Titanic: Still making waves after 100 years

Christmas books of the year

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The Independent Culture

Next April marks a centenary of Titanic obsessing, and about the only principal in the sorry saga which seems not to have a book to itself is the iceberg.

Somehow, the story has remained untold of how it became detached from the Greenland ice shelf, drifted on ocean currents into the path of the White Star liner, punctured it, and then carried on southward, gradually shrinking, before melting away completely.

Perhaps such a book is already at proof stage. If so, it could hardly be less likely than some others that have been published, witness Racing Through the Night: Olympic's Attempt to Reach Titanic by Wade Sisson (Amberley, £15.99). Well written and superbly illustrated though the book is, the tale of the Titanic's sister ship (a hopeless 500 miles away at the time of the sinking) cannot be other than incidental. Normal people will be bothered by this. Titanic followers such as myself will not.

The big trend now is for books about the sinking's aftermath. Foremost is Andrew Wilson's Shadow of the Titanic (Simon & Schuster, £19.99), an intelligent telling of what happened to the occupants of the lifeboats. J Bruce Ismay, managing director of White Star, senior survivor, and therefore the fall-guy, spent, in the words of Wilson, "the rest of his life trying to make himself invisible". Then there was Madeleine Astor, the teenager for whom John Jacob Astor left his wife. She remarried twice, the second time to an Italian boxer nearly twice her age. It was a tempestuous carry-on, full of histrionic rows and makings-up, and, shortly after their divorce, she expired at 47. Other eye-catchers are Helen Bishop, who survived the sinking only to die four years later after tripping over a rug; and stewardess Annie Robinson, one of 10 survivors who committed suicide, in her case by flinging herself from a ship into Boston Harbour in 1914.

One of the more arresting sequels is told in Sally Nilsson's The Man Who Sank Titanic (History Press, £8.99), whose sub-title, "The Troubled Life of Quartermaster Robert Hitchens" is nothing if not an understatement. At the wheel of the ship at the critical time, Hitchens was described as a coward at the inquiries, turned frequently to drink, saw a business venture turn sour, ran up debts, was estranged from his family, and attempted to murder his main creditor. He is another example of a survivor who was never the same again, as will be readers' feelings towards the book when they read, on page 125, of a place called the "Isle of White".

Finally, there is the finest of this year's crop: Titanic Captain: The Life of Edward John Smith, by G J Cooper (History Press, £14.99). Plainly the result of years of research, it is astutely written, and a significant contribution. It also has a poignant postscript. Of all those linked to Titanic, Smith's daughter, Melville, was one of the more ill-fated. Father went down with his ship; mother was knocked down and killed by a London taxi; her husband died in a freak shooting accident; her son was killed on war service with the RAF; and her daughter died of polio at 24. One wonders if the cause of the disaster was not the usual human failings but simply that the fates had it in for the Smith family.