WORDS OF THE WEEK
Saturday 11 January 1997
The narrator of Beryl Bainbridge's Every Man for Himself (published by Duckworth) is Morgan, the young nephew of the shipping line's owner, who sails on the Titanic's maiden voyage in April 1912. In this extract from the first chapter, he accompanies his friend Charlie Melchett on a trip around the new liner.
Melchett was keen on visiting E deck, mostly on account of a broad alleyway, known to the crew by the name of Scotland Road after some street in Liverpool, which ran the length of the vessel.
He had visited the northern city as a child, he eagerly told me, on the occasion of a horse running in his grandfather's colours in the Grand National steeplechase. I did tell him, knowledgeable as I was in regards to plumbing in the steerage accommodation, that it was unlikely he would find the thoroughfare thronged with race-horses, but he was adamant.
We duly descended by elevator and roamed up and down a tiled corridor intersected by iron staircases leading to working departments of indescribable dullness. Melchett, trying hard to remain animated, wilted.
"What is the point," he complained, "of giving names to places that bear no resemblance to the past?"
"The point is," I stressed, "that they draw attention to the the origin of the reference. Think of Waterloo station." After which exchange we fortunately encountered a young seaman who was persuaded to conduct us over the lower decks. Reluctant at first, then swayed by the promise of a generous tip, he led us below.
Though stunted in growth, his eyes shone with intelligence. He said his name was Riley and his home town Liverpool, where he lived with his "Mam" and five siblings. Considerably bucked at the coincidence, Melchett boasted he knew the town quite well. "My grandfather,'he said,"owned a horse that finished second in the Grand National of 1901 ... I can't for the life of me remember its name."
"Me Dad," replied Riley, "had a donkey called Dickey-Sam that pulled a rag and bone cart." Melchett said that was interesting, and turned pink again. Apart from a certain casualness of manner Riley proved to be the best of guides, for though the English he spoke could have benefited from an interpreter his knowledge of the ship was profound and his appreciation infectious. On F deck, starboard side, beneath which the main engines were housed, he delivered a lecture on their capacity and capabilities. The vessel, I understood him to inform us, was powered by two four-cylinder, triple expansion, reciprocating steam engines. Each could deliver 15,000 horsepower at 75 revolutions, producing a speed of 21 knots. Aft of these, a low-pressure turbine recycled steam from the main engines to drive the three propellers. He was wrong in this last assumption, in that it was only the central propeller that was thus driven, but I held my tongue.
"There's also four 400 kilowatt steam-powered generators," he said, "with dynamos capable of providing enough electricity to work the machinery controlling the winches, cranes, passenger and service lifts, heaters, cookers, water-tight doors, the internal telephone exchange and the Marconi wireless set to a range of 350 miles. It can go further at night," he concluded. "Though I'm buggered if I know why." Melchett, shamelessly taking advantage of his enthusiasm, pressed to be allowed a glimpse of such wonders. A glimpse was all we got; barely a minute after we reached G deck and Riley had dragged back the iron door of Number 1 engine room we were approached by an assistant engineer and ordered about our business. Brief as the moment had been, we had nonetheless clearly seen the awesome monster rearing on splayed legs from the glittering avenue below, its gigantic head vibrating inside its steel helmet, its thunderous intestines of lubricated pistons and crank-shafts pounding and pumping in perpetual motion.
Riley was sent packing. I'm ashamed to say neither Melchett nor I put in a word for him, nor was there time to palm him his tip. Escorted by the engineer, we were returned by twists and turns and much tapping up of metal stairs to E deck, where, after sternly reminding us that unauthorised explorations of engine and boiler rooms were against company safety rules, he left us.
I could have told him who I was and put him in his place but was loath to puncture his sense of self-importance, having had my own pricked on numerous occasions, and with more cause, by my Uncle Morgan.
Melchett and I remained silent while we continued our inspection of the ship, and when it was done and we had sunk into the leather armchairs in the foyer of A deck we still had no words.
It wasn't the lavish furnishings of the public rooms, the doors inlaid with mother of pearl, the panelled corridors of oak and maple, the shimmer of gilt and brass and cut glass that made us catch our breath, anymore than the twenty-one-light candelabra hung from the massive dome above the sweep of that imperial staircase.
We had spent our lives in splendid houses and grand hotels and for us there was nothing new under the sun, nothing that is, in the way of opulence; it was the sublime thermodynamics of the Titanic's marine engineering that took us by the throat. Dazzled, I was thinking that 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.
I don't know what Melchett was thinking, beyond he was pale and his left knee was bouncing up and down as though in imitation of those connecting rods oscillating below the water line.
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