I recently followed a link on Twitter by Evelyn Weiss to the story of a woman who had the fortune (or rather, misfortune) to be involved with the fates of three of the most iconic ships in British maritime history – the White Star Line sister ships Olympic, Britannic and Titanic.
Whilst a fascinating story, the woman herself, Violet Jessop, had to change her life in some unpredictable ways in order to be accepted in her chosen profession. Her good looks were deemed a distraction. Her ambitions were not recognised or supported by the society in which she yearned to go further than the limit of opportunity on offer. She took to wearing frumpy dress and eschewing makeup in order to be acceptable. She was only able to achieve her ambitions by conforming to something she was not, though she knew she was simply adapting to survive. Her own essential character remained unchanged beneath the mask she wore.
My latest novel Jonah gets back to the dark, nautical roots of my favourite stories. The story involves a young seaman on a World War II destroyer who is ostracised and bullied by his peers after he miraculously survives an attack that leaves his entire part of the ship in ruins, killing all his friends. He already has a reputation as a lucky sailor, having been one of just ten survivors from a previous wreck two years previously. His latest escape unsettles his shipmates – bizarrely, he is almost unscathed. Their perception of him as a talismanic figure changes to one of suspicion and distrust. He finds himself alienated from the rest of the crew, and his separation enables him to perceive a bizarre obsession that begins consuming the remaining crew as they head for home.
It is part of our tribal belief system to shun the outsider. We ostracise them through fear, ignorance or simply because we don’t like what they bring to the party. It favours the status quo and comfort of the many against the progressive drive and iconoclasm of the maverick. It forces the one who is separated to adopt strategies that enable their survival without the support of the pack.
In the case of Violet Jessop, and many others who have had similar brushes with the extraordinary, it is their separation and relative independence from the society around them that seems to give them a sense of the extraordinary, almost an instinct for self-preservation that gives them an advantage when it comes to survival.
Perhaps, in the long struggle for supremacy, survival and adaptation, it is indeed the mavericks, those who are treated with suspicion and ostracised by the crowd for their refusal to conform, that will ultimately place first in the race to survive.
That’s certainly how I intend to continue. I’ll let you know how it goes. If you’re still around.