Titanic - Voices From The Archives

Paul Rogers reviews a new BBC audiobook of Titanic recollections.

Titanic Review

What is the point of an audio book? They are obviously useful to those with poor or non-existent eyesight; and it can be interesting to hear an author read aloud their own work. However, they are notoriously expensive when compared to printed versions and, unless one uses headphones, are liable to get you thumped by your partner if you are listening in bed whilst they are trying to get to sleep. There is, of course, one thing that an audio book can do which a normal book cannot: which is to let you hear people describe in their own words what they saw, felt and did during historic events. On this basis, an audio book of the Titanic should be a fascinating and useful resource. Who hasn’t wished to hear the voices of those involved in the most famous shipwreck in history?

There is, of course, a problem. The recordings of people such as Charles Lightoller, Frank Prentice, Winifred Burke, Joseph Boxhall, et al were made many years after the events they are describing. Therefore, from a research perspective, these recordings do not have the same value as, say, the transcripts from the two enquiries that took place in the weeks after the sinking. Lightoller, for example, continues to use the whitewash brush to hide the true causes and events of the disaster in his reminisces. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let us start at the beginning.

BBC AudiobookThis audio book is comprised of two CDs that run for a total of 2 hours 25 minutes. The narrator is the superb Tim Pigott-Smith, who is reading from a script written by Mark Jones. CD 1 begins with the building of the ship and ends with the Carpathia steaming to the rescue. CD 2 continues the story, up to and including the American and British enquiries. Piggott-Smith is the perfect person to narrate the story, with a voice that is clear, beautifully paced and authoritative. The CD retails in the UK (via Amazon) at £8.48 for the audio CD version and £6.89 for the audio download version (which seems to me extremely good value for money compared to most audio books). The track listing details the people recorded, the programme from which the soundtracks were taken and the dates of the recordings. The “voices” themselves are too numerous to list fully in this review, but include Charles Lightoller (the earliest of all the recordings, made in 1936), Edith Russell, Joseph Boxhall and Eva Hart. Some less useful (but still interesting) recordings are included of those who built the ship and/or their families. Therefore, we get the musings of Jim Thompson, who was a Caulker, and John Parkinson, the son of a Titanic shipbuilder (job unspecified).

The story as scripted by Mark Jones is absolutely canon, and could have been written in 1985 or earlier. This, in my opinion, is the biggest fault of the book, especially in relation to the earlier chapters. I lost count of the times that rumours and myths were stated as fact in the narration, much to my annoyance and occasional fury. The alleged Greek tragedy of the disaster is emphasised, as well as the (non-existent) uniqueness of the ship. Little time is devoted to the exploration of versions of the story that might differ from what was written by Walter Lord. In a word, some of the research is poor, as can be seen from the following examples:

    The steel used in Titanic’s construction was made brittle by the low temperatures of the North Atlantic; and her rivets were not of the best quality.

Oh, really? I am amazed that the Olympic survived long enough to complete her maiden voyage, let alone achieve a successful career of over 20 years. Perhaps “Old Reliable” was built with different steel?

    The speed of shipbuilding development inevitably led to the cutting of corners and costs.

That’s funny. I’m sure that Harland and Wolff built Titanic on a “cost plus” basis. I’d like to know what corners and costs were cut on Titanic, exactly.

    The Titanic was simply the greatest, the largest, the most luxurious ship afloat. She was: “The biggest and finest ship in the world” (certainly according to Lightoller).

No she wasn’t, whatever Lightoller might have said. Titanic only became famous because she sank. There was nothing special about her at all. Olympic was practically identical and, as at least one researcher has stated online (you know who you are!), most of Titanic’s furniture was identical to that which could be purchased from a catalogue. Hardly an example of excellence and uniqueness!

Obviously, this audio book is primarily devoted to allowing the listener to hear people’s recollections of the disaster, whether or not their recollections are supported by evidence. Therefore, one cannot criticise Mark Jones for including such recordings as (for example) Lightoller’s description of the ship’s final moments, when: “…her massive boilers all left their beds and went crashing down through the bulkheads and everything that stood in their way.” Lightoller may well have believed what he was saying in 1936 when these words were recorded. However, I can fault Jones for not pointing out in the script that the sounds described by Lightoller were actually caused by the ship breaking in two. The boilers, as we now know, stayed exactly where they were.

In fact, almost all of Lightoller’s recorded recollections on this audio book are annoying. Still intent on wielding the whitewash brush years after the disaster, he blames the wreck on the non-delivered “Mesaba” ice warning, the calmness of the sea, the lack of a moon, etc. I waited in vain for the narrator to challenge some of Lightoller’s pronouncements as to what had happened and why, based on research and discussion that has taken place over the last 20 years or so.

It’s by no means all bad news, however. Many interesting facts that would not be known to the casual listener are highlighted. Examples include:

    Titanic’s third sister was originally named “Gigantic”; the name was changed to “Britannic” after the disaster. (Mind you, whilst I tend to agree with this, I’m not sure that the name change theory has been proved.)

    The White Star Line had never described Titanic as unsinkable.

    Lightoller’s inflexibility in banning men from the boats he was launching, even though this attitude meant that many places went unfilled. (He and Captain Smith are both correctly described as culpable in this disgraceful state of affairs.)

I waited with interest to hear how the story of the “Mystery Ship” would be told. Hearing Boxhall describe how they watched as a steamer approached until “we could see all her lights with the naked eye” was simply chilling. Boxhall was convinced that the ship was within 5 miles of the Titanic, as “you could see the lights in her portholes”. He describes how the mystery ship eventually turned away until they could see her stern light. The narrator explains that Titanic’s distress rockets were clearly seen by the Californian but “not understood” which is, quite possibly, the kindest judgement that could be made of Herbert Stone’s incompetence. No mention is made of any alternative mystery ship theories and the listener is left convinced that the ship seen by Titanic was the Californian. This will, I expect, annoy certain researchers! Other contentious events, such as the Duff-Gordon’s alleged bribery of the crew in Lifeboat 1; and J. Bruce Ismay’s boarding of a Collapsible, are also mentioned; admittedly only in passing, but certainly in sufficient detail for this media. The plight of the third class passengers is dealt with fairly and well, with (thank heavens!) no mention of locked gates or obstructive crew. The blame for the loss of so many third class passengers is put on general confusion, language difficulties and the difficult routes to the Boat Deck; as well as the fact that many preferred to stay in the perceived safety of the ship. In summary, all aspects of the disaster itself, including the controversial ones, are treated in a fair and balanced way.

Despite my reservations regarding at least some of Mark Jones’s research, I am definitely going to recommend this audio book, for two reasons. Firstly (as Douglas Adams might say) it is cheap; but secondly and more importantly, the stories told by those interviewed are totally compelling and enthralling (even Lightoller’s!). I particularly enjoyed hearing Eva Hart’s, Gus Cohen’s and Edith Russell’s recollections but there were many more individual stories which, as I listened to them, made the hairs on my neck stand up. Sometimes the sound quality and/or the accents of those interviewed makes them difficult to understand – especially the recordings of Edwina McKenzie and Jim Thompson, the Belfast Caulker – but this doesn’t detract from the fascination that one feels from listening to the voices of those whose names one has seen in print, or even never seen at all.

It must also be said that this audio book does an very good job of telling the Titanic story in a broad-brush manner; and it certainly covers, at least in passing, most of the key events and controversies of the night. For those who simply wish to know more about the disaster now that the centenary is upon us – and who managed to avoid James Cameron’s Jack ‘n’ Rose love-fest – this is a good way of learning about the story. I am sure it will also encourage many listeners to read books about the disaster, which I believe is a good thing. Speaking from my own perspective, it made enjoyable a long and very boring drive from Sussex to Leeds, which is high praise indeed. I am, therefore, very happy to recommend Mark Jones’s audio book.

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Paul Rogers

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