100 years after it's tragic loss at sea, the majestic Titanic and its fateful maiden voyage continue to grip our collective imaginations.
It was the biggest single building project on the planet since the pyramids of Giza. For three years, more than fifteen thousand sweating, swearing Irishmen laboured to bring it to life from the very mud of Belfast. It grew through freezing winters and searing hot summers. As it grew, it loomed over the entire city skyline.
Gradually it took shape; an enormous steel cathedral, twelve storeys high and almost nine hundred feet long, crouching at the edge of the River Lagan. In the offices of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, the monster bore the official number of ‘401’.
The world would come to know her by her true name. Titanic.
Everything about her seemed on a biblical scale. A team of sixteen cart horses had to drag her twenty ton centre anchor through the streets of Belfast. The four funnels, each seventy feet high, were wide enough for twin locomotives to pass through at the same time. More than three million rivets were hammered into the gleaming black and white hull.
On board went the first ever squash court to go to sea. There was a full set of Turkish Baths and a swimming pool. An upper deck gym and a fifty phone switchboard. Five baby grand pianos, and an enormous, seven storey grand staircase. Carved from oak and mahogany, it was topped off with a huge glass and wrought iron dome. If that cathedral had an altar, this was surely it.
The details were just as sublime. One of the violinists was poached from the orchestra of the Ritz hotel. The name was picked out in simple, three foot high golden letters etched into the hull. A thirty thousand bottle wine cellar was loaded aboard months before her propellers ever turned, just so that it could settle properly.
Each of the four funnels was evenly spaced, and raked at an angle of thirty degrees — the same as the two masts — to create a stunning silhouette, one probably unequalled to this day. The fourth funnel was a dummy; it was there for the sole reason of giving the ship an attractive, balanced profile.
On a fine spring day in 1912, all of this magnificence came swaggering out of Southampton, bound across the Atlantic for a gala maiden reception in New York. Fire floats and sirens, the full panoply afforded by America to visiting royalty.
On board were masses of people with nothing but the clothes on their backs; a desperate mix of nationalities throwing everything on the gamble of a new life in the new world. In first class, there was the biggest single collection of movers and shakers ever seen in one place at one time; railroad owners and property tycoons, film stars and the simply filthy rich. Politicians, lords and ladies, even the world tennis champion. Their pet dogs travelled in a style that most people would have gasped at.
This pretty balloon burst with an almighty bang. Just before midnight on Sunday, April 14th 1912, the side of the Titanic glanced against a half submerged iceberg for around thirty seconds or so. The salt water assassin punched, stabbed and gouged open about three hundred feet of the hull.
The steel plates of the Titanic crumpled like so much rice paper. She went from ‘unsinkable’ to un-saveable in the blink of an eye.
The rest of the story is shockingly familiar. The pathetic, hopelessly inadequate armada of half filled lifeboats tottered one by one down the floodlit flanks of the Titanic in a series of convoluted jerks. Up above, a gaggle of pale white distress rockets clawed desperately at a sky packed with stars, bursting in showers of futile white sparks above the brilliantly lit, slowly sagging sea monster as the cold water devoured her innards.
On the sloping decks, there were the desperate, jaunty sounds of ragtime as Wallace Hartley and his impromptu musical combo sawed gamely away at their own immortal requiem. In the wireless room, the urgent spluttering spark of the distress messages flooding the ether had a desperate tempo all their own.
The end was apocalyptic. Titanic plunged under at 2.20 in the morning of April 15th, leaving sixteen hundred desperate people, upended into the freezing ocean, thrashing and gasping helplessly as they flailed for their lives. And, no more than a mile or so away, the armada of half filled boats sat back and mostly did nothing, perhaps justifiably afraid that they might be swamped. Wives in those boats closed their eyes and ears as their husbands expired within screaming distance. Between them, the lifeboats had more than five hundred empty seats.
These are just some of the reasons why the story of the Titanic continues to clutch at the human heart like a vice. Her sinking was the first major news story of the media age, and it hit home with all the force of an atom bomb.
The shock effect was seismic. Combine 9/11, the Concorde crash and the death of Princess Diana, and you get some idea of the impact of the Titanic disaster. It was not just the ship herself, but the idea of everything she represented; the notion that the combination of wealth and technology could somehow overcome any problem. And she took most of her platinum chip, A-list passenger load with her; people known the whole world over.
It was not simply a matter of wiping out wealth. The stock market plunged down to the bottom with her after the sinking. In the country of her birth, the loss of Titanic induced something approaching a kind of national nervous breakdown; one which it is only now really emerging from after all these years. The shadow of the Titanic looms over Belfast to this day, just as it did through the years of violence, bigotry and anger.
It is a story so unlikely and implausible that it still defies belief even now. The combined talents of Steven King, George Lucas, Jules Verne and Hans Christian Andersen could never have contrived a story as unbelievable as the all too real tale of Titanic. She sails on in our minds to this day. Fuelled by a subtle mixture of horror, fascination and sheer, fatal glamour, she charges heedlessly across our minds towards her chilling rendezvous; a spellbinding beauty, ablaze with light from end to end.
Her story was one of the great landmark events that defined the last century. It is fully up there with the assassination of JFK, and the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. In the doomed icon stakes, the Titanic is every inch their equal; a kind of twenty-first century Flying Dutchman, with interiors by Cesar Ritz.
One hundred years on, it is little surprise that the Titanic continues to stagger the imagination. A century after it started, the endless voyage of this sumptuous, self-destructive diva of the oceans shows no sign of running out of steam.