Seas of change have made ship's legacy unforgettable
'SO FAR as it is possible to do so, these two wonderful vessels are designed to be unsinkable'. These were the fateful words the White Star Line press office chose to publicise the launch of the Olympic and her sister ship, the Titanic.
And what a ship she was, some 883 feet long; 104 feet deep, containing four and a half miles of corridors, and, best of all, carrying over 25,000 individual items of crockery.
In a 1912 editorial, The Guardian newspaper described her sheer, unbridled excess, how Titanic 'surpasses in size and luxury, but especially in luxury, anything else afloat, if not also the Waldorf Astoria and the Royal Automobile Club.'
There were 'squash courts, Turkish baths, a gymnasium, swimming baths, electric passenger lifts, reception rooms, Ritz Carlton restaurants, concert halls, Parisian cafes and parlour suites with private promenade decks'.
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And after a full weekend of Titanic indulgence – topped by the Victoria Hall concert, the Captain Smith plaque, The Sentinel'sThe Way We Were special and plenty of Burslem's finest nautical ale – many will feel they have had their fill of this doomed ship.
Yet as our generation puts the iceberg and the unsinkable to rest, it is worth asking why – beyond the obvious interest in tales of bravery and cowardice at sea, of the terrible loss of human life and the hubris it entailed – there lingers this obsession with the Titanic?
Because the sinking of the Empress of Ireland two years later, with the loss of a thousand lives, was an equally tragic affair, yet few remember it now. And the end of the Lancastria during the Second World War has no similar such pull on our emotions.
The Titanic appeals to us because it points to a deeper sense of loss and belonging in modern Britain. In the history of the Titanic we can find a tragic yet peculiarly reassuring story that points to lost certainties, a story of British identity, imperial ambition, engineering bravado, and structured social class.
The story of Titanic has itself many histories. After initial coverage of the tragedy, its modern retelling begins in 1955 with A Night to Remember – the journalistic account of its sinking by New York writer Walter Lord.
This became the basis for the Kenneth More film of the same name, which emphasised the importance of a British stiff upper lip.
A very different version was offered in James Cameron's 1997 epic, Titanic. This was a more schmaltzy tale of emotion, excess and criticism of the British class system.
One unlikely fan of the Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, pictured left, hit was Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who thought it a brilliant depiction of class conflict in which 'the third-class passengers (the proletariat) struggle valiantly against the ship's crew (craven capitalists' stooges)'.
We have yet to hear what Beijing thinks of Julian Fellowes' ITV mini-series, but so-called Titanoraks are already picking holes in the production.
Today, re-enacting the events of April 1912 is a money-spinner for many British cities.
Belfast boasts a Titanic Quarter, complete with £97 million visitor centre where tourists can walk through the original Harland and Wolff shipyard gates and take a make-believe tour through the ship. Southampton, where the Titanic started out on her voyage, has a £15 million Seacity museum.
Even The Potteries Museum is in on the act with a dedicated exhibition. And as TV viewing figures, cinema ticket sales, and museum entrance numbers suggest, there is an enthusiastic market for all this.
Why? Because even without our own Captain Smith, in the story of the Titanic – made in Ulster, launched in England, crewed by Scots – there is a tale of a cohesive British identity.
In its enormity, there is a sense of Britain at the apex of her imperial prowess. In its ambition, there is the memory of when Britain made things, rather than just sold them. In its class hierarchy there are unattractive divisions, but for some a clearer sense of certainty.
And in the Titanic's excess and attempt to conquer nature is the verdict of an age less worried by man's impact on the environment.
All of that is why we might want to raise a final pint of Titanic to the memory of the unsinkable ship. But, in the process, we might be at risk of forgetting that wretched, icy grave so many plunged to.