Last year author Rose George (pictured) published Deep Sea and Foreign Going, one of the first serious books about the business on international shipping for many years. As the World Cup gets under way and business slows to a crawl, if there is one book to pack for your summer holidays, it is this.
Writing a single book about shipping is always going to be an onerous task, mostly because the subject is so vast, encapsulating it in a single volume is largely impossible – there are simply too many facets to global shipping: tankers, bulk, containers, ferries, fishing, sailing ad (almost) infinitum.
But that is not to say that this is not a jolly good attempt at it, and far better than previous and, one would expect, many to come.
Ms George has looked to carve out a particular niche in the factual-literary oeuvre of tackling subjects that are so commonplace in everyday life as to be constantly overlooked by society at large. Her previous work, The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste, was, basically, about shit and what society does with it, which in many places is not very much at all, except leaving it in a great big steaming pile.
A few years ago, on the advice of her publisher, she turned her attention to shipping. I first met her on a trip to Lock Striven, a serenely beautiful part of western Scotland where Maersk Line had laid up six redundant containerships after the onset of the 2008 recession – much to the consternation of local residents. The company’s reaction was an almost unprecedented – in the history of modern commercial shipping at least – engagement with the local community which has been well-documented elsewhere and represented a genuine gestalt flip in terms of how Maersk responded
That response included subsequently giving Ms George remarkable access to the company in the course of her research, and in Deep Sea and Foreign Going, Maersk has become shorthand for the shipping industry at large. Given the reclusive behaviour of a large section of the shipping industry, that is hardly surprising. Neither did it come as a much of a surprise in the ensuing years to learn that Ms George struggled find some coherence in her research – shipping is by its nature an amorphous beast, almost impossible to pin down in the course of 80,000-plus words.
Deep Sea and Foreign Going is well structured. A passage on the 6,000teu Maersk Kendal from Felixstowe to Singapore provides the backbone of the narrative, and a platform to explain the basics of how 21st century globalisation works – a subject that is of course well known to regular readers of The Loadstar, but is, frustratingly, consistently misunderstood by 90% of everyone else.
Along the way, as the ship passes through the Suez Canal, the then pirate-infested waters of the Indian Ocean and on through the Malacca Straits to Singapore, we get a series of meditations on the big issues in shipping: piracy, the treatment of seafarers, flags of convenience, the ruinous environmental impact of shipping, the spreading ubiquity of the container – all of which have remained unseen by a general public that suffers from “sea blindness”.
At the launch party for the book late last year in London, her publisher noted how brave a writer is Ms George; a judgement with which it is easy to concur. She takes trips that many journalists and writers have failed to do; but more importantly she is not afraid to take a position. She willingly takes sides and is unafraid of a partisanship that is rare in shipping and refreshing as a result – this is a profoundly moral book, and there are many in the industry who will not thank her for writing it, as evidenced by the faintly hysterical reaction to it from some quarters.
There are faults of course; an extended essay on acoustic pollution in the north Atlantic and its effect on right whales seems curiously out of place, and feels as if the writer has one eye on the word count and another on trying to shoehorn a bulging notebook of research into a subject into which it doesn’t quite fit.
But in its ambition to convey the realities of modern shipping to the general public, that is a minor fault; the scruple of an industry insider.
Almost as important as the book was the not inconsiderable effort that she put into its marketing, including participating in a series of lectures and public debates. It does take bravery to stand up in a front of an industry that enfolds its leaders and employees for decades at a time, often blinding them from its faults, and portray their weaknesses.
As publication was nearing, she and I shared some correspondence, in which she wrote: “I’ll be glad to see the back of it, at least until I have to start publicising the damn thing and fending off angry shipping associations who will castigate me for daring to mention the word Erika.”
But it is good that someone had the guts to engender that castigation, because it is an industry with deep problems, and anyone in shipping who refuses to accept that has clearly self-perception issues.
Deep Sea and Foreign Going was an important exercise, not just because of what was was written, but for the debate it has stirred.