Sunday 29 April 2012

A Titanic Weekend in Belfast

The weekend of 14th April was the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, a hugely significant date in the maritime and social history of Belfast. We had arranged to visit the city for a Van Morrison dinner concert taking place that weekend in The Culloden Hotel. We had set out innocent of all knowledge of the imminent anniversary but as soon as we stepped off the plane and got to the centre it became apparent that Belfast was deep in the throes of a titanic Titanicfest. 

Titanic Tours
Easons bookstore's contribution

Some of the leaflets picked up at the airport
Belfast also has a strong Dissenter tradition

Human "Icebergs" in the city centre

World's largest Titanic model constructed entirely from balloons
Sanity restored at The Crown Liquor Saloon
....with a couple of pints of the blackstuff

The Titanic was oozing out of every one of Belfast's pores; turning every corner it was impossible to avoid Titanic Tarts, Titanic Beer, Titanic Sandwiches, Titanic Bus Tours, Titanic Books, Titanic Cappuchinos, Build it Yourself Titanics, Sink Your Own Titanics, Titanic Titanics everywhere. Even Queens Island which was where Harland & Wolff had built the Titanic and thousands of other ships since the mid 19th century, had itself been renamed. It is now grandiloquently called The Titanic Quarter and is destined to be developed to become a new city on the edge of  the city. 

Is what it says
Belfast is where the Titanic was conceived, designed and built  and it is here that the curious visitor can still find traces of that magnificent doomed enterprise. On Queen's Island you can visit the derelict Drawing Offices in which draughtsmen meticulously planned and drew the positions of every single one of the tens of thousands of rivets that stitched the steel hull together. The slipways from which she was launched also still remain. You can walk by the Thompson Dry Dock where she was fitted out and see the original pump-house that was used to drain the water from the dock.  

A scale model of the ship with Titanic Belfast in background

The "King of the World" pose is seemingly mandatory
 The centrepiece of the redevelopment of the old shipbuilding area is what is billed as the world's greatest Titanic Museum - "Titanic Belfast". Here visitors are invited to immerse themselves in the life of 1900s Belfast a city which then was an industrial superpower with shipbuilding, engineering works and linen manufacturing. From this base of technical knowledge came the confidence and the expertise to build the Leviathan of the Oceans. From this historical starting point the visitor traces the development of the project using modern interactive technology and at one juncture a Disneyesque Shipyard Ride in which you sit in a computer controlled capsule which wafts you through a virtual shipyard. Given Belfast's recent industrial decline it is not a little significant and ironic that one of the commentary options in the capsule is Chinese, the language of our generation's industrial superpower.

The Titanic Visitor's Centre was one of several highlights during our visit. The exterior design of the building reflects the scale and shape of the prow of The Titanic whilst the reflective quality of its cladding panels evokes thoughts of the crystalline reflectiveness of its nemesis the Iceberg. It rises up five floors like the decks of the ship.

A line from Thomas Hardy as noted in the exhibition

An "Airfix" sculpture of The Titanic

The atrium extends to the top of the building and is faced with corroded steel panels

The ship goes down
The exhibition gallery on the first floor shows the rapidly changing Belfast of the 19th century with its range of interconnected industries; the displays concerning the linen mills, rope works and the early years of Harland &Wolff are particularly detailed and innovative. Of note are gigantic projected photographs of city locations with shadowy Edwardians moving across them, giving the feeling that you are present in a fabulous gothic city. The second floor includes temporary exhibition galleries and educational facilities. The third & fourth levels are dedicated to the building of the Titanic, laying the keel, framing, plating and riveting, bulkheads and decking and exhibition galleries which are impressive as they show such detail as the magnificent linen cupboard, the sanitary fittings, a drinks cabinet, a first class and third class cabin, behind the scenes on the Titanic and a display that tells the story of the maiden voyage emphasising the class distinctions.

The last picture, taken as the ship left Queenstown
A reconstruction of one of the lifeboats

 A highlight is an immersive projected computer simulation of all of the Titanic's decks with the virtual view rising from the depths of the engine room up to the top deck through the various class-defined decks between. Finally, the top floor supports an elegant banqueting hall and hospitality suites. Here the centrepiece is a full sized faithful reproduction of Titanic's own grand staircase which controversially is only accessible to those who visit as part of a corporate junket. 
We allowed the best part of a day for our visit.

On the river in closeby SailorTown we discovered The Belfast Barge, a museum, restaurant, bar and performance space owned and operated by Lagan Legacy, a professionally staffed charitable heritage organisation. Its focus is on the city's seagoing and industrial heritage.

When the shipyards of Harland and Wolff were being demolished for scrap a group of local activists suddenly realised a valuable historical resource was in danger of being lost forever. They managed to rescue the shipyard's artefacts including such items as blueprints of ship designs and shipyard timeclocks just days before the wrecking balls of the demolition squads wrought their havoc. The fruits of their labours have been preserved on a Dutch barge now moored behind Belfast's Waterfront Centre. Here they celebrate the diversity of jobs that shipbuilding supported. Rat Killers, Bottom Scrapers, Message Boys, Joiners, Upholsterers, Divers, Rivetters, Draughtsmen, Watchmen to mention but a few.

The Barge
The bar is an intimate and sociable space
The Barge is a floating memorial to a lost industry.  In the bowels of that Dutch Barge they have fashioned a small and intimate perfomance space.

The set of "A Better Boy" in the bowels of The Barge

There we watched a short play called A Better Boy written by John Wilson Foster, an Academic who was raised and educated in Belfast and pursued a career in Canadian Universities where he wrote several treatises on the Titanic. In this play,based upon a real interview,which both  the character of Sir William J. Pirrie, Chairman of Harland & Wolff has agreed to a newspaper interview in memory of his nephew Thomas Andrews who was the chief designer of the Titanic. 

Ironically the interview was conducted in the underwater saloon in the middle of a lake in his residence at Witley Park in Surrey. He recalls Tommy's childhood, his early days as an Apprentice aged 16 at Harland & Wolff and his last moments aboard the stricken liner. It is a fine play which moves and informs. We learn Thomas kept bees and this fact is used by the playwright to illustrate Thomas Andrew's care for the fate of the Titanic's passengers. In evidence to the Titanic Inquiry one of the survivors descibed how those left on the sinking ship were like swarming bees clinging to the decks. A Better Boy personalises the tragedy and deserves future performances in other theatres throughout Ireland and England.

All over the city dinners and events, including the opening of a Remembrance Garden at Belfast's City Hall marked the Titanic's centenary. 

The new memorial carries the names of all of the dead
We had dinner at James Street South, a restaurant which aspires to gourmet status. There we had their "Titanic Tasting Menu" which offered a flavour of the food in the 1st class Dining room. Each or the dishes was paired with appropriate wines. The menu included such treats as oyster with champagne sabayon, consomme with scallop, cucumber and celeriac, lamb, peaches in chartreuse jelly, chocolate and vanilla eclairs and petit fours.

As for Van Morrison! He was excellent, as was the atmosphere in the Culloden, a lovely hotel that looks over Belfast Lough. It was a magical evening and one which brought an enjoyable visit to my home city to a fabulous close.

Van the Man


Sunday 8 April 2012

Stanfords, A London Treasure

At the entrance
Apart from the joy of reading books (and writing them!) there is also the pleasure to be had from just browsing in bookshops and handling the goods. Last weekend I visited Stanfords, probably Britain's best travel bookshop. The store is in Covent Garden's Floral Street, just down the road from Paul Smith's flagship clothes shop. It is spread over three storeys in the same premises where it expanded to as a comprehensive travel bookshop in 1901. A grand open staircase connects the three floors of maps, books and all sorts of other travel related goodies. Throughout these floors gigantic oversized maps have been artfully used as floor and ceiling coverings. 

In the basement
Just to explore Stanfords will allow you to experience the thrill of travel to exotic destinations. Entering Stanfords conjures memories of a time when foreign travel equalled adventure,when the Paris Boat train could connect you to the mysteries of the East via the Orient Express, when a trunk rather than a carry-on was the baggage of choice. As well as guide books there are many shelves with books recounting traveller's tales, the experiences of intrepid travellers of past and present. Many famous explorers "Grand Tourists" have made the shop their first stop when planning a trip.  Amy Johnson, Florence Nightingale, Cecil Rhodes, Dr Livingstone and Michael Palin are just a few of their customers.

The main floor
The shop's founder, Edward Stanford, began his career as  a map seller during the Victorian era when British colonialism was turning much of the world's maps pink. He established a specialist cartography shop on Charing Cross Road in 1853. His business thrived and twenty years later he moved to larger premises just up the road.  In 1901 further expansion found them moving to their present location. With the increased mobility brought about by cheaper air travel in the 1960s there has been continuing growth in demand for their maps and guides. 

The pricing is competitive
By 2001 the shop had been enlarged and modernised. The visitor is surrounded by maps, globes, guide books and endless shelves of travel fiction. As with most modern bookshops there is also a cafe where you can sit and read what you've snaffled after your trawl through the shelves.

Choosing the right map
Whilst Stanfords promotes travel literature of all kinds including a vast collection of novels set in every country, the Company also hosts literary events and it sponsors lectures delivered by notable writers from The Royal Geographical Society. In the past, Stanfords secured specialist maps that could be difficult to obtain because some countries considered mapping to be a secret or military function. The persistent Stanfords staff sought them out from helpful foreign survey offices and would purchase a year's supply at a time and discreetly ship them back to London. Did I read somewhere that when the Falklands / Malvinas were invaded the Government headed down to Stanfords to buy up their South Atlantic stock?
If it has been mapped, Stanfords will have it

Probably not a best seller at the moment..
A part of the England section

Today's Guardian carries an article by Tim Waterstone, founder of Waterstones bookshops, in which he decries what he sees as the malign influence of Amazon on the U.K. booktrade. Amazon managed to generate sales of £3.3 BILLION last year and yet paid not a penny of Corporation Tax on the profit. 
Where do you want to go?

The fact that Amazon is dodging its public duty by contributing nothing to the UK exchequer has made me more determined to put even more of my business towards Coles, my local bookshop. Like Stanfords, Coles provides an individual and personal service. Nigel, the owner, and his helpful team order in books on request, host poetry and literary events and best of all I can browse and handle books in a friendly, pleasant, local bookshop. We all use Amazon but we should also do as much as we can to support our local bookshops.
A global business....
Browsing the stock - one of the pleasures of a real bookshop
 One of the topics for discussion at The Historical Novel's Conference in London during the last weekend of September is Exotic Locations in Historical Fiction. Among the countries to be covered are Japan and Ladakh.

Have a look at the site - you might find yourself booking one of the sessions.