The Ballyhea group was on telly today – TV3’s Morning Show. That’s as close to media glamour as I’ve got in a while. Not that I was on myself – I’d be useless at that kind of thing, cameras tickle. They had the eloquent, informed ones: Diarmuid and Cath and Vicky. Between them they covered the enormous cost of the bank bailout to each and every one of us (€60,000 for the average household if you spread it evenly), how it affects ordinary people, and how the current response to it will be as disastrous for us as similar ‘medicine’ was for the Developing World – a pretty comprehensive encapsulation of the issue. You can watch it here.
Back to our adventures in Germany then. I’ll skip over the details of organising tickets for the bus into town, the tram to the hotel, and the rooms – except to say that Cath did them all, and found the cheapest way to do them all. One of those people every expedition needs.
Settled in, we next needed to reconnoitre. Having dinner seemed like a good way to do that, so we headed in to the older and more attractive part of Frankfurt. It has to be said, it’s not very big. For a major global hub of wealth and power, Frankfurt is surprisingly unimpressive. It has its expensive suburbs of course, but the historical city centre is not much to look at. And while I’m being rude about our hosts, German sounds like English with a wheel missing.
You feel bad about thinking this when you remember that the reason there’s so little left of historical Frankfurt is that it was obliterated in World War II, first by bombing and then by ground combat. Before then, it actually had the largest mediaeval city centre in the world. So we had our dinner in the ruins, essentially. But first we took the photo-opportunity of a statue representing justice to make our point.
After checking out the ECB building and finding it a lot less like Forty Knox than our mental image, we had dinner at the outdoor restaurant you see behind us there – mainly sausages and sauerkraut of course. I am pleased and relieved to be able to report that the frankfurters were the nicest. After, we fell to singing songs – mainly Cork ones like the Banks and Thady Quill. We weren’t drunk or anything, it just seemed appropriate. Eventually though a woman resident brusquely told us we were too loud, the implication being that this was far too classy a neighbourhood for that sort of thing.
To show solidarity with us, a drunk German man at the next table started off a chorus of Molly Malone. Politics was on!
You did know the Titanic was a real ship, didn’t you? Laughing Squid did a Twitter-trawl to find people for whom this came as news. Amusing as it is, it’s not so surprising that there are now adults who have no memory of the Titanic from before James Cameron’s film. Those who were five when it came out are twenty now. They’ve grown up in a world where Titanic is, and has always been, the most successful film ever.
And the opposite misconception – that it was the worst tragedy in maritime history – is far more widespread, and every bit as wrong. Believe it or not, it doesn’t come close. Even if you restrict the definition of disaster to accidental losses, it doesn’t appear in the five worst on record. If we include deliberate sinkings such as acts of war and piracy, it’s hardly on the radar.
So why is this the sinking everyone remembers? To be blunt, because it’s a great story. The key factor is that the Titanic had just become the largest ship ever afloat. At once you have a story of hubris; overambitious humans tempting fate is one of the great templates of drama. And to stoke the irony, the owners had unguardedly described it as “virtually unsinkable”. Then there’s the needlessness of the deaths caused by the under-provision of lifeboats. That gives the story a terrible pathos. And her passengers included some of the richest people in the world, so you have the vital celebrity angle. The rich surviving at the expense of the poor makes it a story about injustice too.
No wonder so many people think it was invented for the cinema. It’s ideal. The first film about it was made within a month! And even before that it was entering folklore as story and song – hundreds and hundreds of songs, including one I remember my grandfather singing. The Titanic was an instant legend.
The actual greatest tragedy at sea? For a single ship, almost certainly the Wilhelm Gustloff, on which at least six times as many lives were lost as aboard the Titanic. Six times. Why is this not the subject of a wildly successful film?
Because we sank it.
Well, “we” if you identify with the Allied side in World War II. Though it was packed to the gunwales – literally – with civilian refugees, it was also carrying Nazi officers and troops retreating from the Russian advance in 1945. No icebergs, no Edwardian frocks. Germans sunk by Soviets as part of a bitter and ruthless war. Tragic, yes. But not in the least romantic. So no multi-Oscar film for the Wilhelm Gustloff and her nine thousand dead.