John White’s new book, The RMS Titanic Miscellany, contains everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the world’s most famous ship, from facts and figures to biographies and urban myths surrounding the ill-fated voyage.
John is not new to the specific art of writing fact books — with over 30 sports books to his name, he could be called something of an expert at the genre — but this book is certainly different to his usual fare.
The decision to write about Titanic came from his own background and his own link to the ship. “My father worked in the Harland & Wolff shipyard all his life, first as a fitter’s helper, then as a welder. I grew up in east Belfast under the cranes, so close to the shipyard. Every day when I would go to school I would see the two huge cranes Samson and Goliath,” he says.
John remembers to the day when he decided to embark on the project — a significant date in the ship’s history. “It was March 31, 2009 and I was down visiting my mum. She is still living where I was brought up, she lives in the Short Strand area of Belfast,” he explains.
“I saw the two cranes and I thought, 2009, three years from now Titanic will have sunk a hundred years ago. I went home and just looked up a few facts about Titanic and did a little research.
“I happened to find that its keel — the first part of the ship — was laid on March 31, 1909 — so that was exactly 100 years. So I thought, I have to write a book.”
But there was also that sense of pride, shared by so many with ties to Titanic: “Of course, because I’m from Belfast, I thought, that was the world’s biggest ship, it was the biggest man-made object ever moved at the time, and it was built just down the road.”
Nevertheless, writing the book was something of a gamble. His main publisher is predominantly a sports publisher, and many of his books are commissioned. This time, however, he needed to find a publisher who would be interested in this subject matter. However, the gamble paid off: with 25 pages of facts written up, he contacted the Irish Academic Press, where editor Lisa Hyde was immediately enthusiastic.
Although he has researched countless facts and figures and delved into the minutiae, ranging from the Titanic being built to her fateful journey and her sister ships, he says the most significant fact to him remains how many had to die.
“The thing that shocked me was the fact that 1,523 people lost their lives out of maybe 2,228 people on board. Then you look at the number of lifeboats that were lowered into the icy cold waters of the Atlantic that were half full — not even half-full — and you think to yourself, so many people could have been saved.
“There were 705 survivors, more than twice as many lost their lives. And of course, that’s for a number of reasons. Survivors said that people didn’t get into the lifeboats because they thought the ship to be unsinkable.
“Some people thought, well, it’s warm here on board, it’s bright, and they look overboard and see the still waters of the north Atlantic on a moonless night. It’s dark, and getting
lowered down in a lifeboat so far down the side of a ship and for what? To wait on a ship coming along? And they thought, maybe I’ll stay aboard, it won’t sink. But of course it did sink.”
The story is familiar, but to hear John talk about the deep still waters of the Atlantic doesn’t fail to have its effect.
He also uncovered a wealth of myths from Belfast’s own shipyard, one notable one being that people thought that there were workers sealed up inside the ship.
“When they were putting the rivets into the hull, the workers at night would hear banging on the ship, and some would be thinking someone had been sealed inside. But the banging was inspectors who had gone back at the end of the working day to test the quality of the rivets by banging them with a hammer.”
Never one to sit still, John is already in the middle of his next book. This one will take him back to one of his great passions in life, Manchester United. It’s called The Irish Devils — The Official Story of Manchester United and the Irish. “It covers all ages and tries to capture your earliest memories of Manchester United, and why you support it,” he explains. “It’s about when you fell in love with Manchester United, and that’s what it is for many people. You can’t change your walk and you can’t change your football team.”
It will be his sixth book on the club and it is also where his writing career started.
In 1995, as branch secretary of the Carryduff George Best Supporters’ Club, he organised coach trips to Manchester a few times a year. “It was four hours and 15 minutes on a coach. To pass the time I used to make up a quiz for the boys on the coach, about Manchester United. It would be 50 questions.”
He then realised that through his impromptu quizzes, he had amassed a wealth of material, and the idea to turn it into a book emerged. He wrote to Alex Ferguson and asked him to write a foreword. To his surprise, the boss said yes, and this was enough to warrant interest from a sports publisher.
The following year, he was asked to write the official Manchester United book of lists, and he never looked back.
Aside from his books on his favourite club, he has also written on a variety of other sports, including golf, boxing, cricket and many others.
Remarkably, he has done all his writing alongside his job as a civil servant. “I do it in the evenings and weekends,” he says.
Although he is now back to writing about sports, he is not finished with the Titanic and is planning a new Titanic fact book after his current project.