Yes it is true, I too was obsessed by the Titanic, and probably way back then it was much easier because there was more mystery and legend than anything else. Come 1985 and the Titanic is rediscovered and photographed, and then the ride began. Scouring the newspapers, buying books, every find was an aaah moment. I bumped into a fellow enthusiast on a train home and between us we started what was to become the Titanic Society of South Africa (aka TSSA). Those were heady days. I was also a member of the Transvaal Branch of the World Ship Society, and we shared members and even presented programs for them, all the time trying to grow the local interest.
Why was I interested in the Titanic? probably I had read about this spot in the Atlantic where she had gone down, and how ships avoided it because they would often encounter bodies. It must have touched the dark side of me. Of course having a love of Trans-Atlantic liners didn’t help much either. At one point I had the largest Titanic model in SA, (see pic above), and probably the biggest collection in the country. Each new article was carefully pasted into an ever larger scrapbook that eventually spanned 1000 pages. My intention being that one day I too would write a book.
One of the high points was when we were interviewed on Radio 702 by Chris Gibbons, It went down so well, and we had such a great response to it. I even collated a very successful slide presentation that I used to give to clubs and societies. Collecting was expensive though. In those days bringing stuff in from the USA was a major mission that involved bank drafts, forex, large amounts for postage and long waits. It was worth it though, because much of the material would not be brought in by the local book monopoly.
The society was a chore though, producing monthly newsletters was a major job, and we used some very interesting techniques to do it. Originally produced on a typewriter and photocopied; eventually we moved across to a computer and used to move files around using modems and terminal programs. In fact we did things with those computers that were leap years ahead of their time in South Africa. We were equally fortunate that photocopying wasn’t something we paid for either. The society was donated a copier, and in later years I was able to use a laser at work. But, finding articles was difficult, and I used to write quite a lot of them myself. I even have some of the original Wordstar files from those early newsletters. One of our best moments was when one of our members, Hymie Alper, finally found the Titanic grave in Braamfontein Cemetery. From then on we would hold a short service at the gravesite every year. Oddly enough we were never really able to find out what happened to the family at the time, and I only solved that mystery many years later. Last year I visited Hymie Alpers grave in West Park Cemetery, rest in peace you wonderful gentle soul.
As the interest in the wreck increased and the first artifacts were brought to the surface I was faced with the dilemma of how I felt about it. Even today I am still against raising anything from the ship, but I am probably in the minority in the world. It was an interesting topic to debate though and a part of me really wanted to see the artifacts, and a part did not.
Another high point of the society was when one of the members commissioned Keith Alexander to do a painting for him. I recall that we even made a video recorded the event, but I never saw the finished product. The biggest disappointment for everybody was the final confirmation that the ship had not survived the sinking intact and that realistically she was a wreck that was deteriorating. We all wanted the Titanic to be upright and intact with shiny paint and looking like new. The reality is far from it.
An obvious highlight was our screening of the movie “A Night to Remember” which I obtained on video. It was a very popular item and one year we went totally overboard and had masses of dry ice “smoke” flowing through the passages in Sturrock Park Recreation Centre. We were lucky that never threw us out.
In 1997 James Cameron’s “Titanic” hit the screen and suddenly everybody was an instant expert. I will admit it, I did enjoy the movie, especially because I was finally able to see a 4 funnel liner at sea, albeit a CGI version. Those too were heady days because the volume of material was massive, we could afford to be picky. A lot of good research was also being done, and a lot of snake oil was also being pedaled. I had by now stepped back from active work in the society, it had become a chore, and I was tired of it. My interest was beginning to fade. In 2000 I was in the USA and saw the artifact exhibition myself. It was amazing, the personal items were so touching, and while the whole thing was very commercialised it was pretty much the end of it for me. I had been there, done that, and bought the tee-shirt.
One dream that did still exist was visiting Southampton, and as I wrote this there were at last 4 memorials within 5 minutes walk from where I lived. That dream has come and gone too. Sadly, the maritime museum in Southampton really become all about the Titanic and nothing else, and that is what makes me angry. Southampton is about a rich maritime heritage, it is not about a failed ship.
I disposed of most of my collection just before I came to the UK. Most of my books I had sold before going to the USA, and all that was really left was the research material, and a few books and models. I did not feel any remorse about selling it off, if anything I was glad to let it go, and the new owner will carry things forward from here. He has a huge project running, and I wish him much success with it. I too was that enthusiastic once.
The one lesson to draw from this is that when your interest becomes a chore, and you dread everything to do with it, then it is time to step away and do something else. Nowadays I pursue graves, and my search for Titanic graves in Southampton was very interesting. And, even though I have seen the berth where she sailed from, I still cannot quite picture the ship in that berth, and I can’t quite picture the New York incident when I stand at the edge of the quayside.
The problem with the Titanic is that it is one of those black and white image things, we cannot quite view something as being real if it is in black and white, trying to imagine the ship berthed at this expanse of dock is almost impossible, and its equally impossible to imagine the dawn over a cold Atlantic Ocean, as seen from a lifeboat of the ship that was realistically a failure.
On the 30th of April 2015, I was informed that one of our stalwart members from the Titanic Society, Val MacKeown had passed away in September 2014. It was a shock to hear, but it was inevitable as she had been in poor health for quite some time. The last I had seen her had been in 2001, and she was still as busy and pro-active as she had ever been. Val was a go-getter, and almost nothing frightened her off. Her husband Jim was a slow talking Irishman who was almost the exact opposite of his energetic wife. I suspect Jim passed on long before her, and that their wonderfully energetic Border Collie: Tip, is chasing tennis balls in heaven somewhere. Rest in peace fair lady from the Emerald Isle, thank you for all you did, and for supporting us when we needed it so much. Rudi Van Dijk has also passed on and he too is sadly missed.
The Titanic exhibition did come to South Africa eventually, and I believe there was a lot about the society at the exhibition. Typically, I was not in South Africa when it happened.