You can buy a T-shirt in Belfast that comments on that city’s self-regarding mythos about the Titanic: “It sailed. It sank. Get over it.” Ever since James Cameron propped two cute starlets on the prow of the CGI’ed Titanic in his movie, the burghers of Belfast have got it into their heads that there is a huge market out there for Titanic trivia.
There are plans afoot, for example, to build a light rail network for Belfast that will terminate at the shipyard. There is not much there at present, but the area is earmarked for a billion-plus quid in urban regeneration. The usual promises of chic apartment living and high-tech start-ups and art galleries and cafes with canopies are sketched and spread across the local newspapers. It will, of course, be called The Titanic Quarter.
I am not sure that the world is that interested. I think that the huge audiences that flocked to see Kate’n’Leo canoodle and drown were less interested in where the Titanic came from than where it was headed. It’s like the burghers of Hamburg expecting a tourism and investment boom after the success of Sink the Bismarck!.
Belfast Exposed, the city’s finest gallery of photography, has, in a sense, fallen for the same delusion. Nevertheless, it has produced an attractive book which mixes sharp essays, interviews with local Titanophiles and ex-shipyard workers and arresting archive images.
The core of the book is the collection of fiercely objective snaps by Kai-Olaf Hesse. These are not for the sentimental eye. Belfast is a cold house in these pictures. It is always about to rain. One can feel the chill wind skirting across the vacant lot that remains of a place that one employed over 30,000 skilled men. In the words of Donald Rumsfeld, it starkly shows evidence of absence.
The life absent from the pictures was exported to places like South Korea where the medium-level skills to build bulk container ships are abundant and cheap. The “troubles” did not damage Harland & Wolff. In fact, the company kept the shipyard in a bubble of UK government orders which postponed the impact of global competition. Royal Navy contracts would be announced on the eve of some political initiative that need unionist support. As the peace process progressed, the hopes of the shipyard workers diminished.
Finally, it was sold for a song to Fred Olsen Energy, a Norwegian shipping and oil drilling business. When the hoped-for orders never materialised, Olsens was sold 135 acres of land “in order to secure its interests”.
What no one in the government seemed to have noticed was that Olsens also had a division specialising in commercial real estate. Within two years, the land was flogged to a Dublin-based property company for a total gain of over £30 million. In short, a vast and viable brownfield site within a mile of Belfast city centre was hived of from public ownership to a Norwegian property company on the promise that a couple of ships might be built. This might explain the bleakness of Hesse’s photographs, taken in 2003. He is taking pictures of a corpse which is in the process of having its grave robbed as well.
In his essay, David Bate asks: “How can you photograph a trace of a trace?” He contrasts the historical images with living souls in the frame, albeit shrunken by the massive scale of the ships they were building with the complete absence of humanity in Hesse’s pictures.
Such was and is the fate of the shipyard, a place with potent memories among its living ex-workers and of a gaunt symbolism for Ulster’s unionists. From partition on, Harland & Wolff symbolised the political and commercial success of Belfast and Northern Ireland in contrast to the rural and faith-based failure of the Republic of Ireland. What globalisation has wrought in the North, it has granted glad tidings in the South. From massive ships to microchips, thatis the one-line version of the Irish Story of the past 30 years, and of the shift in fortunes that has left adrift more than a few life rafts.