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. 

51 comments:

Neil - Cardiff said...

Completely agree with your comments Adrian , it's almost as if Belfast is mocking itself ! As traditional industry has been allowed to fall by the wayside the city fathers have sacrificed their dignity in pursuit of the tourist dollar.There's nothing wrong with creating work for the local population but celebrating one of the most high profile disasters in history somehow seems entirely inappropriate !

John McFetridge said...

It is interesting how the Titanic has become this great symbolism of the "end of an era," which, of course, hasn't ended at all.

Cary Watson said...

Great piece, Adrian. The whole concept seems pretty lame. I mean, how many tourists are actually interested in dropping money in the Titanic Quarter? If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, then disaster tourism has to be last refuge of desperate chambers of commerce.

seana said...

I take your point, but I think I'm going to disagree with you here. I don't think the fascination with the Titanic is ghoulish so much as compassionate, and the story is really just one of those anti-hubris tales that is fairly rare right now.

And I'm not sure that the city fathers haven't made a wise move in 'reframing' Belfast in this way, as most Americans still think only of bombings and the terrorism of more recent decades. Reminding them that there was a Belfast before that, and by extension after, is probably on balance a good thing.

As we know, not a lot of them have had the chance to read The Cold, Cold Ground and learn that even that era had other aspects.

Plus, a lot of people just really, really like ships.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the heads-up on a ship that Belfast can be proud of.

Incidentally, do you know which noted crime writer went down with the Titanic?
====================================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Rick Ollerman said...

It was Jacques Futrelle, wasn't it?

adrian mckinty said...

Neil

It is undignified. Its morbid death tourism kick started by a cheesy Hollywood film.

adrian mckinty said...

John

No. The shipyards on the Clyde and Belfast closed down just as the cruise ship business was starting to take off. Brilliant timing by the government.

adrian mckinty said...

Cary

Disaster tourism indeed. Tacky and slightly immoral if you ask me.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

The hubris only came from one official of the White Star line who made a silly quote and did not pay with his life. Hundreds of men, women and children had no part in the hubristic statement and died because of half a dozen disparate human and engineering errors. You might as well celebrate notorious airline crashes like the Tenerife airport disaster, which of course they dont. Not until someome comes along and makes a cheesy movie about it.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

HMS Belfast is definitely a ship to be proud of. Helped sink the Tirpitz, the Scharnhorst and fired the first shot on D Day.

adrian mckinty said...

Rick

I'll bow to you on this one.

seana said...

It doesn't matter if it was only one person who said it. It's the line that caught.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

AN Wilson the English historian incidentally is very dubious about that line and says that actually no one claimed the ship was unsinkable until the ship was actually sunk.

But again, its irrelevant, you cant apply hubris to the steerage class passengers going to America looking for a better life and subsequently drowned or froze to death.

seana said...

I'm not applying it to the passengers. I don't think anyone is. I think the story appeals to people because they know so much about the individual destinies and feel the tragedy of all the lives lost in all the classes, steerage or no. I'm not saying it is my favorite story. I'm just saying that people have immersed themselves in the lives of the people who were on board and they will want to know more. It's kind of like wanting to know about all the people who were in the Twin Towers. I'm not saying that I want to know that either, but people do. And there is always some random connection to these large scale deaths. When I was a kid in Denver, The Unsinkable Molly Brown came out. And there was strong local interest in the movie because she was a Colorado gal.

seana said...

Actually, a closer example would be the interest in the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Matt said...

That HMS Belfast has seen some history. Nice they saved her.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Yeah the Challenger is a good analogy. It would unspeakably vulgar if there was a Challenger Centre that let you experience the last minute and a half inside the shuttle as it plummeted to the Earth. Thats the way I feel about the Titanic interactive experience in Belfast.

Ha, its funny you should mention that Molly Brown house. I had to take two separate parties of kids there on school trips.

adrian mckinty said...

Matt

Yeah its not quite as impressive as the Mighty Mo, the storied USS Missouri, but its not bad.

seana said...

You are reminding me that a lot of one's point of view depends on one's level of attachment.

I think a lot of Americans might like to visit (or at least take their kids to) an interactive site about the Titanic. Although it might be a sensitive issue for the workers who worked to the design of the ship, the blame isn't really attached to them, either in reality, or in the public's view.

I would have liked to go to the Molly Brown house. What we did on field trips way back then was go to Central City.

js4now said...

There actually was a big interactive exhibition about the Titanic at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science a few years ago. Thousands of people attended. It was, as you say Seana, centered on individuals. Each visitor received a ticket and biography of a person or family. As visitors viewed thie artifacts, the biography pointed out where "their" person or family had been. I didn't attend myself but knew many people who were moved by it. It seemed to be the stories of real people who are often forgotten in the marketing of tourist attractions.

Jean

seana said...

Thanks, Jean. As with so much else, the personal element does matter.

I remember that museum from my childhood, by the way. Although actually what I remember most was some kind of parkor grounds around it and the fact that I was walking around with a retractable pencil.

Sheiler said...

I have never seen Titanic the movie nor will I ever. My mother told me the story when I was young - maybe 8 or 9yrs - and it horrified me so much then that there's no way I will relive that feeling of when I first heard about it.

When 9/11 happened I liked reading the stories about some of the people who'd died in the towers - published in the New Yorker (I had a subscription then).

Can't reconcile the two.

Frankie said...

The Titanic museum looks great though doesn't it? Vistors will spend more money. Good for Belfast.

What I find more depressing is the Uk is one big museum of nostaglia to great industry now lost. Successive governments have dismantled our industry. What the reason is I'm not sure. Weak leaders and misguided sociological experiments I guess.

js4now said...

Frankie, your statement is a very articulate statement of the problem. I don't think a tourist economy is as stable or rewarding as real business.

Jean

js4now said...

Sean's,

The grounds around the museum is City Park, one of Denver's largest. The DenverZoo I also there. It's nice!

Jean

seana said...

Unless, of course, your tourist industry is based around Walt Disney.

seana said...

Thanks, Jean. Funny that I don't remember the zoo.

js4now said...

Seana,

Damn autocorrect! Sorry!

js4now said...

True that Disney businesses are enduring, but tourist businesses don't create lifelong jobs that can support a family. At least here in Colorado, tourist jobs are transient minimum wage positions.

Jean

John McFetridge said...

No. The shipyards on the Clyde and Belfast closed down just as the cruise ship business was starting to take off. Brilliant timing by the government.

No, Adrian, what I meat was that the Titanic story is usually played for the symbolism of putting the entire class system on a boat and sinking it. I've only seen one episode of the new TV mini-series (by the Downton Abby guy) and it's pretty heavy-handed in this regard.

But it's also pretty heavy in the nostalgia for some kind of lost "golden age" of something...

adrian mckinty said...

Frankie

The museum is designed very well I admit. Its an attractive building.

adrian mckinty said...

JS

Been to that zoo many times.

adrian mckinty said...

John

Back then when the poor knew their place you mean?

John McFetridge said...

Yeah, and rich people had class and weren't all nouveau riche and tacky. And there was, you know, elegance and all that. People love that shit. They've even convinced themselves that some of it is true.

And, of course, it all ended when the Titanic went down.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I'll be in England for Crimefest in May. I shall look up that ship.

The Titanic exhibit on its Philadelphia stop took great care to show examples of the different classes of shipboard accommodations.

Rick: Right you are. It was Jacques Futrelle.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I'll be in England for Crimefest in May. I shall look up that ship.

The Titanic exhibit on its Philadelphia stop took great care to show examples of the different classes of shipboard accommodations.

Rick: Right you are. It was Jacques Futrelle.

seana said...

Jean's, not to worry.

John, I'm glad you join me on the Downton Abbey dislike. We are a minority. Although as one friend pointed out to me, I do like the actor who plays the wounded butler.

seana said...

Come to think of it, he's a valet.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

I havent seen Downton. I have a feeling that it would tip me into paroxysms of rage so I'm saving it for when they need to wake me up from a coma or something.

seana said...

A wise course. I have a feeling it wouldn't sit well. Although if the real reason you like Mad Men is the fashions, it might go down pretty well. My sister who also isn't a fan calls it eye candy.

adrian mckinty said...

The BBC has a good piece on the myths of the Titanic here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17515305

John McFetridge said...

Those Titanic myths sure say a lot about what works for storytellers.

There's probably a decent essay on what the Nazi propaganda movie and the Hollywood versions have in common.

js4now said...

Wow! How can you not love Downton??? Early 20th century liberated women controlling their wealth, having one night stands and not being "ruined," and happy servants sitting around reading magazines, it's almost a documentary, right? ;)

I actually do love the Downton soap opera. I enjoy happy fantasies.

Jean

seana said...

Don't let us grumps spoil your fun then, Jean. Most others I know have loved it.

BigSean said...

I guess to paraphrase the old saw Tragedy + Time = Comedy in a capitalist paradigm we can now say Tragedy + Time = Profits.

I am always a little creeped out at the Titanic version of the kid's slide we see at county fairs, carnivals and the like. It's angled to replicate the Titanic's sinking motion and kiddies charge up to the top and slide down for a buck while the non inebriated adults stand at the bottom asking if this is really tacky or are we just being prigs ? It's really tacky and I agree that maybe silence is a better course than celebrating design failure. God knows what will happen here 100 years after The Challenger went to pieces on take off or The Columbia disintegrated on re-entry. Peace.

Alan said...

Adrian,Perhaps you are right in that the real tragedy of Titanic was that it was both a bleeding sore for the generations of craftsmen workers who labored there and whose children saw their jobs evaporate with the closings and "the troubles".Belfast, however,seems much like Glasgow a tough town whose people seem resilient.Albuquerque a desert city also has a "mockup " of the Titanic.Best Alan

Tom and Linda said...

My dad was in the US Navy during WWII and stayed in until 1956. I got to see a lot of US ships until then. 55 years later I saw the HMS Belfast in London. Quite a trip on so many different levels.

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

Huge mistake closing those shipyards just as there was a boom in both cruise ships and in the building of container ships to carry the China trade. The French, German and S Korean govts all supported their shipyards while the Thatcher govt let so many important yards die. Like I say, big mistake.

adrian mckinty said...

Tom

After he got back from the merchant navy my dad joined the Royal Naval Reserve - he was in that until the late 80's. My little brother Gareth is also in the Royal Naval Reserve - he's an intelligence officer who served in Afghanistan (landlocked) and Iraq (about 4 miles of coastline).

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