Ian Jack's Notebook: The maritime disasters that sink without a trace

Some events in history are continually burnished and distorted by imaginative reconstruction; others lie deep in the fog of neglect. Some become metaphors, others don't. So, when a cruise ship and a freighter collided in the English Channel on Tuesday, with lots of damage but no loss of life, to which great maritime disaster did the survivors compare it? To the Titanic, of course. The word appeared in stories and headlines. "I really feared another Titanic ... it was just like a scene out of the Titanic movie ... the noise was just like the Titanic."

Nobody said: "It vividly reminded me of the Empress of Ireland." How could they? In most of the world, the Empress of Ireland was forgotten only months after she went down, and yet more passengers died than were lost from the Titanic and she was, like the Titanic, a British liner on a transatlantic voyage.

The only reason I know of the Empress of Ireland is a song I once heard my father sing. "Picture the Empress just out of the West, bound for Old England's shore/ Full of some sport/From some foreign port/ da di da di da... ever more." He'd heard it as boy just before the First World War. It was a hit in the summer of 1914.

The disaster which happened on the night of 28 May that year bears several similarities to Tuesday's near-disaster in the English Channel: a large passenger ship in collision with a heavily-loaded freighter on a calm night in a busy seaway. On Tuesday it was the Norwegian-owned liner, Norwegian Dream, and the container ship, Ever Decent, ramming each other 20 miles north-east of Margate. In 1914, it was the Canadian Pacific line's Empress of Ireland and the Norwegian collier Storstad in the placid waters of the St Lawrence.

The Empress had left Quebec 10 hours before, bound for Liverpool with more than 1,000 passengers and a crew of 420. The Storstad was steaming in the other direction with 11,000 tons of coal bound for Montreal. The Empress saw the Storstad's lights. Then a fog came down. The Empress stopped and the Storstad hit her amidships. Within 14 minutes the Empress capsized and sank. A survivor noted that a screaming mass of men, women and children struggled in the water, "as thick as bees". Of the 1,477 people on board, 1,012 died - fewer than the Titanic's 1,500 dead two years before, though the toll of passengers was higher, 840 as against the Titanic's 807. Of the 138 children on board, only four survived.

The dead drowned well within sight of land, but also too quickly for the necessary stories of heroism and self-sacrifice to be constructed. The press scratched around for famous names. One of the dead, Sir Henry Seton-Kerr ("sportsman and traveller"), was said to have given away his lifebelt to a Merton Darling of Shanghai: "Go on, man, take it, I'll try to get another." Mr Darling, however, later denied that such an offer had been made. As with the Titanic, examples of bad behaviour - panic, lifeboat-rushing - were drawn from "foreigners", in this case Russians, Poles, Ukranians, Italians. That so many of the British crew survived was not a highlight of the coverage.

Still, a great tragedy. Why has it become so obscure? A clue lies in the letter which was found in the pocket of Sir Henry's dinner jacket - he died in evening dress - when his body was later recovered. It was a letter of introduction, bearing testimony to Sir Henry's character, signed by Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary. Nine weeks or so later Grey was the man who observed that the lamps were going out all over Europe, that we would not see them lit again in his lifetime.

The fate of Sir Henry must then have been far from his mind, as in the popular mind, by the end of 1914, was the fate of the 1,011 others who died in the St Lawrence, a tragedy sunk to the bottom of history, as it were, by a far graver one.

The reason that I know the detail of this is that I've been researching a piece about the Titanic and "British" behaviour for a piece in the new issue of Granta magazine. After the Titanic sank, it was important to retrieve stories from the wreckage which exemplified the "white man's code" - God, King and country, women and children and first - in what George Bernard Shaw called "an explosion of outrageous romantic lying".

The need hasn't died out. This week, scanning the interviews culled from the 1,700 passengers landed at Dover from the the Norwegian Dream, I came across Ned Snyder, 68, of California, who said: "We were served a full cooked breakfast and English tea as we sailed back to Dover, which we thought was terribly British."

This was a popular quote used in most newspapers. The nationality of the stewards calmly serving the breakfast was not described. The Norwegian Dream is owned in Oslo and registered in the Bahamas. Her passengers were mainly American. The Ever Decent is owned in Taiwan and registered in Panama. Her 16 crew were mainly Taiwanese. How to draw from these un- pliant facts of nationality (and UK maritime decline) a residual example of sound British behaviour?

Step forward ye bacon, egg and fried bread of Old England. See how they lie so calmly on their plates. Observe the Earl Grey so steadfastly refusing to leave its cup and make a run for the lifeboats. Then note the cowardly croissant - au secours! la mer est froide! etc - crumbling with fear. This is our heritage: a pork sausage with a stiff upper lip, waiting on the bridge till the sea laps over him.

A branch of London's Groucho Club opened in Glasgow on Thursday. Who cares? The Groucho Club is usually referred to as "Soho's media watering- hole" and as Glasgow contains media and drinkers, with a heavier tradition of both than Soho can muster, the only surprise can be that it wasn't the other way around: Glasgow club opens London branch. When I worked on Glasgow newspapers in the 1960s, the only place to go after hours was the Press Club, which was tucked away up a stair like a speakeasy and you half expected the whisky to come in teapots. As with the Groucho, the ratio of "media" folk to other riffraff present was about one to three. You might meet a sub-editor from the Daily Express, having a drink after a hard night subbing the fish prices, but you were just as likely to stumble into a butcher, a bookie, or fuddled city councillor. The person not to meet, as I remember, was an old soldier from the Daily Record whose question at one in the morning was always: "Hey youse, would ye fight for Scotland then?" (No placatory answer possible. "No" meant cowardice. "Yes" meant a slow look up and down your weedy frame and derision at the possibility).

But that was then. Now Glasgow, according to the London papers, is changed utterly. "Groucho club sets seal of metropolitan chic on Glasgow," said a headline above a report which suggested that perceptions of the city stemming from its "gauche past" (shipbuilding, razor gangs) would now be finally erased. It would be, perhaps, the last stage in Glasgow's successful struggle to reinvent itself as the "creative" centre of Scotland, Edinburgh having the administration and politics.

I wonder about this "reinvention" business. I've always liked Glasgow and I admire the way it has kept national and even international attention with its campaigns and awards: The European City of Culture in 1990, the European City of Architecture and Design this year. Look to Liverpool, which has or had a similar stock of vitality and fine architecture, for the contrast. On the other hand, no amount of modern cultural enterprise - exhibitions, concerts, vodka slammers, frock shops, doormen dressed in black with headsets - can disguise the demographic fact that Glasgow is a city in decline, its population shrinking steadily to the same size as Edinburgh's when once it was twice as large.

This month, on a day trip to the city from a holiday in the Firth of Clyde, I surprised myself by seeing it, for the first time, as wan and depressing. It may be the City of Architecture, but there are shrubs growing from some of its grandest buildings, abandoned by the Post Office and the church. The streets were emptier than I remembered them. Every bank is a bar (as one of its best schools has also become). We went for a meal in a "Mackintosh tearoom" - not original (Mackintosh tearooms seem to be a franchise) - and looked at the girls buying jeans in Versace, which is said to be the busiest such outlet in northern Europe. If you had never visited before, and arrived by parachute on a sunny day, you might well be taken with it.

But come in the back way, by train from Wemyss Bay, through the hinterland of Greenock, Port Glasgow and Paisley and then across the bridge over the empty river, and Glasgow will seem like a bright crust of consumerism hanging on for dear life. To have a memory of the former purpose and busy- ness of these places is a curse. Best not to have one: to leave history unreconstructed, as so many real survivors of real disasters usually want.