Think of the people we’ll be seen dead with

Just finished Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, picked up from Oxfam for no reason other than it’s quite slim and is (or was) one of the definitive accounts of theTitanic sinking. I know that some of it became contradicted after the wreck was discovered (like, we now know the ship broke in two on the surface before sinking) but by and large it holds true to all the basic facts: Titanic didn’t have enough lifeboats (but still more than legally required); the Californian was hove to 10 miles away and meekly let the world’s worst shipwreck happen right in front of it without lifting a finger to intervene; and the survivors were picked up and shipped to New York by the Carpathia, which answered the distress calls immediately but still couldn’t get there until two hours after the ship went down.

There are stories of heroism and cowardice and great initiative and utter stupidity. Someone really should make a movie about it. It’s the class consciousness that puts it into a different world, though. Looking at the figures, it’s impossible not to deduce that priority was given to the first class passengers, even though this was always officially denied: women and children first, yes, but first class women and children first of all. (Every surviving woman who was asked what lifeboat she was on, replied, “the last one.”) Third class passengers, even the ones who weren’t locked below decks awaiting the convenience of their betters, had to find their own way through second and first class territory just to make it to the boat deck. Most didn’t.

And then there is this little gem:

“Even the Social Register was shaken. In those days the ship that people travelled on was an important yardstick in measuring their standing, and the Register dutifully kept track. The tragedy posed an unexpected problem. To say that listed families crossed on the Titanic gave them their social due, but it wasn’t true. To say they arrived on the plodding Carpathia was true, but socially misleading. How to handle this dilemma? In the case of those lost, the Register didged the problem – after their names it simply noted the words, ‘died at sea, 15 April 1912’. In the case of those living, the Register carefully ran the phrase, ‘Arrived Titan-Carpath (sic), 18 April 1912′. The hyphen represented history’s greatest sea disaster.”

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