Arranging deckchairs on The Titanic: a radical reappraisal
In his new book on the sinking of The Titanic, historian Martin G. Frussby asks his readers to consider the work of a deckchair arranger as socially relevant and urgent and even potentially expressive of a refined artistic sensuality.
It is a brave but not timely work full of counter-intuitive insights and daring leaps of thought.
The book centres on the story of one Wilfrid Baskom, a 23 year old soul, who signed on with the crew shortly before the Titanic set sail on 31st May 1911. According to letters recently discovered he saw the trip as an opportunity to forge a new and meaningful life for himself away from the brutal and alienating industrial work of his native Liverpool.
Reporting for duty on the morning of that first day Baskom had no way of knowing that the position of Deck-Chair Attendant would fail to deliver the life of purpose he so desperately craved. A cache of letters recently discovered reveals this naive optimism at its most idealistic:
My dearest Edith, I have been putting out the chairs for a week now and I feel I’m finally getting the hang of it. The first few days I decided to play it safe plumping for straight regulation rows three deep but on Wednesday last I thought “fuck it” and I went for a diamond formation with occasional small tables festooned with coasters for drinks. I am already the talk of the ship.
Elated by this incredible success Wilf’s mood oscillated between a newfound determinism to finding “the best possible arrangement of deck chairs ever achieved, anywhere” to a terrible self-doubt and concern that he wasn’t really up to the creative demands of a prolonged voyage.
Dear Edith, we have reached the midpoint of our crossing and after suffering a crisis of confidence last week and a few sleepless nights pouring over relevant theory books, I believe I hit upon a new organising principle that will surely go down as my masterpiece. Tomorrow I will put out the deck chairs and I will be hailed as the genius I am. But I am especially proud that this will go down in history as the moment when Deck-Chair Arrangement truly came into its own as a respected profession, if not art form.
Now, it’s easy with the benefit of hindsight to scoff. It is true that Wilf’s prediction didn’t come to pass and that the overwhelming focus of popular interest became all about The Sinking but Frussby’s astounding discovery of some contemporaneous written accounts tell a different, more nuanced story. There’s this for instance:
The water was cold. Shockingly cold. I was gasping trying to take in air but I was swallowing so much water I knew I hadn’t got long. As I looked across I could see the great hulk of the ship towering above me. All sorts of debris was falling down the heavily tilted decks, human and otherwise. But as I was taking in the awful spectacle of this random jetsam falling into the sea something caught my eye. There was something about the deck chairs and how they were sliding off the decks. There was an undeniable order and sense of timing about them that suggested the ordering of musical notes in a composition by Handel or even Beethoven. As the last thing I noticed before making copious notes and slipping below the waves I felt grateful that someone - God maybe? - had arranged this particular choreography to comfort me in my dying moments. What a thing to see I thought, feeling all lucky and that.
And from the Captain whose job it was to evacuate the ship came this fascinating snippet:
All were gone now, I was convinced of that…..except then I thought I saw the shadow of a figure clinging to the aft deck holding onto a bunch of deckchairs. For some reason he was releasing each chair individually and doing it in a way that suggested he cared about where they were going. It was bonkers and made no sense to me but then I never possessed any appreciation for the finer things of life and it’s too late to start now.
These are you have to admit unbelievable additions to the story that compel us to come to a different understanding of the tragedy. Frussby controversially then offers up what he calls a “dramatic imagining” of Wilf Baskom’s final moments which he contends gives us valuable insight into the possible psychology of the young Baskom.
The scene is chaotic and full of noise and screams. The Petty Officer is pleading with Wilf to stop pissing about with the deck-chairs and save himself. Wilf however, refuses, seeing his first duty as putting the chairs in a pleasing arrangement…
Petty Officer: What’s the difference Baskom? We’re all going to
Baskom: Yes. But it’s about how we die.
Petty Officer: What?
Baskom: When we talk about putting things in order it isn’t just
for the convenience of others. It’s for our sakes too.
To live and die with order, with grace, even beauty.
This is our duty.
Petty Officer: You’re insane. I’m running for the lifeboats.
At this, the Petty Officer turns and legs it. For some reason he cannot resist one more glance backwards.
Petty Officer (speaking to himself under his breath): Damn it Wilf. If that isn’t a thing of beauty…
The Petty Officer is interrupted in his reveries by being knocked unconscious by an un-moored brass floor lamp flying through the air and he ends up falling into the sea.
Fade to black.
‘Arranging Deckchairs’ is available in all good bookshops.