Factor one: a tradition
Belfast was building ships as early as 1663. By the mid-nineteenth century the business was big, and getting bigger. When Anvil Point was launched (1st April 2003) she was keel number 1742 (and last) of the vessels to come off the Harland and Woolf slips.
Yet only one gets popularly remembered — and she was probably the shortest-lived of the lot.
Factor two: an image (bad)
Belfast hasn’t had a lot positively going for the city these last few decades.
The Europa was, after all, not just the place where the world’s press bedded down. And rarely ventured forth. And talked. And broadcast therefrom. And drank each other under tables. It was also, famously, the most bombed hotel in the world. Which included Beirut. For the record: twenty-eight, and hopefully not counting. For that reason, NBC news includes the Europa in its Ten hotels that made history — so consider the others for comparison:
- the Ritz, Paris: Diana Spenser Windsor’s nookie joint before Pillar Thirteen, but more worthily the resort of Ernest Hemingway;
- the Crillon, Paris, notoriously the Gestapo’s favourite watering-hole in occupied Paris;
- the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where James Earl Ray did for Martin Luther King;
- the Greenbriar, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, which was the Congressional nuclear bunker and Cold War funk hole, a.k.a. ‘Project Greek Island’;
- the Berchtesgaden Resort, built on the site of Hitler’s Bavarian pad;
- etc., etc.
To be truthful, Belfast is, was and always will be a long, long way from being a ‘beautiful’ city. Nobody is likely to croon that they left their heart in Belfast City, though it has its television transmitter high on a hill, and The morning fog may chill the air (and on occasion, not clear all day) — admittedly the sea is rarely blue, but it can certainly be windy.
The place can certainly do with a golden sun to shine for anyone.
OK: it’s irrelevant to the main argument here; but let’s do it:
By the millennium the two main cities of Northern Ireland, Belfast and Derry (let’s leave the wasteland of ‘Craigavon’ out of this), were both in positions to exploit their considerable waterfront potentials. Both did so, though — as Northern Irish politics go — the main money stayed east of the Bann.
In Belfast, with the demise of Harland and Woolf, there was one of the largest inner-city brown sites in Europe: though London’s King’s Cross ought to have beaten it for the funny moolah (but that industrial desert had been hanging around, unexploited, for decades). Some smartass promptly designated the old H&W acres the ‘Titanic Quarter’ — and a legend was born:
Gosh: how Mediterranean! All we need now is the little cable cars.
Bayeux Tapestry — phooey!
Yes, Malcolm has seen it. And preferred the booklet version with added colouring. Apart from anything else, the dog-Latin makes more sense when it’s highlighted and not faded into oblivion. Nor, last August, were Malcolm’s grandsons greatly impressed either. Once seen, noted, included in school projects, soon forgotten.
But this is different:
The most expensive piece of Titanic memorabilia sold at auction – the 33-feet long design plan – is coming back to Belfast.
The 100-year-old scale drawing was sold last year in England for almost a quarter of a million pounds, but the anonymous buyer has agreed for it to go on show at the new Titanic visitor centre in Belfast.
The huge plan, regarded as the Holy Grail of Titanic memorabilia, shows the intricate detail of the ship – from the location of the squash court, to the Turkish baths to the first-class lavatories.
That omits a few crucial details:
- why is such an artefact worth only a couple of hundred grand at auction?
- how was it abstracted from the H&W plans office, except to be an exhibit at the official enquiry (still has the chalk markings drawn on it in 1912 to show where the iceberg struck — which must surely be ‘Crown copyright‘)?
- how genuine is the ‘provenance’ of ownership, and can we be told it, please?
- why, for heaven’s sake, is such an object not in public ownership, one way or another?
If this major piece of naval architecture arrives back at the Drawing Office (there, to the left of the picture), overlooking the Thompson Graving Dock, and is put on public view (admission will of course be charged), we have a feature which, so far, has been seriously missing from the whole Titanic farrago.
One important element in the legend has already been returned to Belfast.
The three great behemoths — the Olympic, the Titanic and the Gigantic (rapidly renamed Britannic) — were too big to enter Cherbourg harbour. Cherbourg was a major port for accepting passengers, both of the haut-ton and those rough, but profitable steerage emigrants. So a pair of tenders was commissioned, also from H&W: the Nomadic for the quality, and the Traffic for the plebs. Now aren’t those evocative, telling names? As with everything else in the Titanic story, we are not all in this together:
When that ship left England it was making for the shore,
The rich refused to ‘sociate with the poor,
So they put the poor below,
They were the first to go.
It was sad when that great ship went down.
The Nomadic is the noble vestige of the great days of Belfast shipbuilding, and likely now to be a permanent resident.
She has a heroic history, serving in two World Wars: first as a minesweeper and a ferry for American dough-boys arriving at Brest, then — in the second Unpleasantness — evacuating refugees from Cherbourg in 1940, then requisitioned by the Royal Navy as a minelayer and general transport. Back in post-war France Nomadic was again a tender to the great liners,until air-travel made that a memory, then a Parisian floating restaurant and night-club.At her lowest ebb, she was seized for debts, and bound for the breakers, so in 2006 the Northern Irish Department for Social Development divvied up €250,001 to bring her home to Belfast, where is being conserved and restored.
Perhaps the best is yet to come.