Filson Young

Filson Young: The first media man (1876-1938), by Silvester Mazzarella

Table of contents

19. “Titanic”

Concerned though he was in April 1912 over the impending execution of Frederick Seddon, Filson reacted quickly to the Titanic disaster. After commenting on it in the Pall Mall Gazette on April 17, he wrote a long reflective piece (‘God and Titan’) for the Saturday Review (62) and got in touch with Grant Richards. Here at last was a superb subject for a book, if only he could get in with it before anyone else did! He had a head start in that his mind had been running on related matters even before the Titanic set out on her fatal maiden voyage. As recently as March there had been two collisions in the English Channel, in one of which the liner Oceana had sunk with considerable loss of life. Filson had twice appealed in his Pall Mall Gazette column for a proper enquiry into these events, stating that the only way to avoid such disasters was for all ships not only to carry wireless but to make proper use of it – one of the biggest questions to be asked later was why the small liner Californian, the nearest ship to the Titanic when she sank and in a position to save most (perhaps all) of her passengers and crew, did not respond to the stricken ship’s radio distress signals. Filson had also happened to see the Titanic under construction in Belfast in the summer of 1911, and he knew two of the passengers who did not survive her doomed maiden voyage: the multi-millionaire J.J.Astor, whom he had met in New York in 1909, and Christopher Head, a member of Lloyd’s and former Mayor of Chelsea. Grant Richards himself lost a friend and former mentor in the famous journalist W.T.Stead, whose assistant he had been for several years before setting up on his own as a publisher. And one of Richards’ authors, the American novelist Theodore Dreiser, would have sailed home on the ill-fated ship had Richards not succeeded in persuading him to save money by taking a smaller and older one.

As soon as the news of the disaster came through Richards and Filson started to make plans, walking together ‘in the park’ as though afraid the walls of their rooms had been bugged by rivals anxious to steal their ideas (63). Filson was to write flat out while Richards fed him with newspapers and undertook to get the resulting book on the bookstalls within fourteen days of the manuscript leaving Filson’s hands. Everything would be kept secret until the book was nearly ready, when Richards would spend a hundred pounds on advertising it. Nor was this instant book to be a shoddy product: Richards commissioned Norman Wilkinson – though he was not one of Filson’s favourite marine artists (see p xxx above) – to paint a frontispiece, while a private messenger hurried backwards and forwards between author and publisher with proofs and other material. By May 8 Richards had the completed manuscript in his hands – a little over 30,000 words – and the book came out on schedule on May 22, only thirty-seven days after the Titanic sank, in hard covers with a view of the ship steaming full ahead embossed in gold on the front. This sort of pressured work, rather than being nagged to get on with books he didn’t want to write, was what Filson thrived on. Everything fell into place: he had a splendid story and full scope for his talents as reporter, prose stylist, writer on sea subjects and novelist. He missed a week in the Saturday Review, but apart from that didn’t even lay his other work aside. While writing Titanic he still found time to chat daily to his Pall Mall Gazette readers about doodling while talking on the telephone; the phrasing of parliamentary bills; the practical nature of imagination; the importance of ritual; down-and-outs sharing the spring weather with the babies of the rich in Hyde Park; whether a coal miners’ strike was sufficient excuse for the railways to make permanent cuts in their services; whether the Royal Academy was bad for contemporary art; and whether tight skirts made women knock-kneed. There was also the ‘pathetic little tragedy’ of an airman who disappeared unnoticed on a flight while the drama surrounding the Titanic was at its height.

Filson’s Titanic doesn’t read like a rushed job, and to this day his speculations about the feel of daily life on board are frequently used in new books and films on the subject. The first half of the book, concentrating on events before the collision with the iceberg, is imaginative re-creation of a high order. But not everything was imagined; few other commentators could have seen the ship building in Harland & Wolff’s yard in Belfast:

In this awful womb the Titanic took shape. For months and months in that monstrous iron enclosure there was nothing that had the faintest likeness to a ship; only something that might have been the scaffolding for the naves of half-a-dozen cathedrals laid end to end. Far away, furnaces were smelting thousands and thousands of tons of raw material that finally came to this place in the form of great girders and vast lumps of metal, huge framings, hundreds of miles of stays and rods and straps of steel, thousands of plates, not one of which twenty men could lift unaided; millions of rivets and bolts – all the heaviest and most sinkable things in the world. And still nothing in the shape of a ship that could float upon the sea. The seasons followed each other, the sun rose now behind the heights of Carrickfergus and now behind the Copeland Islands; daily the ships came in from fighting with the boisterous seas, and the two gray horses (64) cantered beside them as they slid between the islands; daily the endless uproar went on, and the tangle of metal beneath the cathedral scaffolding grew denser. A great road of steel, nearly a quarter of a mile long, was laid at last – a road so heavy and so enduring that it might have been built for the triumphal progress of some giant railway train. Men said that this roadway was the keel of a ship; but you could not look at it and believe them. (65)

The massive ship was more like a town than a single object. A classic Greek-tragedy situation was in the making:

From the staircase forward the deck houses are devoted to apartments which are still by force of habit called cabins, but which have nothing in fact to distinguish them from the most luxurious habitations ashore, except that no dust ever enters them and that the air is always fresh from the open spaces of the sea. They are not for the solitary traveller; but our friend perhaps is curious and peeps in through an uncurtained window. There is a complete habitation with bedrooms, sitting-room, bath-room and service-room complete.They breathe an atmosphere of more than mechanical luxury, more than material pleasures. Twin bedsteads, perfect examples of Empire or Louis Seize, symbolize the romance to which the most extravagant luxury in the world is but a minister. Instead of ports there are windows – windows that look straight out on to the blue sea, as might the windows of a castle on a cliff. Instead of stoves or radiators there are open grates, where fires of sea-coal are burning brightly. Every suite is in a different style, and each and all are designed and furnished by artists; and the love and repose of millionaires can be celebrated in surroundings of Adam or Hepplewhite, or Louis Quatorze or the Empire, according to their tastes. And for the hire of each of these theatres the millionaire must pay some two hundred guineas a day, with privilege of being quite alone, cut off from the common herd who are only paying perhaps five-and-twenty pounds a day, and with the privilege, if he chooses, of seeing nothing at all that has to do with a ship, not even the sea.

For there is one thing that the designers of this sea-palace seem to have forgotten and seem to be a little ashamed of – and that is the sea itself. (66)

Filson’s re-creation of the voyage clearly draws on his own recent experiences of trans-Atlantic travel:

There is no human experience in which the phenomena of small varieties within one large monotony are so clearly exemplified as in a sea-voyage. The dreary beginnings of docks, of baggage, and soiled harbour water; the quite hopeless confusion of strange faces – faces entirely collective, comprising a mere crowd; the busy highway of the Channel, sunlit or dim with mist and rain, or lighted and bright at night like the main street of a city; the last outpost, the Lizard, with its high gray cliffs, green-roofed, with tiny homesteads perched on the ridge; or Ushant, that tall monitory tower upstanding on the melancholy misty flats; or the solitary Fastnet, lonely, ultimate and watching – these form the familiar overture to the subsequent isolation and vacancy of the long road itself. There are the same day and night of disturbance, the vacant places at table, the prone figures, swathed and motionless in deck-chairs, the morning of brilliant sunshine, when the light that streams into the cabins has a vernal strangeness and wonder for town-dimmed eyes; the gradual emergence of new faces and doubtful staggering back of the demoralized to the blessed freshness of the upper air; the tentative formation of groups and experimental alliances, the rapid disintegration of these and re-formation on entirely new lines; and then that miracle of unending interest and wonder, that the faces that were only the blurred material of a crowd begin one by one to emerge from the background and detach themselves from the mass, to take on identity, individuality, character, till what was a crowd of uninteresting, unidentified humanity becomes a collection of individual persons with whom one’s destinies for the time are strangely and unaccountably bound up; among whom one may have acquaintances, friends, or perhaps enemies; who for the inside of a week are all one’s world of men and women. (67)

The description of the collision with the iceberg and the events leading up to the sinking of the ship is less individual, since it necessarily leans heavily on the first newspaper reports based on interviews with the survivors in New York. Nonetheless Filson steers his way skilfully between the opposite pitfalls of too literal reproduction of disconnected accounts and fanciful literary speculation:

The end, when it came, was as gradual as everything else had been since the first impact. Just as there was no one moment at which everyone in the ship realized that she had suffered damage; just as there was no one moment when the whole of her company realized they must leave her; just as there was no one moment when all in the ship understood that their lives were in peril, and no moment when they all knew she must sink; so there was no one moment when those left on board could have said, ‘She is gone.’ At one moment the floor of the bridge, where the Captain stood, was awash; the next a wave came along and covered it with four feet of water, in which the Captain was for a moment washed away, although he struggled back and stood there again, up to his knees in water. ‘Boys, you can do no more,’ he shouted, ‘look out for yourselves!’ Standing near him was a fireman and – strange juxtaposition – two unclaimed solitary little children, scarce more than babies. The fireman seized one in his arms, the Captain another; another wave came and they were afloat in deep water, striking out over the rail of the bridge away from the ship.

The slope of the deck increased, and the sea came washing up against it as waves wash against a steep shore. And then that helpless mass of humanity was stricken at last with the fear of death, and began to scramble madly aft, away from the chasm of water that began creeping up and up the decks. Then a strange thing happened. They who had been waiting to sink into the sea found themselves rising into the air as the slope of the decks grew steeper. Up and up, dizzily high out of reach of the dark waters into which they had dreaded to be plunged, higher and higher into the air, towards the stars, the stern of the ship rose slowly right out of the water, and hung there for a time that is estimated variously between two and five minutes; a terrible eternity to those who were still clinging. Many, thinking the end had come, jumped; the water resounded with splash after splash as the bodies, like mice shaken out of a trap into a bucket, dropped into the water. All who could do so laid hold of something; rope, stanchions, deck-houses, mahogany doors, window-frames, anything, and so clung on while the stern of the giant ship reared itself towards the sky. Many had no hold, or lost the hold they had, and these slid down the steep smooth decks, as people slide down a water chute into the sea. (68)

The moral was one Greek playwrights more than two thousand years before had considered central to human life: that if success and prosperity lead us to think ourselves superhuman, then, as sure as day follows night, nemesis will strike and destroy us:

The Titanic was in more senses than one a fool’s paradise. There is nothing that man can build that nature cannot destroy, and far as he may advance in might and knowledge and cunning, her blind strength will always be more than his match. But men easily forget this; they wish to forget it; and the beautiful and comfortable and agreeable equipment of this ship helped them to forget it. You may cover the walls of a ship with rare woods and upholster them with tapestries and brocades, but it is the bare steel walls behind them on which you depend to keep out the water; it is the strength of those walls, relatively to the strength of such natural forces as may be arrayed against them, on which the safety of the ship depends. If they are weaker than something which assails them, the water must come in and the ship must sink. It was assumed too readily that, in the case of the Titanic, these things could not happen; it was assumed too readily that if in the extreme event they did happen, the manifold appliances for saving life would be amply sufficient for the security of the passengers. Thus they lived in a serene confidence such as no ship’s company ever enjoyed before, or will enjoy again for a long time to come. And there were gathered about them almost all those necessities of material life which are necessary to the paradise of fools, and are extremely agreeable to wiser men.

It was this perfect serenity of their condition which made so poignant the tragedy of their sudden meeting with death – that pale angel whom every man knows that he must some day encounter, but whom most of us hope to find at the end of some road a very long way off waiting for us with comforting and soothing hands. We do not expect to meet him suddenly turning the corner of the street, or in an environment of refined and elegant conviviality, or in the midst of our noonday activities, or at midnight on the high seas when we are dreaming on feather pillows. But it was thus that those on the Titanic encountered him, waiting there in the ice and the starlight, arresting the ship’s progress with his outstretched arm, and standing by, waiting, while the sense of his cold presence gradually sank like a frost into their hearts. (69)

Thus, on May 22 1912, a well-written and finely produced book by a well-known writer on the most topical subject of the moment – indeed, a subject that is still topical nearly a century later – reached the bookshops, probably the first book on the subject to appear. Both author and publisher had high hopes for it. It is still admired by many who have read it. But for some reason it never sold well.

Titanic was advertised less widely than earlier books like The Sands of Pleasure and Christopher Columbus; indeed, it was hardly advertised at all. This is odd, since Richards took so much trouble to get it produced in secrecy and at high speed, and since we know from his letters that he meant to spend a reasonable sum (for those days) on advertising it. Perhaps he found it difficult to raise the necessary hundred pounds in time. The same lack of cash flow may have accounted for so few of the leading papers reviewing it – most unusual with Filson’s books. Perhaps they simply never received review copies. But this doesn’t account for the fact that those who did review it couldn’t find much to say. The Daily News was uneasy in its admiration:

He does not judge; he does not give facts palpably very disputable, though it is impossible not to feel that some of his artfully selected details may disappear or be modified with fuller evidence. He makes no errors of accusation or extenuation. But the whole book has the subdued vulgarity of strenuous culture … He is a good man struggling with publicity … And yet, so sure is the author’s touch on the whole, so refined his sense of words, that this tour de force is an entirely absorbing narrative at the moment. It is only before and after reading it that our sense of decency revolts at the idea of applying such gifts as Mr Young’s to the exploitation of a grief which is as yet neither new nor old, neither a matter of historical fact nor the urgent emotion of the moment. (70)

This critic also condemned as vulgar Norman Wilkinson’s frontispiece showing the Titanic with her stern high in the air the moment before she sank; Richards too had felt this too sensational, but there was no time to get Wilkinson to do another (71). The warmest welcome came from the Pall Mall Gazette, to which of course Filson was a daily contributor:

It is a theme worthy of the Greek tragedians, and he has reached something of their grandeur by imitating their restraint. There is not a single appeal, tacit or express, to the emotions of sensation; there is no descent to indignity in thought or diction. All is sustained and directed to the nobler end of turning heroism to example, and making the calamity a tradition of fortitude and pity. Wherever men’s hearts have been stirred, this little book should go, for it is the eloquent vindication of patient women and brave men. (72)

This told the public what they wanted to believe by contributing to the popular myth of heroism and devotion to duty on the part of practically everyone on board. (73)

The fate of Filson’s Titanic highlights a dilemma which is still with us, though less of a problem at the beginning of the twenty-first century, when ‘fine writing’ is not in fashion. There is and apparently always has been a feeling that tragic events which have just happened should be reported in language stark in its simplicity, and that ‘literary’ diction and ‘poetic’ rhythms should be reserved for entirely personal writing and not used for ‘real’ events unless distant in space and time. Thus Filson’s book has gained respectability with the passing of years as the Titanic has receded from us. Another factor influencing this is that what he says in it has turned out to be substantially correct. He was not interested in weaving literary fantasies about a tragedy that had just occurred and affected many people, but made responsible use of such sources of information as were then available. But his first reviewers, reading the book within a few weeks of the disaster, could not be sure of this – for all they knew the facts might eventually turn out to be very different. One can understand their unease. How would readers in 2001 have reacted to a book-length account of the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York written in some modern stylistic equivalent of the passages quoted above from Filson’s Titanic? And if this book were well written and found to be substantially accurate, would we accept it more easily with the passage of time?

The story of the Titanic has had extraordinary power over people’s feelings and imaginations from the very first, and as we shall see in a later chapter, Filson contrived to give offence again twenty years later in 1932, when the BBC, having asked him to dramatise his book for radio, leaked their plans in advance to the press. The papers were scandalised: had Filson and the BBC not stopped to consider the feelings of the survivors and the bereaved? Back in 1912, even Richards’ postbag was negative. The Norddeutscher Lloyd company of Bremen were furious that Filson had – rightly – criticized their ship the Frankfurt for being slow in responding to the Titanic‘s distress signals, while someone wrote from South Africa offering to undertake what he assumed would be the ‘tedious job’ of translating the book into Dutch.

On May 15, his book finished, a month to the day after the Titanic disappeared beneath the Atlantic, Filson went to Southampton to watch her sister ship Olympic leave for America. He went on board and walked around, feeling very strongly the sense of unsinkability that had given false confidence to the passengers and crew of the Titanic. But he also noticed that the Olympic‘s lifeboats had been hastily supplemented by a fleet of collapsible dinghies. (74)


62 20 April 1912.

63 Grant Richards to FY, 19 April 1912.

64 bow waves.

65 Saturday Review 27 April 1912, reprinted in Titanic (1912), 12-13.

66 Titanic, 33-35.

67 Titanic, 41-43.

68 Titanic, 153-155.

69 Titanic, 192-194.

70 The Daily News and Leader, 30 May 1912.

71 On 24 October 1989 I showed a copy of Filson’s Titanic to Eva Hart, one of the last survivors old enough when the ship sank to remember the experience. She looked at Wilkinson’s much-criticised frontispiece and remarked calmly, ‘That’s exactly how it was.’

72 Pall Mall Gazette, 24 May 1912.

73 On the myth, see Marcus The Maiden Voyage (1969), especially Chapter 20.

74 ‘The Things That Matter’, Pall Mall Gazette, 16 May 1912.

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