For those with Beryl on the sea

Peter Parker reviews an exhilarating new novel about the Titanic disaster; Every Man For Himself by Beryl Bainbridge Duckworth, pounds 14.99

Although Edward VII died in 1910, the age to which he lent his name rolled on in its stately, opulent way for another few years, before foundering in the trenches of the First World War. Even before 1914 there had been intimations of catastrophe, however - notably in the dark year of 1912. In April the supposedly unsinkable R.M.S. Titanic went down on her maiden voyage with the loss of some 1500 lives, and in November came the news that Captain Scott and his companions had died in their attempt to conquer the South Pole. The previous year J.M. Barrie had published his own novelisation of Peter Pan, in which Wendy, on learning that the Lost Boys are going to be made to walk the plank, tells them: "I feel I have a message to you from your real mothers, and it is this: 'We hope our sons will die like English gentlemen'." This hope was echoed and fulfilled both by male passengers on the Titanic, who stood aside as women and children were helped into the lifeboats and by the doomed Scott, scribbling his final messages to civilisation.

Other last words give Beryl Bainbridge the title for her extraordinary new novel, which follows The Birthday Boys (about Scott) and An Awfully Big Adventure (about Peter Pan) in being intimately concerned with death, and the death of innocence in particular. The Titanic captain's widely reported farewell to his crew was: "You have done your duty, boys. Now every man for himself." As in The Birthday Boys, Bainbridge has used real characters and events and made of them something that is both a psychologically convincing recreation and a wholly new and highly individual work of art.

The Titanic sets out on Bainbridge's fatal journey with its full complement of real people - New York plutocrats, representatives of the White Star Line, W.T. Stead and other celebrities of the day - but the author has also smuggled aboard a number of characters whose names do not appear on history's passenger list. It is a measure of Bainbridge's skill that one needs to consult that list in order to work out who is invented and who merely reanimated. Her narrator is a young American called Morgan, an obscure (and fictional) nephew of J. Pierpont Morgan, owner of the White Star shipping line. Although travelling first class, Morgan had worked in a lowly capacity in the design offices of the ship's builders. Family connections have made him an intimate of a group of young English and American aristocrats, also on board, and he becomes involved with a number of rather more mysterious individuals: a dress designer from Manchester, a singer, an insolent young seaman from Liverpool and a man with a scarred lip, called simply Scurra. It is this last character, first introduced in a brief prologue, who carries most weight in the novel.

A famous scene in Noel Coward's Cavalcade, in which a honeymoon couple on the promenade deck of a liner have been contentedly chattering away about life, death and destiny, ends when the woman removes her cloak from a rail, thus uncovering a lifebelt bearing the legend R.M.S. Titanic. Coward's coup de theatre seems crude now, but contemporary accounts of the voyage are studded with remarks and incidents which acquired a hideous irony in the wake of the disaster. Bainbridge's narrative sensibly embraces hindsight rather than attempting to avoid it: her story is, after all, told in retrospect by a survivor. Some of the irony is straightforward, but elsewhere it is more complicated. Morgan's recollections of blasting away at red squirrels in the company of two directors of the shipping line, for example, brings to mind another apparently thriving species shortly to vanish: the leisured class thronging the upper deck. The wonderful opening sentence of Morgan's reminiscences shows, with Bainbridge's customary economy of means, the sudden, eruption of death into a season more usually associated with life: "At half past four on the afternoon of 8th April 1912 - the weather was mild and hyacinths bloomed in window boxes - a stranger chose to die in my arms." The later significance of this event, we discover, is carefully signalled with that seemingly testy "chose".

Bainbridge's description of the unfolding disaster - at once frightening and funny - is done with a series of small, deft touches: stairs which look perfectly level, but which unbalance someone descending them; male passengers, called up from their warm berths onto the cold deck, "with their naked throats and ankles the colour of lard"; a woman unrecognisable because "she had creamed her face for sleep and her eyebrows had disappeared". The apparent simplicity of this short, beautifully written book should mislead no one. Here is a writer who knows precisely what she is doing and who does it with unemphatic but exhilarating panache.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own