I sailed in the Titanic show - and survived

Notebook

WHEN FUTURE historians come to examine the closing years of the 20th century, the phenomenon in global popular culture that may cause them the most head-scratching is the Titanic. How are they to explain the devoted interest among the people of every nation in the world (with the possible exception of North Korea) in the fate of a four-funnelled Edwardian liner that sank in the North Atlantic almost 90 years earlier?

Some explanations are easy enough. People like disaster films, and the Titanic was an especially good disaster in that the ship took two hours and forty minutes to sink and gave its victims time for terrible quandaries, as they had in Towering Inferno. And of course there is the metaphorical aspect (blind confidence blighted), the lavishness of the spectacle, and Leonardo DiCaprio. The combination, however, still can't explain why an event of 87 years ago and a film now more than a year old still go on resonating. Can there be any other mechanical artefact, produced at any time in history, with an image now so ubiquitous as that hull and those four funnels, which were finished in Belfast in 1912?

On Thursday, I went to see the holy relics at the "Titanic Official Movie Tour" exhibition in Wembley. It cost twelve quid to get in, but business seemed brisk enough (at weekends you must book in advance). None of the relics was real. They came from the film rather than the archive or the bottom of the sea, and sometimes not even from the film. The grand staircase, for example, is a replica of the replica. It might be described as a fragments- of-the-Cross situation. The ghastly Celtic- twilight pastiche of James Horner's soundtrack came from speakers concealed amid the fake steel. Young people dressed as Edwardian sailors, but with headsets, stood guard over costume displays of Kate's dress and Leonardo's dinner suit.

I can't say it wasn't interesting. Videos showing how images of death and disaster were computer-generated; I liked the model of the engine room; it was fascinating to see the on-set minutiae used when scenes were optically reversed.

But over all hung the sickening sense that an early-century disaster had been turned into a gigantic late-century amusement. People queued to be photographed at pounds 5 a time on the Titanic's fake bow ("Recreate your own Flying Scene") or, via computer technology and at pounds 12 a time, to be pictured having their hand kissed (instead of Kate Winslet's) by Leonardo DiCaprio. In the "First Class Dining Saloon" I drank pond-water coffee and ate a Jaffa cake - grateful that the steerage eating arrangements hadn't been reproduced - to the cries of passengers drowning in any icy sea, echoing from another room.

How to get out of here? The only way was past a headsetted sailor who cried out: "This is the point of no return. There is no going back." Fine, but it was not quite over. I stood in a group of other customers. Another sailor rushed forward. "This way to the lifeboats!" and so down a fake passageway and into the fake lifeboats, which jerked up and down on a rippling cloth sea. We were the survivors. Facing us across the dark shone scenes from the film on four screens. A summary:

"Jack!"

"Rose!"

"Jack!"

"Rose!"

Glug.

"Jack!"

Finally, we headed to the merchandising experience. Titanic Belgian chocolates, Titanic mugs, caps, T-shirts, key-rings, poster. Titanic yo-yos. Titanic champagne flutes (pounds 80 a pair), a doll of "Rose" for pounds 60, a replica of her perfume bottle for pounds 45 - a very popular item, said the girl at the counter - and of her purse for pounds 1,400. Of the 40-odd people who work in the exhibition, said the girl, 25 sell things.

I bought nothing and walked gladly down Empire Way towards the tube, almost as though I were treading the decks of the Carpathia.

LONG AND generous obituaries have been written about the novelist, Brian Moore, who died in California last Sunday. This is entirely right: he was a fine writer. Almost all of them, however, dwelt on the fact that he wasn't as well-known as he could have been, outside a circle of devoted enthusiasts. The Times said he was "a writer's writer", which isn't so right because if there was ever a serious, modern novelist entitled to be called "the reader's writer", it was surely Brian Moore.

None of his novels - at least none that I've read - was "difficult" in its language, structure or story. His approach could be called old-fashioned, even modest. His novels never confused author and narrator. He never appeared in his books waving a flag emblazoned "Hey, look here I am ... brilliant me, the man who's pulling the strings", poking his way into your suspended disbelief. His characters did all the work, and they were wonderfully compassionately drawn, usually at a time of crisis and failure in their lives, which by Moore's way of thinking was when people were most themselves.

Graham Greene said Moore was his favourite living novelist (though he also said the same of R K Narayan - there is a credible view that Greene was happy to bestow his favours only if the so bestowed were no threat to him). Moore himself was inclined to feel that he was always the bridesmaid and never the bride. In terms of personal celebrity if not literary recognition, he had only himself to blame. He lived his life off the beaten literary track, first in Northern Ireland, then post-war Canada and eventually northern California, happy to be an outsider.

His friendships were scattered. He belonged to no clique. He was absent from parties in London and New York. He changed publishers too often (his backlist in this country is scattered across at least four imprints). And he began his career in the 1950s, when novelists were expected to be read and not seen, a habit of privacy to which he more or less kept.

So does this mean he suffered unjust neglect? I don't think so. Moore had the most important thing for a writer: readers. I met him only once, when I sat next to him at a supper given by his last publisher, Liz Calder at Bloomsbury, a couple of years ago. He was conversational and ungrand, but actually it doesn't matter how he was, because the far more important meeting for me (as it has been, at different times, for millions of others) occurred 30 years before when I first read a book by him. A friend from Northern Ireland pushed a copy of his second novel, The Feast of Lupercal, into my hands. It concerns a shy Catholic schoolmaster coming unstuck through unfulfilled sexual attraction in Moore's hometown of Belfast. There was boldness in both the locale and the plot. Belfast, pre-Troubles, was an unimagined city; unlike Dublin, it had no life in literature. And the schoolmaster funks sex not through some moral consideration (Greene might have had him struggling with his Catholicism) but because as a virgin it frightens him; he doesn't know what to do. So while Moore may not have been formally inventive, he was certainly a courageous writer. Women were often his central characters, intimately realised. In I Am Mary Dunne, his sixth novel, a factor in the narrative is pre-menstrual tension. How accurately he described this I am the wrong sex to say, but I can't think of any other male novelist, writing in the 1950s and 60s, who was brave and emphatic enough to try.

In 1997, I asked him to write a piece of his thoughts about Ireland for Granta magazine. It came pretty promptly by fax from California and described how the social and political divisions of the Belfast of his childhood had made him suspicious of all "faiths, allegiances, certainties". A colleague thought the piece might be improved with a little tinkering here and there and wrote to suggest a few changes. Moore thanked him graciously and, again promptly, made the revisions. There was a new last paragraph and a new certainty. He had never wanted to live again in Ireland, but he knew where he wanted to be buried: in a particular field in Connemara facing the Atlantic, "a quiet place among the grazing cows".

His readers will wish him well there.

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