By Mariner Multon
‘There was a sudden change in the temperature. You could smell the ice.’ Reginald Lee – Lookout
‘I did not return immediately. I had to wait until the yells and shrieks had subsided, because it would have been suicide to go back there until the people had thinned out… A drowning man clings at anything.’ Harold Lowe – Fifth Officer
When he came up with the idea, I don’t think he appreciated the sheer scale of it. Over a million and a half words long (the equivalent of War and Peace three times over), when we printed it all out, the stack of paper stood 6ft tall. And he had to reorganize this mass of text into a coherent, readable book, a ‘mere’ 90,000 words long – and do justice to all the survivors who’d spoken those words in a courtroom many years ago.
The author was Nic Compton, the mass of text was the entire transcripts of the New York and London inquiries into the sinking of the Titanic, and the book is the brilliant Titanic on Trial.
Taking place on a scale that reflected the size of the tragedy and the public interest in it, the inquiries into the sinking of the Titanic collected together thousands of pages of evidence from the surviving passengers and crew. The sinking of an ‘unsinkable ship’ seemed unbelievable, and there were many unanswered questions. Why was she going so fast in an ice field? Why weren’t the lifeboats filled? Why didn’t other ships didn’t respond to her distress calls earlier? And how did some wealthy (male) passengers secure spaces in lifeboats when so many other (female) passengers didn’t?
It was using this unique resource that Nic wanted to re-tell the story of the Titanic’s final night. Whereas most books about the Titanic put the reader another step away from those who actually experienced the disaster, by using these testimonies Nic was bridging the gap between raw source material and a truly compelling account by the survivors themselves. A wonderful idea, but one with problems: the mass of information, and the fact that a lot of the transcripts consisted of dry and repetitious courtroom proceedings.
How to choose what would make the cut? How to order it all? And how to find a balance between creating a compelling story and retaining the integrity of the source material? As Nic says, ‘There was no way of knowing before I started whether there would be enough material to tell the whole story, or whether I would be left with enormous gaps – in which case, how would those gaps be filled?’
But he took the plunge and got stuck in. ‘I edited each individual account first. This involved cutting out all the questions and courtroom waffle, editing the answer where necessary to make sure the sense wasn’t lost. This meant reading through 181 witness accounts and about 2,500 pages of text. At the end of it, I had 160 files on my computer, which was my raw material – a bit like colours on an easel. Second Office Lightoller provided the most detailed and joined-up account, so I used him as my base, gradually adding other people’s accounts in and around his, cutting and splicing as I went. I tried to pick the fullest accounts to start with (Archibald Gracie was another useful starting point), adding the smaller bits of detail later. I remember there was a moment, about a quarter of the way in, when I first felt the full effect the interspliced narratives was having, and I suddenly thought: yes, this is working! From then on, it grew quickly and seemed to acquire a life of its own.’
And in a book so preoccupied with death, Nic has given the survivors’ words new life. The story he has woven together is compelling – heartbreaking, sometimes funny, occasionally horrifying – and all the more so because the words we are reading are those of people who were actually there. This book is a gift to the reader, as well as doing a true service to the memories of those who spoke up a century ago. A job well done, Nic!
Titanic on Trial publishes on 1st March 2012. Click here to pre-order your copy on Amazon.