“As the smart ship grew/In stature, grace and hue/In shadowy silent distance grew the iceberg too…”
(Thomas Hardy, The Convergence of the Twain. Lines on the Loss of the Titanic)
At the approach of the one hundredth anniversary of its demise, Titanic mania seems to be gripping the nation. Dramas and documentaries are in abundance, including the Julian Fellowes’ five-part series (ITV1), Titanic with Len Goodman, (BBC1) and another factual documentary on Sunday 15th, exploring the testimonies of the ship’s survivors. In Belfast, where the ship was built, there is a series of commemorative events, including a tribute concert with special guest stars.
Titanic – both the vessel itself and the tragedy which befell her – have passed into legend. The tragedy has survived the ages, delivering to us its tale of human fallibility and vanity, ambition and hubris. As many have pointed out over the last few weeks, it is a story that still means so much, a tale that continues to capture the public imagination.
The story, Len Goodman noted in the conclusion to the second part of the Sunday night documentary Titanic with Len Goodman – leaves us asking ourselves two questions: Who would I have been, and What would I have done? But there is another question that has to be on peoples’ lips: how could it have happened?
How could a ship, built with such faith and hope and ambition, have encountered such a tragic end?
Titanic was built by the famous ship-builders, Harland and Wolff, but right from the start, there was a touch of doom about her. Eight men died in industrial accidents during her construction, which took place in a dockyard built for the specific purpose of accommodating her immense size. (Titanic was eight hundred and eighty feet long and weighed forty-six thousand tons). She took fifteen hundred men and three years to build and was docked in Southampton from May 1911. The crew that queued up to work on her were numbered in the thousands. Titanic was more than a ship. She was a phenomenon, an event.
But to us, Titanic has become even more than that. She is a symbol, a figurative illustration of Edwardian optimism and invincibility. In James Cameron’s 1997 film, Titanic, when Mr. Ismay, president of the company who built the ship, is informed of the ship’s plight, he responds with, “Titanic can’t sink”. “I assure you, sir, she can…” replied Titanic’s head designer and naval architect, Mr. Andrews, “… she’s made of iron.”
It was precisely this kind of hubris – which in many ways typified the naïve optimism of pre-war England – which led to the disaster. Titanic had had a lot invested in her: in time, in money, in energy and in faith, to say nothing of the lives she claimed before she had even embarked upon her maiden voyage. But it was the fallacy of her invincibility that was her undoing. In the words of Philip Franklin, White Star Line’s Vice President, ‘I thought her unsinkable and I based my opinion on the best expert advice.’
Between Mr. Ismay wanting a good headline in the American press by pushing for Titanic to sail faster and thus arrive in America early, and the insufficient number of lifeboats for the passengers on board – also the result of Ismay’s poor judgement – was the belief that Titanic was unsinkable.
Underlying that belief is the ideology of ambition, the indomitable spirit of Empire. Although built in Ireland by Irish hands, Titanic carried with her something of the spirit of that Empire; the conqueror’s sensibility that nothing could possibly destroy.
Thus, when Titanic sank, she took with her more than her passengers and crew. She took much that Edwardian naivety so characteristic of the English nation in the time before the First World War, which would see things tipped upside down forever.
Titanic sank in the early hours of April 15th 1912. She was like a portend of doom, prefiguring the disintegration of Edwardian society by a mere two years and – at the risk of invoking a dreadful cliché – she prefigured a society that would be irrevocably afflicted by the all too-powerful waves of change that came with the First World War.
The ship, sailing blithely on the waves that would destroy her, was a cross section of our class-ridden society, the social system in miniature, upended; turned upside down and then sunk, by hubris, optimism and the quest for glory. Indeed, one might just as easily be describing the outcome of the catastrophic First World War and its effect upon England, an event which was a mere two years away from the famous maritime disaster.
In Part Two, I will be exploring the legacy of the tragedy, articulating it in terms of a public mourning and it accompanying emotions: denial, guilt, anger and loss.
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