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Thursday, 27 February 2020

Clive Cussler, The Titanic and how Reading Strategies brought me to Greenland.. ish

My eyes were transfixed. The Titanic had broken the surface, bow first, and then they'd boarded. But the heroes had been tricked both by the Soviets and by the past... 
This movie had just made real, something I had fantasised about, and something Clive Cussler's words had lovingly described to me just a few years back.  

Dirk Pitt® (who didn't look like what I thought he'd look like), standing on the sodden deck of the once lost ship, the ship being the real reason I came to see the movie of a book I'd read four times said, "You want to talk about distress? We have Navy weather forcasting a force -12 storm, we have Russians looking down our throats and we are on a ship that never learned to do anything but sink. That’s distress!” - and they were left to the storm and the Soviets and the Titanic looked as if it was to be lost again... 

Exciting stuff, though for me, not exciting enough. 

For me, the most exciting thing was the artifact under Pitt's feet. The big, Iron relic from the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha'n age. An age when rich, white, English posh people's lives were oh so much more valuable than the rest (has much really changed?) and the Director had concentrated on perhaps the most boring aspect of the story for me... The cold War, damp squib fight for what was buried somewhere below the dripping, rusting decks in a safe. 

I wanted a tour of the ship! (James Cameron, in his post wreck rediscovery movie, didn't disappoint in that way years later). 

But there it was, the reason I had come to the Iveagh Cinema. And I was hugely disappointed. I had been excited to see this, but the movie didn't deliver for another, huge reason. All of the technical wizardry of Hollywood had only delivered a special effect, not the still lost Titanic, not in the way reading Cussler's book had. 

Because Cussler, like me, loved the ship. Loved the stories of the ship. Loved the atmosphere on that ship. Loved the glimpse into another world, a world of class, that we were told was disappearing in the seventies. 

And I learned in those facts, that movies were rarely as good as books. 
When I was little, I was fascinated by the Titanic. Children can become totally obsessed by events or stories or other aspects of our world. My childhood was a '70's completely analogue life... with the exception of TV (it's odd to describe TV as analogue), so the only dramatised Titanic film I'd seen until I had read Cussler's love story to the ship, when it was shown on telly, was the wonderful  "A Night to Remember." It had the impact on me that I suppose, Cameron's "Titanic" had on audiences much later. And a year before the release of the movie, a TV movie, watched with the family, at my parents feet (I usually sat on the floor watching telly) "SOS Titanic," had added colour to the beautiful machine (and drama and flesh to the accounts of people I knew from various factual accounts, for example, Lawrence Beesley's). 
My Grandmother told me of a visiting storyteller who had taught her and her class a poem about the ship, which she recited to me (and painstakingly wrote out for me... I wish I still had that). Both her and my grandad were about the age I was when I became obsessed by the ship, when it was being built alongside the Olympic, and set sail for the bottom of the ocean. She knew of someone who had been on it, a friend of a friend. And I felt through her, I was connected to the ship. 

The real wreck of the Titanic was as yet still undiscovered, and not only did I seek books on the known Titanic; survivor accounts, photo books etc, but I sought out books that surmised the whereabouts of the wreck, the state of the wreck, and newspaper articles that told of millionaires who were going to build Titanic replicas, conspiracy theories about the Titanic etc.

And then Clive Cussler entered my life. I listened to a "Home Service" radio report about his book, Raise the Titanic in 1976/77 and had to buy it to add to my collection of clippings from newspapers, xeroxed pages from library books, my Revell plastic model of the ship I had saved for and painstakingly built and painted and books bought in Eason's in Newtownards Shopping Centre and Walshes in Banbridge. I was 11. The Internet had yet to be invented and  computers were scifi monsters. But I had more than the contents of the Titanic wikipedia page at my fingertips and buzzing around my head. 
I had been a reluctant reader until I was in P3/4. But I saw the value in reading. I saw it was important, so I became determined to read around the age of six/seven, but hated the grinding torture of "Dick and Dora," whose adventures were like a rainy, boring Sunday, forced to eat leather fried meat and tomato sauce whipped potatoes. 
But then mum started buying me comics (and cooking lasagne!). The Beano, The Dandy, Topper, Shiver and Shake... There were loads of brilliant, funny comics in my newsagent, renewed every Wednesday  or Thursday. And then war comics, Warlord, Battle, Victor etc... They were where I really learned my reading. I remember at six or seven being unable to read the speech bubbles, but being bloody determined to find out about what these characters were saying. And quite quickly, I saw sense in using the reading strategies my teachers screamed at me, and hit and pulled my hair, taking out their own mental torture on this odd, annoying, chatty boy. The fear of God really didn't help me read, stay quiet or count, etc. But reading became an escape from their torture. 

The first book I read was one given to me by my Anglican Sunday School on Children's Sunday, about the Donkey that had brought Jesus to Jerusalem before his arrest. And I remember the pride in that. I read the last page as I sat on a rainy Saturday morning, waiting in the car for dad, who had called in to a car garage for something. When he came back, I remember telling him, "I've read a book!" And he said, "That's good," and we drove home. I remember thinking that this reaction really wasn't what you'd expect for such a feat... A whole book! But the subdued, anticlimactic reaction didn't put me off. I wanted to read more stories, and find out more stuff... Stuff I wanted to know, not just the stuff that was stripped of all excitement and turned into a workbook or xeroxed literature exercise in school.

And I found Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt® and NUMA, and the oceans, and adventures across the globe (I've still not visited Reykjavik, or Greenland, two places described by Cussler that made huge impressions on my mind), and I discovered global politics, nuclear weapons and a happy place to go between Bond movies that was modern, and imaginative and to my young mind, serious and exciting  literature.

I read the first seven Dirk Pitt® books, but by the seventh, I became an undirected, uneducated, unschooled (I left school with a couple of O levels, a bit of luck and a lot of help in getting my first jobs!) literary snob, realising that these novels that had gripped me as a child and as a young teenager, were not classical literature and I haven't read a Cussler novel since, but always smile inside when I see his books on shelves in airport bookshops. These books that made me feel like a grown up reader (it was difficult to explain the excitement of Watership Down to my friends, but my enthusiasm for Cussler dragged them along to the cinema to see that Belfast Liner cut the surface), taught me the excitement of the world outside my small place in County Down, and taught me how exciting reading really was.

I stopped being snobbish about reading quite a while ago... I read almost any genre, good and bad. And just a few weeks ago I promised myself I would revisit the brilliant Cussler, an old friend and one that really entertained and made me happy as a child and teen. Entertainment and a talent to entertain are genius. Escapism and fun are massively valuable beyond the tortuosly worthy novels I sometimes crawl through in order to feel some benefit from the effort. Like a diet of watery soup and vitamins, cold baths and a regimented exercise regime. 

Cussler's talent was wonderful, imaginative, uncomplicated, happy entertainment through his obvious enthusiasm. And his enthusiasm brought me the world of literature. 

I was sad to read of his death.

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