Book review: Deep Sea and Foreign Going, by Rose George

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 November, 2013, 5:43pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 November, 2013, 5:43pm

Deep Sea and Foreign Going
by Rose George
4.5 stars

Sukhdev Sandhu

According to Rose George, even the men who work on container ships don't show much interest in the boxes they transport. "They think they are boring, opaque, blank. Stuff carrying stuff."

The author, however, finds that blankness "entrancing" and, in Deep Sea and Foreign Going, an account of a five-week trip from Felixstowe, Suffolk, to Singapore, has penetrated a world noted for its secrecy - most container ports, heavily protected by barbed wire and security cameras, are segregated from the cities in which they are based - to produce an ethnographic travelogue that is as fascinating as it is troublingly insightful.

Shipping has become so cheap, George writes, that it's less costly for Scottish cod to be sent 16,000 kilometres to China to be filleted and then exported to restaurants in Britain than it is to pay the (already small) salaries of Scottish filleters.

Deep Sea and Foreign Going is itself a container ship of a book brimming with startling facts: containers are the largest man-made moving objects on the planet; Triple-E class boats are around 400 metres in length and can carry 18,000 boxes; in 2011, 360 ports in America took in international goods worth US$1.73 trillion - 80 times the total value of all US trade in 1960; even in Britain, once a seafaring nation, the shipping industry employs nearly 635,000 people; port officials inspect less than 10 per cent of boxes, making them of interest to drug barons and counterfeiters.

Modern sailors are a motley, multinational bunch. People from India, Bangladesh, Ukraine and Russia are common; most populous of all are Filipinos. Many work more than 85 hours a week and are given meagre provisions, and it is not uncommon for them to be abandoned on ships for months without pay.

Many of the ships, their conditions poorly monitored and regulated, are floating coffins. Death is ever-present: 2,000 seafarers died at sea in 2006. One of the most upsetting chapters deals with the sinking of a livestock carrier and horrific scenes of people screaming, swallowing oil, clinging to the tails of heifers.

Container ships, often assumed to be more environmentally sound than sending freight by road or air, collectively produce more pollution than Germany; by 2008 the sewage they discharge had created more than 400 oceanic dead zones; in Los Angeles the sulphur dioxide they spew is responsible for half of the city's smog.

This is a remarkable work of embedded reportage - hair-raising, witty, compassionate - that deserves to be read by anyone interested in the cartographies of the world.

Guardian News & Media