Saturday, 19 July 2014

Down to the sea in ships

On the other side of the water you get much more of a sense of Liverpool as a maritime city. During a recent trip to New Brighton to see the Perch Rock lighthouse, I saw a massive container ship, crammed full of those familiar multi-coloured metal boxes, being guided slowly into the Seaforth docks by two tugboats. According to Colin Davies, in his book Prefab, the rise of the shipping container as sustaining force of the modern world is down to one man: Malcolm McClean, an American trucking entrepreneur who, in the 1950s, persuaded port authorities and shipping companies ‘to stop gazing into the cavernous holds of ships and turn attention instead to the long, narrow forms of the lorries, trains and barges that carried the goods to and from the port’. McClean’s achievement was to ensure the global dominance of the ISI (International Standards Organisation) shipping container: a twenty-feet by eight-feet by eight-feet stackable steel box which meant that the goods did not need to be handled when transferring between different forms of transport like a ship and a lorry. Shipping containers throughout the world are now all the same shape and size although there are different kinds for different cargoes: side-opening, end-opening, open-topped and air-conditioned ‘reefers’. A container can even be turned into a site office by adding a door and a couple of windows.

The view from New Brighton inspired me to read Horatio Clare’s excellent Down to the Sea in Ships, about his journey round the world on two container ships. The title is of course from Psalm 107: ‘They that go down to the sea in ships and do business in great waters, they see the workings of the Lord and his wonders in the deep.’ This is what Clare also discovers, ‘a parallel world which sustains the one we inhabit’. The sailors on container ships, many of them Filipinos paid shamefully less than the rest of the crew, are ignorant of what is in the containers because otherwise the shipping companies think they will be tempted to steal the contents. But ‘informed guesswork suggests we will have flashy cars in some of the boxes - the kind no one wants to risk on a car carrier - and scrap metals for China’s hungry markets, and paper and plastic waste for recycling or disposal.’  

At the end of his journey Clare says he felt like the Ancient Mariner, wanting to stoppeth one in three and say ‘listen, there is a ship at sea tonight, and this is who is on board, and this is what their lives are like, and without them none of this world you call normal would exist’. He, meanwhile, ‘will always be able to hear the moans and whistles of her stairwell, her ghost music, the muted and ceaseless piano of her theme tune, and the enduring, resisting stoicism of the men who sing and hum her on.’

Picture of Perch Rock lighthouse and container ship © Stephen McKay (Creative Commons Licence).