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Why Titanic had a different class of man on board

The sight of the stricken Costa Concordia has struck some kind of collective memory. The great ship broken by the sea, the terrified passengers scrambling for safety, the lifeboats lowered awkwardly into the sea, the accusations of incompetence and ill-preparedness for the worst ...

It was obviously a desperate night. As one bedraggled survivor said: "Soon everything was going everywhere - glasses, plates and cutlery. The whole ship was rocking violently from side to side. People were screaming. Women and children were not getting priority at all."

In a line that was always going to be picked up by the headline writers, many passengers said the sinking ship was reminiscent of Titanic - crawling along darkened corridors, water and debris everywhere and, of course, the terrible grip of mass terror and panic. With six people confirmed dead and 16 missing, regardless of the rights and wrongs of this particular incident, the scenes from the Costa Concordia should serve as a reminder - 100 years after the sinking of the Titanic in the icy waters of the North Atlantic - that even now we have not tamed the sea. And this was disaster close to the shoreline, not in the middle of nowhere.

It should also serve as a reminder that perhaps we shouldn't be so insufferably smug when it comes to judging the past.

The scenes of mayhem and, if we are to believe eyewitness accounts, a sense that it was "every man for himself" on Friday night, stand in marked contrast to the "women and children first" heroism of the Titanic.

While we may have come far in many ways, in others we have gone backwards. And gone backwards with more than a smidgin of hypocrisy.

Once upon a time, the Titanic was an alloyed symbol of heroism: that, at the end, most (give or take the odd J Bruce Ismay) would do the right thing with a stiff upper lip, a swig of brandy and a verse of Nearer My God To Thee. Yet with our age's overwhelming urge to congratulate itself on its liberalism, tolerance and egalitarianism, our view of the Titanic disaster has become somewhat muddied.

As demonstrated by James Cameron's 1997 film, while tipping a hat towards the heroism of individuals, we now also view the famous ship as a symbol of class conflict and Edwardian (for which read Victorian) social rigidity and moral hypocrisy. The myth was only a myth is the message.

It helps if we ignore the facts, of course. As one historian pointed out recently, a third class female passenger was actually significantly more likely to survive than a first class male one. Obviously, being real-life, the picture wasn't black and white, but the truth is that the "women and children first" was not a myth. It was the natural reaction of a whole society. Sometimes, even old fogies can be heroes.

Contrast that with the selfishness of Costa Concordia when it seems some men wouldn't have hesitated to pull on a frock and run like Usain Bolt to a lifeboat if it saved their neck. If reports are to believed, even the Captain scarpered before the passengers. What would Captain Edward John Smith, last seen on the bridge of the doomed Titanic minutes before it sank, make of it all?

Of course, we in Belfast are on the verge of Titanic hysteria - and we have every right to be excited at centenary commemorations. At the very least, as one cultural historian has said, the building of the Titanic was the early 20th century equivalent of building the space shuttle.

Yet sometimes we can lose sight of the real Titanic. We can buy Titanic soap, re-enact Titanic menus, go on Titanic cruises, even bid for scavenged relics from the wreck - purses, watches, clothes, cutlery and crockery are all up for grabs soon at auction in the US. We can take the tour, experience the experience, watch the films and listen to the talks. It may even be a great boon to the city in terms of tourism and giving the world an upbeat message.

But this isn't the MTV Awards. This, at heart, is about 1,514 souls who perished and 711 who survived. It is about horror, tragedy and relentless death. And it is also about heroism and the age which bred such values.