If ever there was a determined band of people fighting to preserve something truly legendary against seemingly insuperable odds, then the good people of the SS. United States Conservancy must surely qualify for top marks. For years now, they have been struggling valiantly to rescue and restore one of the most totemic and important vessels ever built, in the face of a tsunami of apathy and ignorance in the land of her birth.
Firstly, a statement of fact. I am English, not American. But- that point made- a truly beautiful ship has an allure that transcends all national boundaries. And, make no bones, the SS. United States is still a beauty even now.
Ah, you might say; many beautiful ships have come and gone. Why should this one be any different?
And I would reply; yes, many beautiful ships have gone. Far too many, as it happens. The ocean liner was the supreme achievement of the twentieth century, until the arrival of the jet aircraft. Ships such as Queen Mary, Normandie and United States were nothing less than seagoing cathedrals; vast, swaggering statements of intent, built to awe, amaze and impress both rivals and the travelling public alike. They were front page news the world over in their day. Superstars whose reputations were built on style far more than hype.
Jets and cathedrals, eh? Look around, and you’ll find the petrified, preserved husks of practically every Concorde that ever flew. As for cathedrals, how many of the world’s great cities still showcase these vast, monolithic constructions from the middle ages- many of them built with wealth plundered from a string of ethnically cleansed civilisations? Yet there they stand, petrified and preserved at enormous expense, for future generations to gaze on in awe.
In the UK, we have a pitiful record of preserving our maritime heritage. In fact, a downright disgraceful one. But in America, so many of the famous battleships, carriers and cruisers of previous conflicts have been lovingly preserved. And how glad I am that they have been, too.
Yet if one ship stands head and shoulder above all of them in the pantheon of great twentieth century American icons, it is surely the United States. No other vessel ever exemplified speed, grace and style as much as the fabled Yankee Flyer. She had panache; in terms of technical and aesthetic excellence, she was-indeed, still is- a perfect ten.
The United States is every bit as iconic and instantly recognisable as the Empire State Building, or the Statue of Liberty. She is no less precious or disposable than either. And it is not as if she cannot be usefully repurposed.
The SS-US Conservancy has battled valiantly to put forward viable schemes for the restoration of this uniquely enduring piece of fifties Americana. And, knowing the ingenuity and love of history of the American people, I cannot conceive that they will just sit by and watch this gigantic, golden statement of past national glory slip quietly away to be butchered in some far off, foreign scrapyard.
The real problems seem to be lack of awareness, mixed with a kind of national apathy; a problem not confined solely to the USA by any means.
Surely she is worth saving? If people can still gaze in amazement at the petrified timbers of the proud old USS Constitution, the mighty, sixteen inch gun batteries of the Missouri, or even the gaunt, gallant remains of the Hunley, then why not also treasure and burnish that magnificent liner, with her twin, towering smokestacks that were the very apogee of American dash and style during the Fifties and Sixties?
The United States is like an emotional lightning rod; living history that reminds us of our past great achievements, and binds us to them. Such things amaze, inform and enthrall. They inspire respect, admiration and reverence; enviable qualities that any forward looking nation would surely wish to instill in the future generations to come.
The price of saving her is relatively small. The cost of losing her is incalculable. Her destruction would be an act of cultural vandalism right up there with the barely aborted demolition of the Art Deco region of South Beach back in the late eighties.
Food for thought, I hope. My sincere admiration for all concerned with this valiant effort. May the wind be at your back, and may your efforts not be in vain.