Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The Band That Played On

There are some moments when the past suddenly shines a light on to the present. I had such a moment while reading a fabulous book The Band That Played On, by Steve Turner, which incredibly is the first book ever written about the eight musicians that famously carried on playing on deck as the Titanic sank.

Or maybe it’s not so incredible. The eight musicians were just that; working musicians at a time when live music was still the only gig in town, before recorded music was portable and some way before the digital nirvana we are experiencing today. There were thousands of these violinists, cellists, pianists, etc; all, to one degree or another, talented, and certainly proficient. The musicians on Titanic had a songbook containing over three hundred numbers. Passengers would call for a song by its number and expect the band to know what the song was, hence the origin of the phrase ‘to play a number’. The book deals with the disagreements over what number the band were playing as the ship sank (Nearer My God To Thee comes out favourite, with Autumn a close second.), exactly where they played, etc., but one thing not in doubt is that they did actually play on as the ship sank, with finally only the violinist remaining before he too was swept to his death. A courageous act or one of folly? The press at the time made much of their heroism, but dissenting voices such as novelist, Joseph Conrad, and Playwright George Bernard Shaw, who argued that they played to pacify when urgency was required (Ragtime replaced by Hymns), and that it wasn’t heroic to die without resistance for another’s folly. Regardless, it’s still an extraordinary tale from an extraordinary event that threw up many such acts from an array of passengers who, upon realising that there were not enough lifeboats, chose to die with dignity rather than face what looked like certain death in the icy waters. The ship was going too fast in waters they had been warned were full of icebergs, there weren’t enough lifeboats, and some lifeboats pulled away half-empty with rich passengers bribing others so their boat wouldn’t turn back for survivors. But once your dead, well, we’re all equal then, aren’t we? Mmmm, well, no actually. You may know the survival rate drops off markedly from 1st class to 3rd and down to crew, but did you know that when the Mackay-Bennet, the ship charged with collecting and embalming the dead from the water, ran out of embalming fluid, they chose to collect only the bodies of the first class passengers and send the rest to a watery grave? And this is my point on the musicians. Leave aside that they played for 1st class passengers; these were working men, and once their funerals had been held (thousands turned out for the funeral of the acknowledged leader of the musicians, Wallace Hartley, in Colne in Lancashire), who then was interested enough to invest time and money into following up their story? There was little glamour, or even trace of their lives, and the only real point of interest was in their collective final act. And this, I suppose, is my point, where the light shines on the present. The Titanic was a perfect floating mirror of the class system in Britain, and with a few shifts here and there, is probably still a pretty close representation of it today. And without making too crass a point, doesn’t the reaction of the wealthy today remind you of something? They were all in that boat together, but when it came to surviving the figures ‘show stark differences in the survival rates of the different classes aboard Titanic. Although only 3 per cent of first-class women were lost, 54 per cent of those in third class died. Similarly, five of six first-class and all second-class children survived, but 52 of the 79 in third class perished’. And today, unless they have some sort of sensational story, who is really interested in those at the bottom, struggling to keep their heads above water?


Steve Turner will be appearing at ‘Titanic on Trial’, Friday 25th May, Merseyside Maritime Museum. Click here for ticket details.

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