Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Deep Sea and Foreign Going by Rose George reviewed by Julia Jones

Deep Sea and Foreign Going is subtitled Inside Shipping: the invisible industry that brings you 90% of everything. It's an account of a voyage from Felixstowe to Singapore and is written to counter “sea-blindness”. As Rose George makes her way through the chain link fences and security checks at Port of Felixstowe she attempts to make the reader understand the size of the vessel she's about to board and the scale of the industry generally. She looks up 60 metres to the top of the Maersk Kendal, the vessel she's about to board; above her are gantry cranes 10 stories high. She blasts us with statistics “If the containers of Maersk alone were lined up, they would stretch11,000 miles, or more than half way around the planet. If they were stacked instead, they would be 1500 miles high, 7530 Eiffel Towers. If the Kendal discharged her containers onto trucks the line of traffic would be 60 miles long.”

Her overall contention is that the larger these ships have grown, the smaller the place they occupy in our imagination. And not only the ships but the companies who manage them: Maersk, she points out is a global corporation with revenues only slightly less that that of Microsoft. “Microsoft provides the software that runs the computers: Maersk brings us the computers, One is infamous; somehow the other is mostly invisible.”

Deep Sea and Foreign Going is a gloriously crusading book. George is outraged by the flag of convenience system “even offshore bankers have not developed a system as intricately elusive”, by the conditions of employment for crew-members (especially Asiatics), by the ecological implications (a fascinating chapter on noise trauma suffered by whales) and above all by the apparently casual acceptance of the piracy by the global community. As George embarked from Felixstowe in June 2011 she records that 544 seafarers were currently being held hostage by Somali pirates. “I try to translate this into other transport industries. 544 bus drivers, or 544 can drivers, or nearly two jumbo jets of passengers mutilated and tortured for years for doing their job. When 33 Chilean miners were trapped under ground for 69 days in 2010 there was a media frenzy […] The 24 men on MV Iceberg held captive for 1000 days were given nothing much more than silence and disregard.”

There are complex reasons for this – not least the flag of convenience system which allows nations and owners to shuffle off responsibility. When I watched the film Captain Philips recently, the first thing that struck me was how unusual it was to see the US flag on the stern of a merchant ship. The second thing, how surprising to see a crew of Westerners manning a container ship and finally, how extraordinary to see a response of such brutality and effectiveness as the Navy SEALS killing of the pirates. The fourth pirate, Abdulwali Muse is currently serving 34 years in a US gaol and has made several suicide attempts. In the normal course of events – as documented by George – pirates are very rarely prosecuted. The UK has never prosecuted a Somali pirate: neither has Portugal. George spends a week on board the Portuguese warship Vasco da Gama on anti-piracy patrol duty from Mombasa. The Commanding Officer tells her of his frustration when he has “17 pirates on board for 12 days and no-one wants to take them. I have to leave them on a beach to be pirates again two weeks later.” There should, says George, be “meaningful risk” for the pirates as there is for their potential victims.

Deep Sea and Foreign Going is one of the best books I've read. It won a Mountbatten Maritime Award for best literary contribution in 2013 but somehow that doesn't feel sufficient. A maritime award is likely to promote the book to the people who should already be aware of the issues addressed. If the “invisible industry” is to take its proper place in public consciousness this is a book that should be read by everyone.
Container ships at Felixstowe
I am sailing past in Peter Duck