THE YOUNG BAKER AND THE SEA
Alcohol kills, befuddles the brain and leads to ruin – so runs the old saying, but of course that is untrue. Anyone with a penchant for poetry much prefers to believe the words of the philosopher Béla Hamvas: "In each wine there lives a little angel who, when a person drinks it, does not die but makes its way among the innumerable fairies and angels who inhabit that person. When the wine is drunk, the little genie is welcomed on arrival by those already within with songs and a deluge of flowers. The little fairy is enchanted and all but bursts into flames with joy. This joyous fire streams through and carries away the drinker. There is no resisting this. That is why I say that a glass of wine is the atheist’s death leap."
“Death leap” reminds me! Do you know who was the last person to leap from the Titanic into the icy waters of the Atlantic? Pour yourself a glass of Villány Blaufränkisch, revel in the vibrant acidity of this muscular, peppy wine, let its substantial, mellow, intensely fruity – in particular, sour cherry-flavoured – world take possession of your taste buds, and while you wait to be welcomed by songs and deluged with flowers, let me tell you the tale of the baker of the Titanic, whose life was saved by alcohol.
On the evening of 14 April 1912, while the rich passengers in first class were consuming their last meal on the Titanic – cream of barley soup, poached salmon in Mousseline sauce with cucumbers, filet mignons Lili, sauté of chicken lyonnaise, vegetable marrow farci, lamb in mint sauce, roast duckling with apple sauce, sirloin of beef with château potatoes, punch romaine, roast squab and cress, cold asparagus vinaigrette, pâté de foie gras, cream of celery, Waldorf pudding, peaches in chartreuse jelly, chocolate and vanilla éclairs and French ice-cream – the luxury liner’s 32-year-old chief baker, the Englishman Charles Joughin, shut himself in his cabin and consoled himself with several bottles of red wine. Not to put too fine a point on it, he drank himself into a stupor. At 11.40 p.m., when the Titanic hit an iceberg, he jolted awake with a dizzy head, and the fairies and angels organized such a deluge of flowers and songs in his soul that he could barely hear the officers already letting the lifeboats slip into the water.
Joughin gradually sobered up and ordered the 13 bakers in his charge to take some bread to the lifeboats. Meanwhile he drank a little red wine. Then he helped the women and children climb into the boats. Meanwhile he drank a little red wine. When he was put in charge of one of the lifeboats, he did not get in himself, preferring to go back to his cabin, where he had a little red wine: half a bottle, as he later admitted. Then he returned on deck. When there were no lifeboats left, he began to throw seats and deckchairs into the sea so he would have something to cling to later. Meanwhile he had a little red wine. He strolled over to the stern of the ship as its bow was already ploughing deep into the water, and awaited the sinking of the ship on the far side of its stern. Meanwhile he drank a little red wine. He was the last person to leave the Titanic. He leapt into the water at the last minute and clung to a chair. Meanwhile he drank a little red wine. He floated for two hours on the surface of the water, until he reached a capsized lifeboat to which 25 people were already clinging for dear life. Meanwhile he drank a little red wine. The Carpathia came to their salvation just a short time later.
Charles remained a sea salt all his life. This was by no means the last accident he was involved in: several more ships sank beneath him subsequently. For example, the Oregon, not far off Boston. The ship’s baker would often tell his tale in harbour pubs to sailors who stared open-mouthed in disbelief: “You just need some alcohol, m’lads, sherry, or – better still – some good red wine. You sup it slowly, and before long you’re ready to jump. The angels and the fairies burst into flame within you, and can keep you warm for hours in the icy waters. Take my word for it!” he would say with a laugh, and order another bottle of red wine, even though in harbour pubs you are meant to drink only beer and rum.
English translation © Peter Sherwood 2019