Better The Devil You Know? – A Titanic Short Story by Graham Brown

After The Weekend

It’s Monday morning, about ten to nine, and the town centre office is coming to life. Deirdre, a woman of indeterminate age, which never seems to alter, is always first to arrive. That way she makes sure no-one steals her coffee mug – and she can see when the others come in. It gives her a sense of superiority and, truth be told, boosts her frail confidence to be one-up on her colleagues. She switches on the ancient flourescent strip lights which, hesitantly, make their harsh presence felt.

Soon others arrive and the office is buzzing with talk of the weekend, new boyfriends and girlfriends, failed dates, X-Factor, Strictly Come Dancing. Gradually a quieter hum of conversation and telephone calls takes over as work begins.

For some time no-one seems to notice that Nick has not arrived. He is quiet, and often a little late. But by 9.20 Deirdre, who has noticed, feels she should say something to her manager Elaine, or Miss Bradock as Deirdre prefers to call her. Elaine is the young woman occupying the job Deirdre feels was rightly hers.

Come 10 and there is still no sign. Calls are made to his home telephone and to his mobile, without success. Elaine, making loud sighing noises to express her annoyance, eventually sends Alan to Nick’s house to find out what has happened.

The walk is only about 15 minutes. Alan arrives to find the two-up, two-down house locked, the curtains open, and no sign of Nick. Uncertain about what to do, he waits for a few minutes, then tries the neighbours. The elderly lady two doors along, a dedicated curtain-twitcher, says she thinks she saw him go out on Friday evening carrying a suitcase.

The Weekend Begins

Nick gets home from work to a weekend without much promise. He finished with his girlfriend Alison two months ago, well, actually, she finished with him. Now Alison is engaged to that arrogant rugby-playing Larry in accounts. That was quick.

It is dark as he heads to his favourite local takeaway a little after six. Nick returns with enough Indian food to last a couple of days. He gets some beer from the fridge and sits down to eat, flicks through the TV channels but can’t focus on anything. So, putting his food to one side briefly, he ferrets through his DVD collection. A, B, C, they are all in alphabetical order. Nothing appeals until he gets to T, and Titanic. He will watch that.

Yes, it is a girls’ film but Nick has been fascinated by the Titanic since he was a small child. He thinks the ship’s name, ending in “Nic”, caught his ear when he was very young. Since then he has bought endless books and DVDs. He was surprised how much he enjoyed the 1997 film. No doubt, Kate Winslet helped.

By the time the film finishes it is after 9.30. He had vaguely thought about going out but now he doesn’t feel like doing so. It is going to be another dull weekend and in his depressed state it is hard to do anything about it. He glances over at his CDs. Everything But The Girl caught his eye. “Hmph,” he thinks. “Nothing-much-at-all-and-no-girl either would be more appropriate for me.”

Absent mindedly, he flicks the Titanic DVD back on at the beginning. “I really, really, really wish I could have sailed on the Titanic. It would have been an amazing experience. I would give anything to have sailed,” he says to himself.

“Anything?” came the reply.

“Yes, well, you know, pretty much anything. But it’s not possible.”

“Oh, it could be,” came another reply.

It dawns on Nick that the voice is not in his head, it seems to be coming from a dark corner of the room. Can’t be. But as he stares into the corner a figure takes shape – a small elderly man, with a straggly beard, in a tatty long overcoat.

The man speaks: “I can arrange it for you if you really want it enough.”

Nick would have been scared but the beer has blurred his mind and reactions. “Who are you? Some sort of guardian angel?”

“Hardly, quite the opposite in fact.”

“My God, you’re not the devil.” It struck Nick’s befuddled mind that he could have phrased this question better.

“No, course not, the devil himself wouldn’t bother with the likes of you. I’m just one of his helpers. There are lots of us.”

“Oh.”

“Anyway, you want to sail on the Titanic? I can’t sit talking all night, we need to go.”

“Yes, well, but… umm… ”

Nick feels dizzy and nauseous. He knows he shouldn’t have eaten and drunk so much, so quickly. He closes his eyes to stop the room spinning.

A Strange New Place

Then, through his closed eyelids, Nick can see daylight. And the smell of his room, of the Indian food, has gone. He can smell sea air, old wood, and dust in the air. He opens his eyes.

Nick is in some sort of reception area, standing in a queue of people. The building seems to be old and, yes, dusty. The people around him are dressed in old-fashioned clothes, and not particularly smart ones. Victorian? Early 20th century? The old man is stood next to him.

“Next!” a voice shouts. Nick finds himself at a wall with a small opening to make a counter. Behind it sits a middle-aged man in a smart waistcoast and a neatly trimmed beard. “Yes, gentlemen?”

Nick opens his mouth but before he can speak the old man gets in: “We want to sail on the Titanic, please. I have our papers and the money.”

“You are just in time, we’re down to the last few places… This all seems in order… Here, take this and join the queue to go through that door over there. Next!”

A family of six are next at the counter. There is a discussion, raised voices and the family are turned away.

The old man speaks: “They obviously expected to get on. Lucky we were able to jump the queue.”

“But that’s terrible,” protests Nick. “Have they lost their places now?”

“I suppose so, but probably better for them in the long run, don’t you think? Not many people from steerage will survive the sinking.”

The sinking. The words set an alarm off in Nick’s mind, as if he has woken from a dream.

“Umm, yes, the sinking,” said Nick. “I assume I will be in a lifeboat at the end?”

“Oh, you do, do you? I don’t think I can organise that.”

“But, but… perhaps this isn’t such a good idea after all.”

“Look,” says the old man. “Like I say, most people in steerage won’t make it into a lifeboat. There’s a limit to what I can do.”

“Steerage? I thought I would be in a cabin. I mean, perhaps not a grand one, but a cabin.”

“You’re in steerage and that’s it. Don’t worry. Remember your history? The Titanic calls at Cherbourg and Queenstown before heading across the Atlantic. We can get off.”

“That’s a bit disappointing. I thought you could organise everything.”

The old man bristles. “I’m a junior. I’m not the devil. There’s only so much I can do. You wanted to sail on the Titanic, and you will.”

Nick looks away and tries to gather his thoughts. A young couple have joined them in the queue and, behind them, two men with a large trunk.

The old man jerks his head towards the newly-arrived passengers and says to Nick: “These poor bastards must have taken the last places after that big family couldn’t get aboard.”

“Yes, I was wondering about that,” says Nick, trying to remember his Doctor Who plots. “Isn’t there something about not interfering with time and destiny?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” says the old man. “That’s all above my station.”

The Voyage

The Titanic eases away from the docks at Southampton. Nick is so exhilarated that, for a time, he forgets to worry about the sinking he knows to be inevitable. Anyway, he is going to get off in Cherbourg or, perhaps, Queenstown. He does not give much thought to what he will do once in France or Ireland.

He breathes in the air – fresh sea air. He watches the sailing boats and steamers in the Solent. He watches the Isle of Wight go by. But mostly he watches the people – what glorious costumes, even among the poorer passengers. Occasionally, someone looks askance at his clothes – jeans, trainers and T-shirt.

If only Kate Winslet was with him, he thinks. Perhaps he could ask the old man? Where is the old man? Nick realises he has not seen him since the ship sailed. But no matter, his out-of-place clothes and new-found confidence in the wonder of life gave him an air which seem to attract some of the young women, who he notice smiling at him.

Elsewhere on the Titanic not everyone is enjoying the voyage and spreading goodwill to fellow passengers. The two characters with the large trunk – who Nick had, in effect, allowed on board – are anarchists determined to make their mark on history.

As the ship approaches Cherbourg there is an enormous explosion which blows a small hole in the port side. There are a number of casualties, mostly passengers killed by the debris or by drowning after falling over the side of the ship. Nick is among them.

The ship does not sink, after all, isn’t the Titanic unsinkable? But she will have to be patched up, and then sailed back to Britain for repairs. The Titanic’s maiden voyage across the Atlantic will not take place until the summer of 1912.

Back In The 21st Century

Deirdre and Alan, from Nick’s office, decide to go for an after-work drink. It has been a tough time, what with Nick’s disappearance a few days’ earlier and their manager Elaine being particularly difficult.

“Where shall we go?” asks Alan. Deirdre wishes he would make a decision on his own, but he is only being polite. “I know!” she says, “let’s go to the Titanic Bar in Broad Street. That’s always got a good buzz.”

The walk takes about 20 minutes but it is a pleasantly warm evening and they chat about their colleague Nick on the way.

“Do you think there is anywhere we could look for him?” asks Alan. “I can’t understand why the police aren’t interested. Perhaps I should check his flat again?”

“No,” says Deirdre. “You’ve been every morning and evening this week. The police say there is no sign of any break-in or attack. Perhaps he doesn’t want to be found. Lots of people deliberately go missing you know.”

“I can’t understand it,” Alan replies. “It doesn’t make sense. And I get the feeling there is something missing. I mean, I know Nick is missing. But something isn’t right with the world.”

They turn the corner into Broad Street expecting to hear the noise from the Titanic Bar but it is unusually quiet. Then, as they get closer, they are unable to see the bar’s colourful neon lights. For a moment they are disorientated, as if they have turned into the wrong street. But, no, there is the little supermarket, the chemist, the bookies – and where the Titanic Bar should be is an empty building site.

Graham Brown

A Californian and an Englishman taking part in momentous Scottish events

Flag of Scotland: Saint Andrew's Cross, or the Saltire
Flag of Scotland: Saint Andrew’s Cross, or the Saltire

So, after weeks and months of campaigning – years and decades for some – we are coming towards the end of the Scottish independence referendum campaign. The vote on 18 September is three weeks away and the pace of debate and argument is more frantic. Many of us watched this week a heated, that is code for shouty and ill-tempered, debate between First Minister Alex Salmond, speaking for Yes Scotland, and Better Together’s Alistair Darling.

When my Californian wife Kathie Touin and I, an Englishman, moved to Orkney four years ago we never imagined we would be participating in the biggest vote in Scotland, and in the United Kingdom, for more than 300 years. It could lead to the biggest change in the United Kingdom since Ireland became independent, perhaps ever.

It is a privilege to live here at this time, and it is wonderful that – some social media abuse from a minority aside – the campaign has been conducted peacefully, politely and democratically. And, if friends in England are not sure, yes, as British citizens resident in Scotland Kathie and I do get to vote in the referendum.

There have been many public meetings to debate the issues – we went to one such event in our small village of Quoyloo. And Kathie went to a women’s conference in Kirkwall. How many years since political campaigns have inspired public meetings? I can vaguely remember as a child going to one such meeting, in Huntingdon, I think, to see Huntingdonshire MP David Renton speak at an election meeting – that must have been about 50 years ago.

Of course, the vote on 18 September will not settle everything, whether Scotland decides to go independent or to stay in the United Kingdom. Either way the future for Scotland, and the UK, is uncertain, but exciting as well. I get the feeling that folk in England are only just starting to realise and consider the possibilities. Those living in Wales and Northern Ireland, I suspect, may have given it more thought.

On the day I will be voting for… against… come now, you would not expect an old-fashioned ex-BBC employee brought up on impartiality to give that away would you?

But I will tell you this. I am concerned about the Scottish Government’s proposals for broadcasting in an independent Scotland.

Broadcasting was not mentioned as a topic in either Salmond v Darling TV debate and has only briefly, for a day or two, been in the media coverage of the debate. But, for me, it is important.

In summary, the Scottish Government, ie the Scottish National Party, proposes a Scottish Broadcasting Service (SBS), funded by the existing TV Licence fee, at the existing rate of £145.50-a-year. The SBS will provide TV, radio and online services, working in a joint venture with the BBC – not something the BBC and Licence payers in England will necessarily want.

We are told that we can expect to retain BBC Alba (Gaelic TV channel) but also to receive a new TV channel (details unspecified).

On radio, we will continue to receive the existing BBC stations Radio Scotland and Radio nan Gaidhael (Gaelic), and a new radio station (details, again, unspecified).

The SBS will also provide online services, to include a news website and a catch-up player.

In addition, SBS will have the right to opt-out of BBC One and BBC Two, as BBC Scotland does now. This proposal also has issues, will the BBC want to cede editorial control for chunks of its BBC-branded channels?

We are assured, under these proposals, that popular programmes like EastEnders, Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing will still be available. Leaving aside the question of why EastEnders is popular – every trail I see for it seems to be unmitigated gloom – I think this is correct. Even if BBC channels were not available in Scotland, programmes like these can easily be bought in by a Scottish broadcaster.

But how do these proposals add up when we think of the full range of BBC services? Somehow, without increasing the Licence Fee, and without taking advertising (as RTE does in Ireland), viewers and listeners in Scotland will get everything they do now plus a new TV channel and a new radio channel.

To me, it doesn’t add up. Something would have to give. For example, a BBC that no longer has to cater for Scottish licence payers could decide to turn off, or stop maintaining, transmitters north of the border. Can we guarantee getting the full range of BBC programmes? BBC Radio 4? Or BBC Radio 3? What about BBC Four? Or the BBC News channel?

We are told that people in many other countries receive BBC channels quite happily. But, in truth, they do not get the full range of services, and they are likely to be paying extra to get BBC channels. My friend in Belgium, for example, gets BBC One and BBC Two as part of his cable subscription. If he wanted to get more channels, he would have to pay more. And only some BBC Radio services are available.

I also have a concern about our local service here, BBC Radio Orkney. We get a properly staffed, professional news service, giving us a 30-minute news programme each morning, and a lunchtime bulletin, as well as a weekly request show and, during the winter months, nightly documentary, music and community programmes.

Given that the Scottish Government proposals seem to be trying to get a quart out of a pint pot – or whatever the metric equivalent might be – some cuts in existing output might be needed. Someone (in Glasgow or Edinburgh) might decide to reduce Radio Orkney to a morning-only service, or perhaps a joint service with BBC Radio Shetland, with a dedicated reporter or two in each place? Hopefully not.

Now, you might think my concern about broadcasting is mis-placed and that the Scottish Government proposals make sense. Or, you might think that voting for independence will give Scotland a chance to get its own TV and radio services and losing some BBC channels would be a price worth paying. One person on Twitter – @AAAForScotland – contacted me after I raised this issue to say: “BBC! lived without it for years out of choice I would never miss it, personal boycott in protest anti Scots.”

At the beginning of the referendum campaign I predicted that the result would be close. I stand by my prediction. Here in Orkney I would be amazed if there is a majority for independence. But across Scotland? It might just happen.

The night of Thursday 18 September could be very interesting. And not just for those of us living in Scotland.

To find out more

Scotland’s Future: Your Guide To An Independent Scotland –http://scotreferendum.com/reports/scotlands-future-your-guide-to-an-independent-scotland/

Better Together –
http://bettertogether.net/

BBC Annual Report 2013/14 –
http://www.bbc.co.uk/annualreport/2014/home/

Lord Birt says Scotland would lose many BBC services after yes vote –http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/aug/19/lord-birt-scotland-bbc-independent

Scottish independence: ‘Yes’ vote would ‘devastate’ broadcasting –http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-28863806

Post-independence break up of BBC would be ‘devastating’ says Curran –http://news.stv.tv/scotland-decides/news/288964-post-independence-break-up-of-bbc-would-be-devastating-says-curran/

Scottish independence: BBC services might not be free, says ex-Trust member –http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-27116556

My previous blog on this subject, Across the Border: Broadcasting In An independent Scotland (2013 article) –
https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/broadcasting-in-scotland/

How would the BBC be divided if Scotland became independent? (2012 article) – http://www.theguardian.com/politics/reality-check-with-polly-curtis/2012/feb/29/how-would-the-bbc-be-divided-if-scotland-became-independent

Across the Border: Broadcasting in an independent Scotland

 

BBC Scotland HQ in Glasgow. (photo: Stewart Priest)
BBC Scotland HQ in Glasgow (photo: Stewart Priest)

The devil is in the detail. What a great expression. And like many old sayings it carries great truth.

Here in Scotland we are moving towards our vote on whether to become an independent country. The referendum will be held on Thursday 18 September, 2014. I think the vote will be against independence but we shall see – much can and will happen over the next 15 months.

Many want Scotland to be independent come what may and they will not change their view before the referendum. Others believe Scotland should remain an integral part of the UK and, again, will not change their view.

But in between are the “don’t know” or “undecided” folk who will vote largely, I think, on economic issues. They will make a calculation about how independence will affect them and their families as the debate unfolds and as those devilish details are teased out.

The uncertainty of going into an independent future may make many undecided voters stick with the UK. What about public services, will there be sufficient money for them? How strong will Scotland’s economy be in the big wide world? What about the SNP proposal to keep sterling – how will that work? Will Scotland be accepted into the EU, with or without the Euro?

People will probably be less concerned about services such as health and education which have been run by Scottish governments since devolution re-established the Scottish Parliament in 1999 – provided, that is, they calculate that there will be enough money to fund them.

But there is a tricky area of services which currently operate across the border between England and Scotland. Railways is one example – how would that work? Would English-operated trains be expected to stop at the border. How far would ScotRail trains be allowed to operate into England?

And what about the military? Would a Scottish army, navy and air force be anything more than a token defence?

Personally I’m particularly concerned about broadcasting. For all its faults, we in the UK currently benefit from the BBC, an operation that is surely unequalled anywhere in the world.

For £145.50 a year (per household) we get a wonderful range of TV and radio stations – and online content – that provides something, in fact, lots of things, for everyone.

But what kind of public service broadcasting might we see in an independent Scotland? 

In August 2012 Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond outlined his ideas. The Guardian reported that he wants a new public service broadcaster, built on the assets and staff of BBC Scotland and funded mainly by licence fee payers. But he refused to rule out the prospect of the network carrying advertising alongside its public funding.

For me one of the joys of living in the UK is publicly-funded broadcasting which I am able to enjoy without advertising interrupting the flow of dramas, documentaries and sporting events. Do we really want to throw that away?

In mid-2011 there were 2.37 million households in Scotland (source: General Register Office for Scotland). Let’s be generous and assume every one of those households has a colour TV Licence. That will give a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation an income – without advertising – of less than £345m a year.

So, what can you get for £345m a year? I expect the BBC to publish its 2012/13 annual report and accounts later this month but the 2011/12 figures will give us a pretty good idea.

And it doesn’t make good reading for those who favour a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation.

To run BBC Two cost £416.6m in content – £537.1m by the time you have added in distribution and infrastructure/support – so there’s the budget gone straight away before you’ve got one TV channel, albeit a very good one, on the air. For the record, to run BBC One costs £1,041.1m in content which is approximately three times the projected income. Anyone fancy a three times increase in the Licence Fee?

The good news is that radio is cheaper. BBC Radio Scotland and the Gaelic service BBC Radio nan Gaidheal cost, including add-ons, £38.1m a year.

But the combined costs of BBC Radios 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 Live comes to £348.8m a year – roughly equivalent to our projected income for a Scottish public service broadcaster.

Many people in Scotland, most even, will not want to sacrifice all these services in return for a single under-funded new TV channel to run alongside BBC Radio Scotland.

And don’t expect the majority of TV Licence Fee payers in England to happily pay for existing BBC services to be broadcast for free in an independent Scotland.

Yes, the Scottish Broadcasting Corporation could buy in some of the popular programmes such as EastEnders, Strictly Come Dancing and David Attenborough documentaries – but this will quickly eat into the small budget.

And will we manage without BBC Radio 4 altogether? Or Radio 2?

Alex Salmond is right when he identifies the fact that “we do not have an English-language public service broadcasting channel of our own” in Scotland. But I don’t think his latest ideas are the right way to go about getting one.

To find out more

Guardian: Alex Salmond outlines plans to replace BBC Scotland –http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/aug/24/alex-salmond-replace-bbc-scotland

Guardian: Scottish referendum: BBC Scotland to invest £5m in extra programming –http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2013/may/21/scottish-referendum-bbc-scotland

BBC Annual Report 2012 –
http://www.bbc.co.uk/annualreport/2012/

TV Licensing –
http://www.tvlicensing.co.uk/