Cashing in? So what? That was always Titanic’s role
Are you Titanic-ed out yet? With only a few days to go to the centenary itself, the focus on the doomed liner has never been more intense.
We have all been caught up in the drama and romance and tragedy of it all and the old shame associated with the ship's demise has been almost entirely erased.
In fact, in our total embrace of Titanic, we have done a complete cultural u-turn. She's now our greatest celebrity — the dear, dead Marilyn Monroe of the Belfast shipyards.
Titanic has become a source of fierce pride, all the more passionate for being belated, and a locus for all kinds of conflicting emotions about this country and its people — hope, fear, loss, grief, pity and love.
It's no wonder, then, that so many of us want a piece of the ship. In a wounded city that has struggled to find true heroes and icons, Titanic has suddenly become the lodestar of our collective imagination.
We tell stories about her and about the men who built her. Just like Martin McGuinness, who recently expressed his pride that his father's uncle, Hugh Rooney, had worked on Titanic, we recall relatives who also helped to create this extraordinary ship of dreams.
We repeat the strange myths we have heard about her. Yesterday, I met a man — a complete stranger — who told me how a flock of white birds had landed on the ship as she lay in the slipways, an omen that apparently foretold her doom.
We want to touch history, to trace the connections between ourselves and Titanic, to become part of a greater story, and I am no exception.
In May 2009, I became the last person to interview Millvina Dean, the last living survivor of the Titanic, days before her death in a Southampton nursing home.
Just a nine-week-old baby in her mother’s arms when Titanic set sail in 1912, Millvina was so tiny that, when the ship struck the iceberg, she had to be lifted into a lifeboat in a postal sack.
When I met the 97-year-old, she was still a formidable woman, gruff but kindly, with razor-sharp wits. I noticed her hands: although gnarled and age-spotted, they were exquisitely manicured, her nails carefully painted coral-pink. There was a long, long lifetime reflected in those hands.
Everyone wanted a piece of Millvina: in some bizarre cases, literally. She told me that Titanic obsessives would ask for locks of her hair. To them, Millvina was a kind of living artefact, a magic talisman that could connect them to Titanic herself.
That's the kind of fascination that Titanic inspires and, in recent days, the people of Belfast have been experiencing the same fever.
But not everyone approves of the way that the great ship is being commemorated in her home city.
The Belfast-born academic William Neill, writing in this paper, expressed concern at “the hitching of the Titanic legacy so blatantly to commercial gain”.
He said that the ‘info-tainment' galleries of Titanic Belfast prioritised “experience and sensation over thought and contemplation” and that the MTV event on the slipways was tasteless. In many ways, Neill is right.
There is something supremely naff about commemorating a disaster that claimed the lives of more than 1,500 people with a rock concert.
Do you think New York will be commemorating 9/11, 100 years down the line, with a gig called Twin Towers Sounds?
And it's true that Titanic Belfast, for all its extraordinary visual impact, lacks substance and emotional depth — but, hey, that's info-tainment for you.
And as for That Staircase — the famed replica from the ship's first-class entrance — well, let's just say it wouldn't look out of place in a high-end provincial funeral parlour. For all the hype and hysteria around it, it's just a flight of stairs.
But there's nothing new or surprising in all this blatant commercialism. It was exactly the same in Belfast in 1912. Titanic was built to make money in an industrial city obsessed with making money.
And for all her undoubted beauty and grandeur, she was shamelessly over-the-top, even vulgar in some ways, designed to appeal to the appetites of the rich.
Both Titanic herself and the global Titanic industry that followed the disaster span the cultural spectrum, from awe-inspiring to kitschy tastelessness.
In our own profit-driven commemorations — caught somewhere between a wake and a rave — we're simply cashing in on a deal originally struck a century ago.