Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

A rant from ‘the talent’ will not mar my love of Titanic

Remembrance: commemorations have been at times tacky, but also sombre and fitting the occasion, though not to Marr’s taste

Just who does Andrew Marr think he is? There's always been something about the cocky BBC television presenter that makes me want to flick one of his famously prominent ears.

Perhaps it's the air of mannered privilege that surrounds him, whether scooting down leafy London boulevards in a turquoise convertible, as he does in the opening sequence of his long-running Sunday morning programme, or striding smugly past the poorly-paid lackeys in the newsroom.

Last Sunday, Marr used the platform of his show to attack the Titanic centenary commemorations. Barely had the theme tune died away than Marr popped up, ears on fire, to denounce the tackiness of the public response.

“We are treating it as a national celebration. Are we going to be doing this for fatal air crashes in future?” he fulminated.

“I think it is sordid and tasteless and very dull and I hope after today we won't hear any more about this sad story except from the driest of dry historians.”

Well, thanks for that, Andrew. It's clear you couldn't wait to get that one off your chest.

I can just imagine you having Saturday brunch in some Islington deli, jawing away about the dreadful tackiness of it all, while your posh media mates nod in enthusiastic agreement and sip their decaf soya lattes.

And who asked Marr for his opinion anyway? I thought BBC presenters were expected to be models of impartiality, careful to be strictly neutral and even-handed on all topics.

It seems that Marr has risen so far up the ranks of ‘talent’ — as the BBC embarrassingly continues to call its presenters — that he can now use his show to air his own personal views with impunity; to set himself up as an arbiter of public morality.

But Marr's breach of journalistic etiquette annoys me far less than the ignorant nature of the rant itself.

Certainly, there were crass, overly-commercialised elements — both here in Northern Ireland and elsewhere — to the Titanic centenary.

But to dismiss the commemorations, in their entirety, as “sordid and tasteless and very dull”, is wrong.

To do so is prescriptive, conceited and contemptuous and Marr is also guilty of an enormous failure of imagination.

His pompous refusal to consider what the Titanic story means shows a lack of genuine understanding, of the ship itself, as icon and metaphor, as well as the flotsam and jetsam of films, plays, books and all kinds of strange memorabilia — branded teabags, bath-plugs, jars of jam — that bob in her remembered wake.

For all Marr's pretensions as a populist historian — he has presented programmes and written books on the history of modern Britain — he comes across as elitist and out of touch with ordinary people. This is the great man speaking from on high and we — the humble masses — are expected to listen.

It's hardly surprising, though: Marr, together with his wife, political columnist Jackie Ashley, is a paid-up member of the London chattering classes, a world characterised by too much loud talking and not enough listening.

Marr probably wouldn't know, or care, about this, but here in Belfast there have been some deeply resonant and powerful responses to the Titanic centenary. Philip Hammond's extraordinary Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic, performed in St Anne's Cathedral on Saturday night, and again as part of requiem mass in St Peter's Cathedral on Sunday morning was, for me, the defining moment in the commemorations.

This was music that surged through you and left you changed afterwards; a transcendent, spiritual experience.

There could be no better way to remember and honour the Titanic dead.

Afterwards, later on Saturday night, I went on to a Titanic ‘wake’, where guests had dressed up as zombies in Edwardian costume, and there was a countdown to the collision with the iceberg. From the sublime to the shamelessly tacky all in one evening: this, Mr Marr, is what the Titanic myth is all about.

We don't need a jumped-up London television presenter to tell us what to remember — and how.

There's a reason this story has resonated down the generations, gripping the imaginations of people from all over the world. It's a tale of life and death that holds a mirror up to our own mortality.

In some ways, we're all on the Titanic. And even Andrew Marr doesn't have his own personal lifeboat.

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