The Man & The Boat
As the publication of ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ gets nearer (it’s still not until October), I’m reminded that I had to leave out of it as much as I put in. Here’s one little story that I was forced to set aside, although if the book is a success perhaps it will enter a second volume.
A legendary ship came to dominate Walter Lord’s entire writing career. Walter Lord was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1917. When he was ten he persuaded his family to cross the Atlantic from New York to Southampton on ‘Old Reliable’, the RMS Olympic, a sister ship to the Titanic, and he prowled the deck trying to imagine such a vast vessel sinking. The journey was to have a profound effect on him.
Lord’s college studies were cut short by a stint in the American intelligence service in England following the attack on Pearl Harbour, and he headed for New York, where he became a copywriter at J Walter Thompson. His writing career began late and his choice of a debut book was ‘The Fremantle Diary’, edited from the journals of a British officer and Confederate sympathizer. But it was Lord’s second book that made him famous beyond his death in 2002.
‘A Night To Remember’ became more than just an account of the Titanic’s fatal journey – it’s still the definitive resource book on the subject. Lord spoke with scores of survivors, rescuers and others intimately connected with the disaster. The finished work feels more like a thriller as it depicts events through the eyes of different passengers, instead of following a linear chronology. The narratives overlap to produce a mosaic of the trip that’s truly involving, with the thoughts and hopes of the participants described beside the physical details.
Lord was able to do this because he’d had direct contact with those who lived through that night, and so gained personal insight into the event. The Titanic had been mythologized from the moment it sank – the streets were quickly awash with sheet music, pottery, souvenir napkins, bad poems, badges and all manner of ephemera – but Lord brought a new kind of writing to his impassioned account, described as ‘a kind of literary pointillism, the arrangement of contrasting bits of fact and emotion in such a fashion that a vividly real impression of an event is conveyed to the reader.’
The style is still in evidence today, with books like Sebastian Unger’s ‘The Perfect Storm’. In 1958 the classic British film version starred Kenneth More and remains the finest account of the event. Lord wrote a Titanic sequel, ‘The Night Lives On’, which fills in many of the details and busts a few myths.