'X Factor' element takes Titanic celebrations into murky waters

 

Marking centenary is understandable but taste should not be thrown overboard either

TO PARAPHRASE Rev Lovejoy from The Simpsons, everybody is saying “Titanic this” and “Titanic that”, but nobody is saying “Jehovah this” and “Jehovah that”.

James Cameron’s fatuous Titanic – a dime-store weepy mounted as a squillion-dollar epic – has been refitted with 3D images and is steaming its way back to cinemas. Julian Fellowes has written a series for ITV. Angry Birds is currently available in a special maritime edition. (The player fires furious seagulls at a rickety, rapidly submerging ocean liner.)

Okay, I made the last one up. But the orgy of celebration is becoming increasingly hard to ignore. The centenary of the ship’s sinking comes our way on April 15th. Every town with even the most obscure connection to the vessel is mounting some sort of commemoration.

It hardly needs to be said that the city that built the ship has gotten itself into a particularly fervent tizzy. Wee exhibits have begun appearing in shopfronts throughout Belfast. BBC Northern Ireland has spread dedicated programming across the schedules. As you read this, Titanic Belfast, a lavish, angular “visitor experience”, is opening its doors to the excited conurbation. There is to be a concert featuring some X-Factor runner-up you’ve already forgotten. And face painting for the kids.

Amazingly, I genuinely didn’t make up the last event. Should you be interested, you really can get an image of the sunken mausoleum – about 1,500 people died – plastered on your infant’s cheek. The demise of the Titanic is the human catastrophe that keeps on giving.

Your current correspondent has just returned from the city of his birth. Suffocated by the assault of shipwreck-related ephemera, I ran panting on to Donegall Place and hung my head in distress. What’s this? Interesting facts about the White Star liner have actually been chiselled into the pavement. The celebration now defies parody. Come April 15th, expect newsreaders to recite the headlines dressed as early-20th-century seamen.

Are the commemorations in the best taste? The old saw argues that comedy is tragedy plus time. The greater the catastrophe the more decades must go by before we can make jokes. Though a century and a half have passed, stand-up comics still approach the Famine with some caution.

One can, however, describe a busy summer pub as being “like the Black Hole of Calcutta” without triggering any significant opprobrium from descendants of the Raj overseers. Only those with very sensitive constitutions get het up about quips concerning medieval plagues. After just 100 years, we should, however, still tread lightly when approaching this particular subject.

Insofar as we can judge, the Titanic Belfast Festival is, of course, not taking the mickey out of the tragedy. But the tone of frivolity that hangs around many of the events is disconcerting. Immediate descendants of the survivors still walk the planet.

They may well enjoy the rigorously curated exhibits in Titanic Belfast. They will certainly appreciate the tasteful memorial that now occupies its own garden at the City Hall. They may be less keen on listening to the warblings of Olly Murs (oh yeah, that’s his name!) at the concert presented in conjunction with MTV.

The hysteria also manages to scare up a question that has long concerned observers of this fine city. Why are we so proud to have built RMS Titanic? With the best will in the world, you couldn’t call the ship’s maiden voyage an unqualified success.

In the intervening decades, the disaster has come to stand for blind optimism and tragic hubris. It seems that neither the shipping line nor the builders ever described the vessel as “unsinkable”. That myth has, however, wound itself into popular consciousness. You might reasonably assume that Belfast would be faintly embarrassed by its contribution to such a conspicuous calamity.

Well, an old joke, much quoted around Harland and Wolff shipyards, argues that: “It was all right when it left here.” They may be right. For all we know, the greatest ship in the world was just unlucky enough to have struck the sharpest iceberg in the North Atlantic.

The truth is, sadly, that the good burghers of Belfast have long been searching for any source of civic celebration, however dubious. We are, after all, famous for little else but communal strife and George Best. Van Morrison may have to wait a while before anyone erects a statue. Stiff Little Fingers have yet to appear on a stamp.

A palpable sense of desperation hangs over the commemorations. One imagines an ignored child furiously seeking attention. Look at me! Look at me! You thought we just flung petrol bombs at one another? Not at all. We also contributed to one of the most spectacular – and romantic – transport disasters in the history of human endeavour.

None of which is to suggest the centenary should not have been acknowledged. But a little more restraint would have been welcome.

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