Praise be to Nero’s Neptune, the Titanic sails at dawn

Everybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?!”

Bob Dylan, Desolation Row


You don’t need a weather man

To know which way the wind blows

Bob Dylan, Subterranean Homesick Blues (from which song this title is taken)


FICTION: I am just a passenger eager to travel in the best possible style to my destination, one of many seeking a better life elsewhere.

That particular night was dark and stormy, and the massive, state-of-the-art liner rolled slightly from side to side on the ocean swell.

I went to see the captain, a tall wiry chap with forbidding eyebrows and mutton chops, in his tower because I thought it was my duty to inform him that according to my calculations there is a high likelihood of there being an iceberg in our path some days straight ahead. “Permit me to introduce myself,” I said, “my name is Tavistock and my profession is a maritime navigator. I should inform you, sir, that it would be prudent to change course to avoid a potential disaster.” I displayed to him my charts that had been signed off by a fellow passenger, my room-mate and a renowned engineer.

He thanked me, assuring me that I should worry myself no further. “It may never happen, Tavistock, God willing.” He smiled indulgently, repeating the oft-heard line that the vessel has been designed by acknowledged experts, “Don’t you trust your betters that it is too big to sink, Tavistock, eh?”

On the way out of the tower, the first mate, a large barrel-chested figure, tapped me on the elbow and whispered in my ear, “Don’t mention this to anyone else, will you, old chap? We don’t want to worry people, do we?”

A few days later the iceberg was visible through ordinary binoculars, its triple peaks poking like the points of Neptune’s trident above the horizon. Following consultations with the other passengers, I requested to speak with the captain again but he rebuffed my approaches. So I had no recourse but to send him a note on behalf of us all which informed him that we are still on course to rendezvous with the iceberg in three days’ time, and yet the engineer has calculated that if the powers that be chose to shift direction by just one half of one degree, we would just miss it, and such a manoeuvre would not cost the bursar an extra penny in fuel, something we both thought he would appreciate.

From his silence we inferred that he had matters in hand or that he considered us to be unnecessarily concerned, as from his vantage point, he could see the “full picture”. The next day however the dreaded super-block of ice was still apparent on an interceptive trajectory, and could indeed be seen by the naked eye to the consternation of many clearsighted personages.  My engineer friend, whose name was Davidson, calculated and sent a message to the captain to the effect that it would now require a 1 degree southerly change of direction in order to narrowly miss the offending lump of Arctic ice.

A message came back enquiring as to the consequence upon the ship’s budget and the passengers’ purses. The engineer retorted that the cost of taking action would certainly be no more than the cost of a disaster should that unfortunate event occur, and the passengers would support an increase in their fare in order to guarantee their successful passage.

There was no obvious response to this message. The ship’s volcanic engines remained at a constant pitch, a deep rumble from the vast boilers and turbines below. Our course remained unaltered, the sleek hull buoyed up by the unknown depths below and all the wonders it contains that were the subject of unvoiced superstitions by many. The message seemed to be that change would only happen when and if it was certain that the iceberg was irrevocably destined to collide with us.

That night, my colleague Davidson, with whom as I have mentioned I shared a berth, did not sleep. He tossed and turned, muttering to himself, “… by then it will be too late”. The following dawn there was no escaping the sight of the obstacle ahead, which seemed to glow in the luminous early light yet could not credibly be mistaken for an illusory apparition, given the record of consistent observations which Davidson was able to present. This close it could no longer be ignored either by passengers or crew.

Suppressing their palpable panic for the sake of appearances, as if as one, the passengers opted by consensus to confront the captain and as a single mob surrounded the base of his tower. Thus isolated, he, fearing a mutiny, responded by summoning the security guards to restrain us.

As the ‘berg loomed as large as a mountain before us, some passengers lost their sense of decorum and began to give voice to their fears, which provoked the guards further to restrain them and resort to violence which was pitiable to behold. It seemed as if the nearer the iceberg drew, the more violent the guards became, anxious to maintain order. 

I saw Davidson being dragged away to a secure unit in the hold, along with others. I cried out after him. Until then I was not aware of the existence of these cells. The captain made a speech in which he decried the role of agitators, whom he described as suffering from moral turpitude, and that he hoped the rest of the passengers would resist the temptation to ally themselves with them. This and the arrests served to dissuade those of our number who preferred to see themselves as law-abiding. They melted away, much to my dismay.

The captain appeared above us once more and in an attempt to placate passengers and crew, confirmed that everything was under control: policies were in place to protect us, and at any rate there were sufficient mitigating circumstances in the form of lifeboats. Meanwhile attempts were being made to tow the iceberg out of our path.

“Ludicrous,” shouted someone next to me.

“Too little, too late!” I cried just before I saw stars, as a truncheon met the back of my head.

The blue iceberg was beautiful, reflected in the preternaturally smooth surface of the sea, as the indestructible vessel slid towards it with historical inevitability.

David Thorpe is the author of Passive Solar Architecture Pocket Reference,  Energy Management in Buildings and  Sustainable Home Refurbishment. He lives in the UK

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