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Sunday, 15 April 2012


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Thanks a lot for that, Mike.

What a beautiful piece of writing. Thanks for posting this Mike.


"I am not very interested in fiction or its liberties. I would rather get as near to truth as I can." -- Mike J.

I think what you mean is not truth, but "actuality." You'll get damn little truth from non-fiction, but you will get a lot of facts...or some facts, anyway. With fiction you sometimes get the truth, if not much in the way of reliable fact.

It is eloquently written.

Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

Quite the most moving piece of prose I have read for some time. It has the ring of truth about it as is beautifully written. The passage about the baby had me shed a tear. God bless all those lost at sea.


"S.S." Titanic?

I am shivering, frightened and strongly feeling empathy. Llois Stein

Of course we know now that Titanic did, indeed, break up immediately prior to sinking. Not something the author could have known at the time though.

Dr. Robert Ballard makes a good point about claims of design flaws and substandard steel plate/rivets, namely that RMS Olympic, built alongside Titanic at the same time, served a long and relatively normal life (aside from being the only merchant ship in WW1 ever to successfully ram and sink a U-boat!). She was modified to address some lessons learned in the loss of Titanic, but was made from the same materials.

As us Northern Irish folk will often say, she was just fine when she left us...

"'S.S.' Titanic?"

Stands for "steam ship." But see Alan Ramsey's comment.


A great read; thanks for posting it. One of the many fascinating subplots is related to the fact that White Star had three gigantic sister ships: Olympic, Titanic, and Britannic. All three ships had serious accidents (the latter two sank), and one woman was on board each of the three when it did: Violet Jessop. Hard to say whether she's one of the unluckiest people in history or one of the luckiest.

"The reality may have been much more eerie and haunting. The best eyewitness account was provided by Lawrence Beesley ..."

Why necessarily the "best" account?

I'm sure a stoker trapped below decks with an exploding boiler wouldn't find the situation as "eerie and haunting".

I can understand Bessley's perspective, but it is only one of many witnesses. Wikipedia has a good write-up, from numerous sources.

I suspect Bessley (being a 2nd class passenger rather than 3rd class or in the engineering crew) had a relatively easy escape from the ship. The fact that he -- as a male -- made it onto a lifeboat indicates a relatively ordered exit.

Wikipedia describes many lifeboats only containing women and children and leaving the ship half full!

"Dr. Robert Ballard makes a good point "... gah, my bad, I misremembered. It wasn't Bob Ballard who made that point, it was Bruce Beveridge, one of the authors of the book "Titanic: the Ship Magnificent".

I'll just go over here and sit facing the corner...

Beautiful. Thanks for this Mike.

I liked John Camp's observation, in a cynical kind of way. The writing of history, which ostensibly should be about the facts, is coloured by selection and opinion even more so than photography

"Of course we know now that Titanic did, indeed, break up immediately prior to sinking. Not something the author could have known at the time though."

@Paul Glover, quite the contrary actually - there were eyewitness accounts of the breakup.* But those accounts were pooh-pooed by the Learned Experts, which lead the Board Of Trade to conclude that she hadn't. Toss in the romantic notion of her sitting intact and ghostly on the bottom... and, voila! the legend was born that nobody knew she had broken up.

* And it worth noting that the account above differs in detail from others, and from the probable sequence of events as the ship actually sank. It may not be fiction filled with liberties - but it is highly romanticized.


I have avoided like the plague all the brouhaha about the Titanic, generated I feel by the success of that poor film but the provenance of this piece (T.O.P.) prompted me to read it and I am very thankful that I did.

The shipyard that built it was notoriously bigoted and lots of stories circulated among the minority population about the tenor of the graffiti writ on its side. (I was born and bred 8 miles outside Belfast). I still hear these stories today but have never seen them verified.

Wonderful reading. (On a side note: aren't we happy that this is in the public domain?)

Beautiful. Somehow, a subjectively true account like this one conveys the magical side of life in a way that fantasy never will. And makes me empathize with all those involved.
Thank you, Mike.

"Why necessarily the 'best' account?"

All right, Sven--the best account I have read. I'm not a Titanic aficionado, although I am a fan of good writing.


Thank you for sharing this, Mike. Really an amazing read, the so well written with such great imagery you can really put yourself there as it happened. I fully intend to read the entire book.

About the brightness of the stars.....there are some that claim the Titanic and the 1500 souls lost fell victim to what is called an "cold air mirage". This would have resulted in the optical illusion of a shortened and raised horizon thus obscuring the iceberg from the view of the icewatch. The fact that binoculars when missing is true but binoculars (especially small once like the once that were issued to the iceguard) don't function that well. The iceberg could only be seen as a "hole" in the stary night like the ship itself is in the above description of the sinking.

I have seen as NGC documentary last week about this theory and it sounded and looked verry convincing to my ears and eyes. Byt the way, the theory is from Tim Maltin, who also arguees that:

a) the Titanic was build to more sound quality specification then the Austin Princess, much more sound in fact.

b) the speed of the Titanic was not unusual since she was easily capable of avoiding an iceberg when spotted on the horizon as "she could turn on a sixpence".

c) the reaction of the crew was in accordance with standard procedure (allthough I wonder what would have happend when a full reverse in combination with a midships ruther would have ment, thus ploughing the ship straight into the iceberg, and possibly damaging less compartments).

d) The 1500 places in the lifeboats were tribute to the fact that the compartimented build of the Titanic should insure that she herself was the best lifeboat, since she could be damaged beyond repair but she would never end up 4000 meters down. The lifeboats were simply there to fascilitate the transfer of passanger from her decks to a resque boat.

So the fact that the icewatch was not able to see the iceberg untill it's distance to the ship was to close to turn the bow around was responsible for her sinking. Usually a dissaster is brought upon us due to the combination of several factors but in this case a SPF (single point of failure) probably caused a disaster.

Greetings, Ed

A very compelling passage indeed. Somehow, I couldn't stop myself from remembering scenes from the Cameron movie as I was reading, but I guess that's how our minds tend to work.
I recently started reading the 'Game of thrones' books, and it's the same: there's no way I can imagine the characters or locations any different to what they look like in the tv series. That's the power of images, specially for someone more image-oriented than the average person, as photographers tend to be.

Incidentally, this post is a good reminder that there must be tons of great books like this in the public domain that we're unaware of.

RE: truth and fiction--Melville said it best in Moby Dick:

"Queequeg was a native of Kokovoko, an island far away to the West and South. It is not down on any map; true places never are."

Beesley's account is beautifully written but, as others have pointed out, much depends on your perspective. Beesley was a fair distance from the ship when it went down. Others who were closer describe much more violence. An account by 17 year-old Jack Thayer describes the ship breaking up on the surface, and the bow coming up while the stern pivots around. He described it to an artist named Skidmore, who produced the drawing that appears here amont other places:


His story was dismissed for decades, until Robert Ballard found the wreck, with the main and stern sections separated and pointing in opposite directions, much as Thayer described. Ballard has referred to the drawing as "the Rosetta Stone of the Titanic."

You can only begin to imagine the physical force involved in the breakup of something that large. Cameron's film treatment may have been on the money.

Also, several survivor accounts by those close to the hull describe the sound of the passengers and crew struggling in the water - like the sound of the crowd at a football match, one said.

So maybe, to paraphrase Capa, if your Titanic story isn't violent enough, you weren't close enough.

That's not to detract from Beesley, who writes superbly and very likely experienced things as he described. But it wasn't all stars and tranquility.

Thanks for posting, though - I haven't looked at Beesley for years and enjoyed getting reacquainted.

@ Derek Lyons: true. Might have been a matter of distance in this case. As to why eyewitness reports of those closer in were disregarded by the inquiry and the "experts" we may never know.

I must add my thanks too. I was supposed to be repairing a computer but I was halted until finishing your excerpt!

Hi Ed. Glad you enjoyed the Nat Geo documentary. I wrote and directed it.

We used the Beesley piece in the doc, and what was so interesting about it from my point of view was how he was using the language of poetry to try to come to terms with the disaster, but at the same time was providing an eye witness account of the phenomena that led to the disaster.

Sometimes the best witnesses are those that aren't aware of how their testimony could be important. Unguided thoughts are often the most revealing.


Nigel, Beesley's work was anything but unguided - it was specifically written to provide [Beesley's version of] an 'unbiased' and 'correct and true' account of the sinking.

You're right. What I should have emphasised is that Tim (Maltin, whose work informed everything in the documentary) used Beesley's non-analytical writing to uncover what happened that night. Beasley talked about the flashing stars in a poetic sense, but was inadvertently providing an analytical description of the atmospheric conditions.

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