Belfast Telegraph

In race to Titanic's lifeboats, would I really be last to leave?

By Robert McNeill

I was once part of a group of people threatened by a much smaller group in a confined space or 'house' as I believe the term is.

So far so good. More of us than them. Except, their leader had a knife. Briefly, I thought of kicking it out of his hand using a flawless technique half-remembered from a movie. But, inevitably, I didn't, and then it was too late.

Ladies and men, I became utterly, paralysingly petrified. It was full body terror. My body took over my brain and I'd a very real, primitive, visceral feeling, an overwhelming imperative from my physical self that it did not want holed by that sharp metal weapon.

I think we were all the same. Certainly, no one moved, as this thug taunted and humiliated us.

He didn't stab anyone but enjoyed an immoral victory - and doubtless went on to do it again. I expect he's in prison now. Or dead.

Joseph Bruce Ismay is dead. Long dead. Even today, there are people glad of that - because, they say, he was a coward.

He was chairman of the Titanic's shipping company and, on that terrifying night in 1912, got into a lifeboat with the women and children ... and survived.

Some accounts say he ensured women and children were saved first and got in himself because there was no one else near that particular lifeboat. But, even if he was a coward, which of us can say we'd have acted differently?

A new play opening in Belfast this weekend - Patrick Prior's The Man Who Left The Titanic - at least posits the idea that Ismay wasn't so much a coward as simply human.

We are all - men in particular - heroes in our heads. But this news just in: the real world isn't in your head. It's out there. And, it never runs to plan. Take World War I.

I think a lot about World War I. I am an intelligent man now, with my own computer and everything, but, back then, nearly everyone was thick and I'd have been among them.

Which means I'd have been conned into fighting in a stupid war, where I might have controlled my fear for the first night or two of bombardment, perhaps even the first month or two.

But I'm in absolutely no doubt that eventually I'd have lost it and been shot for cowardice. No doubt whatsoever. Sensitive soul. Can't stand noise, for a start.

Most lads heading off to fight in World War I secretly thought it a lark that would be over by Christmas. It was overwhelmingly horrific, in a way they never faintly imagined.

Heroism isn't lack of fear. It's the conquering of fear. The hero conquers himself, not others.

I wonder a lot about myself. Well, someone's got to. In minor cases of civilian panic - at the January sales, for example - I let the mob rampage and am generally last in. I'm painfully polite. I open doors for women.

So, on the Titanic, all my instincts would have been women, children and probably most men (except those wearing shorts) first. That is, when we were going aboard, and everything was sunny and fine. But in the middle of the night, when the ship was going down?

Would I have tried to save myself before anyone else? You want the truth? I don't know.

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