Something Different – Applying a Bit of Erudition to the Titan Tragedy

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with today’s London fix.

Story time. History time.

When it happened I knew I’d be writing about it sooner or later.

Writing about it for myself rather than anybody else.

And I knew that it would be a retrospective look. No way I was going to pile in in real-time, add my two cents worth to the goat fuck – that’s a term we used in the newsroom to describe the journalistic response to an event of worldwide importance that every news outfit on the planet rushed to cover. Any number of examples but I think the term swam into my ken when Mrs Gandhi was assassinated. Journalistic-wise it was the rush of the Gadarene swine. Every network, every single news provider in the world, sent a crew – reporter, cameraman, soundman, producer, fixer – to New Delhi. That tsunami of news people descending on one story – in the parlance, in newsroom-ese that’s a goat fuck.

I wanted no part of that. I wanted to wait, wanted to ruminate, wanted the thing to quiet down, get to that stage where the vapour trail has dispersed, isn’t there any more.

A month later that’s where things have got to. So here we go.

Our time frame is June 18th to June 22nd this year, 2023.

Like everybody else I was following the story, monitoring it. It was up there, prominently so, in the theatre of my mind.

The event itself was intrinsically gripping – horrifying, really – but what also interested me about it was how I was personally responding to it. Basically I was watching myself watch it. And that was what I knew I’d be writing about sooner or later.

So there were really three locations. One was in the Atlantic, off Newfoundland, where the submersible, the Titan went down and imploded. A second location was the world-wide cross-hatching of the coverage. The third location was here in London and in particular in my head. My read, my response. I’m still slightly puzzling over the third one. My best guess is a lifetime of being a bookworm – that’s what it gets you.

By that I mean, again and again one of the coordinates of my read – my response to the Titan news story – was provided by poetry. Or by a general reference to our culture’s literary foundations.

So the word that immediately came to mind – came to my mind – when the story broke – was hubris.

Hubris – that ancient Greek word for excessive pride or self-confidence; arrogance, if you will. And as the Greeks knew, hubris catches up with you, gets you in a bad place. Is the mid-wife to tragedy.

Telling the billionaire British businessman that going down to the Titanic in that submersible was safer than crossing the street – that was, to my way of thinking, hubris.

Out of the millions of words of coverage – the tens of thousands of storylines – I fastened on to just two. To my way of thinking, they were keepers. And would end up in this very personal telling of one guy’s – this guy’s, me, my – personal response to the Titan tale. One of them was someone’s sage, infinitely prosaic, common sense observation that the one observation window on the submersible was no bigger than a small round television screen. Why would you risk your life to view that shipwreck at the bottom of the Atlantic, view it through that window, when you could see exactly the same thing, probably more clearly, certainly more comfortably, and infinitely more safely, on your television screen in your sitting room.

The likely answer to that question, it seems to me, is you are trying to acquire a past. You want bragging rights. Want to be able to say you did it. Want to impress people. You wager your future – push every chip of your future – out on a square that, if it’s a winning bet, will get you a past. Well, I suppose the five of them did acquire a past. But doing so cost them their future.

So that was one line – the size of a small round television screen – and why would you – that made a lot of sense to me. That stuck.

The other was that later report that when the implosion occurred the U.S. Navy detected an underwater acoustic signature that was consistent with a deep-water implosion. I liked the phrasing of that – an underwater – a deep underwater acoustic signature that was consistent with an implosion. The technical aspect of that is of course way out of my depths, but it’s very impressive. That too was going to stick. And end up, as it has done, here. In what’s essentially a diary entry. Some personal reflections about the Titan incident.

Moving on – and here we go again with the ancient Greek literary foundations of our culture, our civilisations – consistent of course with my predilections, a lifetime’s reading, a lifetime’s deep-seated obsession with words – sure enough, I pounced on the name of the submersible.

Titan. I remember thinking, “so unfortunate – they really shouldn’t have named it Titan.” Just as the Titanic shouldn’t have been named the Titanic. In Greek mythology the Titans were the pre-Olympian Gods. They were overthrown. They were vanquished. And here it comes, they were banished from the upper world. Imprisoned. Under guard. In a place called Tartarus.

Tartarus, the prison of the Titans, was – wait for it – a deep abyss. A dungeon of torment and suffering. A place from which there was no escape.

Anyway, then we got into the countdown, the 96 hours of oxygen in that underwater coffin. This was of course before we found out that it had imploded just a couple of hours into the dive.

I remember waking up Thursday morning. Hearing on the radio that they were going to run out of oxygen at 12:10 I think it was. And of course overheated imagination that I’m cursed with I couldn’t help but imagine how horrific, how terrifying it must have been in that underwater coffin. Very cold. Dark. Horribly uncomfortable. And I thought, they’ll die one by one. The moment will come when there’s just one of them still alive. There with three corpses. Barely able to breathe. Inevitably, I suppose, I kept thinking about Robert Scott’s ill-fated mission to the south pole. Their tragedy – five of them trying to get across those trackless frozen wastes, trying to get back from the south pole to their Antarctic base camp and safety – and not making it, dying there, freezing to death – that happening barely two weeks before the Titanic went down. And the brightest thread in that tragic tapestry, one of the five, Captain Lawrence Oates, standing up and saying to his companions, “I’m just stepping outside, I may be some time.” And then, in his bare feet, walking out of their ice cave where they were trying to shelter. Walking out to die. Doing the only thing he could to give his companions a slightly better chance of surviving. The remaining food rations would only have to be shared amongst four rather than five. He was the sickest and weakest of the five, they wouldn’t have to look after him, care for him, carry him, when the time came, if it came, to stagger onwards toward safety.

It was a tremendously heroic gesture, Captain Oates walking, barefoot, out into that frozen hell.

And I thought, those five on the Titan, there’s nothing like that available to them. They’re trapped. Worse than on Death Row. A Death Row prisoner can stand up and walk the six paces or so available to him in his cell. They can’t even stand up in that thing. All they can do is to try to breathe more shallowly. To get them what? An extra minute or two at the end. They’re buried alive. And in a matter of hours they’re not alive. They’re dead. Buried in a coffin at the bottom of the ocean. No grave. No place where their loved ones can go and lay down their grief. Like the Titans they’re in deep abyss called Tartarus. In a deep abyss in Tartarus in a coffin called Titan.

And then life happened. I had to do that Thursday morning. Got on with it. And then suddenly it was ten to twelve. And they had what? Eighteen minutes of breathable air left.

And sure enough, literature kicked in again. I thought of Auden’s great poem Musee des Beaux Arts about the Death of Icarus. Hubris. Overweening ambition and pride. The boy who flew too near the sun.

But the poem spoke directly to my sudden awareness that the preceding four hours for me had just been a normal humdrum morning for me. Whereas for those five men in the Titan – possibly still alive or so we thought – well, those 240 minutes were anything but humdrum. Here’s the poem, here’s what came to my mind, toward mid-day, in London, on July 22nd, 2023.

Musee des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just

walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy

life and the torturer’s horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Finally, there was the business of those reports about periodic – every half hour – clanging sounds that sonar detectors were said to be picking up in the search area.

There was speculation that the one expenditure of effort someone on the stricken submersible was making was hammering perhaps a wrench against a metal part of the structure of the vessel. Basically a carefully timed SOS sound signal to assist the searchers, help them to pinpoint where exactly the Titan was to be found. It was cause for hope for a few days. But of course whatever those sounds were and wherever they were coming from it wasn’t the stricken submersible, it wasn’t somebody on the Titan sending an SOS. As the world found out eventually, the Titan had imploded, just a few hours into its descent. Probably at the time contact was lost. Experts said – and this was, I suppose, some consolation – it had all happened so fast that the five men on the Titan would not have experienced even a split second of terror. They were alive and then instantly they were dead. Well, I suppose one hopes that that was the cause. But I couldn’t help wonder, was there a second or two of the Titan’s sides creaking, straining, perhaps beginning to bow inwards… A second or two of horror before the implosion.

Best not thought about, dwelt on. But that clanging, ringing sound, my default setting – English poetry – immediately kicked in. I thought of Donne’s immortal lines, “send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” If someone on the Titan was making that clanging sound – and they weren’t, but we didn’t know that at the time – they weren’t just hearing the bell that was tolling for them. They were ringing it themselves.

And that’s all. Well not quite all. The fifth takeaway from the tragic Titan story is that it was another reminder – not that we needed any – another reminder of just how powerful the media is. What a Titan it is. There was no resisting it. It carried us all along. Pretty much everybody in the world knew about that submersible. Couldn’t stop thinking about it for nearly a fortnight. Newspapers, television, radio – and especially the Internet – washed over us, engulfed us all, imploded that story in upon us, imprinted it on us. It’s as powerful, as mighty, as deep, as irresistible as the ocean itself. Perhaps more so.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative.

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for.

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely –

to front our walks with distinguished


By way of example,

Stewart Purvis, the former Editor (and

subsequently CEO) of Independent

Television News. And Lisa Honan

who had a distinguished career as

diplomat (Lisa was the Governor of

St Helena, the island where Napoleon

breathed his last and, some say, had

his penis amputated – Napoleon

didn’t feel a thing – if thing’s the mot

juste – he was dead.)

Stewart and Lisa – both of them

CBEs – are just a couple of our

headline acts.

The London Walks All-Star team of

guides includes a former London

Mayor, it includes barristers (one of

them an MBE); it includes doctors,

geologists, museum curators,

archaeologists, historians, criminal

defence lawyers, university professors,

Royal Shakespeare Company actors,

a bevy of MVPs,

Oscar winners (people who’ve won

the big one, the Guide of the Year Award)… well,

you get the idea. As that travel writer

famously put it, “if this were a golf

tournament, every name on the

Leader Board would be a London

Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. See ya next time.

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