A myth turns 100: Titanic still fascinates world
By Britta Guerke Mar 29, 2012, 14:01 GMT
London - On the night of April 14, 1912, shortly before midnight, the Titanic hit an iceberg. Some three hours later the biggest ship of the day lay under the icy waters at the bottom of the North Atlantic.
Around 1,500 people died as the ship went down and no one present at the time is alive today. Nevertheless, that moment in time is strangely present in the collective consciousness.
Almost everyone has an idea of what happened during those few hours. In the First Class, the crystal glassware rattled on the tables. The orchestra continued to play as the disaster unfolded, while in the crowded Steerage Class, passengers with the cheapest tickets were the first to die.
The world has seen many other shipping catastrophes over the past century, but nothing exercises the same sort of fascination as the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York. The numerous films, books, photographs and exhibitions mean that most people have particular images in mind when they hear the name.
Sometimes these associations correspond with the truth, while often they are myths that have become established down the decades. It is not only Hollywood's imaginations that have been overactive.
News of the recent accident of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the Italian coast had scarcely been reported when comparisons were being made with the Titanic.
Memories of the flagship of the White Star Line are being recalled in this year to mark the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's demise. A new museum is being opened in Belfast, Northern Ireland on Saturday, where the vessel was built. Millions have been invested in the museum and an associated business centre.
The 1997 blockbuster film directed by James Cameron and starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio is being put out in 3D, in movie theatres worldwide on April 4.
And the trade in items related to the Titanic is booming, with new records repeatedly being set for genuine pieces of history.
In London in 2008, an anonymous buyer paid 55,000 dollars for a ticket bought for the fateful first voyage. And in 2010, more than 80,000 dollars was paid at auction in England for a letter written aboard the luxury liner.
During April, the month of the disaster, more than 5,000 artefacts will come under the hammer at auctioneers Guernsey's in New York, including perfume bottles, a shaving cream dispenser, jewellery belonging to passengers and parts of the ship itself.
The items, to be sold as a single lot, are estimated to be worth around 190 million dollars, although the reserve price has not been disclosed. A menu from the last lunch served aboard the Titanic will be auctioned in Britain at the end of March for a estimated 160,000 dollars.
Why the never-ending fascination with the Titanic? 'There are lots of reasons,' says retired professor John Wilson Foster of Belfast, the author of a number of books on the theme.
It was after all the biggest passenger liner in the world at the time and there were 1,500 deaths among the 2,200 aboard.
Another key point was the passenger list, which was extraordinarily diverse. 'That meant that the ship was seen as a microcosm of European and American society of the day,' Foster says.
The First Class held some of the world's richest men, and the ship provided a symbol that commentators and artists could hang on to. There were painters and writers, creators of fashion and actors aboard.
'The cast of this tragedy that shifts into melodrama in parts has never been better in the history of shipping disasters,' Foster says.
The story has been reworked many times over, the first wave starting in the year of the disaster itself. Within a few weeks, a number of books and films appeared. A second wave came out in the 1950s, stimulated by the book and film A Night to Remember.
The Titanic then went silent for a time until the 1980s. The discovery of the wreck in 1985 and Cameron's film 12 years later renewed global interest.
Foster offers differing explanations for the waves of interest expressed by successive generations. The Titanic has become a popular literature phenomenon, with interest repeatedly revived by a new publication of some sort.
'And you have to admit that the ship and the events surrounding it are exceptionally spectacular,' Foster says.