Don's Diary

April 18, 1997


I wake up with that sinking feeling. I had resolved to survive the next eight days without stooping to any kind of Titanic punnery, but I have already failed miserably. I wonder, in the fitful wakefulness of early dawn, why it is socially acceptable to joke about a disaster in which 1,500 people died. I submerge again into a deep sleep. Eighty-five years ago today, the RMS Titanic set sail on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York.


Among Titanic enthusiasts -and there are many- each anniversary week such as this is followed with an almost religious sense of observation. Every day has its special significance. On this date in 1912, the fabled White Star liner sailed from her final port of call, Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland. Eighty-seven years later, 170 members of the British Titanic Society arrive for their annual convention at the Southampton Hilton. As someone with a scholarly interest in the myth of the Titanic, I am grimly aware that I am probably adding to very phenomenon which I am trying to describe.


A thousand people descend upon the Hilton for a day-long exhibition mounted as part of the Titanic convention. Admission is 50p. "Loads of White Star memorabilia and ephemera," boasts the advertisement. "Also approximately 20 sales tables with everything you can think of". The organiser, a bearded and tireless man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of things Titanic, assures me that the weekend has been fully booked since August. Eighty-five years ago today, the Titanic was out of sight of land.


Down at Southampton, they are clearing up the restaurant after last night's gala dinner. I cast my mind back to the 80th anniversary convention when the after-dinner speaker - an engineer - gave a stimulating talk about icebergs. The gist of his address was that icebergs were, by their very nature, very large, jolly hard and extremely heavy. Consequently, only a complete incompetent would steer a luxury liner at full speed into one at dead of night. The captain's great-nephew, seated at a centre table, chose this juncture publicly and demonstrably to leave the proceedings.


Over in New York City, a musical version of the Titanic disaster is previewing at the Lunt Fontaine on West 46th Street. The "lavish" production has suffered technical difficulties, due, it is understood, to its ambitiously spectacular special effects. "Titanic Refuses to Sink," reported the Daily Telegraph. Wags observe that this was not a difficulty experienced by the original owners. Meanwhile, back in Britain, shops are selling Last Dinner on the Titanic, a cook-book which enables the reader to re-create the first-class passengers' final meal. Eighty-five years ago tonight, the real Titanic scraped along-side an iceberg in mid-Atlantic. Although they did not yet know it, almost three-quarters of those on board were about to die.


The Titanic is always news. Today's anniversary is, as ever, reported in the media, and the familiar story is told once again: the Titanic holed below the waterline at 11:40 pm on April 14, 1912, began taking on water which proceeded successively to fill her "watertight" compartments. Slowly the ship began sinking, finally disappearing from view at 2:20 am. The Titanic is always controversial too. Tonight on American TV, a documentary presents new "evidence" on the damage to the ship's hull. In Memphis, Tennessee, an exhibition of artefacts retrieved from the sea bed attracts both crowds and condemnation. Survivor Michel Navratil, now aged 87, called the salvage operation "grave plundering".


Today gives me time for some much-needed academic distance. It is easy to mock this continuing, popular fascination with the Titanic. A more constructive approach is to try to explain it. Certainly, the vessel's sinking is an event whose mythical significance has by far eclipsed its historical importance. My aim is to try and discover how, when and why this mythogenesis took place.


As I join the queue at the bank, I wistfully observe how very much I would appreciate a pound (or even a dollar) for every Titanic joke I have heard so far. Even colleagues are not immune. At the British Association for American Studies conference two weeks ago, the unseasonably low temperature of the large lecture room was blamed on the Titanic paper I had just delivered. There is more to come: James Cameron's forthcoming "blockbusting" movie on the Titanic is apparently heavily over budget at $180million, and then next week sees the official opening of the singing, dancing New York stage version. "Titanic, the musical, is coming," wrote William Grimes in the New York Times, "and the headline writers are ready."

As for myself, I admit that while I have indeed succumbed to the occasional pun, I have at least spared the reader from "Titanic, the metaphor". That is for another diary altogether.

Richard Howells is a lecturer at the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds.

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