On September 1st, 1985, a joint US/French search team led by Dr. Robert Ballard found the wreck of RMS Titanic.
That simple phrase- just twenty one words in all- conveys none of the profound emotional impact of that moment. Every word, nuance and phrase was hammered home with the same force as those three million rivets that once formed the DNA of Titanic’s hull.
It was the stillness that got to me more than anything. The awesome silence that surrounded the shattered corpse that crouched in all its broken, twisted splendor on the bottom of the ocean. A ruined cathedral, humbled, brought down and blasted apart in places. She wore that silence, and the darkness that begot it, like a funeral shroud.
The beauty, grace and magnificent bombast of the ‘Floating Ritz’ had vanished as completely as the ship herself did on that cold, April night. The four huge funnels, each one big enough for twin locomotives to pass through at the same time, were gone, riven from their bases like the felled pillars of some ruined, mighty temple. In her silent, shattered immolation, the Titanic resembled nothing so much as one part Pompeii, one part Atlantis. Legendary, overblown, and ruined.
And now, quite suddenly, rediscovered. No longer some elusive, lore draped enigma, Here was the real thing, writ large, with small rivers of rust bleeding away from the hull in both directions.
Of course, the bow retained something of its proud, haughty nobility. Port and starboard, the giant, eight ton anchors hung in their hawsers like a pair of giant tombstones. The mast, complete with the crow’s nest from which Fred Fleet had first spotted the killer berg, sagged back against the bridge, as if admitting final defeat.
On the forecastle, the cargo cranes stood frozen in death, folded like the arms of a deceased pharaoh. Dust and whirling clouds of sand danced in the deathly glow of the harsh lights on the remote observation vehicle, Argo, as it flew cautiously around the petrified, still proud remains of the once pristine liner.
Here and there, the odd lifeboat davit remained, swung outwards in their last positions, as if somehow pleading for a return of their long since vanished contents. Ventilators gaped upwards, seemingly recoiling away instinctively from the deck railings. And in that heavy, reverent silence, the sounds of the past were enhanced to almost pin point clarity.
You could almost hear the squeal of brand new ropes passing through block and tackle as the pitiful handful of boats were swung slowly outboard. The crack, hiss and roar of distress rockets, exploding in showers of futile white sparks as they clawed at the starlit night. The glib reassurances of husbands trying to usher vaguely uneasy wives and daughters into those same boats. And the ragtime; loud, sharp and sassy in the clear night air. Ghosts at the feast; their funeral obsequities suddenly on show again after seventy three years of solitary immolation.
And the debris field resembled nothing so much as the contents of a looted, ransacked resort hotel, flung across the cold, sandy sea bed by some malign, vengeful giant. Mounds of coal. Unopened champagne bottles, intact, with their corks still in place. Mountains of crockery, glassware and china, much of it unbroken. A bench from the deck and the remains of a child’s doll. Gladstone bags. And shoes. Pair after pair of shoes…..
Seeing all this unfold over the course of those strange, spellbinding days was sad, macabre, and yet appallingly addictive. The story of April 14-15th 1912 slowly awoke and replayed itself to a fascinated, awed audience. Not on some cinema screen or on a television, but on the actual spots where it all happened on that starlit night, so long ago. Pathos, sorrow and pity, served up with the morning paper that came with the corn flakes and the breakfast coffee….
But there was also a moment of sober satisfaction, too. For it was now obvious beyond doubt that this broken, mangled, once beautiful ship could never be brought back to the daylight. For decades, some people had fantasised about salvaging the Titanic; almost as if dragging her up for air and returning the ship to the daylight could somehow even the score with Mother Nature.
It isn’t going to happen. Nor should it. September 1st, 1985 revealed finally, conclusively, the the Titanic had reached her final port of call. There’s something about that which is at once sad and apt, both in the same instance.
Of course, she still sails across the fabrics of our imagination. Fuelled by a mixture of horror, fascination and sheer, fatal glamour, the Titanic charges heedlessly ahead towards her fatal rendezvous near midnight. Ablaze with light from stem to stern, she has become the Marilyn Monroe of ocean liners. A twentieth century Flying Dutchman writ large, with interiors by Cesar Ritz, on an endless voyage.
Perhaps it is the broken, bowed and humbled wreck of Titanic that is the ultimate memorial to human vanity, folly and arrogance. But the opulent, floodlit beauty that sails our dreams and memories to this day refuses to lay down and die. A deathless dream; a ship of light, snuffed out and taken from us in her prime. Still young, still ravishing.
Perhaps not so much Pompeii as the picture of Dorian Grey.