Wednesday, 11 April 2012


The Titanic Belfast (54 degrees North, 5 degrees West) signature building rises like a sardine tin from a post-industrial wasteland behind an entertainment complex known for, among other things, hard selling alcohol and binge-drinking.

The building, and the hype around it, is a faint, 21st Century echo of the hubris which infused the cruise-liner it celebrates. Or commemorates? Or mourns, perhaps?

In any event, Titanic Belfast is a cash cow and a site of social division, as was the original cruise liner which sank following a collision with an iceberg in 1912.

Already voices have been raised questioning the probity and sensitivity of some of the commercial spin-offs from the remembrance of the tragedy. The most striking has been the production by Tayto, based in Tandragee, (52 degrees North, 6 degrees West) Ireland's finest crisp-makers, of Titanic-themed crisps. 

Let us remember: 1, 500 people died when the ship sank in ice-cold North Atlantic waters. 

What is this building then and all the attendant products and offers? Do they amount to a museum? A replica? A gallery? A mausoleum? A cenotaph? An elegy? An allegory?

A folly?

There is too much political support and public money built into it and considerable pressure to make it work commercially for it to be a folly though estimates of the number of people required to visit it in the coming years are staggering.

The social divisions inherent in the building of the Titanic and the filling of it in three classes, compounded by a vehement sectarianism and an imperial world-view at the time, find yet further faint echoes in the 21st version.

The general public are not able to view the iconic Grand Staircase, much featured in the Hollywood film blockbuster, Titanic and in the advertising of the new building. Corporate and special arrangements apply. It is like everything Titanic these days; available for hire.

What do we make, then, of the hundreds of people who sat in a modern departure lounge at Southampton (50 degrees North, 1 degree West) port, for a memorial service? Many of them held artefacts belonging to relatives lost in the sea tragedy. What human emotions do such events, and the building of Titanic Belfast,  resonate with?

The desire for spectacle and awe of course. The notion that a hint of  celebrity may attach to us if we associate ourselves with such a glorious and televised project. But also genuine desires to connect. With our ancestors and with each other.

Will this building help us do this, even if we have no direct connection with the tragic events of Titanic's failure? Do we gaze at the building in amazement? Do we traipse to it and through it to experience 'thrall', a sense of servitude and subjugation? Or are we in thrall – under some powerful influence? 

For glorious though it may be, a sinking sense that it is a glorious failure persists. That pity and woe are the pertinent responses. That humility rather than bravura should set the tone.

But it is hard to sell humility, pity and woe.

In Arthur Miller's great play, Death of a Salesman, enjoying a production in New York (40 degrees North, 74 degrees West), the destination of the Titanic on its ill-fated maiden voyage, Willie Loman returns from a failed sales mission and tells his sons:

.... And they know me boys, they know me up and down New England. The finest people. And when I bring you fellas up, there'll be open sesame for all of us, 'cause one thing boys: I have friends.
We are the aching aspirant, Willie Loman. Us and our cities. Aching and aspiring for association with the grand and the central. Following a dream, all the way into the icy, fathomless waters of our own hubris.

We are Jack and Fabrizio, sailing off into tragedy.

We paraphrase singer-songwriter Christy Moore:
Anyone for the last few Titanic Choc Ices there now?'
Death of a Salesman; play; Arthur Miller; 1949
Titanic; film; James Cameron; Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; 1997
Lisdoonvarna; song; Christy Moore; 1982

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