John Walsh: Simply everyone is plumbing the depths this year

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The Independent Online

The Mariana Trench is rapidly becoming this year's must-visit destination. Forget Mauritius, Ibiza and the Florida Keys. Don't bother opening the brochures for Hawaii, Lombok and Skiathos. The Trench – a kind of enormous slot in the Pacific Ocean – is the only place to be this spring.

You may have read that James (Titanic) Cameron is there in the West Pacific right this minute, preparing to take an 11-ton, one-man submersible down to the very bottom, and to film the two-hour descent in 3D for cinema audiences; but there're at least three other intrepid submarine teams lined up to do the same, including, with a certain inevitability, Richard Branson's Virgin Oceanic.

Why now? Because the Titanic centenary is upon us, and someone has told someone else that the wreck of the liner lies, not on the Continental Shelf seabed, but much deeper down at 12,000ft, whereupon someone has asked, "What's the deepest the seabed goes?" and someone else has replied, "Oooh, about 35,000ft, it's called the Mariana Trench and did you know it's deeper below the sea than Everest is high above land?" And hearing that fabulous statistic, everyone has thrown up their hands and cried, "We must go there!"

Just imagining being under all that water makes you naturally awestruck – profound in a literal sense. To the ancient Greeks, it was where you'd find a perfect city called Atlantis. To Thomas Hood, it was a place of purity ("There is a silence where hath been no sound/ There is a silence where no sound can be/ In the cold grave – under the deep deep sea.") To Tennyson, it was where a huge, god-like sea creature bided his time ("Below the thunders of the upper deep/ Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea/ His ancient dreamless uninvaded sleep/ The Kraken sleepeth...") To the makers of the 1961 film Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the Mariana Trench was a geographical McGuffin, the only place on the planet deep enough to launch a nuclear missile at a blazing sky and save the world. To the makers of the TV spin-off, which ran from 1964 to 1968, the sea-bottom was where the American crew of the Seaview fought the Cold War, every week offing sea monsters, aliens and malevolent foreign governments. As the Sixties progressed, Voyage jumped the subaqual shark and wound up featuring Nazis, werewolves, mummies, talking puppets and an evil leprechaun.

You can scoff, but I'll bet James Cameron (b. 1954) and Richard Branson (b. 1950) grew up watching this stuff in their pre-teens. I suspect a desire to travel to the bottom of the deepest hole on the planet has lurked inside them, like the Kraken, for half a century, to burst out around now. I just hope Cameron isn't too disappointed when, as he looks through the porthole at the Challenger Deep, 35,800ft below the surface of the ocean, he sees not a sea monster but a genial, bearded face looking back at him...

Shakespeare, our contemporary

Neil McGregor, whose History of the World in 100 Objects obsessed Radio 4 listeners two years ago, is examining the world of Shakespeare through items of food, clocks and daggers. "People think of Romeo and Juliet as a love story," says the British Museum director, "but it is just as much a play about knife crime in the upper classes."

I like this bracing approach to literary criticism. I look forward to reading, in my daughter's A-level essays, "King Lear is a play about the outsourcing of geriatric care in Celtic Britain" and "Macbeth addresses the inadvisability of putting your faith in elderly catering ladies found making exotic soup in Scottish fields."

j.walsh@independent.co.uk

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