Monday, 2 April 2012


I learnt a new word today: 'Titanorak'. A Titanorak is somebody with a (perhaps rather unhealthy) obsession with a ship; or rather with the way in which a particular ship died.

100 years ago this month (on the 14th of April 1912), RMS Titanic sank with a loss of 1522 of her 2224 passengers and crew. It remains the worst non-wartime maritime disaster in history. For the purposes of historical accuracy, it is perhaps worth noting that point again: over one and a half thousand people died.


There really is no getting away from it: the loss of the Titanic was a catastrophe; a terrible loss of life on an unimaginable scale. Many of those who survived the sinking were, furthermore, left deeply traumatised, bereft and, in many cases, destitute, having lost all their savings and possessions in the belly of the ship. Contrary to what you may have heard (or indeed seen) on TV and in the cinema, there was absolutely nothing 'romantic' about this particular event.

The sinking should, of course, be commemorated and the innocent victims remembered on this anniversary but, and here's the rub, I find the obsessive way in which some Titanoraks seek out objects and artefacts associated with the sinking, somewhat bizarre (if not morbid and, dare I say it,  distasteful). A few days ago, for example, a menu written on the day the ship went down, detailing what proved to be the last supper for those in first class, went at auction for £76,000. Other items included in the sale were a set of keys, originally for the storeroom in which the Titanic's lifeboat lanterns were kept (described in the sale as being of particular importance as they had "actually been used in those last desperate hours") which were sold to a Titanorak for £59,000, and a letter from one of the ship's officers who died in the tragedy, which raised £29,000.

The British Press seemed genuinely amazed by the sums of money generated in the auction, but they also appeared in awe of the historic importance of the particular items. Would, I couldn't help but think, they be running quite such 'feel-good' stories if the items on sale were luggage found after a recent plane crash or, say, a passport retrieved from the sea following the sinking of a passenger ferry?


OK so the sinking of the Titanic occurred a century ago, so the site and the finds could be classified as archaeological, but does this in any way soften the circumstances of the disaster? Does the passing of time really make the event any less tragic (and the finds therefore more valuable)? War graves get statutory protection, but civilian casualties killed in, what insurers would call 'an act of God', apparently are not always accorded the same rights. The wreck of the RMS Titanic has, since its rediscovery in 1985, been repeatedly probed, prodded, filmed and, as far as we can tell, irreparably damaged by the accidental introduction of rust-eating bacteria. Large numbers of artefacts have been lifted whilst 'mementoes' (tickets, menus, diaries etc) have gone for increasingly obscene prices to Titanoraks obsessed with the demise of so many men, women and children in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

Worse, in my (admitedly perhaps rather non-objective) view, is the dramatic fictionalisation of the last moments of the Titanic's passengers and crew. James Cameron, whose work in other areas I very much admire (especially Terminator and Aliens), restarted the Hollywood Titanorak obsession, which followed the 1958 movie A Night to Remember, with the rather more gut-wrenchingly schmaltzy and historically inaccurate, though ultimately financially lucrative (people seemed to have stopped calculating profit once it passed a billion dollars) epic Titanic in 1997, which went on to scoop 11 academy awards (which for those who love  movie-trivia equalled the amount won by Ben Hur), including best picture and best director. This wasn't documentary or factual investigation, it was dramatisation: real tragedy as entertainment; movie-makers profiteering, you could conceivably argue, from a 100 year old tragedy. I see that, in order to cash in on the centenary (and perhaps wring a little extra profit out of the deaths of so many), studio execs have re-released Titanic "in 3D" so that audiences can now appreciate the tragic, painful, unnecessarily gory demise of so many men, women and children in hyper realism (whilst gorging, no doubt, upon hot dogs and pop corn).

Cameron has, I noted, recently taken a break from his deep-sea probing of the Mariana Trench, to publicise the new 3D version of his film. "I think it's fairly intuitive that 3D is going to enhance a sense of being on the ship" he commented in the Sunday Times, observing that the new version helped enhance "the luxury of the sets" and "the opulence of the production design". Fair enough. Most directors (apart from the really obtuse ones) continuously feel the need to improve their work, and the recreation of the Titanic's interiors is an exercise in historical recreation in itself. However the justification loses some credibility when Cameron added that the real joy of 3D was that it enhances the experience so "you feel more physically present, more participatory"...I see...all the excitement of dying horribly without actually having to die horribly.

TV and radio are, perhaps unsurprisingly, also getting in on the act with a mass of specially made programmes such as Nazi Titanic (which my digibox guide inexplicably, and perhaps rather inappropriately, managed to shorten to: 'Nazi Tit'), Titanic: a commemoration in Music, Titanic 100: the Myths and Legends, The Titanic enquiry, Ship of Dreams, Why Ships Sink, Sinking of the Titanic Special, Titanic: the Final Word (patently untrue), Titanic: and the band played on, Titanic: the Aftermath, Scotland's Titanic and, perhaps most bizarrely of all, Titanic with Len Goodman. I read this particular gem in the TV schedules with some incredulity. Len Goodman, the dancer and judge from Strictly Come Dancing? Len Goodman (and in that case why not Titanic with Lulu or Cilla Black? - or, for that matter, what about hard-hitting documentaries such as War in the Balkans with Bruce Forsyth, or Great Chemical disasters with Craig Revel Horwood?).

Fortunately the BBC website explained all, with the help of three rather inappropriate pictures of a gurning Goodman (surely the sinking wasn't that much fun?), noting that before he'd been a dancer, Len had been a welder "with Harland and Wolff...the company that, from 1909 to1912, built the Titanic in Belfast". 

Ah, well then, that explains everything.

Perhaps most unsettling, at least from my own fevered mind, has been the contribution of Julian Fellowes, actor, Conservative peer and celebratory aristo-loving screenwriter of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, who, to commemorate the disaster, has written a 4 hour (11 million pound) epic for ITV entitled simply Titanic (or, as one critic unfavourably described it, 'Downton-on-Sea') in which the accident can be relived again, and again, and again (in High Definition). How long I wonder before other, more recent plane / train / ship disasters are immortalised as docu-dramas / factu-mentaries / bodice-ripping fantasy dramas or musicals? I do find the whole thing rather strange and incomprehensible (if not a tad ghoulish). Calm, rational, sensitive TV investigations are one thing. Sensationally fictionalised accounts profiting from disaster by turning it into light entertainment, quite another.

So, here's my new word for the day: Titanoraknophobia, or fear of those obsessed with the sinking of the unsinkable. Let us not forget the passengers and crew of RMS Titanic in all the hype - I do hope that, after this particular anniversary has passed, that they will finally be able to rest in peace.

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