Why does the Titanic so fascinate us? It's a story about the hour of our death
Arabs see the West's weakness, others spot sexual symbolism. Robert Fisk finds meaning behind a disaster
Four decades later, my mum and dad took me to see A Night to Remember at the old Maidstone Granada cinema. I still recall how my mother reached for her handkerchief as Kenneth More - playing an avuncular Second Officer Lightholler - gently took a sleeping child from the arms of his doomed father and put the little boy in the lifeboat.
Three years ago, I was talking to the daughter of a Titanic victim in the tiny Lebanese Christian village of Kfar Mishki; 123 Lebanese went down on the Titanic but their families received no compensation from the White Star Line - they had boarded as wait-listed passengers at Cherbourg and their names were thus never entered on the official passenger list. Their fate is represented in James Cameron's new film by a demeaning three- second scene of a man in Turkish clothes trying to translate a list of the liner's emergency instructions.
Yet, the publicity surrounding the latest sinkapic cannot account for our fascination with the Titanic. On a flight out of Beirut last week, I found three passengers - two Lebanese and a Frenchman - reading books about the ship, one of them Walter Lord's original account of the disaster that inspired A Night to Remember, another Robert Ballard's record of his underwater discovery of the wreck.
Of course, the disaster has long been regarded as symbolic - of the class system that lay like a cancer at the heart of British society, of the arrogance of power that would be swept away in the world war which broke out two years later. And it's easy to see how the nobility of sacrifice shown by those who believed in women and children first - the rules of war which held true in the 19th century - was abandoned amid the final savagery aboard the doomed ship when "every man for himself" was so soon to encapsulate the chaos of our 20th-century wars.
Several Arabs have insisted to me that the ship's fate proves how false are our superior claims for western technology (along with Cruise missiles, Stealth bombers and other anti-Saddam devices) and that God truly proved greater than man when the Titanic went down (God presumably being represented by the iceberg). Yet far away, in Dublin, Kevin Myers has been arguing in the Irish Times that the new awareness of the vessel's fate should help his countrymen come to regard the Titanic as an Irish story. It was, after all, designed by Irishmen and built by Irishmen (at Harland and Wolff in Belfast).
I partially subscribe to this theory, although it is not a romantic one: in reality, the Irish built the ship, the British sank it - and drowned a lot of Irishmen and women in the process. But it was the last great Anglo-Irish project before the 1916 Rising (which was also, in its way, an Anglo-Irish project, though with somewhat greater ramifications). Andrews, the Irish designer, remains one of the tragedy's heroes, along with Captain Smyth, who spent some of his last minutes issuing his crew with guns to control the crowds round the lifeboats.
It was George Bernard Shaw (another Irishman) who saw through our hypocrisy. Only the English, he wrote after the sinking, could turn into a hero a man who steered his brand new liner at full speed into an iceberg and then started shooting his passengers. In Cameron's new version of the disaster, it is First Officer Murdoch who starts shooting (at Irishmen, of course) as the steerage hordes try to save their lives.
And it is significant - though missed by the critics - that the new Titanic is distinctly anti-British. Courage is shown by the "unsinkable" Mollie Browne but especially by the fictitious American Winslett-DiCaprio duo. British passengers are almost invariably stuck-up, deceitful or violent. Kenneth More's avuncular Lightholler has been replaced by a nightmare school prefect who points his revolver at the steerage hordes and screams at them: "Get back - or I'll shoot you all like dogs."
But the star of all the Titanic films - and of our fascination - remains the ship itself. Fr F W Browne was an Irish priest who travelled on the very first Southampton-Queenstown sector of the Titanic's transatlantic route and took a remarkable series of photographs of the first day and a half of the doomed voyage. His last picture of the Titanic - the very last photograph ever - shows a ship of grace and power, sinkable perhaps but too beautiful to die, a vessel whose streamlined funnels speak of the future rather than the past.
Some have suggested a sexual message in the Titanic saga, the virgin ship on its maiden voyage ravaged by the iceberg. In an earlier American film of the sinking - in which George C Scott plays a bug-eyed Captain Smyth - a female Titanic passenger is raped by a White Star Line crew member only three minutes before the iceberg is seen penetrating the vulnerable iron skin of the ship.
Ultimately, the ship is one reason why Titanic could win no best actor awards. Because the best actor is the machine which, in an odd way, makes Cameron's repulsive 10 seconds of silence for the dead at the Oscars ceremony - that's one Hollywood second for every 150 victims - all the more seedy.
Yet there is one sequence in the film of unmistakable beauty and power, a few seconds that explain the ship's enduring fascination. It shows the Titanic on its last day, disappearing in the late afternoon across a massive expanse of pale green Atlantic as the old lady survivor recounts her story. "It was the last time," she says, "that sunlight would ever shine upon the Titanic." And it is this element of inevitable death that draws the world back, again and again, to the night of 14 April, 1912. Glorious to the end, its lights blazing over the night-time sea, the story of the Titanic is about the hour of our death. I think that's why my father - dead these past six years - often talked about the ship that died on his birthday.
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