Interview: Titanic Lives author Richard Davenport-Hines

by Jane Tolerton / 21 April, 2012
The sinking of the Titanic has parallels for today’s masters of the universe, with their misplaced faith in technology and “the market”, says the author of a new book about the disaster.

The Titanic sank in 1912, the Costa Concordia in 2012. But Richard Davenport-Hines, author of Titanic Lives: Migrants and Millionaires, Conmen and Crew, still has plenty of parallels to draw across the century. The Titanic set out on its maiden – and final – voyage at the end of a boom time, particularly for corporate wealth, and one in which the gap between rich and poor had widened enormously.

He quotes GK Chesterton, commenting at the time: “Our whole civilisation is indeed very like the Titanic; alike in its power and its impotence, its security and its insecurity. There was no sort of same proportion between the extent of the provision for luxury and levity, and the extent of the provision for need and desperation. The scheme did far too much for prosperity and far too little for distress – just like the modern State.”

Davenport-Hines also links today’s “masters of the universe” and their misplaced faith in “the market” with those who designed, built, sailed – and sank – the ship. “They have this dangerously over-bloated confidence in technology and in the infallibility of the will of strong men. So it is thought the Titanic is unsinkable, a technical marvel, and that the captain and senior officers are demigods,” he says, on the phone from his London home, speaking in the present tense as he seems to whenever talking about the disaster.

“The captain of the Titanic is going too fast, regardless of the weather conditions, and is reckless. There is a great deal of masculine vanity and pride, and after the accident happens, they are not up to the crisis – they lose their nerve and make bad decisions.” In spite of such parallels, it is hard for us to connect with that pre-1912 world. This was a time, Davenport-Hines explains, in which the ruling classes spun the line that England had become “enervated, flabby and doomed”, and needed a war to put it right.

He quotes a London businessman writing to his friend Lord Milner: “Nothing will save us except the sight of red blood running pretty freely. Whether British and German blood, or only British, I don’t know – nor do I think it much matters. ‘Blood’ is the only necessity.” He also quotes Wendy telling the lost boys that she has a message from their real mothers, “and it is this: We hope our sons will die like English gentlemen”. And Peter Pan: “To die will be an awfully big adventure.”

Says Davenport-Hines: “There was that extraordinary philosophical warlikeness. It was a very violent time – and violence was regarded as greed is now.” In other words, not necessarily a bad thing. He was looking for a historical topic with emotional depth, he says. “There’s a vast Titanic literature, but a lot of it is to do with shipbuilding technology – the riveting of the bulkheads and so on. I wanted to write a history book that was written as carefully and beautifully as a novel and with the subject matter a novelist might use – human lives and the effect of the accident on them.

“The behaviour of the Titanic’s passengers runs the whole gamut of human behaviour – from ruthless egotism and determination to survive to real heroism and selflessness from people of all classes. There were incredibly touching parting scenes, grief and guilt – all the emotional drama of a novel set around something that really did happen. The first great global media event.”

There’s a nice contemporary link here, too. Davenport-Hines quotes Henry James as saying of his own time, “One sketches one’s age but imperfectly if one doesn’t touch on the invasion, the impudence, the shamelessness of the newspaper and the interviewer, the devouring publicity of life, the extinction of all sense between the public and the private.”

Davenport-Hines says he saw the film Titanic shortly after it came out, and was deeply moved by the final scenes. “But when I saw it again, early on in writing the book, I had a much more intelligent and critical approach. Quite apart from the fact that Leonardo [DiCaprio] has expensive Californian orthodonture and the way the third-class passengers had perfect complexions, not the spotty skins they would have had, I was irritated by the stark dichotomy between the third-class passengers, portrayed as decent human beings badly treated, and the first class – arrogant, snobbish, cold. That’s not the reality of what it was like at all. If the film had caricatured the poor as it did the rich, there would have been an outcry.

“There’s a great prejudice against the upper class in popular culture, so I tried definitively to show the first class passengers weren’t as haughty, horrible and corrupt as the film showed.” In fact, rich American women showed grace under pressure. “One of the first lifeboats prepared, but through incompetence almost the last to be launched, was of US multimillionairesses led by Mrs Astor. For an hour and 20 minutes they wait patiently on a deck for people to remember to come back to their lifeboat, and they stay in line and have self-respect and dignity.

Today, hedgefund managers’ wives don’t wait in line for more than two minutes. ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ Egotistical assertion and bad behaviour! “Behaviour now would be much more selfish and shameless than it was a hundred years ago. Ruthless egotism is now valued and rewarded in the United States. If you behave outside the rules and become enormously rich, what you do is excused.”

Davenport-Hines notes it was US Government health and safety regulations, rather than snobbery or class discrimination, that segregated third-class passengers with locked gates and shutters. “This was definitely a disadvantage after the accident because they were not opened up quickly enough so that they could get higher up in the ship.” And that would include DiCaprio’s character.

“One of the really touching things is what happens in second class, which is full of responsible middle-class people whose lives are governed by the good opinion of their neighbours and what people think of them,” says Davenport-Hines. “They are so keen to behave well that none try to get on lifeboats. They have easily the highest death rate – respectable small businessmen who have been brought up all their lives to think of others and be considerate.”

And so the ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews, gave the injunction, “Now men, remember you are Englishmen. Women and children first”, as he helped launch lifeboats – before dying himself. As a result, 74% of women survived, but only 20% of men. (It was White Star’s chairman, J Bruce Ismay, who decided there would only be enough lifeboats for half the 2235 people on board.) Davenport-Hines talks quickly and definitely, without stopping to run a PC filter over what he is saying. He was a great choice – self-chosen, as he was – to add one more to the 1000-odd books already extant on the Titanic.

He has written more than 150 entries for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. His Cambridge doctorate was on the history of British armaments companies between the wars, and he has since written histories spanning business and attitudes to sex – and including a global history of narcotics, a book titled Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin, and an anthology titled Vice. Plus a biography of Ettie Desborough – because he thought it might help him understand women better, he says.

His first attempt to write a novel-like history book was A Night at the Majestic (2006), which takes as a starting point a real-life dinner in 1922 attended by Sergei Diaghilev, Marcel Proust, Pablo Picasso and James Joyce and goes on to explore their lives. “I had been writing traditional history books for years, and I saw that the market and readership were changing – becoming much less interested in conventional history-writing.”

His latest work is an edition of historian Hugh Trevor-Roper’s war journals. “He was a great influence on me – partly because he believed that it was not enough for historians to dig up new facts or reinterpret old ones, but to write with a clarity and style that added something to the whole story – and make people who are not interested in history read the book.”

Tall order – and not a lucrative one, with the huge amount of energy and high level of engagement required to turn out a work to meet that standard. “It’s a question of a number of things,” Davenport-Hines says, in explanation of why he continues to do it, anyway. “Partly because I need the money because I don’t have any other sort of income. And as one gets older, unless I’m working, I get bitter and twisted and spend the mornings eyeing the gin bottle and thinking about when I can start on it.

“So, work is mental and physical hygiene for me. I’m haunted by an account of Evelyn Waugh when he was the age I am now [58], saying he spends his days sitting in a chair by the window drinking gin and blowing breath on the pane and playing noughts and crosses. That’s such an image of emptiness and futility. To avoid behaving like that, I churn out books.”

Ensconced in a house he reports is “crooked” as a result of a huge bomb that landed during World War II, Davenport-Hines is now writing a book about the Profumo affair of 1963, often seen as one of the events that ushered in what we recognise as the 60s – a little later than the actual turn of the decade.

The Titanic incident, too, is seen as an era-changing event, the real beginning of a catastrophic 20th century, with World War I and an influenza epidemic following in its wake. One of the ship’s survivors, Jack Thayer, who was then a teenager, took this view, writing in 1940 that the disaster had shocked the world awake, “keeping it moving at a rapidly accelerating pace ever since, with less and less peace, satisfaction and happiness …To my mind, the world of today awoke April 15, 1912.” Sir Osbert Sitwell, too, saw the sinking as “a symbol of the approaching fate of Western Civilisation”.

TITANIC LIVES: MIGRANTS AND MILLIONAIRES, CONMEN AND CREW, by Richard Davenport-Hines (HarperCollinsPublishers, $39.99).
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