The romanticising of the 'Titanic' disaster may have peaked with James Cameron's film - but it began the instant the liner hit the iceberg. Ian Jack went in search of the facts - and found a bewildering sea of myth whose fluctuations over the century reflect profound changes in our national identity
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MY SON was three and my daughter five. It was the summer of 1997. James Cameron's film had not yet appeared, but a great human tragedy was unfolding on our living-room carpet.

"Here it comes!" said my son to his sister, and began to push a small toy ship across the floor from the direction of the television set. "Here it comes, brm, brm, brm. My daughter moved a scrunched-up ball of white paper towards the course of the toy ship. They would meet, there would be an accident. My son swung his boat to the left, but the paper ball was too quick for him.

"Bang! Crash!" my son said, tilting his toy up and turning it over. "Glug, glug, glug."

"Let's get the passengers into the lifeboats," his more humanitarian sister said. "Look at all the people in the sea."

We needed to imagine them, just as we needed to imagine the carpet as the North Atlantic, the paper ball as the iceberg, the toy boat as the Titanic.

"Don't worry," my son said. "Here comes the Carpathia." Another toy was being pushed across the carpet to the rescue.

They played the game on many afternoons, but there were dissatisfactions. No detachable lifeboats; a funnelling discrepancy. The model ship had three funnels (it was based on the Queen Mary), whereas the Titanic had four. I explained to my son that the Titanic didn't need four to suck the smoke from its boiler furnaces - one funnel was a dummy - but that there was a fashion for over-funnelling in the Edwardian age - "a long time ago", I said - when numerous funnels implied grandness, size and speed. Of course, this was just an impression, the equivalent of go-faster stripes and spoilers on family saloons at the other end of the century, but for about 20 years it held sway. "We'll just pretend it has four funnels," said my son. But I could see that it was niggling him and when, a few months later, I spotted a model Titanic in a junk-shop in Lancashire, I bought it for pounds 9.95. It was new - the film was out by then and Titanic souvenirs were everywhere - and, oddly, made of a sort of coal-based resin. "British coal" said the label on the back with its Union Jack.

At home in London, the coal Titanic steamed across the carpet on many voyages, all of them fatal. So many sinkings took their toll on its most vulnerable parts: the funnels. One by one, they split from the upper works. When there were three, my son sometimes imagined his toy as the Queen Mary; when there were two, it became the Queen Elizabeth; when there was one, it stood in for the Carpathia, the single-funnelled Cunarder which had picked up the Titanic's survivors and sailed with them to New York in April 1912. It could be all these ships to my son and still, when required, be imagined as the Titanic. Then the last funnel came off. A ship without funnels was ... a wreck. This was the coal Titanic's final form, as a discard buried deep in our cellar, a tiny replica of the funnel-less, broken hull that Dr Robert Ballard and his expedition eventually discovered 13,000ft down on the seabed of the North Atlantic in September 1985.

THE FILM Titanic, directed by James Cameron and funded by Twentieth Century Fox, is said to be the most commercially successful film of all time. By the end of June 1999, it had earned more than $1,835m (pounds 1,100m) at box offices worldwide and repaid its costs 10 times over. It won 11 Oscars. Young adolescent girls formed a large part of its audience; newspaper reports from several countries - India, Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom and the US - said that some had watched the film scores of times, mainly to see its young lead actor, Leonardo DiCaprio.

But its phenomenal appeal was more than hormonal. According to the London Evening Standard (27 April 1998), the Chinese president, Jiang Zemin, saw in the film a parable of the class war, in which "the third-class passengers (the proletariat) struggle valiantly against the ship's crew (craven capitalist lapdogs and stooges)". In a statement published in Beijing, the president applauded the film's "vivid descriptions of the relationship between money and love, rich and poor" and urged all fellow socialists to see it. The French also considered Titanic in political terms. Serge July, the editor of Liberation, wrote: "The subject of the film is not - this is obvious - the sinking of a famous ship, but the suicide in the middle of the Atlantic of a society divided in classes." Hans Magnus Enzensberger, in the New York Times, compared the durability of the Titanic myth with the transience of modern catastrophes, and wondered if the contrast demonstrated that we were losing a proper sense of history.

James Cameron's own gloss on his film was similarly myth-driven. He wrote in the press-pack: "April 10, 1912. Technology had been delivering a steady stream of miracles for the better part of two decades and people were beginning to take this never-ending spiral of progress for granted. But four-and-a-half days later, the world had changed. The maiden voyage of the 'ship of dreams' ended in a nightmare beyond comprehension and mankind's faith in his own indomitable power was forever destroyed by uniquely human shortcomings: arrogance, complacency and greed."

Then, perhaps aware that public chastisement had not made good box office since the time of Savonarola and John Knox, the director added that his film was also "a story of faith, courage, sacrifice and, above all else, love".

Most of those latter qualities enter the film through its fictional story, a shipboard romance. Briefly: Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) is a 17-year-old, upper-class American girl who meets a free-spirited young American from the Midwest called Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio). Rose is travelling first class and Jack steerage. They fall in love, have sex, and then, when the ship begins to sink, help each other to survive a villainous sub-plot. In the sea, Jack urges Rose to hold on to life and the wreckage. Jack drowns, but his love and her freshly discovered will-power enable Rose's survival. The story is framed by the present or the near-present. Rose, rediscovered in her hundredth year, narrates the events of the voyage from a perspective which suggests that both experiences - forbidden love across the class boundaries, the awakening of a tougher, unladylike strength - have turned her into a prototype of modern, independent womanhood. The title song, "My Heart Will Go On", is sung by Celine Dion, but the same sentiments, to better music, can be heard in Edith Piaf.

The cleverest aspect of the film, however, depended neither on computer- created images, nor on expensively researched historical detail, nor even on the 90 per cent scale replica of the ship itself. Its cleverest aspect, I thought, was how it had taken a previously masculine story - male blunder, male heroism, male sacrifice in that most male of environments, the sea - and feminised it as a monument not to the dead but to a modern notion of ... "girl power" is probably the phrase.

The true opposition was not between classes, just as the film's true subject was not the "suicide" of the society that produced these classes. In Cameron's film, the armies that clashed on that calm North Atlantic night represented youth and age, the new and old. To be young and new (to be, in a sense, now) was to smoke and spit and wear a flat cap and no tie like Jack; to be creative, an artist, like Jack; to be free and resourceful like Jack; to have heard, improbably, of Picasso and Freud like Rose; to make love in the back of a car, part of the ship's cargo, like Rose and Jack; to drink and dance Irish jigs in the steerage; to be Irish or Italian or Scandinavian or American (though not clipped, rich, East-Coast American - Anglo-American). To be young and new was to have, as your soundtrack, the ghastly Celtic Twilight pastiche of James Horner's music.

And to be old? That was to lose, to be part of dying things, an ancien regime; to be repressed and repressive; not to have heard of Freud; to have as your soundtrack the hymn "Nearer, My God, To Thee", like Captain Smith (Bernard Hill) as he stood stoically, purposelessly, in the wheelhouse; to be smug and autocratic like the ship's officers and owner before the disaster, and then to be weak, brittle and cowardly after it; or to be weak and servile like the crew. In other, shorter words: to be old, to be the enemy, was to be British.

I watched the film and felt a slight sense of ancestral, racial injury, and eventually took the train to Lancashire.

FOUR DAYS out from Southampton on its maiden voyage to New York, the Titanic hit the iceberg at 11.40pm on Sunday 14 April, and sank at 2.20am on 15 April. Its last known position was 41 46' N, 50 14' W; about 350 miles south-east of Newfoundland and 1,000 miles and three days away from New York. According to the British Board of Trade inquiry, 1,503 passengers and crew died and 703 were saved. The Titanic had steamed into an ice field at 22-and-a-half knots; it had ignored ice-warnings tapped out in Morse from other ships; its lifeboats had room for only 1,178 people; its watertight bulkheads did not rise high enough in the hull. But these reckless errors of navigation and flaws in ship design were largely ignored in the immediate British coverage of the disaster. Tragedies needed heroes. Titanic's band supplied them. To preserve order and calm, they had started to play soon after the iceberg was hit and had gone on playing until the very end, insouciantly, stoically, and finally religiously and comfortingly. Their last number was said to have been the hymn, "Nearer, My God, To Thee".

"Why is it," George Bernard Shaw wrote in the Daily News and Leader one month later, "that the effect of a sensational catastrophe on a modern nation is to cast it into ... an explosion of outrageous romantic lying?" Shaw listed what he called the "romantic demands" of a British shipwreck. The first was the cry "Women and children first", and the second that all the men aboard ("except the foreigners") should be heroes and the captain a superhero. Finally, Shaw wrote, British romance demanded that "everybody should face death without a tremor; and the band, according to the Birkenhead precedent, must play 'Nearer, My God, To Thee'." The Birkenhead was a troopship which foundered off the South African coast in 1852. While the women and children were got off in the boats, the troops held ranks at attention on deck. In Victorian Britain, the story had a powerful effect.

The evidence from the Titanic, according to Shaw, ran in the opposite direction. "The captain and officers were so afraid of panic that, though they knew the ship was sinking, they did not dare tell the passengers so - especially the third-class passengers - and the band played Rag Times [sic] to reassure the passengers, who, therefore, did not get into the boats, and did not realise their situation until the boats were gone and the ship was standing on her head before plunging to the bottom."

Shaw, as usual, was being controversial. But he was also being brave, because, almost as he wrote, the body of the leader of the Titanic's band had been unloaded from a ship in Liverpool and taken by hearse inland across Lancashire, up past the noisy weaving-sheds of Preston and Blackburn, Burnley and Nelson, to the town of Colne. If disasters need heroes, heroes need burials, and burials need bodies. The body of Wallace Henry Hartley, violinist and bandmaster, had been retrieved from the sea and brought to Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 30 April. In Halifax it had been coffined and taken by train to Boston, and from there shipped to Liverpool.

Even before his body had been found, Hartley was a hero. Reports of the band's behaviour, how they had continued to play, first appeared in the New York Times on 19 April, the morning after that newspaper's reporters interviewed survivors who disembarked from the Carpathia. Newspapers in Britain magnified these reports until Hartley became the man who not only went on playing his violin when the ship began to settle by the bows, but continued playing even when he was waist-deep in water.

On 18 May, Hartley was buried in Colne. About 26,000 people then lived in the town. The local newspaper, the Colne & Nelson Times, estimated that a crowd of about 40,000 attended the funeral. They made Hartley's funeral the largest single solemnisation of the Titanic disaster on either side of the Atlantic. The Colne & Nelson Times reported that the town had reached "the highest eminence of its character and tradition ... The whole world has been at the feet of Wallace Hartley; then why wonder at the jealous pride of Colne?"

IN LANCASHIRE, I went first to Liverpool to consult the newspaper archive and look at the Titanic monuments. The city has two of them; the ship, like all of White Star's fleet, was registered here. One monument stands at the Pierhead. In the bas-reliefs, stokers with bare chests stand with rags and shovels in hand while an officer in a naval cap and jacket holds a spanner. The legend beside them reads: "The brave do not die/Their deeds live forever/and call upon us/to emulate their courage/and devotion to duty."

Inside the city, away from the waterfront, a bronze plaque to the Titanic's musicians is fixed to the wall in the foyer of the Philharmonic Hall. There were eight of them: Wallace Hartley, violin and bandmaster; Theodore Brailey, piano, of Ladbroke Grove, London; Roger Bricoux, cello, of Lille, France; Fred Clarke, bass, of Liverpool; John "Jock" Hume, violin, of Dumfries, Scotland; George Krins, viola, of Brixton, London; Percy Taylor, cello, of Clapham, London; Jack Woodward, piano, of Headington, Oxfordshire. They performed in two groups, as a trio and a quintet, in different saloons of the ship. All of them died. The legend in art-nouveau lettering said they had "continued playing to soothe the anguish of their fellow passengers", followed by the words: "Courage and compassion joined/make the hero and the man complete."

According to the Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury (18 May 1912), "scenes of a very affecting character" had been witnessed in South Canada dock when Hartley's coffin came ashore. His father, Albion Hartley, had come from Colne to Liverpool. He was, said the report, "a pathetic figure ... suffering from intense mental agony ... as he signed the receipt for the delivery of the body his hands quivered with emotion ... he walked away broken with grief." Before he left, however, Mr Hartley "communicated a few particulars with respect to his son's personal history." These included: that his son had been engaged to be married; that his son had regretted moving from one of the Cunard Line's bands because the switch to White Star meant that his home port became Southampton rather than Liverpool, taking him further from his parents' home; and that a gentleman who regularly travelled by Cunard had told him, Albion Hartley, that he had heard his son play "Nearer, My God, To Thee" several times on board the Lusitania. (The last seemed to be offered as evidence to doubters. Already there were doubts.)

Then the hearse's two horses began the slow 59-mile pull to Colne, where the coffin with Hartley's bruised body inside arrived at one o'clock the next morning.

IT WAS dark when I got there; two changes of train, then a long ride up a bumpy single line which ended at a bare platform. The terminus: Colne. I walked across to the Crown Hotel - Victorian, built soon after the railway came in 1848 - where I'd booked a room. Two women were propped against the hotel wall, pawing each other.

"You're a bitch, you're a bitch," one woman was saying.

"And you're a right cow," said the other.

In the hallway, a man in a white shirt and black tie ran past me with blood dribbling from his cheek. In the bar, several men, also in black ties, were talking softly and urgently to their womenfolk.

"Now love, just shut it ... have another drink and then we'll get a minicab."

"He's coming back in," said one man, who was watching the door.

"Nay, he'd never, he wouldn't dare," said another.

Eventually the Crown Hotel's manager appeared and took me upstairs to my room. "It's not usually like this," he said, by way of apology.

Outside the window I could hear a woman shouting: "Don't give me that shite. You wanted to shag him, didn't you, you bitch."

The manager smiled and said: "It's a funeral. Drinking and that. I think it got a bit out of hand."

WALLACE Hartley's funeral began a few hundred yards from the Crown Hotel at the Bethel Independent Methodist Chapel. May 18 was a Saturday. The next week's Colne & Nelson Times spared no detail; the idea that Britain, and especially northern Britain, shied away from emotional display at that time, that crying began with the Princess of Wales in 1997, is confounded by this single report. A thousand people crowded into pews which had been built to hold 700. Before undertakers screwed down the coffin lid Hartley's parents and sisters came to take a last look at the body. The body is described; "somewhat discoloured by a blow he had evidently received and by the embalming process". Then the congregation stood and began to sing in an atmosphere of "fervid emotion". Hartley's mother, who remained seated in the front pew, wept bitterly. Hartley's two sisters and his fiancee "shook visibly"; and when "Nearer, My God, To Thee" was sung (for the second time) almost the entire congregation was in tears: "girls had not the heart to sing ... men and women broke under the strain ... voices shook with emotion".

Mr T Worthington, an Independent Methodist preacher who had sailed with Hartley on the Mauretania, gave the address. Reading it in Colne library almost 90 years later, I was struck by how vividly it had been phrased. "She [the Titanic] had been only a few days out ... when she comes into contact with another force, designed in no engineer's office, constructed in no dockyard, possessed by no compass and guided by no rudder, giving off no steam, nor driven by any machinery; but a force with which man's latest and noblest construction coming into contact bolts, shakes, reels, sinks..." Worthington concluded: "The traditional British character was magnificently shown ... Yes, it is brave to be British. It is both brave and noble to be Christian. In fact, it is easier to be British when we are Christian."

People stepped up to the catafalque to place wreaths on the coffin. Then the cortege set out for the cemetery. The procession was half a mile long. Five brass bands came first, followed by a battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment, buglers from the Boy Scouts, the town's ambulance brigade, the congregation of the Bethel Chapel, the Colne Orchestra, the Bethel Choir, the representatives of Colne Town Council and, at last, the carriages with coffin, wreaths and mourners. Great whispering crowds lined the route, men doffed their hats as the coffin passed, blinds were drawn in every house, and the town's mills had shut for the morning shift. According to that day's Manchester Evening News, "workmen and masters assembled together in awed silence on the tramless streets."

In 1912, it was the most impressive scene Colne had ever witnessed, and - my guess - most probably ever will. But were there no sceptics, people who wondered about the fuss? A week later a letter appeared in the Colne & Nelson Times. There were plans for a civic memorial to Wallace Hartley. The anonymous writer hoped, drily, that it would not be a drinking fountain: "Surely there has been enough water in this sad affair."

I LEFT the Crown Hotel that night and went to look at Hartley's memorial, not a fountain but a bust on a pedestal, flanked by two carved figures representing Music (with a lyre) and Valour (with a laurel wreath). The people of Colne had subscribed pounds 265 to its cost, but when the mayor unveiled it, in 1915, Hartley's death was no longer so remarkable and the mayor took care to connect him with thousands of other young men "who were giving their lives freely". In 1992 the bust had been vandalised and four years later repaired. Now, because of the film, in which Hartley makes a fleeting appearance, people had recently begun to bring flowers.

Did Hartley's stoicism and nobility - if he had been stoic and noble - depend on Colne, grow in Colne? That would be absurd, though in Colne in 1912 the claim was often made. Cotton came later to Colne than the rest of Lancashire, but by 1824 seven of its mills were driven by steam, and over the next 60 years Colne changed from a riotous little town with bad sanitation, smallpox and public stocks, into a model of municipal enterprise and self-improvement. The Hartley family improved with the town. Their addresses and occupations were listed in each 10-year census, and with every entry there was change. Wallace's grandfather, Henry, was a weaver of woollen worsted in 1841 but a weaver of cotton 20 years later. Henry's son, Albion, was a cotton "sizer" in 1871 but a cotton-mill manager 10 years later. By 1891 Albion had become an insurance agent, about as far away as could be got then, in Colne, from physical work, smoke and machinery. And so Wallace, born in 1878, grew up in the middle stages of his family's social progress. He never went to work in a mill. He had an education and got a job in a bank.

The education came courtesy of Methodism, whose Providents had in 1857 decided to evangelise the growing working-class quarter of Primet Bridge, close to Albion Hartley's house. They built a chapel there: the Bethel Independent Methodist Church. Albion Hartley became its choirmaster and superintendent of its Sunday school, and he sent his son to Colne's Methodist day school, which existed to educate the children of the poor but self- improving. The Methodists stimulated many improving activities - elocution lessons, temperance groups, lectures - but music was their special strength: glee clubs, brass bands, choirs, the Colne Orchestra. Sometimes a musically gifted millworker left the town and became a professional singer or player. One or two had careers at Covent Garden. At school, Wallace Hartley learnt to play the violin. After a few years in the bank, he left Colne for a middling career as a violinist with tearoom trios in stores and touring opera companies. He played at Bridlington, Harrogate, Leeds, and for the operas put on by Carl Rosa and Moody Manners. Then he joined Cunard.

That is really all that is known about him. There are no family memoirs or (so far as I could find) surviving members of the Hartley family. In his last letter home, written on board the Titanic and collected from the ship at its final port of call, Queenstown, Ireland, he wrote: "This is a fine ship and there ought to be plenty of money around ... We have a fine band and the boys seem very nice." At his funeral, he was recalled as "tall, handsome, and of a pleasant disposition - he was popular with passengers and proved a merry companion."

There are no more clues to his character. And the particular society of Colne that might have influenced it, one way or another, has gone; or almost.

JACK GREENWOOD took me to see the tombstone. Greenwood was an old Colne man, a retired bus driver, a local historian who specialised in the history of Colne's most famous figure, Wallace Henry Hartley. We met at the library and walked west through the town. Eventually we came to a gate. Through the gate, Colne's cemetery ran down a steep hill. "It's down theer on the left," Greenwood said. "I'll stay at the top."

I went down on my own. Hartley's tomb was more monumental than the rest and included the names of his father, mother and infant brothers. It was topped by a broken pillar covered in a shroud while at the base a stone violin reposed on its side next to the first words and notes of "Nearer, My God, To Thee". It was here, at Hartley's funeral, that the Bethel Chapel choir sang the hymn for the third and last time; as Hartley's coffin was lowered into the earth, that buglers from Colne's Boy Scouts blew the "Last Post". Their notes, said the Colne & Nelson Times, "went rolling through the valley and came back again, loth to be done."

A few old flowers lay at the foot of the monument. Those apart, there was no sign of pilgrimage or a continuing memory. I went back up the hill and asked Greenwood if he thought the grave had the right hymn to the right tune - one of the most vexing questions in the historiography of the Titanic. Greenwood didn't doubt it. He'd done his work in the local archives. It was Albion Hartley who had introduced Colne to "Nearer, My God, To Thee" in the musical arrangement by Sir Arthur Sullivan when he was the Bethel choirmaster. The tune is called "Propior Deo" and its first notes were those on the tomb. Furthermore, Greenwood added, a Mr Ellwand Moody of Farnley, Leeds, had made 22 trips on the Mauretania with Wallace and had once asked him, as one cheerful north-countryman to another: "What would you do if you were on a sinking ship?" And Wallace, according to Moody, according to Greenwood, had replied: "I don't think I could do better than play "O God Our Help in Ages Past" or "Nearer, My God, To Thee".

We went to Greenwood's terrace house and his wife made tea and biscuits. I asked her about "Nearer, My God, To Thee". Not many people these days, I said, believed that this was the last tune Wallace Hartley had played on the Titanic. Mrs Greenwood said firmly: "Well, we believe it in Colne, don't we, Jack? Look at the last verse - "Out of my stony griefs, Bethel I'll raise." Bethel, you see. That would have reminded him of the Bethel chapel, his father, this town, everything he'd grown up with and loved."

THE HYMN "Nearer, My God, To Thee" was written by an Englishwoman, Sarah Flower Adams, and first appeared in a hymnal compiled in 1840 and 1841 by the Reverend William Johnston Fox for use by the congregation at his Unitarian chapel in Finsbury, London. The first two verses - there are four in all - go: "Nearer, my God, to Thee/ Nearer to Thee!/E'en though it be a cross/That raiseth me./Still all my song would be,/Nearer, my God, to Thee,/ Nearer to Thee .../Though, like the wanderer,/The sun gone down,/Darkness comes over me,/My rest a stone;/Yet in my dreams I'd be/Nearer, my God, to Thee,/Nearer to Thee."

It tells, elliptically, the story of Jacob who, fleeing the wrath of his brother Esau, falls asleep on a pillow of stone in the wilderness and dreams of a ladder lined with angels that descends from heaven with God standing at the top. He erects a monument of stones at the site of his dream and calls it Bethel, which in Hebrew means "the House of God". According to the Reverend James Hodson's Hymn Studies, "it is a song of the soul in a lonely and gloomy place".

The tune, however, was not always the same. North America sang it to Mason's "Bethany", while British Christians were divided by denomination; Anglicans favoured a tune called "Horbury" by John Bacchus Dykes, while Methodists chose Sir Arthur Sullivan's "Propior Deo". However they were sung, the words were a hit throughout the English-speaking world. According to the Reverend Canon Duncan in his Popular Hymns (1910), the hymn was ranked at number seven in "The Sunday at Home List" of the 100 best and most popular hymn tunes. He wrote: "The testimonies are many and from all quarters as to the comfort and help this hymn has been to the souls of men, women and children, even in some of the most depressing circumstances of life."

Could there be a more depressing circumstance than to stand in a fearful crowd on a slowly tilting deck with a child in your arms, waiting to die in a near-freezing sea? In the early morning of 15 April 1912, the hymn's greatest hour had arrived. Wallace Hartley tapped his violin (the moment is in Cameron's film) and his band struck up its last tune: "Nearer, My God, To Thee". So it was said, so it was reported in the newspapers, so it was widely believed. Within days of the Titanic's loss, the words were on memorial postcards, within weeks they were in instant books and the dialogue titles of silent films. By 12 May, according to Reuters news agency, 55,000 copies of a French translation had been sold in one week: "the hymn is even being sung by groups at street corners after the manner of popular songs".

But which of the tunes had they heard: Dykes's, Mason's or Sullivan's? On 24 May, at a concert for the Titanic Relief Fund in the Albert Hall, conducted by Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Henry Wood and Thomas Beecham, London's massed orchestras played Dykes's tune, "Horbury". Hartley's grave uses Sullivan's. Cameron's film uses Mason's.

Then again, had anyone heard any of them? As the Titanic's story moved though its various revivals in the century, a new, secular orthodoxy was slowly established.

MRS VERA Dick, a first-class passenger from Alberta, was the origin of the story. Fresh off the Carpathia, she told the New York Times (19 April): "What I remember best was that as the ship sunk [sic] we could hear the band playing "Nearer, My God, To Thee". We looked back and could see the men standing on deck absolutely quiet and waiting for the end. Their conduct was splendid, splendid."

Other witnesses had different memories. A H Barkworth, first-class, from Yorkshire, wrote: "When I first came on deck the band was playing a waltz. The next time I passed ... the members of the band had thrown down their instruments and were not to be seen." Second Officer Charles Lightoller remembered the band playing "a cheery sort of music ... I think it helped us all." Archibald Gracie, a retired US Army colonel, recalled that the band stopped playing half an hour before the ship sank. "I did not recognise any of the tunes, but I know they were cheerful and were not hymns. If, as has been reported, 'Nearer, My God, To Thee' was one of the selections, I assuredly should have noticed and regarded it as tactless warning of immediate death to us all and one likely to create a panic that our special efforts were directed towards avoiding."

Lightoller and Gracie, unlike Mrs Collyer and Mrs Dick, were among the last to leave, swept overboard by the wave that came rushing up the deck. Harold Bride, the ship's second wireless operator, went into the sea at the same time. Like Mrs Dick he was interviewed by the New York Times and was quoted as saying: "The ship was gradually turning on her nose - just like a duck that goes down for a dive ... the band was still playing. I guess all the band went down. They were heroes. They were still playing 'Autumn'. Then I swam with all my might."

Bride did not specify "Autumn" as a hymn, and some versions of his interview include an earlier reference to "the ragtime tune". But when Walter Lord came to write his book, A Night to Remember, published in 1955, he decided that "Autumn" and not "Nearer, My God, To Thee" was the hymn that had been played. Lord's book, an early example of quick, episodic, narrative history, became a bestseller, the most influential retelling of the story ever published. Three years later, in the British-made film of the book, "Autumn" is the tune the band plays. The British hymnologist, Sir Richard Johnson, decided that the New York Times reporter had misheard "Autumn" for "Aughton", an American Episcopal hymn and tune written by a pupil of Lowell Mason's. The English composer, Gavin Bryars, accepted the idea and incorporated "Aughton" in his orchestral piece, The Sinking of the Titanic, first performed in 1969. In the meantime, Lord had discovered something he did not disclose until he published his follow-up book on the Titanic in 1986. In 1957, a former Cunard Line bandmaster wrote to him remembering that "Songe d'Automne", a waltz composed by Archibald Joyce, had been a big hit in London in 1912. The waltz is on the playlist of the White Star line's bands for that year. Books began to reproduce the playlist.

By 1998, God and his comforts were in full retreat.

THE BETHEL chapel in Colne was demolished in the 1980s - dry rot - but Independent Methodist services still take place in an outbuilding. I had told Jack Greenwood I would like to attend one, and word got round. On the Sunday morning, as I walked across the waste ground where the chapel used to be, an elderly man greeted me. They were going to sing The Hymn in my honour.

There were eight or nine people inside, all of them, save the woman organist and a couple in their fifties, at least 65 years old. We sat on metal chairs and sang several hymns, including "Nearer, My God, To Thee" to Mason's tune. Outside, Colne people were doing whatever they now do on a Sunday in March. Waking up, driving to the superstores, looking out from their kitchen windows at bare gardens and wondering when spring will come.

Eric Lambert, the caretaker, took me to see Wallace Hartley's birthplace, down a track in a lonely terrace of millstone grit houses: 92 Greenfield Road. "Don't look in," he said as we passed. "They don't like folk looking."

We walked on. "You know what did for the churches?" he said. "It was the First World War." He remembered an old preacher at Bethel, a Mr Diggins, telling him what people had said in 1917: "There can't be a God or he wouldn't allow this sort of stuff." It had made Mr Diggins despair.

I went back up the hill to look at Hartley's bust and now considered the war memorial next to it. There are eight columns of the dead from the First World War and about 90 names to each column. More than 700 young men from a community of about 25,000 people had died in four years, mainly in Flanders. Twenty-one of them were called Hartley: there were even three W Hartleys. Who in Colne could now remember where, how, and for what they had died? If, at the age of 33, there is ever a right time to die - a time to be remembered for the act - Wallace Hartley had chosen it.

THE LITTLE train took me down the valley. Two drunk youngish men got on at Accrington. They had no tickets. The ticket inspector and the driver were women. They said the train wouldn't move until the men paid. "Away ye go to fuck," said one of the men; they were travelling to Glasgow. Eventually the women gave up and the train moved on. The rest of us studied our newspapers.

One of the questions Cameron's Titanic plants in our imagination is: how would we, the modern audience, behave on the deck of a slowly sinking liner without enough lifeboats, surrounded by a freezing sea? Worse, better, the same? The question implies that we know how people behaved then, and that Cameron's film portrays it accurately. These things are hard to know. Perhaps Hartley and his men kept playing because it occupied them in what they realised was a hopeless predicament. Perhaps they threw down their instruments long before the end. The fact is that all eight of them died and many of the people who survived were thankful to them. As to general good behaviour - good in the sense that men hung back and let women and children fill the boats - there are many testimonies and one interesting statistic, which comes from the percentage of passengers saved, arranged by age, gender and class. These are the British Board of Trade Inquiry figures. In the first class: 34 per cent of the men, 97 per cent of the women, 100 per cent of the children. In the second class: 8 per cent of men, 84 per cent of women, 100 per cent of the children. In the third class: 12 per cent of men, 55 per cent of women, 30 per cent of the children.

The usual juxtaposition is to compare the percentages of the first- to third-class children, or of first-class men and third-class children. These are shameful. But the interesting statistic in the context of "good behaviour" is for the second-class men: 8 per cent. Unlike the third class, they had easy and early access to the boat deck, and yet only 13 survived out of 160. Could it be that this class, which on the Titanic was largely drawn from the middling tradesmen and professionals of Britain and North America, behaved more nobly and stoically than the men above and below them?

STILL hunting for scraps of Hartley's life, I followed his passage back to Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was from Halifax on 17 April 1912 that a Canadian cable ship, the Mackay-Bennett, sailed towards the Titanic's last known position in search of bodies. It recovered 306. Of the band, only three were found. John "Jock" Hume, the violinist, was body number 193; and Fred Clarke, the bassist, number 202. Hartley's body was found soon after, perhaps in the same group; number 224. I decided I would pay my respects to the grave of John "Jock" Hume of Dumfries.

The bodies which were buried in Halifax lie in three groups. The identifiably Catholic were taken to the Mount Olivet cemetery; the identifiably Jewish to the Baron de Hirsch cemetery. But by far the largest number went to Halifax's non-denominational cemetery, the Fairview, which is spread across a slope at the head of one of Halifax's inlets from the Atlantic. Halifax now advertises itself as a chief port of call on the Titanic's new tourist trail, and a big new sign had been erected: the Titanic graves. A path, newly worn, led through the grass to a large oval of small uniform headstones, like those to the dead in Flanders. I bent among them, looking at this name and that, remembering the stories attached to some of them. Here (body 313) was Luigi Gatti, maitre d' of the ship's French restaurant, who was found clutching the teddy bear his small daughter had given him before he left home in Southampton. And here (number 193) was "Jock" Hume, whose parents in Scotland were later asked to stump up for an unpaid uniform bill - it became a small scandal.

There were 121 of these stones, some engraved only with numbers, and, other than the occasional flower, very little sign that any of them had recently been remembered.

Then, further down the slope, I came across a grave which was heaped with tributes. Before the headstone to J Dawson (number 227) candles had been lit and artificial flowers arranged. There were also several keys, some sweets, a crayon or two, a piece of chewing gum still in its wrapper, cinema tickets, and a large plastic model of a transatlantic liner - not the Titanic, but a three-funnelled ship which could have been the Queen Mary.

Someone had written a note: "Dear James Dawson, I feel sorry about your life. They should have built the Titanic stronger. Paula."

This was the grave of Leonardo DiCaprio.

But who was the J Dawson under the headstone? According to the Novia Scotia Archive, he was a fireman, a stoker of coal. His body had been found unmarked and dressed in dungarees with a grey shirt. His estimated age was 30. He had light hair and a moustache. The only item found on him was a card showing his membership (no 35638) of the National Seamen's Union. There was some confusion over his address, originally given as 17 Bolton Street, Southampton, then changed to 17 Briton Street, Dublin. Nothing else, so far as I can tell, is known about him, though we have some idea of how he worked.

Terry Coleman describes it well in his book, The Liners (1976). Here was the life of a fireman on a four-funnelled, coal-burning Atlantic liner: "At sea, they worked two four-hour spells in each 24, lifting five tons of coal each a day... They worked in 21-minute spells. There were seven minutes to feed coals into furnaces whose heat scorched them, then seven minutes for cutting and clearing clinkers with long slicers, and then another seven for raking over. A man who was behind in any seven minutes could not escape being seen by his fellows to be weaker, and so the weak drove themselves to keep up with the strong. After three periods of seven minutes there was a short pause, and then a gong announced the beginning of another 21 minutes. This was the fireman's work for four hours on end, scorched by furnaces and choked by coal dust and by gases from white-hot clinkers and ashes. When they had finished their watches they often took the air with chests open to the cold Atlantic wind. They worked, ate, and then slept exhausted."

It doesn't seem, from this, that one of them would have had time to teach Kate Winslet to spit.

FLYING HOME from Nova Scotia, the Titanic's wreck somewhere in the sea beneath me, I thought: the Titanic story is so embarnacled with metaphor and myth that it hardly matters whether Wallace Hartley played his hymn or not (for the sake of Colne, I hoped he had). There are much bigger lies. The first is that the ship was billed as "unsinkable". The great paradox of the Titanic is that it became unsinkable only after it sank, when White Star officials were anxious to counter early reports of the disaster. Previously the only reference in the company's publicity to "unsinkability" was a cautiously worded sentence in a 1910 brochure for the Olympic and the Titanic which said that "as far as it is possible to do so, these two wonderful vessels are designed to be unsinkable".

Nor was the Titanic a particularly fast ship - her older Cunard and German rivals were three or four knots faster. Nor, though she was briefly the largest ship afloat, was the Titanic staggeringly huge; only 1ft longer than her earlier sister, the Olympic, and significantly smaller than the German Imperator which went into Atlantic service later in the same year the Titanic went down.

But perhaps the largest untruth is in the hubris metaphor - in Cameron's words, that "mankind's faith in his own indomitable power was forever destroyed by uniquely human shortcomings: arrogance, complacency and greed". What in fact happened was that the lifeboat regulations were redrafted; ice patrols were introduced; hulls given a double lining of steel. Otherwise, Atlantic liners went on growing more luxurious, larger and swifter.

Hubris, if it had ever existed, was killed with the millions of names on the thousands of war memorials like the one in Colne. If it had ever existed, and - I thought, watching Titanic's director holding his final Oscar aloft and calling out "King of the World!" - if it has ever died.

ON 20 May 1999, a cruise liner, the Sun Vista, caught fire in the Strait of Malacca and slowly began to sink. More than 1,100 passengers and crew were taken off in lifeboats and other small craft. Ram Yalamanchi, a businessman from India, said: "It was a true nightmare. I thought we were all going to die. We were on one of the last lifeboats, we watched her [the ship] slip into the water. People were screaming and praying."

Many passengers sang to keep their spirits up. According to an Australian, Greg Haywood: "We were singing the Celine Dion song, 'My Heart Will Go On'."

This is an abridged version of Ian Jack's piece 'Leonardo's Grave', which appears in the new issue of 'Granta' magazine, 'Women and Children First', available now in bookshops for pounds 8.99, or direct from 'Granta' for pounds 6.99 - or free: 'Independent on Sunday' readers can subscribe to Granta for just pounds 21.95 (a 40 per cent discount), and get the new issue free. Phone or fax 'Granta' for details on FreeCall 0500 004 033

Captions: The 'Titanic' has long been a source of memorabilia as well as of myth. The collage opposite includes: Captain Edward Smith (centre, top); the ship's wireless operator (centre, below); and pictures of the ship's doomed band-members and officers (across the bottom)

The death of 'Titanic' bandleader Wallace Hartley (above) provoked an unprecedented outpourings of public grief. Yet his grave in Colne, Lancashire (left), is now largely forgotten

'Jack' Dawson (above), played a minor part in the original 'Titanic' drama. But thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio, his grave in Halifax, Nova Scotia (below), is now a shrine

Memorial to a vanished age: two stokers in bas-relief support the 'Titanic' memorial at Liverpool's Pierhead