richard pierce

richard pierce

12 April 2012

Great Scott - aka Titanic Scott

It's almost four weeks now since Dead Men was released into the wild. And it's not been an easy four weeks. The gig at the NHM in London was brilliant, and I've met a mass of wonderful people on my trips round the UK, from Portsmouth through Doncaster, all the way up to Dundee. And it's not finished yet. It amazes me that there are so many people willing to give me their time, or radio time, or any sort of time, little old me, growing balder and more drawn (according to my wife) by the minute.

That's not the point, though, not at all. During the interminable train journeys, the evenings spent waiting for something to change, for someone in the national media to mention Dead Men, I've been thinking of something totally different, something that's not a conflict, not a regret even, but an interesting hypothetical question. What's more significant, the Titanic disaster, or the loss of Scott and his four men on the way back from the South Pole?

Part of me thinks it would have been simpler to have written a book about the Titanic, to have done what many people appear to have done, to redraw those well-documented conflicts of the class system on the high seas, to have gone back to a story and invented a few additional characters with scandals and chips on their shoulders, to have taken hearsay and conspiracy, and crafted a well-told tale anchored so heavily to the bed of the Atlantic that the ending was not just inevitable but foretold, and forever consigned to history.

Instead, I chose to go to the Antarctic for my story, to link it, in a dual time frame, to our lives as they are now, to dare to talk about climate change and global warming in a novel that deals with a historical disaster, that talks of heroes, and demonised ones at that, to wrap history up into a modern love story, to mix and match plot and emotions, supposition and assumptions. To write a piece of literary fiction that is as relevant now as it will be in another hundred years.

Over the last few days, as I plan a US tour, as I wonder how to gain the public's attention for what is not just a good book, but, according to reviewers, a great book, there's one detail that's struck me, one light-bulb moment that's illuminated my puzzlement over why the book, although selling well, isn't selling better. It's a competition of disasters, that's what.

The thing is, everyone forgets that the disaster of the Titanic actually happened before anyone knew that Captain Scott and his men had died. The Titanic was news within a few hours of her sinking, thanks to the newly-invented wireless. Scott and his men, and Scott's expedition party left at Cape Evans wondering what had happened to their leader, didn't have that luxury; they were cut off from the world. Scott's body wasn't discovered until the 12th November 1912, and his death not transmitted to the world until the 10th February 1913, almost a year after the Titanic disaster. We've been commemorating the dead and their impact on the world in reverse order, because the memorial service for Scott at St Paul's Cathedral was held on the centenary of his last diary entry, not on the centenary of the first memorial service to him, which was held on Valentine's Day 1913.

This leads me on to thinking - can we compare disasters? Which is worth commemorating more? One which killed over 1,500, and which was possibly caused by commercial issues, or one which killed 5, and was caused because the leader of the party was himself not clear over what his priority should be - science or the Pole?

Thus we measure history - in questions, assumptions and incomplete knowledge. All I know is that both disasters were tragedies for innumerable families and friends. Perhaps the Antarctic resonates more with me because I've been there; or perhaps because there is a finite cast of characters from there that can be invented, or that can insinuate itself into our beings, rather than an infinite chaos of clans who can be be drawn from the submerged decks of the Titanic and spuriously attached to our imagined present.

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