The Man & The Boat

London, The Arts


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.

A Night to Remember (10)

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.


4 comments on “The Man & The Boat”

  1. Chris Webb says:

    “the streets were quickly awash with sheet music, pottery, souvenir napkins, bad poems, badges and all manner of ephemera”

    More proof that the past is a different country. These days that would be regarded as so tasteless it just wouldn’t happen.

    In the mid-1990s I went to an exhibition at the National Maritime Museum of Titanic artefacts which had recently been brought up. It included pieces of the ship itself as well as items belonging to the passengers and crew. Interesting in a way but my overwhelming impression was that all the items really belonged at the bottom of the sea where they had been for nearly a century, and that bringing them up was a sort of desecration

  2. Chris Webb says:

    On the subject of bad poems, I found this:

    Obviously not written by the great man himself as he died in 1902.

  3. linda ayres says:

    Titanic was the first disaster that prompted a ‘charity’ single. Makes a good question when compiling pub/church quizzes.
    I have been fascinated by her for many many years and yes it was A Night to Remember the film that originally sparked that interest.
    Totally agree with Christ Webb all those items should remain with her at the bottom of the ocean, and that includes the section of her hull that is on display in Las Vegas…ok getting off my soap box now.

  4. Vincent C says:

    Delighted to hear there is the potential for a second volume of The Book Of Forgotten Authors. I enjoyed Invisible Ink enormously and am looking forward to The Book Of Forgotten Authors, perhaps the start of a whole new series!

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