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New book views Titanic tragedy through the eyes of six passengers and finds many of the weeds that choke us today taking root in 1912

'On one hand, the Titanic was just a ship that hit an iceberg and sank, on the other, it's a metaphor for the 20th century ... an ark of dying privilege, greed, prejudice, faith, toil, unimaginable bravery and pitiable cowardice'

Terrible fate: the Titanic docked in Belfast in 1912
Terrible fate: the Titanic docked in Belfast in 1912
The Countess of Rothes
A young Gareth Russell with his grandfather, Robert
Uncovering the past: Gareth Russell

By Gareth Russell

At 11.35pm on Sunday, April 14, 1912, the 33-year-old Countess of Rothes was fast asleep in cabin C-77. There were rose-coloured sheets on her bed in a stateroom with a mahogany dresser, a small chandelier and an electric heater that hummed to combat the freezing air outside, the same chill that the countess had discussed with a steward who brought coffee to her table while she listened to an after-dinner concert a few hours earlier.

The crew member told the countess, once toasted as the "most beautiful" socialite at the court of King Edward VII, that the reason for the sudden drop in temperature was because the ship was in the vicinity of icebergs. The countess was still slumbering in her cabin's cosy splendour when one of those icebergs swept past her portholes, seconds after it had inflicted multiple wounds on the Titanic.

The ship was so immense that the countess managed to sleep through the initial collision. She neither felt nor saw the iceberg that would ultimately cause 1,500 deaths. It was only when the ship's engines stopped that she and hundreds of other passengers finally woke up.

The countess is one of six main figures I study in my new book, The Darksome Bounds of a Failing World, which is an account of the Titanic disaster of 1912 and the unravelling of the society that had created it.

The title comes from a Viking king who, when he saw a field of icebergs, turned back because he knew man cannot defeat nature - a lesson the Edwardian era, and perhaps our own, forgot entirely.

I am usually an historian of the elite. I am fascinated by the forces that make privilege tick, coalesce and disintegrate. My previous work was a biography of Henry VIII's fifth wife, the gorgeous and unlucky Catherine Howard, and the dementedly improbable world of the Tudor upper classes; an earlier book, The Emperors, looked at the collapse of the Austrian, German and Russian monarchies at the end of the First World War.

The Darksome Bounds of a Failing World explores the British and American elite in 1912, and the Titanic is a wonderful metaphor for that story. Its operators, the White Star Line, were British, but as of 1903, White Star's overall owner was the American tycoon J P Morgan.

On the day the Titanic was launched into the waters of the Lagan, one Belfast newspaper said that her two owners made the ship a perfect symbol of the bond between the "greatest empire in history" and "the mighty republic in the west".

Through each of the figures I picked to focus on for this book, I tried to tell a wider story of what was going on in the 1910s: silent movie star Dorothy Gibson was the first actress to hit on the idea of turning up to her premiers; like Gone With The Wind's Rhett Butler, aged businessman Isidor Straus had once been a blockade runner for the Confederacy, but, later in life, he had to endure anti-Semitism from the well-to-do of New York; our very own Thomas Andrews was, in the words of a relative, "an imperialist" who was passionately opposed to Home Rule.

While these were the stories I wanted to tell, each book is something of a journey, both in self-discovery and knowledge of others. Research leads you in many different and unexpected directions, but what I had not anticipated, perhaps foolishly, was just how heavily my childhood in Northern Ireland would impact this particular book.

I was raised on stories of the Titanic. My great-grandfather, Tommy Hutton, used to perch me on his knee to tell me about the Belfast of his childhood.

Later, I would sit on the rug by his fireplace and he would perform the song he remembered his father and other workers in the shipyard singing when they heard the news of the disaster - "I lost the best friend that ever I had, when the great ship Titanic went down".

It was a very happy moment for me when I was able to include those words in one of the book's final chapters; it felt like I was preserving something and giving a voice to those men who had laboured in the construction and then suffered such grief when news broke in Belfast that the Titanic had sunk four days into her first commercial voyage.

I was enthralled and horrified by the Titanic as a child, and it was to Papa that I brought the first in a coming avalanche of Titanic books. It started with colouring books and moved to children's novels. To each and every one, Papa was encouraging, even though he himself could not read, because in 1912, he had snuck out of school to try to earn money for his family.

He knew the Bible better than nearly any man I ever knew; he memorised it at church and through sermons. It was a towering testimony to his faith.

Socially, his wife Elizabeth came from a very different background, and it was through her memories that I began to understand that, although they had both seen the same thing back in 1912, no two people really 'see' the same thing. Our perceptions, our views, are irrevocably shaped by our background and the expectations they give us.

Papa was, as I have mentioned, a devout Christian, so too was my late grandfather, Robert - everybody called him Bob. As I wrote and researched, the lessons they taught me through the way in which they lived their lives came back to me. The Titanic existed in an era when such values were commonplace.

It is very easy to dismiss genuine religious zeal as posturing, a performance, a quest for respectability, or approval from one's peers. I'm sure there are many such cases. Yet, equally, there are many people who have a vibrant, sincere and potently good sense of faith.

Those two men whom I knew and loved certainly did and it influenced me in understanding some of the Titanic's most moving moments. The aforementioned Countess of Rothes was nearly certain they would freeze to death in the lifeboats, but, rather than let anybody else sense her fear, she began singing hymns, including Lead, Kindly Light.

Military historian Colonel Gracie joined a railway heir, a ship's officer and stokers from the boiler rooms in the Lord's Prayer as they shivered on an overturned escape craft. Father Thomas Byles led 70 or so people in prayers as the deck of the Titanic slowly tipped from under them, he welcomed Protestants and Jews to join their circle, while a socialist journalist who watched them sneered that all they were doing was "praying to God and Mary to save them" without lifting a finger to help themselves.

That's not to say I can't empathise with survivors who were so traumatised that they became angry at the very mention of religion - a Broadway producer's widow snapped "God went down with the Titanic" - but I was happy to be able to write about both sides of the coin and, hopefully, to do justice to the faith that helped so many people endure the worst, or even last, hours of their life.

I love Northern Ireland. Your home is always with you. This is a wonderful place. Yet, there is no point in pretending that it does not have a torturous political history, to put it mildly, and many of the weeds that choke us today were taking root in 1912.

The Home Rule crisis was accelerating as the Titanic began her sea trials in Belfast Lough. Money and munitions were pouring into Ireland to arm loyalist and nationalist paramilitary groups; King George V was genuinely terrified that Ireland was about to slide into a full-scale civil war.

My book's second chapter is called The Sash My Father Wore, not just because it focuses on a family who were strongly unionist, but also as a play on the sheer weight of history in Ireland. We wear it around our necks and I was initially nervous about writing on the Home Rule issue. It still means so much to people, on both sides of the political aisle.

Eventually, I had to be firm with myself - this is my job and there should be no harm in the truth. There were valiant women and men who believed in Home Rule; the same is true for those who thought any form of independence would be a catastrophe.

Perhaps part of the joy was discovering things I had not known, in-depth, before - Edward Carson made some scorchingly unkind comments about the Orange Order; Theresa, Marchioness of Londonderry, wrote letters to friends expressing her delight at the number of guns she had bought for the UVF; a shipwright called James Dobbin was rushed to the Royal Victoria Hospital, where he died, after a heavy piece of timber collapsed on him during the Titanic's launching ceremony. These anecdotes help make the past breathe.

Writing any book requires an historian, and their readers, to be prepared to question what they once "knew". I was able to prove in this book, for instance, that the third-class passengers were never locked below during the evacuation of the Titanic.

In studying the era, it also meant challenging and critiquing many of the issues that the Edwardian age bequeathed to us. We are still grappling with the inheritance of the years before the First World War and it was an absolute privilege to tell that story through a few extraordinary days on a doomed ship.

The Titanic was made in Belfast, its story was shaped by it profoundly and it felt like a homecoming of sorts to write about it as a Northern Irish writer.

In the Fifties, with the number of survivors dwindling, a young American called Walter Lord began contacting those who had sailed on the Titanic as research for his haunting, beautiful novel A Night to Remember. One of those who responded was the Countess of Rothes and I was fortunate enough to see her letter to him, now housed at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

In her heyday, the Countess had been a suffragette, a unionist, a Red Cross nurse, a Tory, the toast of high society, a friend of royalty and one of the most generous, and effective, philanthropists in Britain. Now, decades on, as she approached the end of her life, Lord's queries turned her mind back to the night she had escaped from the Titanic, then rowed and steered for six hours to help the crew in the lifeboat.

Her letter to the young historian is, as you might expect, exquisitely polite, although you can sense her bewilderment when, towards the end, she asked him: "Can you tell me anything more about your book and the reason you are interested in the Titanic disaster?"

I don't know if I could answer the Countess's query. On the one hand, the Titanic was just a ship. A ship that hit an iceberg and sank. On the other hand, it is one of the greatest metaphors for, and from, the 20th century. It is an ark of many tales - dying privilege, greed, toil, arrogance, prejudice, faith, unimaginable bravery and pitiable cowardice.

And, for me, the impact of its birthplace, and mine, is an integral and fascinating thread that still weaves through the Titanic's story.

The Darksome Bounds of a Failing World by Gareth Russell is published by William Collins, priced £25.

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