lifeboats were lowered at a leisurely pace, and were
not even completely filled. No one acknowledged the fact that there were not enough lifeboats to accommodate all the passengers:
the ship's designers had insisted on not cluttering up the decks with too many lifeboats, for fear of spoiling the panoramic
views from the first-class cabins.
If all this information had been available at the time, then perhaps people would
have understood the significance of the disaster. As the reports were scanty, the media had a field day in rewriting the disaster
as a triumph of British heroism, as the crew strove against impossible odds to save the doomed passengers. A music-hall song
became very popular, celebrating Captain Smith's struggle, and his eventual death as he remained on the bridge as the ship
went down. This might not have been true, but no one bothered. Current idsputes about women's rights were conveniently forgotten:
as women and children had been among the first to be rescued, didn't this show how everyone had been equally treated?
Even today the disaster evokes an emotional response amongst people, especially when
the ruins of the ship were discovered two and a half miles down at the bottom of the sea in 1985. James Cameron's multi-billion
dollar grossing film reinterpreted the story as a boy-girl romance, while allowing for greater sexual equality. And only recently
a visitor centre has been opened in Belfast near the Harland and Wolff shipyard where the ship was built.
What made this series especially poignant was the archive reminiscences of those
crow-members who had survived the disaster, together with reading from passengers' diaries written at the time. Winterson's
narration was both sympathetic yet pragmatic, she understood how the disaster was deliberately used as a propaganda exercise
to prop up the crumbling Empire. I would recommend the series to anyone interested in the Titanic and its significance.