Spiked, April 17, 2012
The only thing more absurd than the recent outbreak of Titanic mania is the anti-Titanic tut-tutting.
Some years ago when I worked in loyalist east Belfast I mentioned that I didn’t see the big deal about the Titanic: ‘Big ship. Sank. End of story.’
I was very quickly informed by my colleagues that I was wrong: the Titanic was a symbol of pride to the area, a reminder of a time when Belfast was one of the richest cities in the world and home to world-class engineering employing tens of thousands of workers.
And you know what? They were right. To a degree at least.
Living myself in republican west Belfast, the Harland and Wolff shipyard was not something I knew much about — other than the fact that it was a Protestant, loyalist stronghold, hostile to Catholics and republicans. Despite this fact (one that should not be consigned to the memory hole that is the Irish peace process), it is also true that the Titanic celebrations, in east Belfast at least, are in reality a sad lament for a disappeared working class on the part of those who followed them from industry into joblessness, the dole queue and on to the scrapheap.
Writing a press report on the various Titanic shenanigans recently, I was informed by several people that before it became the unavoidable totem it is now, the Titanic was a source of shame for decades. In fact, it is only in recent years that east Belfastians have felt able to commemorate it in any way. Arriving as I did in east Belfast for a job it may as well have been the moon to me, so divided was Belfast. Thus for all I knew the murals depicting the sunken ship, the chip shop named after it and the rest of the marking of its construction could have been there from time immemorial. Or at least any time since 1912.
In fact, the Titanic was barely spoken of in Belfast for decades. As long as Harland and Wolff was a going concern — even if only just under the disastrous stewardship of the state — the focus was on getting more work, not thinking about a past disaster. Today that reticence has been swept away, thanks in no small part to the fact that Harland and Wolff, while now owned by Norwegian Fred Olsen & Co and no longer on death watch, is a shadow of its former self with fewer than a thousand employees, many of whom are contract workers.
Since the Titanic’s centenary came into view, though, there has been an even more troubling response to Titanic mania: unease verging on disgust.
It’s not that Titanic mania should be free from criticism. Far from it. The heritage industry is in full swing in Northern Ireland, with the opening of a £77million state-run tourist attraction, Titanic Belfast, taking centre stage, leaving some openly wondering if it is appropriate to turn the human tragedy that was the loss of 1,500 lives into a tourist attraction. Due to the fact that Titanic Belfast’s management couldn’t be bothered returning my calls (despite working for a US newspaper — so much for tourism) I have no idea whether or not the exhibition is genuinely interesting or a weird collision of Disneyland and death by drowning — but that’s really not the point.
The economic promise of tourism is not the point either: the promise of tourism jobs is a fairly sad replacement for the days when Harland and Wolff employed 30,000 people in Belfast. Plus you can be pretty sure that when it comes to official commemorations, Ireland’s dark history will be bent entirely out of shape to suit ‘tourismism’, the ideology that has replaced both unionism and republicanism as the only acceptable political viewpoint.
No, what is pertinent right now is the lengths people will go to distance themselves from apparently déclassé commemorations-cum-celebrations.
The primary criticism levelled at both Titanic Belfast and the ceremony held in the Titanic’s last port of call, Cobh, County Cork on 11 April, or the projection of images on to an iceberg, is the claim that they are unseemly celebrations of an appalling event. This reaction, as much as the Titanic anniversary itself, is over the top and leaves me with the sinking feeling that snobbery is at play.
The story of the Titanic is captivating because of its horror, which is magnified by the fact that it marked the failure of so many dreams for a better life. That it is best remembered now as a mawkish movie does little to diminish the fact that it is a historical event worth knowing about. Moreover, complaints about the alleged poor taste of the anniversary miss the point: the sinking of the Titanic is now so distant that it is difficult to imagine anyone feeling much genuine unease at the somewhat cartoonish marking of the disaster’s centenary.
True, the voyage of the Balmoral, the ship which sailed out to the site of the Titanic‘s sinking, is a little ghoulish if you stop to think about it for too long. But it is also harmless. Doubtless some will have treated it as a party while others will have solemnly mourned the loss of life. To take a strong position either way on the cruise is to ascribe too much importance to a boat trip that really has very little meaning.
What is really tasteless is the recasting of Titanic as a metaphor for modern society and humanity’s apparent hubris.
Meanwhile, why shouldn’t the grandchildren of the Harland and Wolff workers who built the Titanic commemorate the past, warts and all? If a few ‘socialist realist’-style murals and some service-industry jobs in an impressive building are the worst, or even the only, thing to come out of Titanic mania… well, so be it. It’s not much of a vision for the future, but it’s not hurting anyone either.
Nostalgia for heavy industry isn’t going to get anyone anywhere — it’s certainly not going to make 30,000 manufacturing jobs magically appear — but it is at least, I suppose, a reminder of a time both when manufacturing represented a significant proportion of the economy of every developed economy and, perhaps more importantly, when thinking big was seen as entirely natural. The vision that allowed the Titanic to be built is close to unimaginable now. True, there have since been larger ships and, also true, we can now traverse the globe much faster by air, but we can still learn a lesson from a time when human achievement was cheered on rather than jeered at.
I for one didn’t celebrate — or commemorate — the Titanic’s tragic maiden voyage. But I won’t criticise anyone who did.