At the end of apartheid in South Africa, television news reports showed image after image of the people of Soweto, and other black townships, queuing for hours and hours to cast their votes for the first time in their history. One man in particular came out of the polling station to tell the cameras and the world: Today, I am a human being.
I think of this every time I hear yet another lazy-minded member of the great British public telling the world they’re not going to vote, because it won’t make any difference.
That’s one image. Here’s another.
I first saw this film in the 1950’s. I was maybe 13 years old. What I remembered of it were the images that I guess everyone has of the sinking of the Titanic; the desperate search for lifeboats, the separation of children and their mothers from their stiff-lipped fathers, a heartstopping image of an elderly steward clutching a small boy seconds before the final plunge, and the one of the ship with all its lights blazing as it tips steeper and steeper, its huge propellers uselessly high above the water, and the small lfeboats pulling desperately away.
Years later, I read the Walter Lord book on which the film is remarkably faithfully based. It’s still available via Google searches. If you want the definitive read, then I’m pretty sure this is it.
For ten years I used material from the book and hired the 16mm cine version of the film and showed it to Year 8 secondary students who would explore its issues through drama, and who would set up courts of enquiry, and write newspaper accounts and editorials. I found copies of the ‘Daily Mirror’ which, two days after the ship had sunk, reported that all were safe. We would explore how that could happen, too, and learn that the ship was the first ever to radio an SOS signal. All in all, I’ve watched the film 23 times, and never found it less than gripping.
But the focus of my interest (and the drama we did with the students) shifted more and more to the social inequalites that the film puts squarely at its heart. It begins, so you are never in doubt, with three cameo sequences. Each is a scene of parting.
The first is that of the gentry leaving a country house in their coach, laden with cabin trunks, its coachman, its gentleman’s gentleman and its lady’s maid; it is dutifully waved through the park gates by tidily-turned-out orphans lined up specially for the event.
The second scene is the departure of a comfortably-off newly married couple from the prosperous suburbs.
The third is that of the village priest putting heart into a group of Irish migrants before they set out for a new world and a new life.
In maybe three minutes of narrative the film sets up the social divisions that were to be horribly replicated in the bald statistics of the tragedy. 1374 men were drowned, 103 women, and 53 children. Over 80% of the men were from the 3rd class passengers and the crew. 100% of the children were from the 3rd Class. The wage slips of the crew show that they ceased being paid from the moment that the ship went down. The loss of the Titanic has been turned into symbolisms. At the time, it primarily was presented as symbolic of overweening human pride and faith in the powers of science and engineering. To me it has always symbolised what was radically wrong with a society that allowed morally indefensible social division and inequality. If you need reminding how fragile that belief can be watch the 1990’s ‘Titanic’ which turned the narrative into a story about two improbable individuals. Just another blockbuster disaster movie. And a dreadful theme song. My heart will go on. And not a shred of irony anywhere. Then think about the banking collapse created by rich immoral men who behaved as if they were invincible. Masters of the universe. And ask who went down with the ship with all those subprime mortgages. And then look at the footage of body bags brought ashore after another migrant boat goes down in the Mediteranean and ask who is in them, and how many were rich. I saw a statistic yesterday that tells me that the average CEO of a British company is paid (I nearly wrote ‘earns’) 135 times the average pay of each of his, or, less frequently, her, average employee.
The Titanic sank on the night of April 14, 1912. Here’s another image from a year later. In June 1913, Emily Wilding Davison was killed trying to seize the bridle of the king’s horse in the Derby.
This still frame from a newsreel film has always haunted me. It has always had echoes of Breughel’s Landscape with the fall of Icarus’ and Auden’s Musee des beaux arts, the poem in which everything turns ‘leisurely away’ from the awful and marvellous fact of a boy falling from the sky. The ship has somewhere to get to, the ploughman hasn’t finished his field, the angler is concentrated on the tiny movement of his float. And at the Derby, most of the crowd are busy watching the rapidly vanishing horses.
The speed of film and its imperturbablity is what makes sure we can never have reason not to know this moment in which a woman is killed for the right to make her mark on a ballot slip. I’ve written about how it took me thirty years to write down what it meant. Or to write it down in a way that I felt was as true as I could be to the moment and it’s significance, to say what it meant. This is as near as I think I shall ever get.
(Emily Wilding Davison. June 1913)
The reason for your being here
is out of sight. They can’t be seen –
your Cause’s colours sewn inside
your decent coat: white, violet, green.
The camera sees the moment you began to die:
the jockey, trim in silks, is doll-like
on the grass and seems asleep;
his mount is spraddled on its back;
its useless hooves flail at the sky.
Your spinning, flower-trimmed hat
is stopped, distinct, mid-flight;
your hair’s still not come down;
you’re frozen, inches from the ground;
your boots are neatly buttoned,
take small steps on the arrested air.
You’re stopped in time. No sound,
no texture, no sour odour
of bruised grass and earth. Just
silence and the alchemy of light.
How did you comprehend
the shock of heat, huge muscle, hair,
in that white moment
when the dark came down?
The camera cannot tell;
it’s business neither truth nor lies.
It shows a fallen horse. A woman falling. A crowd
in hats and blazers staring down a long perspective;
the field intent upon the distant fairy icing
grandstand. The waving flags. The finish line.
Until the image blurs, dissolves in silver flowers,
it’s there on celluloid in shades of grey;
the camera only says that in that instant
you are dying, and everyone has looked away.
I have always believed that no-one in the photograph has taken in what has happened in that split second. But the public as represented by the great British press still hadn’t taken it in two days later, when there was more concern expressed about the horse and the distress of the king than the death of a wrong-headed hysterical woman with a known prison record.
I ask myself how much has changed, essentially changed, in the last 100 years. One thing for sure. There weren’t that many people in 1945 saying they couldn’t be bothered to vote, or people saying that voting changed nothing, or that whoever you vote for ,’they’re all the same, so what was the point?’. They believed that voting could achieve a seismic change, and it did. Everything that makes me glad to live in this country was started then. And now it’s being assett-stripped by a financially privileged clique bolstered by the likes of Rothermere and Murdoch. And what’s to be done? At the very least, you can think of one anonymous man in Soweto, and one frail woman in buttoned boots, and you can vote. And thank all the tongueless who have gone down in history and disappeared who make it possible.