Myths that leave a sinking feeling

The 'Titanic' has become a myth. Every time the word Titanic comes up, the word myth is never far away - and not just because the latest Hollywood blockbuster about the doomed ship is the most expensive film ever. James Mckenzie visited Hamburg, site of Europe's largest Titanic exhibition and met the show's historian, Gunther Babler, in an attempt to separate myth from reality, fact from fiction.

The Titanic sank at 2.10 am, 15 April, 1912. On the morning of the following day, newspapers around the world carried the story of the accident. "Titanic hits iceberg," they said, "all passengers survive, damaged vessel still afloat." Later that day, the headlines changed and the loss of nearly 1,500 people was reported.

Since then interest in the Titanic has shown no sign of letting up. But why? That is why I am here. For the price of around pounds 6, in Hamburg's dockland, I can look at more than 300 artefacts recovered in 1985 from two miles down. As the exhibition leaflet tells me with mantra-like repetition, here I can look at "the stuff of which myths are made".

But if, having been round the exhibition, seen the pots and pans, the anonymous bowler hat, braces and socks displayed in glass cases like precious jewels, if having looked at the chamber pot, spittoon and bottles of champagne, if after all this, I still don't get it, then there is Gunther who will perhaps unravel the myth of that fateful night, when one third of the passengers survived and two thirds didn't.

I am waiting in the cafe-cum-restaurant. On the menu are Titanic burgers and chips and Titanic salad. I settle for a filter coffee which turns out to be bad, titanically bad, of course. "This is the year of the Titanic" declares the exhibition flyer lying on the table in front of me. One of the photographs is of the restaurant where I am sitting. The only difference between it and the equivalent on the ship that I pick up are that blue tablecloths have been whipped out for the occasion of the photo. Apart from this everything is the same: the wooden floor and furniture, the indoor palms trees, the riveted cast-iron columns and the chandeliers. The room is, the flyer helpfully suggests, "a place to meet and exchange ideas - ideal for receptions and parties - an attractive setting within the ambience of the myth".

When Gunther arrives he is dressed as part of the team for this them in black polo-shirt with a red and white "R.M.S. Titanic" logo.

"I speak Titanic English," he announces. By which I take it to mean that so long as we stick to the subject there won't be any vocabulary problems.

Gunther, it turns out, speaks English fluently. With what comes close to a cultist's zeal, he explains how, in 1982, his interest in the myth of the Titanic began. "I was so moved by the whole thing. I had the idea to find out everything, to find out the solution."I ask him what he means by solution. "Why is it that when you read 10 books on the Titanic you have 10 different stories. Why are there so many different stories?"

Like trying to match up the disparate eye-witness accounts of a car crash, Gunther is engaged in making sense of differing accounts of the sinking, a task that is made more complicated by the fact that of the 705 survivors, fewer than seven are still alive today.

In 1989, he started to invest all his time and money in this holy grail. In his search for the truth, Gunther has tried to read everything that has been written about the Titanic. He has tracked down survivors and their relatives, and made new friends all over the world. "My best friends," he says, "are Titanic friends." In the first room of the exhibition there are numerous photographs of the passengers. Not insignificant to all this Titanicmania is an almost morbid obsession to know how the other two thirds of the passengers acted in the face of death. There are the tales like that of Benjamin Guggenheim and his valet, who discard their lifejackets and reappear on deck in fully evening dress. "We are dressed in our best and prepared to go down like gentlemen," Guggenheim reportedly said.

Then there is scandal about John Jacob Astor, one of America's wealthiest men, who left his wife, to marry Madelaine, who was 19 and pregnant. They fled to Europe to avoid the wrath of moral America. After a six-month stay they were to return on the Titanic. When the ship begins to sink, Madelaine was given a place in a life boat. J.J., we are told, waved good- bye to his newly wedded wife and then dashed below to free his dog, Kitty. Later Madelaine reported that she had seen Kitty bounding about on deck as the boat went down.

Controversy still surrounds the survival of Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line, the ship's owner. Many believed he should have stayed to the end, instead of jumping into one of the last lifeboats. But the last words are saved for the proud, patriotic captain, Edward Smith, who as the ship is finally sinking, it has been said, urged Brits and foreigners alike to "Be British!"

What is striking about these stories is the way they are played as if on an empty stage. In all this I cannot help feeling that I am being given the benchmark of honourable dying. Just like appearances, order was maintained to the very end. Perhaps this is what fans of the Titanic like Gunter find so attractive. In the chaotic moments of the ship's sinking it never really descended into chaos. At least, that is how the tale is told. Yet if, as the film's director James Cameron has insisted, the Titanic was a microcosm of our greater world, then when it comes to the final hours of the lives of those on board, Titanic commentators seem oddly self-assured looking down with godlike judgement on a scene about which few agree what really happened.

In the exhibition there are Titanic figures of another kind. I look at three football-sized lumps of coal recovered from the sea bed. The ship, so the inscription tells me, was carrying 6,000 tons of coal. Six hundred and twenty tons were needed per day. On display is enough for 6.6 seconds. In America, despite accusations of tastelessness, visitors to a similar exhibition can buy nut-sized pieces of Titanic coal for $30.

I learn that the Titanic's four generators produced 1,600 kilowatts, illuminating 10,000 light bulbs. The bell system had 1,500 buttons. The electric cable laid end to end would stretch from London to Birmingham. The kitchen was stocked with 7,000 heads of lettuce, 2,500 kilos of tomatoes, 36,000 oranges, 75 tons of fresh meat, 40,000 eggs, 40 tons of potatoes, 800 bundles of asparagus, 1,400 litres of oysters ...

Then there are also the figures that reveal the fate of the passengers. Three possibilities are recorded next to the list of names: "Saved", "Missing" or "Body recovered". Compared with the poorer steerage passenger, more than double the number of first-class cabin passengers survived. Even as Titanic historians argue about whether third class were hindered from reaching the lifeboats or were too attached to their belongings to leave the ship, it is clear that from the moment the Titanic began to sink, the class of your ticket crucially affected your chances. Obviously aware of who's who in the pecking order of survival, part of one newspaper's headline reads, "Mr Ismay safe, Mrs Astor, maybe."

Without a hint of irony, Gunther describes the Titanic as "the perfect disaster". I find myself coming around to his way of thinking. The survival of one third of the passengers and their subsequent conflicting recollections has ensured that the Titanic's impossible puzzles continue to grip people's imagination and contribute to what can safely be called a Titanic Industry. In 1997, at least three books on the Titanic were published. One, The Last Dinner on the Titanic, instructs its readers on staging the ultimate Titanic binge in the comfort of your own home. This year, with Cameron's forthcoming film - made with an almost mythical sized budget of $200m - we can expect a storm of sinking model Titanics.

On sale are a selection of pens, lighters, watches and T-shirts all branded with the Titanic logo. I ask Gunther if he thinks it might all be seen as the commercialisation of a tragedy. "No," he replies, "it's a way to keep the memory alive."

So what have I learned about the myth? Well, I have come away knowing that on board the Titanic was a dough-kneading machine, an automatic egg cooker, a plate warmer, an electric meat mincer ...

The exhibition "Expedition Titanic" is on in Hamburg until 31 March. The film opens next week

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