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Titanic brand proves unsinkable as 100-year anniversary looms

Complaints that victims have been forgotten amid hype and a rush for memorabilia, but fascination about vessel proves enduring with events planned on both sides of the Atlantic.
A council employee models the dress worn by Kate Winslet in the film Titanic in front of exhibition of Titanic artefacts and memorabilia last week at the City Hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
A council employee models the dress worn by Kate Winslet in the film Titanic in front of exhibition of Titanic artefacts and memorabilia last week at the City Hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

LONDON // It has become the most celebrated maritime disaster of all time and, on April 14 and 15, events to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic will take place across two continents.

There has already been the premiere of the 3D version of James Cameron's Titanic movie and the opening of a £90 million (Dh525m) museum in the Belfast shipyard when the "unsinkable" liner was built.

And there have been the auctions of Titanic-related memorabilia and the sale of everything from T-shirts and tea bags, to Titanic Irish whiskey and even Titanic crisps. TV channels in Britain and the US are being crammed with documentaries and dramas, on top of the video games, CDs, DVDs.

There are also graveyard tours in New York and Nova Scotia, a musical in Ireland, and exhibitions in cities on both sides of the Atlantic.

Yet a few voices have been raised over concerns that the ones being forgotten in all the razzamatazz and hype are the approximately 1,500 souls (nobody is sure of the exact total: estimates range from 1,495 to 1,528) who suffered horrible deaths on April 15, 1912, less than three hours after the ship struck an iceberg just before midnight the previous day.

"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 Belfast Telegraph commented last week.

Such concerns are scarcely new. Even in 1912, novelist Joseph Conrad was so appalled by the sensationalist press coverage that he wrote: "A great babble of news and eager comment has arisen around this catastrophe, though it seems to me that a less strident note would have been more becoming in the presence of so many victims left struggling on the sea, of lives miserably thrown away for nothing, or worse than nothing: for false standards of achievement, to satisfy a vulgar demand of a few monied people for a banal hotel luxury."

Yet the public fixation with Titanic remains. John Wilson Foster, the author of three non-fiction books on the vessel and a professor at Queen's University, Belfast, interprets the enduring fascination with the sinking as a metaphor for modern life.

"We choose to see in the ship and the human tragedy of its sinking, meanings that derive from our sense of an ending - our sense that the ship symbolises our culture in crisis," he said.

James Delgado, director of maritime heritage at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, believes it is the timeless quality of the tale of Titanic's one and only voyage that has produced such an enduring fascination.

"The story is ageless, like all great stories," he said. "The elements in this case of triumph, tragedy, and hubris, of bravery and cowardice, all wrapped up in one brief moment. That speaks to people."

Both Mr Delgado and Mr Cameron attribute the finding of the wreck in 1985, 3,780 metres below the surface of the North Atlantic, as one of the main reasons for the ship being brought back to the public's attention.

Others attribute the 1955 book A Night to Remember and film of the same name three years later - a much grittier version of events than Mr Cameron's 1997 multiple Oscar-winning movie - for rekindling public interest.

In truth, though, the Titanic story has never gone away. Writing in 1940, George Orwell commented: "I must admit that nothing in the whole war [First World War] moved me so deeply as the loss of Titanic had done a few years earlier.

"This comparatively petty disaster shocked the whole world, and the shock has not quite died away even yet."

That remains true today, particularly in Southampton, the port on England's south coast from where Titanic set off on its maiden voyage to New York on April 10, 1912, with 2,220 people on board.

Of the 899 crew on board that day, 686 died five days later and 549 of them were from Southampton. Hence, tomorrow at 1.30pm British local time - 100 years to the minute since Titanic set sail - Southampton's centenary commemorations will centre on the opening of Sea City Museum.

The new museum, built at a cost of £15m, will "tell the largely untold and fascinating story of Southampton's crew and the effect the tragedy had on families in the city".

Additionally, there is a "Titanic Trail" through the city that takes walkers to the various memorials to crew members, including one to the musicians who continued to play even as the ship sank.

The tour also takes in various buildings with connections to the Titanic story, including the block that once served as the White Star Line's offices where so many hundreds of Southampton's distraught wives, parents and children gathered 100 years ago for news of their loved ones.

Also, a cruise is setting sail to retrace the ship's voyage, including a visit to the location where it sank.

The Titanic Memorial Cruise departed yesterday from Southampton, from where Titanic left on its maiden voyage.

The 12-night cruise, with 1,309 passengers aboard, the MS Balmoral will follow the same route as Titanic. Organisers are trying to recreate the on-board experience - minus the disaster - from the food to a band playing music from that era.

Appropriately, perhaps, Millvina Dean, a babe in arms rescued from Titanic and final remaining survivor of the tragedy, died in Southampton in May, 2009.


* With additional reporting by the Associated Press

Updated: April 9, 2012 04:00 AM