Book review: And the Band Played On

And the Band Played Onby Christopher WardHodder & Stoughton, 320pp, £20

A class pyramid as elaborately tiered as a Harrods wedding cake went down in the Titanic. The White Star Line's most famous catastrophe was Downton Abbey on the high seas. And the Band Played On, Christopher Ward's clever and touching account of his grandfather's death in the disaster, is necessarily focused on some of the 1,500 ordinary people who drowned in the North Atlantic Ocean a century ago. Reluctantly, we sense, Ward is also obliged to demonstrate how their families' lives were constrained, and occasionally destroyed, by class both before and after the great liner sank.

Ward's grandfather was a 21-year-old violinist in the ship's band. His name was Jock Hume and he was the son of an upwardly mobile Dumfries musician. Hume had left home years earlier to pursue his own musical career as a shipboard entertainer.

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By 1912, when he carried his violin case onto the Titanic, Jock had ceased to be based in the house of his unpleasantly aspirational father Andrew. To the fury of Andrew Hume, his oldest son was living in a common-law marriage with a pretty young mill-worker named Mary Costin.

When Jock died, Mary was pregnant. The shockwaves from that tragedy disturbed succeeding generations, and create most of the narrative tension in the book. After all, most of us know what happened to the Titanic. We do not know what happened to Mary Costin and Andrew Hume.

The eight men of the Titanic's chamber orchestra achieved instant post-mortem celebrity. Their reputation has never faded. As the fatally wounded ship struggled to stay afloat, while women, children and some men were being handed into the few lifeboats, the band members took their instruments onto the deck.

There they proceeded to play a medley of consoling tunes, most famously, for obvious reasons, Nearer My God to Thee. When they and their repertoire were exhausted the eight musicians walked together over the rails and into the freezing sea.

Ten days later three of them, including the young Dumfries violinist Jock Hume, were still together. A recovery vessel pulled their floating bodies out of the same patch of the North Atlantic.

There was therefore some small consolation in being a surviving relative of a member of the Titanic's band. Your son or husband had not died in wretched anonymity. On the contrary, their selfless devotion to duty was acclaimed on two continents. They had played in a band which would never be forgotten.

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There were also financial compensations. Disaster funds raised huge amounts of money to be distributed among the dependants of the Titanic's dead. Extra sums were gathered by musicians' unions and other sympathisers to cater specifically for the wives and children of Jock Hume and his seven colleagues.

Until those gratuities come into play, Christopher Ward's attention is taken by the class system on board the ocean liner. The voluntary code (it has never been written into any form of law) "women and children first" was not coined first on the Titanic, as Ward suggests - it had been applied on various British vessels during the 19th century.

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But three-quarters of the Titanic's female complement survived, along with half of its children, and only one in five of its men. That one-fifth included a disproportionate number of rich and influential passengers, notably the White Star Line's chairman, Joseph Bruce Ismay.

It did not include all of them. The American millionaire John Jacob Astor saw his young wife Madeleine onto a boat.

Astor rather poignantly asked a seaman if he could go with Madeleine, as she was pregnant. When he was told that he could not, Astor bade his wife farewell, went below to recover their dog Kitty, and then listened to Jock Hume's band while contemplating eternity.

Such phlegmatic behaviour by a man who a week earlier could have bought and sold the White Star Line led one newspaper to acclaim the process of abandoning the Titanic as "our civilisation vindicated", and perhaps in some respects it was.

But when the recovery vessel arrived several days later to pull dead bodies out of the sea, the corpses of John Jacob Astor and his ilk were painstakingly embalmed and returned to North America for proper burial. Servants, stokers and steerage passengers were just as likely to be chucked back into the briny, this time with a weight tied to their feet and a hasty prayer thrown after them on the wind. "A class system in life had been replaced by a super-class system in death," writes Ward.

Ward relates a number of other ham-fisted insults, such as the late Jock Hume's family in Dumfries being invoiced by his employers for his uniform buttons. Those proprieties, or misproprieties, pale beside the subsequent behaviour of Jock's father.

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Andrew Hume was certainly dishonest before he lost his son. If he was not already mad and bad before April 1912, the sinking of the Titanic tipped him over the edge.

His pathologies were fermented in class anxiety. Andrew came from Dumfriesshire, farm labouring stock. He disowned that admirable heritage when he became a professional violinist, preferring instead to reinvent himself as the grandson of the famous composer Alexander Hume.

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Worse lies have been told in the cause of social advancement. But having falsely elevated his family tree, Andrew then refused to countenance the possibility that his son Jock had depressed it again by making a poor seamstress pregnant.

Mary Costin and her unborn daughter were Jock Hume's true dependants. Andrew Hume decided that Mary was a common whore and the father of her child was indeterminable. He banked every available penny from the Titanic relief funds and refused to open his door to Mary.

The legal proceedings which followed are more than a mere coda to yet another book about the Titanic. They distinguish And the Band Played On because they root that disaster firmly in its proper context: not the headline deaths and survivals of the great and the good, but the rumbling undertones of trauma visited on a thousand towns and villages, on the friends, sisters, brothers, parents and children of 1,500 people who had far more in common with Jock Hume than with John Jacob Astor.

Christopher Ward set out to discover his lost grandfather. His book is a moving homage to all of the men, women and children who heard the last music played on board the SS Titanic, and to the people they left behind.

l Christopher Ward will talk about his book at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose at 7.45pm tomorrow