It was the late, great Walter Lord who famously described the sinking of the Titanic as being something like the last night in the life of a small town. As with so many of Lord’s beautifully wrought descriptions and quotes, it was a phrase that has stayed with me over the decades since I first read it in A Night to Remember.
And, lately, I have come to understand that the phrase is even truer than was at first apparent to me. For the Titanic disaster was, indeed, very akin to the last night of a small town.
The town in question being Pompeii.
Pray consider a set of coincidences and circumstances, a series of threads that bind the two events so tightly together, that it almost seems as if they have been stitched into one ageless parable.
Both Titanic and Pompeii catered to a relative few in surroundings of extreme, pampered luxury. The Roman coastal city was nothing less than a kind of first century precursor to Las Vegas; a resort built to cater to-and for- the pleasure, ease and indulgence of the ruling classes. Awash with wine, wallowing in orgies, and with a surfeit of fine dining, entertainment and indulgence, they relied for their subsistence upon both a compliant middle class, and a functioning underclass of slaves, serfs and servants to maintain their sense of gilded ease and prosperity.
The Titanic was exactly the same, at least in first class. Not for nothing was she nicknamed the ‘Floating Ritz’ by the author, Joseph Conrad. That term, intended by it’s creator to be derisory, actually came to sum up all of that doomed, gilded magnificence quite accurately over the course of time.
Far down below decks, hordes of toiling stokers worked back breaking, four hour shifts at a time, ingesting vast amounts of blinding, choking coal dust, even as the likes of the Astors, the Duff Gordons and the Wideners feasted on caviar and quaffed perfectly chilled champagne just a few decks above them.
Both Pompeii and Titanic went about their respective ways in blithe disregard of scarily adjacent natural hazards. The inhabitants of Pompeii literally played, whored and partied in the very shadow of the looming, smouldering bulk of Mount Vesuvius. On board the westbound Titanic, one ice warning after another was shrugged off and put aside with almost breathtaking indifference, as first class passengers struggled with the daily grind of swimming, taking the air, and enduring nightly, marathon ten course dinners that were the equal of any ancient Imperial Roman feast.
Town and ocean liner alike exuded an air of self satisfied, almost gilded permanence that seemed to overpower the normal, sensible faculties of even the most savvy of souls. An air of faux invincibility permeated both the streets of Pompeii and the plush, first class passageways aboard Titanic like some kind of awful sleeping sickness. And, when disaster duly befell both, there was some surprisingly similar reactions from those caught up in both dramas.
Nature took out these twin monuments to human vanity with almost effortless ease. With fire in the case of Pompeii, and ice in that of Titanic. The steel grey, slowly reddening slops of Mount Vesuvius found an awful counterpoint centuries later, in the shape of the black, waterlogged iceberg; the implacable salt water assassin that punched, gouged and ripped open about a third of the hull plating of the Titanic.
Reaction to imminent doom ran the gamut in both situations, from nonchalance through to nervousness, to total, abject denial. Viewed from the crowded streets of Pompeii, the clouds of noxious, slowly rising ash and creeping molten lava seemed to be miles and miles away, as indeed they were at first. Aboard Titanic, very few passengers could at first be coaxed into the lifeboats. The first boat to be lowered-Number Seven-had seats for seventy, but contained just twenty-seven people. That seventy foot drop, down from floodlit ship and onto a pitch black freezing ocean, was for the most part the catalyst behind that initial reluctance to leave the apparent warmth and safety of those brilliantly lit upper decks.
Yet both ash cloud and icy ocean encroached on their respective prey with an awful, unstoppable certainty. In Roman city streets and on promenade decks in mid ocean alike, fear and uncertainty rose like a slowly surging tidal wave of numb, barely checked disbelief and terror.
For the horrified citizens flooding the darkening streets of Pompeii, the sea offered the only realistic avenue of escape. Just as it did to the huddled throngs milling about on the boat deck of the Titanic all those centuries later. And, ultimately, it was the sea that would deny salvation to the great majority of people in both cases.
In the case of Pompeii, a tsunami triggered at the same time as the eruption of Vesuvius negated any hopes of a safe evacuation, even for a few. And, as it happened, there were pitifully few rescue boats available in any event.
Aboard the Titanic, a damning lack of lifeboats meant that most of her terrified human cargo would ultimately be upended into a darkened, freezing ocean several hundred miles away from the nearest land. And, while the Titanic carried more than enough life jackets for everybody on board her, it was that same, freezing water temperature that killed most within minutes. Some of those lost that night died without even getting their heads wet.
The destruction of both Pompeii and Titanic echoed down through the ages as twin, salutary lessons against placing too much faith in the limits of human ingenuity. And, eventually, the rediscovery of each would generate a tidal wave of awed, retrospective musings. Indeed, this piece is just such the latest example.
Today, the stunted Doric columns of excavated, exhumed Pompeii glint eerily in the mid day, Neopolitan sunshine. The entire place looks- and, indeed, feels-like a sixty-six hectare theme park that died screaming. Two and a half miles down in the fast, frozen darkness of the Atlantic, the shattered corpse of Titanic sprawls across the ocean floor like some gigantic, wrecked skyscraper.
The booms of her cargo cranes lay folded across her forecastle like the limbs of some long dead pharaoh, frozen in both time and space. They find an echo in the ruts left in Pompeii streets to this day by the passage of hundreds of chariot wheels as they clattered through the humid, hectic splay of the summertime resort city. On Titanic, the giant, eight ton port and starboard side anchors still hulk in their recesses, looking like huge, moss covered tombstones in a vast, underwater cemetery. The ship is a torn, jumbled, completely humbled cathedral of the dead.
Pompeii. Titanic. Separated by centuries, but wedded eternally in a state of violent death. Deaths so overwhelming and implausible, ruin so epic and complete that it hid each from view for years while, at the same time, already embalming and preserving their respective legends.
For the denizens of both, everything imaginable was done for their pleasure, ease and luxury, and almost nothing whatsoever for their safety. And that is their true, mutually appalling legacy. It is also why we continue to be so horribly obsessed with both of them as well.
Today, we know full well what both looked like at the height of their brief lived pomp and glory. And today, their obvious, total ruin is there for all those who wish to see as well, etched in stark, singular clarity at the bottom of volcano and ocean respectively.
If progress really is measured by the passing of the years, then what are we to make today of these twin, epic follies of gilded grandeur?