Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Raise the Titanic: Turning disaster into an industry

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the most famous shipwreck. But, Greg Dixon asks, should we care?

A painting of the Titanic by US artist Ken Marschalle. Photo / Northern Advocate
A painting of the Titanic by US artist Ken Marschalle. Photo / Northern Advocate

As it turns out, the RMS Titanic was unsinkable.

Though her remains settled on the seabed below the rolling, impossible Atlantic Ocean a century ago next week, the ship billed as the "greatest floating palace ever built" continues to steam confidently through the collective imagination as if nothing as inopportune as colliding with a bloody great iceberg ever took place.

Like some ghost ship, she's doomed to spend eternity repeating but never completing her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, a phantom liner on an endless voyage through popular culture, learned and popular histories, National Geographic Channel documentaries and cheap and nasty cash-ins until the end of time.

And now, with a centenary to celebrate, the Titanic's cruise director has even more fun activities for us.

In Britain, a new four-part dramatisation of the Titanic story - billed as "Downton Abbey at sea" due to the involvement of Downton creator Julian Fellowes - finishes screening next week after mixed reviews.

TV One will show it here from April 20.

Meanwhile, the world's publishing houses, who have done more than anyone to keep the liner's memory afloat for a century, have been issuing or re-issuing books on the subject that have been arriving in massed convoys since the beginning of the year.Indeed, New York Times arts writer John Williams wrote, a fortnight ago, that the number of Titanic-related books to have crossed his desk in recent weeks "bordered on the comical". Some of them are certainly worth the money for the curious and for collectors, including the the reissue of first book on the disaster - a deluxe reproduction (complete with fake foxing) of the 1912 memorial, Wreck And Sinking Of The Titanic - as well as a new and critically-praised history by Richard Davenport-Hines called Titanic Lives. For those wanting something a little more heartwarming there is Kaspar the Titanic Cat, by War Horse author Michael Morpurgo.

On the other side of the ledger is, God help us, The Titanic For Dummies. ("And no," Williams joked, "it's not just one page that reads: 'It sank'.") However, possibly (or at least potentially) the most lamentable addition to commemorations is former Bee Gee Robin Gibb, making his "classical" debut with a "concept album" about the sinking.

And, over the coming days, an entire industry - the media - will also be flashing its boarding pass and embarking on yet another lavish cruise aboard the ship that keeps on giving; so consider this piece the tip of a massive iceberg of coverage you're likely to collide with.

This is, I'm sure, no surprise to you at all. But the latest onslaught of Titanic ephemera does rather bring to mind one terrible book and film I read and saw, back in the early 80s, called Raise The Titanic! - you have to love that exclamation mark - in which the ship was refloated because its hold apparently contained a large amount of an expensive but made-up mineral.

And how, you ask, did they refloat it? Pretty much by using a lot of hot air ...

Still, what a yarn the real Titanic story remains. As journalist James Delingpole wrote recently, reviewing the Fellowes' Titanic series in the Spectator, "if Titanic hadn't actually sunk on its maiden voyage, not even Jeffrey Archer would have dared to invent such a hammily extravagant plot".

Nor, indeed, would Hollywood. Director James Cameron's utterly ludicrous, bubblegum version of the voyage and sinking would have, of course, been even more ludicrous if it hadn't been based, even loosely, on a genuine story.

Quite why a Titanic for dummies book needed to be published is beyond me, because Cameron's film - though execrable and only partly based on fact - covers the basics and has surely been seen by everyone in the world, with the possible exception of the sort of religious crackpots who wear beards.

The details of the ship, the truncated sea trials, its rich and poor passengers, the iceberg, the sinking, the lack of lifeboats, woman and children first, the band playing on, Captain Smith going down with the ship ... the facts are all so well known that they seemed to have entered the realms of cliche.

Yet there is always more. It's the finer rather than the broader details that still add colour to a story that in many respects faded to black and white decades ago.

In Titanic Lives, for example, Davenport-Hines offers the fascinating contrast between "the contents of the pockets of two corpses recovered from the ocean: John Jacob Astor IV ('Colonel Jack'), the richest man onboard, had $4000 in sodden notes in his pockets; but the jacket of Vassilios Katavelas, a 19-year-old Greek farmer worker, had more meagre treasures: a pocket mirror, a comb, a purse containing 10 cents and a train ticket to Milwaukee."

There were a lot of poor onboard - roughly two-thirds of the passengers were making their way to America for a better life. But this was no middle passage experience. Although the gulf between the toffs and the hard-ups' accommodation was as wide as anywhere else in early 20th century society, third class on the White Star Line's newest and spiffiest ship was much better than what the down-at-heel had previously had to put up with.

According to Davenport-Hines, the Titanic offered third-class cabins that were "small, spartan but not squalid; ventilated, lit by electricity and equipped with wash basins".

And whatever kind of ticket you had, the sinking was a great leveller: both the very richest and the very poorest were among the more than 1500 victims. However, the grossly disproportionate numbers of third-class passengers compared with those in first and second who went down with the ship is still shocking. And it is this inequality that has seen the story of the ship's demise become some sort of moral lesson rather than just an account of another time, another place and another attitude.

It seems that the modern story of the Titanic - once a tale of tragedy and bravery - has become a bit of an excuse for pompous sermonising.

At some point, the Titanic went from epic tragedy to epic parable. The claim (never actually made) that the ship was "unsinkable" quickly became synonymous with Man's arrogance in the face of Mother Nature.

The call for "women and children first", the band playing on and the captain going down with the ship have each become symbolic of a more (allegedly) chivalric age. And the disproportionate number of working-class dead has become - not least in Cameron's Titanic - an object lesson in how the rich bastard always stiffs the working man.

Indeed, so clear is the sub-text of Cameron's 1997 film, reports Davenport-Hines, that no less than the then-President of China, Jiang Zemin, hailed it as a parable of class warfare "in which 'the third-class passengers (the proletariat) struggled valiantly against the ship's crew (craven capitalist lapdogs and stooges)."'

Far be it for me to disagree with China's dear, dead leader, but that wasn't the film I saw. The one I suffered through was just another hackneyed reading of the love-across-the-tracks storyline in which Leonardo DiCaprio's Jack, the working-class hunk, has his evil way with a plucky toff, Kate Winslet's Rose. Then he dies (cue teenage girls sobbing). It's no surprise to me that Fellowes, whose Downton Abbey mines much the same territory, also took on Titanic's story.

And, of course, the "women and children first" policy - a fallacy when one looks at the percentage of third-class women and children who died - has also been trotted out recently with reference to the less-than-heroic behaviour of the captain of the Costa Concordia and some of the male passengers and crew.

The general conclusion has been that we modern types just aren't as noble as our Edwardian forebears - a demonstrably wrong-headed judgment when one considers the substantive differences between their world and ours.

But there it is. One hundred years on, the Titanic isn't just a lovely ship that came to an untimely end that writers, politicians, film-makers and the rest can fill with whatever they want. A century after she slipped beneath the waves, the Titanic has become the great unsinkable metaphor.

Titanic Lives, by Richard Davenport-Hines (HarperCollins $39.99) is out now.

- NZ Herald

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