Un­re­solved mys­tery of Ti­tanic pro­por­tions

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Pre­cisely why the story of the Ti­tanic con­tin­ues to ex­er­cise such a pow­er­ful hold on the col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion is a fas­ci­nat­ing ques­tion. The an­swer lies, at least in part, in the way it si­mul­ta­ne­ously en­acts and con­tra­dicts a se­ries of fan­tasies about the pass­ing of the Gilded Age, set­ting the hubris of the ship’s own­ers’ claims about its un­sink­a­bil­ity against the im­ages of doomed no­bil­ity and chivalry that are em­bod­ied in the im­age of the band play­ing on as the ship slid be­neath the waves.

Of course th­ese fan­tasies ob­scure a far less com­fort­able re­al­ity, a story of crim­i­nal ar­ro­gance and hide­bound priv­i­lege that doomed more than 1500 peo­ple, many of them the work­ing poor trav­el­ling in steer­age, to a watery death. Yet as Aus­tralian nov­el­ist David Dyer demon­strates in his grip­ping and as­sured de­but, The Mid­night Watch, which ex­plores the disas­ter and its per­sonal and imag­i­na­tive af­ter­math, th­ese two in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the event in­ter­sect and over­lap of­ten un­set­tling ways.

Dyer isn’t the first writer to ven­ture into this ter­ri­tory, al­though as a for­mer ship’s of­fi­cer and lawyer who spent many years work­ing in the Lon­don firm that rep­re­sented the Ti­tanic’s own­ers, he may be the most qual­i­fied: al­most 20 years ago Beryl Bain­bridge’s Ev­ery Man for Him­self de­con­structed the Ti­tanic myth in char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally acer­bic fash­ion. But where Bain­bridge’s ac­count con­cerned it­self with events on board the liner, The Mid­night Watch ap­proaches the story more tan­gen­tially, fo­cus­ing not on the story of the Ti­tanic, but that of the Cal­i­for­nian, the ship that be­came no­to­ri­ous for fail­ing to pro­vide as­sis­tance to the Ti­tanic on the night it sank.

For those un­fa­mil­iar with the story, the facts are sim­ple and con­found­ing: late on the evening of April 14, 1912, the Cal­i­for­nian en­coun­tered a large ice field. De­cid­ing it was not safe to con­tinue, its cap­tain, Stan­ley Lord, or­dered the ship stopped un­til morn­ing. Shortly af­ter mid­night the Cal­i­for­nian’s se­cond of­fi­cer, Her­bert Stone, sighted the first of sev­eral dis­tress rock­ets and went below to in­form Lord. De­spite know­ing the Ti­tanic was in the area, Lord did not come to the bridge or di­rect Stone to ren­der as­sis­tance.

in pow­er­ful and

At sub­se­quent in­quiries Lord’s ex­pla­na­tions for his be­hav­iour were con­fus­ing and con­tra­dic­tory, yet at no point did he ad­mit any fail­ure on his part or — more strik­ingly — ex­press any dis­tress over the fact that if he had acted, hun­dreds of lives might have been saved.

The first third of The Mid­night Watch re­con­structs events on board the Cal­i­for­nian across that fa­tal night and its af­ter­math, mov­ing flu­idly be­tween the per­spec­tives of Stone, the Cal­i­for­nian’s wire­less op­er­a­tor Cyril Evans and sev­eral oth­ers as the disas­ter un­folds just out of reach.

Per­haps iron­i­cally given the in­evitabil­ity of the disas­ter, th­ese open­ing sec­tions are ex­tremely pow­er­ful. As the per­spec­tive shifts from one crew mem­ber to the next, Dyer builds a fas­ci­nat­ing por­trait not just of life aboard the ship and its cu­ri­ous dy­nam­ics, but of the frail­ties of the in­di­vid­ual of­fi­cers, and in par­tic­u­lar the un­for­tu­nate Stone, whose in­tense loy­alty to his cap­tain is tested by his grow­ing com­pre­hen­sion of the cost of Lord’s — and by ex­ten­sion his own — in­ac­tion.

Dyer coun­ter­points this re-cre­ation with an­other in­vented nar­ra­tive fo­cused on the at­tempts of a jour­nal­ist, John Stead­man, to un­pick the mys­tery of what hap­pened that night, an un­der­tak­ing driven not just by Stead- man’s aware­ness that Lord’s story does not add up, but by his de­ter­mi­na­tion to pro­vide some kind of me­mo­rial for the many or­di­nary peo­ple who died.

Dyer’s por­trait of Stead­man oc­ca­sion­ally feels less well-re­alised than those of Stone and his fel­low crew mem­bers, partly be­cause Stead­man’s fas­ci­na­tion with writ­ing about the dead (his col­leagues call him “the Body Man”) feels a lit­tle too self-con­sciously lit­er­ary, partly be­cause he hews so closely to the cliches about hard-drink­ing jour­nal­ists with chaotic per­sonal lives. But as the novel pro­gresses th­ese con­cerns are sub­sumed by the larger ques­tions that drive Stead­man’s in­quiries, and in par­tic­u­lar the mys­tery of Lord’s be­hav­iour.

Whether any ex­pla­na­tion for the lat­ter would be truly sat­is­fy­ing is an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion: cer­tainly the one Stead­man even­tu­ally fixes upon is not, or not en­tirely.

But it is dif­fi­cult not to sus­pect this is de­lib­er­ate, for by al­low­ing Lord to re­main es­sen­tially in­scrutable, his mind “like a pond cov­ered by thick ice”, Dyer shifts the per­spec­tive out­wards, cre­at­ing some­thing much richer and more morally com­plex.

It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing de­ci­sion, and one that in con­junc­tion with the book’s fi­nal third — pur-

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