Nobs and the rabble, all in the same boat

EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF by Beryl Bainbridge Duckworth pounds 14.99
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Beryl Bainbridge's marvellous new novel chronicles the Titanic's fatal maiden voyage in April 1912. This colossal floating palace, the biggest vessel in the world, was deemed unsinkable. Morgan, the 22-year- old narrator, nephew of the owner of the shipping line, is no stranger to splendour: "For us there was nothing new under the sun, nothing, that is, in the way of opulence." But the ship's engines are another matter, inspiring hubristic speculation: "If the fate of man was connected to the order of the universe, and if one could equate the scientific workings of the engines with just such a reciprocal universe, why then, nothing could go wrong with my world." When the Titanic hit an iceberg four days out into the Atlantic, 1,500 people drowned. Morgan survived to know unease, guilt and a sense of dishonour at his very survival.

The novel opens deceptively, presenting what seems a pastiche of Conan Doyle or even Buchan. On a spring morning in Manchester Square, an unknown man dies in the narrator's arms, passing onto him a photograph of an Oriental lady. A couple of days later, and Morgan is breakfasting by Southampton Docks. Across the room are three people only, a swarthy foreigner, a beautiful distraught woman and a scar-faced, smooth-talking fellow. On board they meet, mingle and are party to alarming coincidences; clues are thinly scattered and mysteries unravel with the logic of dreams. Indeed, the whole book has a chimerical effect. Half a dozen characters occupy the foreground; others shift in and out of focus, flirting, gossiping, linked in a danse macabre against their glittering backdrop.

Morgan joins in the manic conviviality. He is often drunk. His head hurts. Snatches of conversation, remembered precepts, prefigured cries of terror bombinate about his skull. He is looking for a direction in life, questioning his uncle's maxim that "a man has two reasons for the thing he does, a good one and the real one". He has brushed with Marxism and has a wavering sympathy for the underprivileged, derived partly from his own, only half- revealed, origins. None the less the passengers in steerage remain faceless, huddled masses and he has no qualms in insulting members of the crew who may seem to step out of line.

Bainbridge's last book, The Birthday Boys, celebrated and lamented an ideal of masculinity, a way of being and seeing, which ended with the First World War. Here she examines another side of that society, the entrenched social attitudes of the upper classes, the snobbery of the wealthy, their small excoriating unkindnesses. The great ship itself forms a metaphor for society, with its reserved upper decks, its rejection of the steerage class who may be viewed with condescension from above as they whoop and swoop through Highland reels. Just after the collision comes an especially Breughelian glimpse of the rabble: "Coming to the starboard rail I looked down on to the well of the third class recreation area; there were chunks of ice spilling and sliding in every direction, all shapes and sizes, glittering under the light of the foremast. Steerage passengers, most in their ragged night-clothes, were chucking it at each other as though playing snowballs". Very soon, the rich young Englishman with "nothing to do save ride round the family estate with a gun under his arm, waiting for his father to die" and the black-faced stoker and the young mother "carrying an infant, a shawl over her breast, the tiny fingers of the child caught like a brooch in the wool" are in the same boat for good and all.

Bainbridge does not attempt to assign blame for the catastrophe and its aftermath. "We was just going too fast and not heeding the ice warnings," says one of the crew. The ship should not have been allowed to sail in the first place; one of its bunkers was on fire in Southampton and continued to blaze throughout the voyage, diverting manpower from other tasks. The technicalities of releasing the lifeboats led to delay and the immense drop meant that some of them could only be partly occupied for fear of rupture. The size of the ship also made for communication problems, so that many people were unaware of their acute danger until too late. There are no conclusions beyond those which speak for themselves.

Despite its lavish setting, its sharp and satisfying dialogue and its decent, youthful narrator, this is a much bleaker book than The Birthday Boys. There Bainbridge presented heroism, gallantry, aspiration and comradeship. Here too there is heroism, but there is also complacency, greed and cynicism; every man for himself in a Ship of Fools. The exquisite pacing of the narrative, the hints of foreboding, the stunning descriptions of the cataclysm itself build up a tragedy, not of the individual, but of warped, muddled, perverse humanity. The sense of desolation is so great that the eventual approach of the rescuing ship Carpathia seems almost an irrelevance, jauntily corporeal in the hallucinatory world of the ice floes, the flotsam and the tiny boats of the survivors.