Belfast Telegraph

It's taken 100 years, but at last our ship's coming in

By Gail Walker

It was a long time coming but it's finally happened. No, not the fact of the Titanic centenary, but rather the connection between the ship and the city where it was built.

For decades, there was a very sniffy attitude to the Titanic and its legacy among the City Fathers and the cultural gurus who thought they set the standards of our taste.

How many times have we heard it asked why would we celebrate 'our biggest failure'?

How often have we been advised to avoid the crass excesses of commercialism? Safeguard our dignity? Remain aloof from the laughable sentimentality of Hollywood?

Of course, underneath all that were a few simple but corrosive ideas.

First, among nationalists, that the Titanic, as a product of a sectarian industry, deserved all 'it' got.

All that mythology about magical registration numbers spelling 'No Pope' when held up to the mirror, a thrill of excitement that the ship went down bringing unionist and Protestant pride with it ...

Then, among unionists, that the Titanic was an embarrassment - something that brought notoriety rather than fame to the core business of the city and to some of its most revered civic figures. The ship had become a symbol of the decay of a social and political structure the 'Ulster' state was built to protect and so had no role at all to play in the life of the state.

Both of the big cultural forces found in the Titanic a convenient whipping boy.

And it was one that had the added advantage of being so perverse as to cut off both their noses to spite all their faces.

What would have been a no-brainer for any other city in the world was simply an occasion for exquisitely self-defeating grandstanding in our own city.

Curmudgeonly, resentful and sullen, the city sneered when other places, with little or no association with the ship or even with the sea, made a mint out of exhibitions, reconstructions, and a range of tourist attractions, while scratching our chins wondering what we could possibly do to boost tourism and alter our global image.

I recall some years ago when the dry dock where the ship was built was under threat, and again when the campaign to rescue the SS Nomadic was struggling, it being asked, with a snort, 'do we really want Belfast turned into a Titanic theme park?'

Well, the answer then is the answer now.

Yes, we do.

Thankfully, and just in time, the climate has improved to prevent the Titanic centenary going the way of the stadium project.

At last, Belfast has woken up to the lucrative potential of association with the most famous vessel since Noah's ark.

The dock and pump-house, the Drawing Offices, the Science Park, Boat Tours, the Titanic Quarter and the Titanic Building taking enigmatic shape as we speak, are only a few of the initiatives which, together, should provide a unique visitor experience from March this year onwards.

Congratulations to all those responsible for rising to the challenge to change perceptions and embarrass the powerful.

In tandem with the sites and locations, the cultural commodities have arrived as well, the most notable being Philip Hammond's grand-scale and eagerly-awaited choral work, 'Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic', due to be premiered at St Anne's and St Peter's over the weekend of the centenary itself.

And of course the Titanic as a source of artistic inspiration gives a hint to all of us where the real value lies. Whatever the Titanic is, it isn't a ship. Not any more. It hasn't been a ship for a hundred years and, even as a wreck, it is fast disappearing down there on the far distant sea bed. Not at all.

The interest in the Titanic isn't because it's a boat, for Heaven's sake, even one that sank so dramatically, unexpectedly and with so many lives lost.

It's because it is like the Great Wall of China or Tutankhamen or Elvis. And it has endurance also, and does not depend on relics or artefacts or treasure to exercise its hold on the human imagination. It's an idea.

A myth. A romance. A tragedy. An epic.

And it's ours.

At last. It's ours.

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