Book review: Delivering on a gripping voyage of maritime discovery
Deep Sea and Foreign Going by Rose George
THE philosopher Michel Foucault coined the term "heterotopia" to refer to "a place without a place", a mental and physical liminal realm. Cemeteries, psychiatric hospitals, airports, even phone calls are heterotopias.
And so, argues Rose George in this arresting exploration of international shipping, are the 40,000 container ships, freighters and tankers riding the world's waves.
"The more ships have grown in size and consequence, the more their place in our imagination has shrunk," says George, though "shrunk" doesn't cover it as well, perhaps, as "ossified".
The romance of the sea retains a hold only on the imagination of those who don't work on it.
In reality, modern-day seafaring means low pay, long hours, difficult conditions, considerable danger and a great deal of ennui.
George's pursuit of the industry takes her on a five-week voyage by container ship from Felixstowe to Singapore via the Bay of Biscay, the Suez Canal, through the dangerous waters of the Gulf of Aden and into the Malacca Straits.
It finds her on pirate patrol off the coast of Yemen, among Scots sea captains, environmentalists, Greek shipping tycoons, Filipino janitors and victims of pirate abduction, documenting a world that is both less glamorous and much weirder than you might think.
She discovers that not only has Britannia ceased to rule the waves, but she can barely remember what they look like. As one droll 'Lloyd's List' columnist puts it: "There are more blue whales than there are British seafarers on British ships. The difference is that people are taking conservation measures to save the whale."
Once the province of spare sons, outliers and adventurers, seafaring is now dominated by Eastern European officers working with underpaid crews of Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Indonesians and Chinese.
Efficiency and globalisation have jointly eroded any romance it might once have had.
It's now cost-effective to send Scottish cod to China to be filleted, then back to Scotland to be sold. In order to save fuel, the ship crawls.
The crew spend much of their time hosing salt off the cargo or oiling the engines. The view alternates between the sea and the blank walls of the containers.
Not even the captain knows what's in them. Leisure hours are scarce and spent watching DVDs or playing computer games. In fact, turnaround times in port have been so squeezed that sailors are often limited to nearby shops and portside bars.
In a deeply researched and compelling section on modern piracy, George goes beyond the headlines to produce a more nuanced -- if still crazier -- picture where tangled webs of insurers, international law, ship ownership and flags of convenience, coupled with a reluctance or inability of local law enforcement to intervene and prosecute, result in 80pc of captured pirates being released without charge, while kidnapped hostages are left for months in limbo.
In voting Somali piracy as its best business model of 2010, Harvard Business School may have scored points for cool irony, but it can hardly justify the trauma of the 4,000 hostages taken captive between 2007 and 2010, many of whom were beaten or starved, or the 67 deaths that were a cost of business.
Plenty of books promise to reveal the secrets of little-known worlds but few actually deliver. This is one that does. (© Daily Telegraph, London.) Melanie McGrath