Sunday, 3 July 2011

And the Band Played On - real good stuff

And the Band Played On by Christopher Ward (Hodder & Stoughton: 2011) The story of what happened after the Titanic went down, focussed on the family feuds that one of the young members of the Titanic band left behind. Set largely in Dumfries, the family’s tale after the boat sank is a tragic one. The author is the grandson of the musician, and in writing this book, he’s forced to face some uncomfortable truths about his relatives.

The thing about real life stories is that they happened in real life. None of this “based on a true story” crap. None of this “some scenes have been staged for dramatic effect” nonsense. Reality TV can only take you so far. For me (and for many of you too I’d imagine) history is where it’s at. Honest to goodness, this-really-happened, history.

After we leave school, it’s pretty easy to forget. In truth, even when we’re at school, history misses the mark more often than it hits it. The same topics can be churned through too many times, and the pressure to actually remember what you’re being taught renders it ever so slightly boring.

And then books like this fall in your lap. And you start to catch the history bug again.

As history goes, this is fairly old ground. Everyone knows about the Titanic. You know the one - big ship, hit an ice-berg, sank in the Atlantic.  You might even know some of the smaller details - the fact that the whole “women and children first” idea came from the Titanic. And then there’s the detail that kicks off this book. The fact that the band played on the deck of the ship as it was going down, trying to bring a bit of calm to the situation as people fled for their lives. And then the families of the band were sent a bill for their lost uniforms after they drowned.

And it’s that kind of detail that makes books like this worth reading. The little ones. The ones that have real people’s faces behind them,

I don’t want to go on about it, but this stuff really happened. It’s as real as the people around you right now. These people lived this story, and then they died, and then we came along. The lines between us and them are, in the grand scheme of things, pretty small. For me, that makes any story compelling. This one is no different.

Of course, there are down sides. The pace dipped every now and then, and I had to remind myself of the reality of this stuff to make sure I stayed interested. There are parts where there’s a little too much conjecture, a little too much “I don’t know exactly what happened, but it was probably…”

But for a history book, it avoided a lot of the usual traps. The people he talks about are huge characters, just huge. Their personalities are compelling, almost to the point of being caricatures in some places. And the book has the feel of a story - the kind that a lot of history books just don’t. It never feels like a text book. It has the structure of a fiction book.

So yeah, I enjoyed this. I felt better for having read it. It probably won’t make my top ten books of the year, but it won’t be too far behind.


Another sit-on-the-fence 7 I’m afraid, but this was never going to be anything other. 6 seems harsh. 8 seems a smidge too much.

Next week, some popular philosophy. I bet you're looking forward to that one.

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