That Guy

That Guy is a Herald on Sunday columnist

That Guy: It's like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic

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When something seems futile we often use the phrase, 'It's like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic'. Photo / Thinkstock
When something seems futile we often use the phrase, 'It's like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic'. Photo / Thinkstock

Few people can have a glass of Scotch and ice - or even get an ice block from the freezer - without thinking about the Titanic disaster. It is with us daily. The great ship, and ice, have been etched into our consciousness ever since that fateful day in April 1912.

The name Titanic itself has become synonymous with failure. When something seems futile we often use the phrase, "It is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic".

The term has always had a special meaning for my family because my great-grandfather worked on the ship, and his job was quite literally to rearrange the deck chairs.

His official title was Deck Chair Re-Arranger.

By all accounts, every morning he was supposed to set up all the deck chairs and face them toward the sun. As the ship moved during the day he had to carefully monitor the situation and re-arrange the chairs.

He also had to ensure that German holidaymakers didn't get up at six in the morning and try to claim the deck chairs by placing a towel on them, as they are still known to do nowadays at resorts worldwide.

There were exactly 256 deck chairs on the Titanic and my great grandfather and his off-sider, an Irishman called Pat O'Reilly, were responsible for every single one of them, and though he only had the job for two and a half days days they both took it very seriously.

Theirs was a sought-after job. They were on deck mixing with the passengers. They had to dress smartly, be well spoken, and have a basic knowledge of the ship should a passenger ask a question like, "Excuse me, boy, where is the promenade deck"?

They were also permitted to take orders for toasted sandwiches.

You are no doubt wondering what happened to him on that fateful day?

My great-grandfather's diary begins that day by saying: "10am and I am re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It seems such a pointless task as I know I am only going to have to re-arrange them again later, but it's a job and Pat and I are thankful for that. Pat is a great bloke and a very good deck chair re-arranger. I think he has a great future ahead of him."

Of course, we know now that later that night, after all the deck chairs on the Titanic had been re-arranged back into the deck chair cupboard, the Titanic struck a rogue iceberg and sank. We also now know that Pat didn't have a great future ahead of him because he was fired that afternoon for gross misconduct.

Specifically, he smoked on duty and had a sexual relationship with a young man from steerage. He got a written warning for the smoking but homosexual relationships were frowned upon in 1912 and this was in direct violation of the terms and conditions of his contract.

Many respected historians now believe the Leonardo DiCaprio character in the movie is based on Pat, but certain details were changed to make the movie Hollywood-friendly. Pat, who was below decks at the time of the sinking, almost certainly went down with the ship and his lover from steerage, but my great-grandfather managed to survive the tragic sinking.

Eyewitnesses reported that when the ship actually sank he was busy re-arranging the deck chairs to ensure they didn't slide along the deck and injure people.

While doing so he was thrown overboard into the icy ocean. Ever resourceful, he managed to survive by climbing into a floating grand piano.

By all accounts, he never talked much about the disaster, but whenever someone said flippantly "It is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic" he would sneak in a little smile and say, "What would you know?"

- Herald on Sunday

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