Miles Kington: Why a disaster can often be a smart career move

There are many famous towers in Italy, but the most famous of all is the one that can't stand up straight
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The Independent Online

If you ever go to the Northumbrian town of Alnwick, as I did a week ago for the first time, there are two things you must do without fail.

One is to spend at least a day in Barter Books, which used to be Alnwick Railway Station and is, I think, the most wonderful second-hand bookshop I have ever been inside.

The other is to discreetly poke your nose into the dining room of the White Swan Hotel. The rest of the hotel, if it doesn't mind my saying so, is what you would expect a quiet provincial hotel to be, ie quiet and provincial, but the dining room, through the lobby and down the back, would not be out of place on a luxury liner. This is for the rather quaint reason that it was indeed once part of a luxury liner called the Olympic.

The Olympic was built by the White Star company at the same time as they were building the Titanic, as part of an effort to recapture their reputation as the premier Atlantic steamship company. Cunard had edged them aside with their new ships the Lusitania and Mauretania, and White Star were determined to go bigger and better by building the Olympic and Titanic. The Olympic was launched first, and was, as far as I can make out, even bigger than the Titanic.

Its maiden voyage was very successful, in that it totally failed to hit an iceberg, and after being requisitioned during the Great War for naval work, it worked for many years thereafter as a transatlantic steamer, and was only scrapped in 1935. Bits and pieces of it were auctioned off when it was broken up at Jarrow, and the first-class lounge was bought for the White Swan Hotel at Alnwick, where, even at breakfast, its elegant panelling and Edwardian windows still echo an age of wealth and privilege, and you can almost hear the rustling of long-vanished silk dresses.

The point of this story is not to urge you to go to Alnwick and have a look, though I am glad I did. The point is that everyone has heard of the Titanic and nobody outside the transatlantic steam fraternity has heard of the Olympic. Because the Titanic failed so spectacularly on its maiden voyage, it will be remembered for ever. Because the Olympic went about its job efficiently and quietly, it is forgotten. Actually, although the Olympic never hit an iceberg, it did have its share of interesting collisions. It was rammed up the backside by a Royal Navy cruiser called Hawke, for which the Navy as usual tried not to take the blame. And during the war the Olympic was attacked several times by German submarines, and not only emerged unscathed, but managed to ram one of the U-Boats and sink it. I believe it is the only merchant ship in the Great War which sank an enemy warship.

Good stuff. And yet nobody remembers the Olympic. There is a lesson here. I am not sure what it is, but I think it is that a timely disaster will do more to fix you in people's memories than a lifetime of exemplary behaviour. When Gore Vidal heard of the early death of his rival Truman Capote and is said to have murmured, "Good career move," he was righter than he could have imagined. There is now a movie out called Capote, sweeping up all sorts of Oscar nominations. One cannot imagine a movie called Vidal.

Yes, disaster can make you famous for ever. Everyone remembers the giant airship the R101, for crashing to its destruction in France. How many remembers the R100, its counterpart, which flew to Canada and back with complete success and was then scrapped? There are many famous towers in Italy, but the most famous of all is the one that can't stand up straight ...

And, to come back to Alnwick, the old railway station there might be remembered with similar affection if it had gone up in flames like the Crystal Palace, or been demolished, or fallen down, or bought by an American and re-erected in Arizona. It can boast of no such disaster. It has simply, as I said at the beginning, been turned into the most fabulous second-hand bookshop you could imagine.