I guess that I risk putting people off reading further if I mention that this post refers to Titanic. There has, after all, been so much written and broadcast over the past weeks about the event as we mark its hundredth anniversary. But bear with me as, in this case, Titanic is the beginning rather than the end of the story.
On Saturday, I was lucky enough to attend a conference about the Titanic at the National Archives in Kew. I’m not entirely sure what initially prompted me to go. I think it started with the fact that one of my London walking tours includes a stop at the home of someone who perished on board; and that set me thinking about how little I know of this historic event other than what I gleaned from the James Cameron film in the 1990s.
So, stirred by the desire to address my woeful ignorance, along I went. I was, by several orders of magnitude, the most ill-informed person in the room; so I certainly got my money’s worth in terms of learning. All the speakers were superb and shed light on different aspects of the tragedy, often in stark contrast to some of the bland and hackneyed media coverage.
One session focussed in particular on film and print portrayals of those events of April 1912. I won’t attempt to recap in full the engaging and insightful presentation, but what came across most forcibly is the way in which so many of these portrayals variously demonised or turned into heroes some of the protagonists in the incident, such as Smith (who captained the vessel) or Ismay (the owner of the shipping company).
Viewed objectively, this is actually quite shocking. These are not fictitious characters in some fantasy film, or in the latest soap opera. These were real people in terrifying circumstances, living real-world lives and today having very real descendants. It is tempting to think that this demonisation or hero-worship is a modern phenomenon, but actually it started very early on, even in some of the early press reports in the aftermath of the disaster.
One of the reasons we study history is to establish what it can teach us about today, and I think there is a salutary lesson here. How often in today’s media coverage of an event are complex individuals boiled down to two-dimensional selfless superheroes or pantomime villains; and how often do today’s heroes get knocked down next week to become the villanous bad guys? And, before we simply blame the media, can we put our own hands on our hearts and say we don’t do the same thing ourselves – with work colleagues who seem to oppose our plans, with politicians who frustrate us, or perhaps with neighbours who annoy us?
The German writer Rilke once said, in his Letters to a Young Poet:
“How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us. ”
My own experience tells me that, except in fantasy, unqualified heroes and villains rarely exist. Perhaps if we can try to see the princess in the dragon, as well as the goblin in the chivalrous knight on horseback, then we will go some way towards learning one of the key lessons that history teaches us.