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The Titanic, its band and 100 years

"I hope that I have done their actions justice. I hope that some deserving stories will have been drawn back into the light. I'd like to think that if Wallace, Georges, Roger, Theo, Percy, Fred, Jock, and Wes were to read this book they'd think I was spot on."  - Steve Turner

Eight musicians played their instruments on the deck of the Titanic as it sank. A hundred years later, Steve Turner is asking 'What were they thinking?'

There's surprisingly little in the way of hard history written about the Titanic's band. Perhaps history was waiting for Turner to come along and treat the subject with the care, diligence, and totality that he's put into his new book, The Band Played On.

The tricky thing with writing about the Titanic's band is that the stories reported in the aftermath of the sinking were garbled and sometimes contradictory. Exactly what the band played or why they played it is obscured because the witnesses were all facing death. Trying to establish their motives for choosing a 'hero's death' is even harder.

Turner couldn't have discovered their motives for staying on the ship and he's smart enough not to try. By the end of the book, however, you can't help but feel that you know why they stayed. Like many of the issues in the book - commercialism, religion, incompetence - Turner poses the question and then stops, letting the reader decide. The way this is done doesn't feel like a cop-out; he delivers wonderful insights but stops short of passing judgement.

Having read the book, Joe Miller's choice of author seems to have worked. Turner's love of history and of music comes through in the details his research uncovered. It certainly feels like he's discovered everything that could be discovered about the musicians. Each musician owns a chapter, and everything recorded about them is brought together in a way where the narrative of their life comes out naturally.

Band leader Wallace Hartley goes from being the 2 dimensional Christian hero to being a man with a life and with reasons for being where he was, doing what he loved. Wallace was a good man, there's no denying that, but until now history has remembered little else but the facts that made him the poster-boy for being British and being Christian. Turner fleshes him out, and while Wallace's legend stays intact (he was in most ways a culmination of Methodism in England), there's more to learn from, identify with, and celebrate over.

Turner warns the reader early on that Wallace, being the band leader, was far easier to research than his fellow musicians. This may be true but you can't see it in the outcome. For most of The Band Played On, the light of the band's sacrifice is dimmed slightly so that the story of what they left behind can be spotted past the glare.

Wallace and Theo had both planned to leave the liners behind after the maiden voyage. Theo wanted to return to the woman he would have married, but because of past service in the military would have fought and possibly died in the Great War. The same went for spirited and worldly twenty-year-old Roger Bricoux, who had lived an adventurous life and had intended to continue it through his music. 'Wes' Woodward and John Hume were on board the Olympic when it collided with the HMS Hawke - an event that led to the Titanic being in the same time and place as an iceberg. Hume, the life of the band, went down with the Titanic before his future wife could tell him that he'd be a father. Percy left behind an estranged wife. John Clarke had taken the job to get to New York after hearing that his father had been murdered there. Georges showed every indication that he'd contribute greatly to the musical world.

The Band Played On is easily read but for some intensely detailed passages. In the middle chapters about the musicians it can be hard to keep track of the names mentioned. It's worth doing so - those names come back later in discussions of the aftermath.

This is where Turner's skill and discretion is perfect. I came close to tears at several points in the book, but only because the bare facts of the situation were given room. Turner never relies on emotional appeals; he lets the subject stand for itself.

If you're looking for a book to tell you why the Titanic sank, look elsewhere. The opening chapters, devoted to establishing the scene for the band's demise, do go into some detail but not much further. 

This is a remarkable, timely, and engaging book. The opening chapters have a level of atmosphere and drama that you're unlikely to find in most non-fiction books. The content is exceedingly well researched and the final chapter resurrects a piece of modern mythology that makes next year's centenary of the Titanic so much more exciting. While it's not the constant companion that Tribal Science will be, you'd be rewarded for having added this to your bookshelf.

You can purchase Steve Turner's The Band Played On online here.

Topics:  band book review disaster history music orchestra review titanic


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