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Sardony

The Enterprise on a Saturday evening, Belfast to Dublin. I’ve just spent an  hour wandering around the latest excrescences in the Titanic quarter. The Titanic Signature Building, that paranoid, quartered replication of a ship’s hull, is growing, its cladding incomplete, looking like it’s shedding scales rather than rising to a climax. New pathways and road surfaces are being rolled out like a red carpet. They are breathless in their anticipation of the tourist flow to come, the unstoppable stream of Titanic enthusiasts from across the globe who have been waiting for this moment, for Belfast to finally allow them the authentic Titanic experience. Come 2012 the circuit will be fully functional and they’ll be channeled around the city in a warm affirmation that they are right to be so obsessed with Titanic (they have the film, they can recount the facts and figures, the angle of the funnels is ingrained in their way of looking at the world).

After this glance at what looks like a serious gamble on the economic future of large sections of Belfast (the same gamble of impermanence which was in the shipbuilding industry when it began) I’m melancholy. Those new pedestrianised areas, with their varieties of beige tarmac, pseudo-marble and brick that looks and feels like coloured concrete, suck the verve from the soles of your shoes. I sit on the Enterprise in Central Station. I pull down the foldaway table. Hidden inside is a used ‘Northern Ireland Visitor Guide’, produced by the Tourist Board. It is sticky and wet on the back pages. The cover is an image of male and female bare feet on the Giant’s Causeway. (It’s another story, but young couples implicitly enjoying a sexually active weekend is a curious feature of the way Northern Irish tourism is currently being marketed). The first page on ‘Belfast City’ is headed by the words ‘Birthplace of Titanic and gem of a city’. Too much. Here we go again. I flick back to the beginning to see how they frame all this, and how the rest of Northern Ireland can cope with being Titanic-less. There’s a paragraph on the Mournes. It replicates the take-a-movie-and-connect-with-it strategy. The Mournes were the inspiration for Narnia (a now accepted truism which is based on a rather throwaway remark by C.S. Lewis, but no matter). Then there is this:

According to folklore, if you can see the Mournes, it’s going to rain, if you can’t, it’s already raining. Don’t take this too seriously though!

Something went a little wrong here. You can tell by the exclamation mark. The mention of rain is not good, obviously. So why not delete it and start again? Why allow this piece of ad-copy to stay? Well, that little saying about the Mournes is central to something which resides below all the Titanic bluster, something that more subtly redefines Northern Ireland as a tourist catchment area. The paradoxical saying about the Mournes in this brochure is meant to be an attractively eccentric piece of local lore. It’s the kind of thing that people say here, the brochure suggests. It nervously warns potential tourists that the locals will say incomprehensibly local things. Don’t be put off, it insists. This is charming, not aggressive. What you’ll hear from the people here is a pure folkish remnant, a sign of their reality. Indeed that’s the strategy for the whole of Northern Ireland – charming, not aggressive. So these Titantic-loving, gourmet-guzzling, good-timers will come and not be fazed by the idiosyncracies of Northern Irish speech patterns and twists of syntax and logic. They’ll enjoy it instead.

This then leads to a slight problem. These check-shirted, denim-wearing, city-loving hikers will now expect what they read in the brochure – they will be disappointed if Belfast is not cosmopolitan (that is, if it hasn’t transformed since the Troubles – because that’s why any sane tourist would come to Northern Ireland, to see the ghost of the Troubles and wonder at its spectrality). So the tourist gurus have to make sure that Northern Ireland is primed and ready to  meet the promises of their publicity.  This happens quietly. The local cast of characters are being trained to act out the role of a sardonic, quirky populous. They are given license to be local, but shown how to be translatable. One of the gotobelfast ad campaigns tells those itching to travel here that ‘we never take ourselves too seriously’. It’s a curious linguistic construction, directed at the coming visitor, but also meant to be overheard by the locals, teaching us what we are to be in a voice that says it speaks for us and with us, but actually speaks to us. It ends with a mantra: ‘We are a proud people, we are a modern city, we are Belfast.’ Friendly/local/global/hospitable.  Balance all of these in your dealings with visitors, because this is the real Belfast, resurrected from some pre-Partition miasma when all was seemingly apolitical and industrial and now mirrored in the post-industrial miasma. The history in the middle drops away and we’re left with an accent and a dark but unthreatening way with words and stories. The parameters are set, and are based on an anxiety that the people will not yet have learnt how to be a tourist attraction. And this is all done, on the surface, as if the place was utterly unique, but with the sure knowledge that it’s just one other peripheral area in search of bed nights.

This is also the wager on the Titanic – that the emphatic authenticity of Belfast as the Titanic’s ‘birthplace’ will erase anyone else’s ownership of the ship. Yet the idea that the Titanic will be somehow uniquely attractive to Americans as a lure to Belfast might not be such a safe bet. They’ll actually be comparing it with their own Titanic ‘destinations’. There’s one in Chicago, for instance. The best is in Branson, Missouri, where there is a half-size replica of the Titanic (and the iceberg). It’s beside a main road. The strapline for the Branson attraction is ‘Outside is Just the Tip of the Iceberg’.  The new sardony we are being taught is a culturally re-paved pedestrian walkway to this vulgarity.

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