It's a Guy Thing

Titanic and Me: My Iceberg Conscience

Cutting a solitary figure, standing at the very edge of the now decommissioned dock in Belfast where the then largest movable structure on Earth ever built was launched one-hundred and nine years earlier, and over half a century before I was born, I looked as far out to sea as I possibly could. My isolation, aided by the chill in the air and the winter breeze made me confront a question I needed an answer to. Why was there such a tangible connection between me, a ship, and a tragic event of such epic proportions that the utterance of its name still epitomizes great loss? Whilst I was totally overwhelmed by the wonder of human endeavor and ingenuity, I instinctively knew that this alone did not fully capture the hold this moment in history had on me ever since I care to remember.

The scale of achievement was herculean – 882.75 feet long, 46,000 tons, three massive propellers, the largest two as long as a London bus, able to carry 2,500 passengers and 860 crew. And 16 watertight compartments. Those famous safety mechanisms that led to the claim that the Titanic was unsinkable. Why anyone would ever deduce that such a mass of iron, however constructed, was impervious to the often-cruel nature of the sea only added to my fascination with the story. Shipbuilders Harland and Wolff never made this absurd claim although subsequent reports in the media, especially the Irish News, gave credibility to the enduring myth. Even when the pride of the White Star Line was at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean with 1,157 lives lost company Vice President P.A.S. Franklin announced, on first hearing that the Titanic was in trouble – ”We place absolute confidence in the Titanic. We believe the boat is unsinkable.” The opulence of first-class passengers contrasted the struggles of the third-class ticket holders. Titanic was a microcosm of Great Britain at the turn of the twentieth century.

As I retired to the Titanic Hotel, a short walk away, originally the drawing offices of the shipbuilders the realization of the hold the Royal Mail Ship Titanic had upon me began to crystalise. The story of Titanic was the cry from the crow’s nest that heralded the awakening of my consciousness. The very core beliefs, values and principles that made me, me. As a kid I had often asked myself the question, “What is it like to be me?” What was my substance? At this tender age the answer was understandably elusive since I had only just begun my life journey. Yet many decades later in the beautiful city of Belfast I felt a rising confidence in my ability to answer this paradoxical question.

I was born in Nottingham, and for the first five years of my life lived in Stapleford, a solid working-class suburb of the East Midlands City, with a rich industrial pedigree. Famous for lace making in the nineteenth century and latterly coal mining, which at my birth had around thirty active collieries. On moving to Bicester in Oxfordshire my family remained in council housing. It wasn’t until I was at secondary school that my parents bought their first home. Today I am privileged to own a house a few miles from the royal residence, Windsor Castle. I have metaphorically climbed the stairs from steerage to first class. Yet my humble roots will preclude me from ever taking advantage of others. Climbing on the backs of those less fortunate. Discrimination, unfairness, and bullying will always be my lifelong foes.

As a police officer, I reached a point in my career when I thought I was unsinkable. With rank on my shoulders at a relatively young age and earmarked for future stardom my ego had become colossal. I hit my own personal iceberg and sank. Yet the striking Titanic visitor center, synthesizing the shape of four hulls and eerily, to me at least, an iceberg, provided the metaphor I was looking for since it too represents how humanity has the intrinsic ability to deal with heartache and bounce back – just as I did.

And those that perished? The incredible feeling of loss. The unfairness, harshness, and clinical entrance that death can make, often without warning, spoke directly to my own life experiences.

On my journey out of steerage I became a mature student and obtained a qualifying law degree and latterly a master’s in criminology and criminal psychology. This seven-year voyage, whilst being a dad to two schoolchildren and holding down a full-time job, led me to the port of critical thinking – a skill that has enabled me to follow my dreams rather than be beholden to a boss. But perhaps as importantly not to be fooled by snake oil salesmen who peddle persuasive and putrid lies. Fake news has become synonymous with our daily digital digest. Once only the few would be fooled yet today whole communities and, in the most perverse of situations, whole nations can be duped by a handful of rhetoric. ‘Take back control,’ ‘Make America Great Again,’ ‘Unsinkable’. Peel back the glitz folks and you may discover the clear fault lines.

Being different, perhaps on occasions a little brash, whilst hiding my insecurities below deck, chimed so incredibly with a little-known fact that I had picked up on my many visits to other Titanic exhibitions from London to Orlando and Las Vegas. The four magnificent funnels which overtly reflected the magnificence of Titanic hid a falsehood. The fourth one was there for purely aesthetic reasons. The fake funnel was used to ventilate the engine room as well as evacuating fumes from the first-class smoking room. This piece of Titanic trivia always made me smile and I would often point out the inaccuracies of prints that portrayed each stack oozing the same amount of smoke.

As I lay in bed that night, scrolling through the photographs I had taken earlier in the day I eventually got it. The story of Titanic is the tapestry of my life.

What’s your story?

© Ian Kirke 2022 / @ianjkirke