By Vikas Datta
Title: The Midnight Watch; Author: David Dyer; Publisher: Atlantic Books; Pages: 336; Price: Rs 499
The unsinkable ship didn’t live up to its reputation — except in popular culture. It has been over a century since the Titanic sank in April 1912 with over two-thirds of people aboard dying in the freezing Atlantic, but their bravery, sacrifice, privilege, cowardice, and the owners’ hubris, continues to inspire stories across media. What about a ship near enough to help but didn’t?
The SS Californian was only a few miles away from the stricken ship that night and had even warned of ice in its path earlier. When the Titanic foundered, its officers saw the distress signals, and reportedly even informed their captain but no action was taken till the morning — when it was too late.
This breach of the oldest of the seaman’s code — to help a distressed ship — was pointed out in both the US and British probes, but has never been explained satisfactorily. In his debut novel, Australian author David Dyer however offers a provocative but quite compellingly plausible reason.
A part-time merchant navy officer during his graduation, he subsequently worked as a lawyer with a British legal practice whose parent firm had represented Titanic’s owners back in 1912 and it was there he “became obsessed with ‘the Californian incident’, and began to think about writing a book about it”. It however took several years before he got down to it.
Extensively researched in London, Liverpool, New York, Boston and even the site of Titanic’s sinking in the Atlantic, Dyer’s story not only provides a new look at the cataclysmic tragedy — in giving a voice to some of its most powerless and unmourned victims or its aftermath — but also the social mores, perceptions and expectations that may have played their part.
And alongside, there is a stunning look at the no-holds-barred working methods of American journalists and their struggle for “exclusives”, some perceptive lawmakers and lawyers on both sides of the Atlantic trying to understand why such a tragedy occurred, and even the fledgling rise of feminism in the US.
The “hero”, or at least the principal narrator, is John Steadman, inspired by British investigative journalist William Thomas Stead, who was aboard the Titanic and one of the prominent fatalities, of the real-life Boston American daily. Beset with more than his share of personal tragedies, he is deemed by his employers as perfect to cover disaster stories or anything with “bodies” while his other coverage is termed lacklustre due to his inability to use “active verbs”.
But, first the story is told from the perspective of the Californian’s Second Officer Herbert Stone, who is on watch, sees a ship and the distress rockets it fires and informs his Captain Stanley Lord, but to no avail. When they learn about the disaster Stone is told by Lord that it was not certain that the ship he saw was the Titanic and he might be mistaken about the rockets.
Meanwhile, Steadman, tasked with visiting the Californian when she reaches Boston to write about the bodies it may have found, especially high-profile victims like US millionaire John Jacob Astor or industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim, is struck that it hasn’t any.
His suspicions are aroused by the shifting, evasive statements of Lord and behaviour of some of the ship’s officers. But can he find proof of what actually happened, and more importantly, why?
The narrative spans dramatic newsbreaks and disappointments as scoops are scooped, “sting” tactics (of sorts) and even Steadman’s dismissal from his job as he carries on investigating instead of filing stories, but he eventually begins to understand why the Californian did nothing from the equation between Lord and Stone, based on their mindsets
Also forming part of the book is Steadman’s own “novel” about the disaster from the perspective of one of the nine children of a lower middle class British couple — as the whole family perished due to the “elite first rule”.
But this is not just merely another “Titanic book”, for Dyer’s story also brings out the motifs of man’s hubris and challenge to nature, class privilege (or today’s VIP culture), the role of expectations, usually excessive — and their lethal consequences — in his retelling of the world’s most described disaster.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at email@example.com)