Tag Archives: politics


Titanic Belfast: see what I saw…

Just spent a long weekend in a city with one of the most violent reputations in the UK visiting a £100M purpose-built exhibition centre commemorating the most infamous maritime disaster in history. “A bit morbid isn’t it?”, asked a friend before I set off.

You’d have thought the locals in Northern Ireland’s capital, Belfast, might have been a bit more enthusiastic:

Hotel Receptionist: “Is this your first time in Belfast, Sir?”

Me: “Yes it is. I’m here to see Titanic”

Receptionist: “Oh I’m sorry…you’re just a tad late. It sank a hundred years ago.”

She wasn’t unenthusiastic, just dishing me the famed Northern Irish sense of humour.  Though there for only a fleeting visit I did get more than a sense that the locals are very proud of the Titanic Belfast centre mixed with bemusement at its extraordinary instant international success.  Since opening in April just before the Centenary of the disaster, the exhibition is attracting visitors in droves from all over the world.

You can take a pleasant stroll from the city centre and along the River Lagan to the Titanic Quarter in around 20 mins or so. By chance, my hotel was situated right next door to the school where Titanic’s architect, Thomas Andrews, was educated (yeah him who advised ‘Rose’ in that  movie to get to the Lifeboats quick).

Just to be clear on why I was visiting Titanic and Belfast at all. I’m neither a morbid ‘disaster voyeur’ nor infatuated with that movie. Belfast was chosen out of 3 alternative weekends away I gave as a gift to my ma for Mothers Day back in March. She chose Belfast, simple as that. Neither of us had been to either Belfast or Northern Ireland before so a real adventure was afoot. We weren’t let down.

A common reaction from friends etc when I told them where I was going (apart from complete incomprehension at why I would visit formerly strife-ridden Northern Ireland) was their preconception as to what the exhibition experience would be like. Many thought I was going just to gawp at artifacts retrieved from the sea bed. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Titanic Belfast is without doubt one of the best museum/exhibition experiences I have ever encountered…and I’m an Arts and History graduate and so have visited many.  Only one such place has captured my attention as much all the way through as this did and that’s the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem.

Titanic Belfast is ultra-modern, hi-tec and state-of-the-art. If you think you are going to go there to find bits and pieces dredged up from the wreck or manikins displaying the fashions of the time forget it.  The attention to detail – in keeping with the vision behind Titanic herself – is impressive. Though you can only see it from the air, the centre is built-in the shape of a star – the emblem of the White Star Line that commissioned her.  From the outside, the building resembles both the bow of the ship and an iceberg and the dimensions of the ‘bow’ are correct from the ground up as to what they would have been from the sea surface up when she was afloat.  The impressive Titanic name plate outside the entrance weighs exactly the same as the iron chains used to steady and anchor her. The 6 floors on which the exhibition galleries are housed mimic the decks of the ship  These little and large attentions to detail continue on all the way through your visit inside the centre to outside where you can walk along the slipway where the ship stood in dry dock in true dimensions from bow to stern.

A journey through the galleries starts with an overview of Belfast at the time – the most prolific shipbuilding city of its day. If there’s one thing all the films made of the story forget…it was the relationship between Titanic and her city of birth. As Kate and Leo gasped for that last breath hanging on the stern as Titanic finally went down, on-screen it was the word ‘ Titanic Liverpool’ we saw painted over that voluminous arse (the ship’s, not Kate’s).  The ship was registered in Liverpool but built in Belfast and only after I visited the exhibition did I understand the huge connect between the city, its people and the ship. When she was released from dry dock into the River Lagan, at the time she was the biggest man-made object ever moved on our planet.

Tip: overcome any impatience to move quickly away from the introductory gallery to the ‘meatier’ parts. If this is your first trip to Belfast then you will already have been disarmed of your preconceptions of the city in a very pleasant way, especially if you are visiting from elsewhere in the UK.  Titanic was at the heart and soul of the pride of people of Belfast. When she launched, 100,000 locals queued to see it. Big numbers today, let alone in the early 20thC. For mainland British visitors, prepare to learn about some uncomfortable truths about our part in the dissent that lead to ‘The Troubles’.

The whole experience from gallery 1 to the end is spot on for our media and digital generation. As you journey through the galleries learning about the life of the men physically building her, their pay and working conditions to even taking a ride – a very cleaver and informative and non-gimmicky ride around the docks amid the builders on cable cars…you gain an insight into their lives.

You can do the Titanic adventure 3 ways – join a guided group, walk around with self operated audio guides or just wander around at will. I chose the latter.The test of this exhibition for me was that I wasn’t once tempted to amble through as an independent visitor that could have fast-forwarded myself through. I was already very familiar with the Titanic story but I was drawn to stop and learn more and I really did.

Two major highlights for me. The cable car ride already mentioned and the ‘virtual lift’. This is an unfurnished space surrounded on 3 sides by cine-projector walls of the highest class. A short animated looped film takes you from the Engine Room to the Bridge with everything displayed all around you in real perspective so you really feel you are there. I have to admit to gasping when the Grand Staircase came into view. Happily, Leo was not under the clock.


The Titanic adventure will take you beyond the tragedy to the aftermath and the repercussions. But then it goes even more hi-tec to take you on a voyage to the discovery of the wreck site. See how and why it was sought and found….overfly it standing on glass floors the scenes where Titanic lies.

The Titanic story remains etched in our minds even 100 years after the disaster. It’s more than the story of a disaster. It’s the most famous ship sinking story there has ever been and yes more than probably due to the presence and loss of some of the ultra rich of the time who were on-board.

You won’t come out of Titanic Belfast depressed – I guarantee you that. You will come out impressed by the hi-tec, impressed by the helpfulness and knowledge of the staff from beginning to end, impressed by so many ‘wow’ factors….and I hope you will express ‘well…I never knew that’ as often as I did. Yet the tragedy of the story is not airbrushed out amid the hi-tec. It was interesting that as independent visitors making our way around, we kept bumping into similar independent visitors doing the same.  It was interesting to see them go through similar experiences we did as they discovered the story. When we all got to the part of the moment of tragedy, it was interesting how we all went very quiet, thoughtful…and respectful.  The movies all end at this point but the story went on long beyond this as I was to find.

Our visit to Titanic Belfast cost us all of £23 for the two of us. The centre’s guide advises that you need 3 hours to see the full exhibition plus the slipways where Titanic was built. They were spot on. We were not ambling around but just fascinated by each and every gallery and took time to read, touch and swipe screens, stand on floor maps and make them move, watch film footage, stand over the ocean floor on glass and ride above the wreck…ride through the construction of the ship….stand in a 3-D space and see  the ship’s First Class Dining Room appear around you….

Not once did I feel in any way this was a bad-taste theme park. As a former  degree student of history…it more than met my expectations.

For more info, visit here…













Why are Muslims blowing each other up in Iraq?

The war in Iraq is over. The Western troops have left. Saddam Hussein is dead. So why are we hearing ever frequently on our news reports that another bomb has gone off in Baghdad or another Iraqi city? Why are we hearing about ‘Sunnis’ and ‘Shi’as so often? Who are they and what’s their beef with each other?

I’m no expert on Islam – just a pleb that would turn to Google first to find out about anything, although I do have an understanding of bits of Islam so I guess this post is going to be very simplistic and nothing an expert on such matters would pay any attention to. But at least I have done some digging around before posting this.

It seems to boil down to a centuries old family scrap over inheritance and control over millions of minds. It’s a bit like when Alexander the Great snuffed it surprisingly early leaving no heir to his empire and so his generals beat each other up (and more) for control over his dominions.

When the Prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam, died in the 7th Century, he left no (male) heir to his estimated following of 100,000 Muslims – a trans-border community of followers called a ‘Caliphate’. On his passing, those left in leadership needed to find someone who could fill his place as the ‘Caliph’ in charge of the religious kingdom. Here’s where the fledgling Muslim world divided and has been divided ever since. A larger part of the community backed a close companion of Mohammed called Abu Bakr to be Caliph while the lesser group chose Mohammed’s son-in-law and Cousin, Ali. Both groups claimed authority from Mohammed that their candidate should be the chosen successor and if you want to read up more about that then visit the BBC guide to Religion here. The Muslims who backed Abu Bakr became known as ‘Sunni’s (meaning ‘one who follows the Sunnah’ – the teachings and beliefs of the Prophet). Those who followed Ali were known as the Shiat Ali (followers of Ali) or ‘Shi’as. The Sunnis did not believe in a bloodline path to succession but in a more political governance based on who was best able to lead. The Shi’as chose loyalty to the bloodline.

In the end the Sunnis got their way and Abu Bakr became Caliph. On his death, the tables were turned and Ali finally got his way….only to be assassinated. The Caliphate then fell back into Sunni hands and the seeds enmity between the two branches of Islam were sown and took root. The real break between the two branches of Islam took place 48 years after Mohammed died when the son of Ali, Hussein (Mohammed’s grandson by his daughter) started to oppose the ‘tyranny and corruption’ of the ruling Sunni Caliph and he and most of his family were then massacred. Hussein was elevated to the position of ‘martyr’. Ali was assassinated in the city of Najaf and Hussein in Karbala – both in Iraq and both cities holy to Shi’as and so the Shi’a branch of Islam found its centre in Iraq and then spread eastward into Iran. When you hear of bombs going off in Iraq other than in Baghdad they may very likely be in Najaf or Karbala and most likely blamed on Sunni/Shi’a inter-communal tension.

 The Hussayn Mosque, Karbala, Iraq

As you can imagine, it’s all a lot more complicated than this and two good articles to read if you want to delve deeper are on BBC Religions site mentioned before and this article in Time World. This is a good one too.

The map below shows how the Islamic world centred around the Middle East divides between Sunni and Shi’a followers. Note the concentration of the Shi’a populations in Iran and Iraq. Note Sunni Saudi Arabia, which houses the holy shrines of Medina and Mecca, and the vast majority of other Muslim lands that follow that branch. Saudi has up to now been the spiritual mouthpiece for the Islamic world – a Sunni one. As we have seen in recent months, Iran, the main homeland of the global Shi’a population is flexing its muscles both inside and outside the Islamic world. The power vacuum left in Iraq after the departure of the West has given rise to a new frontline in the undeclared war between Sunni and Shi’a Islam. Note also the high percentage of Shi’as in Bahrain and Yemen where we have also seen reports of Muslim against Muslim strife. Note also the 40% Shi’a population in Lebanon. Lebanon sits right on the northern borders of Israel and if you have read my previous blog on why I think an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran in these days is a distinct possibility, then you will see how Iranian direct influence in Lebanon brings Israel and Iran nose to nose in a growing climate of antagonism than the global map would otherwise suggest.

Related: ‘Never again Masada’







“The Iron Lady” – movie review

Have you ever hosted a dinner party and wondered what provision you would make to spice up the conversation if you reach that awkward moment when it runs dry?  Here’s a tip. All you need are two magic words. Speak them, put your helmet on, buckle up and let the fireworks begin.

“Margaret Thatcher”.

This week I previewed the movie ‘The Iron Lady’ starring Hollywood legend Meryl Streep in the lead role as one of the UK’s most controversial political figures in living memory, possibly beyond and the first woman any western nation voted in as its leader – Margaret Thatcher.  The film releases in the USA,  Canada, Australia and New Zealand on 30th December and then in the UK on 6th Jan. Interesting that the UK, where this film is likely to stir passions most – follows the others    The radio station I work for is part of a general media mix signed up to publicise the movie and so I and some of my colleagues got to preview it.

Before I get on to the movie itself I should  say something about how our involvement with it was received by some of my colleagues and this is relevant because I think the same debate will happen elsewhere generally over this film .  I’ve overseen some 30+ film & theatre promotions on-air in recent years but have never witnessed such a reaction to our engagement with this film among my colleagues.  The memories of Margaret Thatcher still run deep in British society.  The mere mention of her name, I recently found, seems to be akin to stepping on an unmarked landmine.

I was at the most exciting time of my life (so far) when Maggie was in power. I was at University in Sheffield, the capital of what we called up there the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’. I was in coal mining country. The major flash points over the Unions vs Maggie battles portrayed in the film and on national TV at the time happened around me. I remember walking through the main high streets of the city as a student putting coins in the begging buckets of the wives of the Coal Miners on strike and in pitched battles with the Police we saw in the news every day.   I remember going on my first and only ever demonstration march in London chanting ‘Maggie Maggie Maggie..OUT! OUT! OUT!’.  Unlike the recent student marches, ours was very orderly.  To be honest though, I’m not sure I truly understood what I was demonstrating about. I know many of those who took up seats in the convoy of 10 coaches put on by the Students Union carrying our contribution to the dissent to the capital took them up just for a free ride to London to shop and then rejoin the coaches for the journey home.  Not me.  I did march and shout and boo and hiss but I still don’t think I ‘got it’. I was genuinely resentful of Margaret Thatcher at the time because of the cuts being made that affected education and also because of the stress I saw around me facing the families of the Coal Miners but I can’t say I ‘hated’ Maggie Thatcher.   I’m what you could call ‘a-political’. That’s not to be mistaken for unengaged and electorally irresponsible, but I just don’t do party political dogma and to be honest I frown upon anyone who does. I’m not a member of any political party and follow no one political dogma and I see anyone doing such to be no less tribal in their mentality than ardent football fans. I’m a fly-voter and proud of it. I have voted for all the main political parties in my time (even the Greens) depending on the issues of the day that mattered to me most. At the end of the day…it’s people like me who ultimately determine the outcome of General Elections and the fate of Governments, not the party activists.  So why am I waffling on about all this in what’s supposed to be a film review? For a British audience personal politics and memories of Margaret Thatcher are fundamental in determining whether one will even watch this film at all.   If your politics and memories prevent you from doing that, then you will miss out on one of the finest acting performances I have ever witnessed.

Here’s a spoiler for all you political activists of whatever persuasion:- the opening of the film will disarm you. I’m not saying how, but it will. I watched the film with a true red colleague of mine and a real anti-Thatcherite.  That he was not wearing his Hammer & Sickle T-shirt on the night was one thing….but his loss for words and mixed emotions afterwards was very telling.   You see despite all the legend and politics of the ‘Iron Lady’…there is a glimpse at a very touching human story that runs through it all.  For me, the issues surrounding mental health and the tragedy of how it can reduce once indomitable people to a sad shadow of their former selves is profoundly distressing.  In fact I would say to the film makers that if highlighting the effects of Alzheimer’s was not an intended key legacy of the movie, then I’m glad they failed.

This film is not a ‘King’s Speech’. It’s not going to make you come away from the cinema buoyed up and proud chested to be British. The subject matter is too controversial for that to have ever been an achievable goal. But it does lack a sense of completeness.  The film is not a biopic but at times you wish it were.  So deep-rooted are the memories and passions around Maggie Thatcher that at times I felt myself wanting to know more, to know the truth. There is much I remember from her time in office that the film does not have time to address or mention and even how she got so under the skin of the Soviet regime thay they dubbed her ‘The Iron Lady’ is passed over with no explanation.  When you consider just how much happened over the years of her time in office – the Miner’s Strike, Poll Tax riots, war with Argentina, battles with the EEC, her son disappearing in the desert (never mentioned at all) and then the battles within her cabinet and why she never appointed any other women to high office…there is far too much to cover.  That’s why I guess I felt a little cheated by the film. I wanted more covered, but Director Phyllida LLoyd takes the film in a different direction away from pure history to focus in on a very human story and I guess in doing that she steers the film away from politics allowing a way for the poltical hotheads to try and engage. How much any of them will remains to be seen.

I was surprised at the amount of laughter in the audience and I think this only something British audiences will pick up on because only we will recognise the various other background political figures at the time with whom Maggie clashed and who were ultimately to turf her out of 10 Downing Street.  Only we will pick up the irony of some of the dialogue. One fairly big critisicm (and perhaps another reason for some of the laughter) was that at times the make-up used to portray Meryl Streep as an elderly Lady Thatcher is akin to watching Jennifer Saunders in a ‘fat suit’. Unhelpfully comical.

How did the film leave me thinking about Margaret Thatcher at the end?  This is where my ‘a-politicality’ is most beneficial. Because I had no preconceptions, no prejudice, no hatred or love….I could enjoy this film purely for what it is: a piece of entertainment. I did not come away feeling the film was endorsing or glorifying her.  In fact I thought the opposite and one of the last lines spoken by Jim Broadbent who plays the hapless but surprisingly charming husband, Dennis Thatcher, I think leaves a very damning verdict on her, at least it did for me.

Another thought I had was that I’d love to be a fly on the wall watching the reactions to the film of our present day governing Prime Minster, Deputy Prime Minster and the Cabinet. There are many very uncomfortable similarities with economic events and social disorder between 1980s Britain and the UK today.  I recall one quote from memory that will certainly cause messrs Cameron and Clegg to clench their teeth when one of Thatcher’s Cabinet ministers questions her over the wisom of such severe public spending cuts in the middle of the worst recession the country had ever (then) faced since the Great Depression.  Sounds familiar?

So to the best bits: the acting performances.  A fine British cast is assembled with cameo roles for Richard E Grant, Anthony Head, Roger Allam, Susan Brown and Olivia Colman but the stellar performances are delivered by Jim Broadbent and, of course, Meryl Streep.  Jim Broadbent I reckon will get the nomination for Best Supporting Actor in the forthcoming ‘gong’ season. The British film industry is already starting to get into a froth about the BAFTA’s which precede the Oscars. The film will not open in time for BAFTA recognition but there is already ‘Oscar buzz’.   I have not heard any talk at Pathe that his nomination is a given but it will be plain daft if it is not.  A very understated performance with moments that really clutch at your heart, particularly when an actor is able to portray that feeling we all know so well in a way we all recognise – that of just barely contained emotional pain.

Finally to the main reason I recommend anyone to go see this film, though once again I think only British audiences will fully get this: the performance of Mary Louise Streep.  I hope she’s already written her acceptance speech for the 2012 Best Actress Oscar but somehow I don’t think she needs to script anything. She can just walk on stage and the acting world will be on its feet.   Perhaps the greatest compliment that I can pay to her performance – and I will just leave it at this – is that as a Brit watching an American play one of the most controversial figures in our political history who was in power for much of my formative years….there were times during the movie I had to remind myself that I was watching an actress and not the real thing.

When you consdider all the diverse films and roles Streep has taken on over the years: Kramer vs Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, The Deer Hunter, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Silkwood, Out of Africa, The River Wild, Doubt, Death Becomes Her, The Devil Wears Prada, Mama Mia and now The Iron Lady… I have no hesitation whatsoever in saying that I can now answer the question if ever asked: ‘who is the greatest actress of all time?’

View the trailer here