90% of Everything

September 16, 2013

Michael Grey, the well respected maritime journalist & ex-editor of Lloyds List reviews "Deep Sea and Foreign Going" by Rose George for ISWAN.

Rose GeorgeNobody knows it is there, but if it wasn't, most of us would starve and many would freeze in the dark. Shipping is over the horizon, a mystery to everyone who never sees a ship, completely taken for granted. And just as nobody in any developed country utters a prayer for the people who work in power stations when they put the light on, or mentally thanks the sewage workers when they flush the lavatory, what seafarers do for them is far beyond their comprehension.

Shipping is, according to Rose George, "the invisible industry that brings you 90% of everything" and her book "Deep Sea and Foreign Going"* is a brave attempt to convey something about this mysterious world to those who live ashore. She focuses on the liner trades and the thread which runs through the book is a voyage from North Europe to Singapore aboard the big containership Maersk Kendal.

With a multinational crew, she was fortunate indeed to sail with a very senior and experienced British master who speaks frankly and is not even remotely concerned about public relations. So in her weeks aboard, and because she is a good reporter as well as an excellent writer, she enjoys a crash course in both shipping and modern seafaring. She picks up something about the pressures of seafaring today, with tiny, multicultural mixes of people rattling around in huge ships on demanding schedules.

She learns about the stresses brought about by the fierce competition and the cost cutting forced on all by the financial crisis, the slow steaming and desperate fuel saving, the fact that somebody in the biggest shipping company in the world has thought that savings could be made by hacking back the catering budget and replacing paper napkins with a sheet of kitchen roll. But she also learns something about the sheer loneliness of a life in which there is no email or telephone calls, with families far away, little time in port, and seafarers often regarded as a nuisance by authorities in the countries which depend upon them.

She spends time with port welfare folk, with the chaplains who make such a difference and who are the few really welcome visitors aboard these hard-pressed ships. She experiences a passage across the pirate-infested Indian Ocean and manages to report authentically of the degree of fear and sheer nuisance these ruffians have managed to inflict upon seafarers doing their normal jobs. Indeed, this is a work of authenticity, although some professionals will perhaps wish she had not been so diverted by environmentalists with their everlasting tales of man's inhumanity to whales and the "settled science" of climate change and shipping's contribution.

Those criticisms aside, this is a brave attempt to tell the shore side world about life at sea today, at least aboard one type of ship. Doubtless there will be people in the industry who will ask how on earth could a journalist be let loose in a modern merchant ship, but others, and this reviewer is among them, is glad she went.

Michael Grey

Deep Sea and Foreign Going (*In the US this is entitled "90% of Everything") –Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Brings you 90% of everything) by Rose George is published in the UK by Portobello Books and is available at £14.99 ISBN 9781846272639.

Also available on Amazon USA here and Amazon UK here

Stay up to date with ISWAN's monthly email newsletter

We are grateful to our main funders for their continued support: