'My new boyfriend drowned in the icy seas of the North Atlantic -- and all I got was this lousy T-shirt...'
Sinking was the best career move that the Titanic ever made. Had it crossed the Atlantic in one piece, no one would now remember its name. The ship would have ended its working days quietly and been broken up for scrap; forgotten as surely as an old horse rendered down for dog food.
Instead the Titanic has been immortalised in a million books, movies, interpretive centres and baseball caps.
Belfast is the latest to jump on the bandwagon, with its much-hyped multi-million pound Titanic Centre development. Some cities would have kept it quiet if they'd built a ship which went down on its maiden voyage with the loss of over 1,200 lives. Not Belfast. They're practically boasting about it in this, the 100th anniversary of the sinking.
They'll be renaming the airport after the province's most famous dead alcoholic wife-beater next. Oops, too late. They already have.
A Scottish historian recently chided the North for using the Titanic as a ghoulish tourist attraction, but he should have known better than to expect better. This is a place where you can take so-called "Troubles Tours" on the bus, visiting the infamous locations of western Europe's bloodiest conflict since the Second World War. People who can use bombed-out pubs to put bums on seats, even as grieving relatives are still alive, are hardly going to hesitate when it comes to exploiting much more distant tragedies.
We should just be grateful they haven't gone the whole hog and turned the Titanic Centre into a theme park, together with rollercoaster rides replicating the experience of tossing on the waves in a lifeboat, waiting for rescue as Celine Dion warbles her way through yet another ear-splitting rendition of My Heart Will Go On, before presenting all visitors with a parting gift bearing the tacky legend: "My boyfriend drowned in the icy seas of the North Atlantic and all I got was this lousy T-shirt!"
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Whether Belfast should be condemned or congratulated for managing to find a way to make money out of the uselessness of a past generation of shipbuilders is purely a matter of taste. If that's what the people want, why not give it to them? Tourism figures will show soon enough if they do. For now, the centenary of the tragedy does seem to be tickling the collective fancy. James Cameron has reissued his saccharine schmaltzfest of a movie in 3D to packed cinemas; Julian Fellowes was given the go-ahead to turn the story into a rerun of Downton Abbey with added ice. Even the south of Ireland is getting in on the act, period costumes and all, despite the fact its sole involvement in the affair was the mooring of the Titanic two miles off Cobh for five minutes in 1912. Surely it's all far too jolly to be a genuine attempt to memorialise a macabre event?
Either way, we're all going to be so sick of the word 'Titanic' by the end of the year that we could be forgiven for thinking the iceberg had a point. It's the modern disease. We can't simply commemorate historic events with dignity. Instead the hype has to go into overdrive. No opportunity must be lost to wring every last cent, and every last phoney hijacked emotion, from each anniversary. If this is what the Easter Rising centenary is going to be like in 2016, book that flight out now.
It could be that people are nowadays unable to respond to any event except through the prism of popular culture, and are not so much mourning the deaths of over 1,000 passengers and crew on one awful night 100 years ago as remembering how sad they felt when Leonardo DiCaprio slipped cinematically out of Kate Winslet's grasp and vanished beneath the waves.
In a post-modernist world, nothing is really itself; it all merely signifies its own fictional representation. In which case, why not ditch the pretence altogether and make the experience as interactive as possible?
Belfast's expensive new white elephant purports to show the Titanic as it really was -- here is the ballroom; here is the bridge -- but in truth it's only another museum. At least the Famine ship Jeannie Johnston was reconstructed as an actual boat. Taking a ride on a replica Titanic would be more fun too, because it could be enjoyed purely as a spectacle rather than being wrapped in the pious shroud of history.
It's not as if the Titanic was the only ship that ever went down with loss of life, after all. Nor is it the worst.
In fact, the sea swarms with the dead. Distasteful as it may be to admit, the Titanic is just sexier, that's all. Maiden voyage. Beautiful rich people. New York awaiting an arrival that never came.
We've always fetishised and romanticised cruise ships in this way, which is why so many people still pay a small fortune to go on holiday on one, in cramped cabins, cheek by jowl with appalling people they don't even like, skipping from port to port without ever getting a chance to know each passing destination, purely so that they can add it to the CV of experiences, and lie to their friends afterwards about how wonderful it all was.
Modern cruise ships are floating tower blocks, every inch devoted to commerce at its most cynical, some captained by drunks and charlatans who can't quite believe they're getting away with it, and run by companies more interested in profits than comfort and safety.
You're either getting gastric poisoning from food cooked by minimum-wage skivvies from the Philippines; or else lying sleepless in your bunk, waiting anxiously for the scrape of the keel against the rocks as the captain sails too close to the shore so that he can wave to his mistress.
On land, no one would put up with this treatment longer than it took to call the advertising standards watchdog and demand a refund on the basis of false representation.
At sea, thousands are conned out of their money every year because they've fallen for the mythical glamour of cruising.
It's the same reason why they think the Titanic dead more worthy of remembrance than the thousands of others who perished at sea since. Belfast might've spotted a crafty way of making money out of this nonsense, and good luck to them for that. It's not as if the North has much else going for it; once you've seen one sectarian mural, you've seen them all. But it doesn't mean the rest of us have to fall for the hype as well. Especially as this time next year the whole story will have been forgotten. A tragedy should be a tragedy depending on what happened, not on whatever date falls conveniently for the tourist industry.