Bloomsbury £18.99

How To Survive the Titanic (or The Sinking of J Bruce Ismay), By Frances Wilson

All washed up: The man who jumped ship

In Titanic films, the chairman of its owners, J Bruce Ismay, is always depicted as a cold fish who spent the voyage lording it around the upper decks in the company of fellow millionaires, and then, as the ship went down, slipped into a lifeboat, leaving 1,513 of his customers and staff to perish.

Frances Wilson in How To Survive The Titanic or The Sinking of J Bruce Ismay does little to contradict this portrait.

The book's scoop, albeit one with no bearing on the disaster, comes via her access to correspondence between Ismay and an American first-class passenger called Marian Thayer. He was smitten mid-Atlantic, and, once his ship's sinking had made a widow of her, he sent her the kind of over-wrought letters ("I think of you every day ...") which, from a 49-year-old man, curl the toes even at a distance of a century. She, much younger – and either naive or enjoying this long-distance melodrama – replied in terms which did little to discourage the old fool. Eventually, however, she had the sense not to write back. He comes across as emotionally constipated, and ineffectual – a man who owed his elevation in life not to innate qualities, but to being born to a father who had done the real hard work.

Of the great questions about Ismay which do have some bearing on the disaster – his role in deciding to carry only sufficient lifeboats for half the passengers, and his influence on the ship's speed and navigation in the light of ice warnings – there are no sensations here, although Ismay's shifty answers to the two inquiries are laid bare. Neither is there – nor could there be – any definitive answer to whether an officer plonked Ismay into one the last lifeboats, or he jumped in himself.

By the time he died in 1937, he had lived not, as one thought, as a recluse in Ireland, but as a man who spent his days at sporting leisure and avoiding any public life. (It also avoided him.) He gave generously to maritime charities, but, save in the silly billets-doux to Mrs Thayer, gave nothing of himself to anyone. Neither did he alter the company's policy which, on the grounds that after 2.46am on 15 April 1912 there was no ship to serve in, stopped the crew's pay at precisely that time.

Finally, a good deal of the book is taken up with references to, and parallels with, Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, who also scarpered leaving passengers to drown, although he was a mate, not the owner. Finer minds than mine may find these absorbing.

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