|RMS Titanic leaves Southampton April 10, 1912|
by Eamon McCann
She was touted as the greatest transatlantic liner ever built but didn’t make it across the Atlantic even once.
If she had, we wouldn’t be marking her centenary now. Eddie McIlwaine had it spot-on on Monday when he recalled his father and others who had watched the ship sail up Belfast Lough agreeing that, “If the fates had been kinder and she had never met the iceberg…she would now be just a dot in H & W history after being broken up in the knacker’s yard.”
Without the horrible deaths of fifteen hundred people, then, the £90 million project in east Belfast would never have been thought of. This is scarcely acknowledged in the hype of the grand opening. There's been little sense of the victims other than as extras in an epic adventure - certainly, no sign of rage against the incompetence, injustice and contempt for the poor which characterised the Titanic experience.
The narrative presented in the strangely beautiful ship-shape building will reflect the version of the story which has provided scenarios for such meretricious entertainments as James Cameron’s relentlessly uplifting movie and Julian Fellowes’ upstairs-drownstairs ratings chaser.
In a past age, when PR referred to a system of voting and spin was either a cycle or something you went for on a bike, it proved possible to make a decent film of the Titanic story. Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 “A Night To Remember”, written by Eric Ambler, with Kenneth More, Ronald Allen and Honor Blackman, showed proper reverence for truth and respect for the victims and was as moving as Cameron’s travesty was mawkish. But there’s progress for you.
We are told that the Belfast facility will bring in 400,000 visitors a year. In the Stormont speech in which she invited us all to “get on board”, Minister Arlene Foster seemed to offer this figure as a fact, rather than an aspiration, much less a mad guess. I cannot read Ms. Foster’s mind. But I’ll go for mad guess.
The deluge of publicity which has swamped the scheme will ensure that, initially at least, there will be long queues for the various attractions. But in a year or two or five, as the hype fades and austerity bites deeper, will hundreds of thousands still part with their leisure dollars or Euros or pounds in exchange for dipping a toe into the Titanic disaster?
The ugly face of class society revealed in the story isn’t likely to pull in the punters either.
It has long been acknowledged - it could hardly be denied - that the first, second and third-class status of the ship’s passengers reproduced the basic divisions in wider society and that these determined in large measure who was to live and who to die. The poorer you were the more likely to perish.
The Daily Herald of the time, edited by Labour leader George Lansbury, was a hundred years ahead of today’s carefully modulated narrative. Four days after the ship went down, on April 18th 1912, Lansbury posed the relevant question: “Mr. Bruce Ismay, Chairman of the White Star Line, has been saved. Why is it that so few of the steerage passengers have been saved?”
On April 26th, having pieced together accounts from survivors arriving back in Southampton, Lansbury streamed “Women and Children Last!” across the top of the front page, The story below told that of 266 first and second-class women and children, 20 were drowned. Of 255 women and children in steerage, 134, including 53 children, were drowned.
“Where were those 53 steerage children, Mr. Ismay, when you saved yourself?” asked the ‘paper. Referring to White Star’s latest profit figures, it continued: “They have paid 30 percent to their shareholders and they have sacrificed 51 percent of the steerage children. They have gone to sea criminally under-equipped with means of life-saving; they have neglected boat drill; they have filled their boats with cooks and valets, with pleasure gardens and luxurious lounges; they have done all this to get big profits and please the first-class passengers. And when the catastrophe came, they hastened to get their first-class passengers and their chairman safely away.”
When the Board of Trade appointed Lord Mersey to head an inquiry, the Herald didn’t hold back. An editorial recalled a case over which Mersey had presided in which a wealthy woman had been charged with cruelty to a child of the labouring class: “The cruelty was undoubted, the infamy glaring. The sentence was nominal. The defendant was a woman of good station. A first-class passenger…What is likely to be Lord Mersey’s judgement here?”
Does the headline “Women and Children Last!” feature anywhere in the Titanic Building?
Is the question “Why Did They Die?” explored?
In what type-size are the words “scandal”, “crime” and “disgrace” set?
So many questions, so few answers.
The Daily Herald was sold to Rupert Murdoch in 1964. Five years later, it was renamed the Sun. More progress for you.