Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage by Hugh Brewster

The fatal Titanic voyage continues to attract authors. There is something about the apparent gaiety and glitter of the years immediately preceding WW1 that is somehow alluring to contemporary readers — “a world both distant and near to our own” as Hugh Brewster puts it in the prologue to Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage — The Titanic’s First-Class Passengers and Their World.

More than 100 years on from the loss of Titanic in April 1912, stories of her passengers continue to fascinate modern readers. Brewster focuses on Titanic’s first-class passengers — among them the celebrities of the day — from fashion designer Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon to tennis star, Karl Behr, from President’s aide Archie Butt to artist Frank Millet.

Some of the names are familiar — Astor, Ismay, Guggenheim — from movies like Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember and James Cameron’s Titanic — others perhaps less so, but the portraits presented by Brewster are immensely human and fascinating for the detail that they provide.

For a factual, historical book Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage is a very engaging and fast read beautifully illustrated with photographs. Inevitably, the reader becomes come caught up in the drama of the sinking but Brewster maintains focus on the the individuals rather than on the ship and the book is particularly moving for what it has to say about the aftermath of the sinking and the glimpses it provides in the postscript, “Titanic Afterlives”.

Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic’s first-class passengers and their world by Hugh Brewster is published by Broadway Paperbacks. ISBN 9780307984814; eISBN 9780307984715. 


The Graves are Walking: The great famine and the saga of the Irish people by John Kelly

John Kelly’s insight and commentary together with his use of primary sources gives an immediacy to The Graves are Walking that makes it one the best and most readable accounts of the Irish famine that I have come across.

The famine began in 1845 when the potato crop was hit by a bacterial infection thereby depriving the Irish poor of their food source and leading over the following five years to a disaster that saw the country’s population decline through death and emigration by a third with roughly 1,000,000 dying and a further 1,000, 000 emigrating in the years between 1847 and 1851.

“If the famine has any enduring lesson to teach, it is about the harm that even the best are capable of when they lose their way and allow religion and political ideology to traduce reason and humanity.”

Statistics quoted by Kelly speak eloquently to the sheer scale of the disaster –“only one in three Irishmen born in Ireland around 1831 would die in Ireland of old age”, “between 1847 and 1851, the eviction rate rose by nearly 1,000 percent, overwhelming the Irish Poor Law system” and “between 1847 and 1851, 848,000 Irish immigrants arrived in New York”.

But Kelly goes beyond the statistics using contemporary news reports and journals to tell the stories of real people and the sources he draws on provide sometimes surprising insights into day-to-day life in the 1840s from transport to public works programs such as road building to the use of private militia by landlords seeking to evict their tenants.

There are also surprisingly contemporary parallels to be drawn in respect of public policy making and the desperate consequences of poor decision-making. On famine, for example, Kelly observes: “In modern famines, starvation often arises not from an absolute shortage of food, bur from access to food — and among the things that govern who has access and who does not is the cost of food.”

The Graves are Walking  is very accessible to general readers — Kelly’s research and writing are excellent and he lets the sources and facts speak for themselves.  Books like this should be compulsory reading for public policy makers.

 The Graves are Walking by John Kelly is published by Henry Holt & Co and is available for Kindle. ISBN 978-0-571-28443-6.