Amberley £20

Titanic: Nine Hours to Hell, the Survivors' Story, By WB Bartlett

This level-headed account depicts the bungling incompetence of the Titanic's owners and crew

The centenary of the sinking of the Titanic looms, and, with it, the prospect of book after book marking the anniversary. This is, even for mild obsessives of the saga such as myself, not altogether to be welcomed. Our shelves already overflow with volumes about the ship, and we have long since discovered that new books on the subject are liable to be written to prosecute ever more arcane theories. So it was with some foreboding that I opened Mr Bartlett's offering. What cock-eyed "revelation" would he be peddling?

Er, none. Instead, we have here quite the best and most level-headed telling of the whole story I have ever read. What makes it so is not just that Bartlett can, unlike the authors of many Titanic books, actually write; but that he brings to the controversies which still surround the sinking a judicial sense of what constitutes conclusive evidence, and what does not. He makes plain that the recollections of survivors are so varied (and often conflicting) that some of the more bitter controversies (such as the role of the SS Californian, five miles away or 19, depending on whom you believe) are only kept going by taking the word of some and ignoring the testimony of all the rest.

But on some issues, the evidence is overwhelming and allows him, for instance, to dish the idea – popular with movie-makers and those seeking an easy villain – that the White Star Line was flogging the Titanic full-pelt through an ice field in an effort to break the Atlantic speed record. Even if that was its plan (which it was not), the ship was incapable of such pace. Where the company was culpable, of course, was in the lack of provision of lifeboats, preferring a spacious promenade deck to rescue room for all. And this book describes with greater clarity than any before the amateur bungling that night: a captain who skulked rather than led, officers who thought it unsafe to load boats designed for 65 with more than a few dozen, an officer who decided that "women and children first" meant "women and children only" – the whole procedure made up as it went along, the result of which was the loss of hundreds of extra lives.

It was chaos, and this book makes as much sense of it as any is ever likely to do.

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