Saturday, 14 April 2012

Why the Titanic is being remembered far from the sea

Commander Edward Smith’s statue in Beacon Park, Lichfield … as far from the sea as you can get in England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic tonight (14/15 April 2012) is being marked in Belfast, Cobh, Southampton and across the world in a blaze of publicity. But, why of all places, is this anniversary being marked with a spectacular range of commemorations in Lichfield – a cathedral city that is as far from the sea as you can get in England?

These commemorative events have been organised by the Lichfield Titanic Commemoration Group, with the support of Lichfield District Council, Lichfield City Council, Lichfield Cathedral, and local community, arts and educational groups.

The events include a “First Class Dinner and Dance on board the Titanic” last night [Friday] at Swinfen Hall Hotel. This promised to be an evening of “luxury and opulence,” with a five-course meal, and the sounds of the Edwardian era, the chink of fine china and crystal, delicious food and sparkling conversation with the captain, and a chance to win official Titanic cutlery, kindly donated by Arthur Price Ltd, as part of a charity raffle.

On Tuesday night, the third class passengers in steerage on the Titanic were recalled in Netherstowe School Hall. The third class passengers on the Titanic had to make their own entertainment, and Tuesday night’s entertainment was billed as an evening of lively song and dance, with “Titanic ales on sale.”

Earlier, on Tuesday afternoon [10 April], the story of a controversial statue of the captain of the Titanic in heart of Lichfield was told in a costumed drama in the Lichfield Heritage Centre, and the story of the fatal night, through the eyes of Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon, was told by the History Wardrobe Company on Thursday evening in Lichfield Library.

But why all this fuss?

Mary Hutchinson, of the Lichfield Titanic Commemoration Group, points out that “Lichfield is the proud home of a statue of Captain Smith.”

The statue of Commander Edward stands in the Museum Gardens in Beacon Park, Lichfield. Commander Smith was from Hanley near Stoke-on-Trent in north-west Staffordshire, about as far away in Staffordshire from Lichfield s one can imagine. But when his widow commissioned a memorial statue for him two years after the sinking of the Titanic, it is said that Stoke-on-Trent and no other town was willing to accept it.

The statue stands as far from the sea as it can be. Local lore says it ended up in Lichfield after being shunned by the outraged people of the Potteries, although Joyce Berry of the Lichfield Heritage Centre told the Birmingham Post last week that Lichfield was picked because it was a major coaching route between London and Liverpool – and a good place for American tourists to pay their respects to the man who went down with his ship. Others say the statue ended up in Lichfield because it was the centre of the Diocese of Lichfield.

The bronze statue, which originally cost £740, was sculpted by Lady Kathleen Scott, widow of Scott of the Antarctic. It was unveiled on 25 July 1914 by Smith’s daughter, Helen Melville Smith, and the speakers at the ceremony included the Waterford-born admiral Lord Charles Beresford and the Duchess of Sutherland. Two weeks later, World War I broke out.

The presence of the statue in Lichfield has sometimes been the subject of controversy. Even before it was unveiled, the Lichfield Mercury reported on 19 June 1914 that a local clergyman had initiated a petition signed by over 70 people against its erection.

The 2.4 metre (8ft) statue, which stands on a 2.1 metre (7 ft) plinth of Cornish granite, was commissioned by friends of the captain after his death. The statue shows him in a defiant pose, with the words “Be British” carved underneath. Some anecdotes say these were the last words he said before he perished. The full inscription reads:

“Capt. of RMS Titanic
Edward Smith RD, RNR,
Born January 27 1850, died April 15 1912,
bequeathing to his countrymen
the memory & example of a great heart
a brave life and a heroic death
~ Be British.”

It was restored at a cost of £16,000 by Lichfield District Council and Lichfield City Council in 2010 as part of the Lichfield City Historic Parks project. There was an unsuccessful campaign last year to have the statue moved back to Commander Smith’s home town of Hanley.

The statue will be illuminated from dusk this evening and tomorrow evening, with more than 1,500 flickering tea lights – one for each person who died – placed around the base of the statue. A distress flare will be released in Beacon Park this evening [Saturday], signifying the flares set off from the Titanic on the fateful night of 14 April 1912, and a commemorative service will also be held at the statue at 2 p.m. tomorrow afternoon [Sunday 15 April].

The service will feature music from the era, poetry readings, wreath laying and prayers for all who died in the disaster and others who have lost their lives at sea. At the end of the service, eight bells will be sounded at Lichfield Cathedral to signify the end of a watch at sea.

The Titanic commemorations in Lichfield come to a close next Saturday [21 April] with a Titanic Choral Evensong at 5.30 p.m. in Lichfield Cathedral, with prayers for all seafarers and in memory of all who have lost their lives at sea.

Poems for Easter (7): ‘The Easter Day’ by Dionysios Solomos

Sunset in Thessaloniki ... the location for the 1998 film Eternity And A Day (Μια αιωνιότητα και μια μέρα) by Theodoros Angelopoulos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Tomorrow is Easter Day in the calendar of the Greek Orthodox Church, and so for my last Poem for Easter this year I have chosen the poem <Η ημέρα της Λαμπρής> (‘The Easter Day’) by Greece’s National poet, Dionysios Solomos (1798-1857).

This poem regained fame and popularity in Greece some years ago with the 1998 film Eternity And A Day (Μια αιωνιότητα και μια μέρα) by Theodoros Angelopoulos, who died earlier this year (24 January 2012).

Alexandros (Bruno Ganz) walks along the seafront in Thessaloniki in Eternity And A Day

The film tells the story of Alexandros (Bruno Ganz), a poet in Thessaloniki with a terminal illness who is spending his last day getting his affairs in order before checking himself into a hospital. He lives in his old seaside family home near Thessaloniki, but his daughter Katerina (Iris Chatziantoniou) and her lover Nikos (Vassilis Seimenis) plan to sell the house.

Alexandros thinks if he checks himself into the hospital, he shall die. But he has one final project – to complete the unfinished poem, ‘The Free Besieged,’ by Dionysios Solomos. He recalls his dead wife, Anna (Isabelle Renauld), and he lets his daughter read a letter her mother had written to him right after her birth in 1966.

Later in the day, he saves a young boy (played by Achilleas Skevis), a Greek-speaking illegal immigrant from Albania, first from police in traffic in Thessaloniki and later from child kidnappers in a warehouse, and tries to help the boy return home. In one eerie scene, with recollections of the Crucifixion, man and boy are at the snowy mountain border between Greece and Albania, where a barbed wire fence has the bodies of fleeing refugees clinging to it after being killed by border police.

In one scene, Alexandros and the boy, who remains unnamed throughout the film, are on a bus journey when they come across the poet Solomos (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), who recites verses from this poem <Η ημέρα της Λαμπρής> (‘The Easter Day’), with the opening line: «Καθαρότατον ήλιο επρομηνούσε ...»

Solomos (1798-1857) was born on the Greek island of Zakynthos, to an elderly count and his teenaged housekeeper. Solomos was educated in Italy, where he studied law and literature, but on returning to Greece he relearned Greek, and decided to write in demotic, or common modern, Greek. He gained fame early on with his ‘Hymn to Liberty’ (1823), a 158‐quatrain poem – the first two stanzas are sung as the Greek national anthem.

However, Solomos became more and more obsessed with perfection and he left many poems unfinished, including ‘The Free Besieged.’

The ‘White Tower’ ... the symbol of Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

During the bus journey the dying Alexandros and the boy take through Thessaloniki, the poet Solomos gets on the bus. He sits across from Alexandros and the boy, and recites his unfinished poem, ‘The Easter Day.’ When Solomos gets to the unfinished last line of the poem, “Sweet is the life ... and, ...” he repeats these first few words and is unable to complete the line. As he leaves the bus, Alexandros asks: “Tomorrow, how long does it last?”

Close to the end of the film, the dying Alexandros imagines he has met Anna once again, and he says to her: “One day, I had asked you, how long does tomorrow last?” Anna answers: “An eternity and a day.” She leaves, and Alexander is left alone, facing the sea.

This is a story of love, regret, life and memory, light and darkness, hope and despair and ultimately, life and death. It is about death and new life, about a dying man who gives his life to save a child all others regard as useless, about captivity and redemption, about hope in tomorrow, faith in the future, and truths about time and eternity.

Eternity and a Day ... a story of love, regret, life and memory, light and darkness, hope and despair and life and death

Η ημέρα της Λαμπρής, ∆ιονυσιος Σολωμος

Καθαρότατον ήλιο επρομηνούσε
της αυγής το δροσάτο ύστερο αστέρι,
σύγνεφο, καταχνιά, δεν απερνούσε
τ' ουρανού σε κανένα από τα μέρη,
και από εκεί κινημένο αργοφυσούσε
τόσο γλυκό στο πρόσωπο τ' αέρι,
που λες και λέει μες της καρδιάς τα φύλλα
«γλυκειά η ζωή κι ο θάνατος μαυρίλα».

Χριστός ανέστη! Νέοι, γέροι και κόραις
όλοι, μικροί, μεγάλοι ετοιμασθήτε,
μέσα στις εκκλησιές τες δαφνοφόραις
με το φως της χαράς συμμαζωχθήτε,
ανοίξατε αγκαλιές ειρηνοφόραις
ομπροστά στους Αγίους, και φιληθείτε,
φιληθείτε γλυκά χείλη με χείλη,
πέστε Χριστός ανέστη, εχθροί και φίλοι.

Δάφναις εις κάθε πλάκα έχουν οι τάφοι,
και βρέφη ωραία στην αγκαλιά οι μαννάδες,
γλυκόφωνα, κοιτώντας ταις ζωγραφι-
σμέναις εικόνες, ψάλλουνε οι ψαλτάδες,
λάμπει το ασήμι, λάμπει το χρυσάφι
από το φως που χύνουνε οι λαμπάδες,
κάθε πρόσωπο λάμπει απ' τ' αγιοκέρι,
οπού κρατούνε οι Χριστιανοί στο χέρι.

The Day of Easter, by Dionysios Solomos

The last cool star of dawn was
foretelling the brightest sunshine;
no cloud, no drift of mist was travelling
across any part of the sky.
Coming from there, the breeze
blew so sweetly across the face,
so gently, that it seemed
to whisper to the depths of the heart:
‘Life is sweet and death is darkness.’

‘Christ is Risen!’ Young and old, maidens,
everyone, little and great, prepare!
Inside the laurel-covered churches,
gather in the light of joy!
Open your arms and with them offer peace,
that the icons of the saints may see.
Embrace and kiss other sweetly, lip on lip,
let friend and foe proclaim, ‘Christ is Risen!’

Laurels are placed on every tomb,
beautiful babes are held in mothers’ arms,
the choristers sing sweetly
as they come before the icons.
Bright is the silver, bright is the gold,
under the light of the Easter candles.
Each face alights before the holy candles,
that Christians bear in hand.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.