Sunday, June 22, 2014

Two Minds About The Titanic

Harland and Wolff 1911 (The Titanic is the ship in the background)
a post from 2 years ago
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For many years my father worked in Harland and Wolff, the shipyard that built the Titanic. He worked as a welder and boiler maker and in those days you learned on the job from master welders and riveters, who in turn had learned their trade from the men who had gone before. This was a tradition of craft engineering and apprenticeships that went all the way back to the Titanic and indeed all the way back to the first ships H&W built in the nineteenth century. Later my sister Lorna too worked at Harland and Wolff. Many people I knew worked there until the great and terrible shipyard closures of the 70's and 80's when Glasgow, Liverpool and Belfast lost tens of thousands of skilled workers. It was a hell of a thing to build a ship and watch it get launched by a VIP and then do its sea trials out in Belfast Lough. All that, like I say, is gone now. H&W still exists as a company but its few hundred workers are employed building turbines for offshore wind farms and repairing oil rigs.
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Like the Troubles, for many years the Titanic was something Belfast was very good about not talking about. Not talking about things is something Ulstermen do better than anyone else in the world and the Titanic disaster stirred uneasy feelings in the blood. There was I suspect a feeling of collective guilt about building the ship that cost so many lives in - still - one of the worst maritime disasters in history. Guilt and shame will close many a mouth. But although not talking about the Titanic was probably a bad thing, in recent years the city fathers in Belfast have gone too far the other way. In the aftermath of James Cameron's successful movie and the hundredth anniversary of the disaster, a whole district of East Belfast has been renamed The Titanic Quarter, Titanic tours are being run, an interactive museum caters to the kiddies, interior parts of the ship have been reconstructed etc. etc. Now we're very much in celebration mode about the vessel and an old Belfast joke "well, she was ok, when she left us" has been recycled of late. 
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I know the Titanic museum has been a success but still I think I prefer the former diffident approach rather than this slightly vulgar celebratory stance. The RMS Titanic was a cock up of enormous proportions and there is plenty of blame to go round. The ship was going too fast in iceberg infested seas, the bulkheads and pumps were insufficient to deal with a gash in the hull that size, there were not enough lifeboats for all the passengers and crew. Sinking in calm seas, at night, with a ship nearby, its a scandal that so many people drowned or died of hypothermia. All those engineering failures, all that pointless death...
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If you want to learn about a Harland and Wolff ship with an honourable past I would suggest skipping the Titanic stuff and instead visit HMS Belfast anchored in the Thames as a permanent museum to the great warships of WW2. Belfast fought in many important engagements during the Battle of the Atlantic, she helped sink the German battleships the Tirpitz and the Scharnhorst, she supported the Canadian forces on Juno Beach during D Day and was in service all the way through to the Korean War. That's a ship worth getting excited about.