It is the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic and we have had schmaltz, nostalgia, endless social commentaries about the elitism of death by drowning and along the line a bit of money made by the authors, programme makers, and general commentators. I’m guilty as charged.

But if you are looking for a sensible, expert and authoritative commentary about the circumstances of the loss of this notorious ship and why it is important to us in 21st century shipping, look no further. John Lang, the former Chief Inspector of the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch has published his take on the accident, and offers a fresh look at the evidence that was produced in the US and UK inquiries after the disaster and which tends to have coloured our thinking ever since.

What he has done, in a very readable fashion, is to effectively replace Lord Mersey, who, as the appointed Wreck Commissioner,  spent 37 days barking 26 questions at witnesses, with a modern accident investigator, whose mission was not to apportion blame but to discover the cause of the casualty, so that it need not be repeated.

The Titanic tragedy has acquired a whole legion of enthusiasts, who were out in force for the centenary, snapping up the products on offer and queuing up to attend the various events. Goodness, it has given Belfast (“the Titanic was fine when it left us”) a whole new tourist experience and Southampton a new maritime museum, so I shouldn’t mock them.

But this book is something else, showing in a clinical fashion how the thread of causation developed even while the ship was on its stocks, and as it was rushed into service with master and officers unfamiliar with their ship and her equipment. Lang follows the trail of failures that led the ship into that fateful coincidence of steel and ice off the Newfoundland Banks, and the deaths of so many people. He offers us explanations and lessons, not the “guilty men”.

What is special about this account is the way that the lessons of this casualty seem worryingly fresh in an era that still remembers the frightfulness of the Estonia and is still trying to digest the events off the Italian coast earlier this year. This is not a book that is accusatory or wallowing in the wisdoms of hindsight. The author approaches his task with humility and generosity. It really is a fresh look, that leaves us perhaps thinking of the lessons that it we should have taken aboard, as the decades ticked away. Get it in the US from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers or in the UK from Seafarer Books Ltd. Titanic – by John Lang is unlikely to be the last word, but it is the one steeped in sense and authority.

Author: Michael Grey         Source: claymaitland.com