comments_image Comments

746 Million Bananas Can Fit in One Container Ship — Inside the Virtually Unknown World That Supplies 90% of Everything We Buy

Rose George's new book looks at the invisible industry that puts clothes on your back, gas in your car, and food on your plate.

The following is an excerpt from Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate by Rose George ( Metropolitan Books, 2013):

Friday. No sensible sailor goes to sea on the day of the Crucifixion or the journey will be followed by ill-will and malice. So here I am on a Friday in June, looking up at a giant ship that will carry me from this southern English port of Felixstowe to Singapore, for five weeks and 9,288 nautical miles through the pillars of Hercules, pirate waters, and weather. I stop at the bottom of the ship’s gangway, waiting for an escort and stilled and awed by the immensity of this thing, much of her the color of a summer-day sky, so blue; her bottom is painted dull red, her name— Maersk Kendal—written large on her side.

There is such busyness around me. Everything in a modern container port is enormous, overwhelming, crushing. Kendal, of course, but also the thundering trucks, the giant boxes in many colors, the massive gantry cranes that straddle the quay, reaching up ten stories and over to ships that stretch three football pitches in length. There are hardly any humans to be seen. When the journalist Henry Mayhew visited London’s docks in 1849, he found “decayed and bankrupt master butchers, master bakers, publicans, grocers, old soldiers, old sailors, Polish refugees, broken-down gentlemen, discharged lawyers’ clerks, suspended Government clerks, almsmen, pensioners, servants, thieves.” They have long since gone. This is a Terminator terminal, a place where humans are hidden in crane or truck cabs, where everything is clamorous machines.

It took me three train journeys to reach Felixstowe from my northern English home. On one train, where no seats were to be had, I swayed in the vestibule with two men wearing the uniform of a rail freight company. I’m about to leave on a freighter, I said, but a ship. They looked bewildered. A ship? they said. “Why on earth do you want to go to sea?”

Why on earth.

I am an islander who has never been maritime. I don’t sail or dive. I swim, although not in terrifying oceans. But standing here in the noise and industry, looking up almost two hundred feet—higher than Niagara Falls—to the top of Kendal, I feel the giddiness of a Christmas morning child. Some of this is the rush of escape, for which I had reasons. Some is the pull of the sea. And some comes from the knowledge that I am about to embark to a place and space that is usually off-limits and hidden. The public is not allowed on a ship like this, nor even on the dock. There are no ordinary citizens to witness the workings of an industry that is one of the most fundamental to their daily existence. These ships and boxes belong to a business that feeds, clothes, warms, and supplies us. They have fueled if not created globalization. They are the reason behind your cheap T-shirt and reasonably priced television. But who looks behind a television now and sees the ship that brought it? Who cares about the men who steered your breakfast cereal through winter storms? How ironic that the more ships have grown in size and consequence, the less space they take up in our imagination.

The Maritime Foundation, a charity that promotes seafarer matters, recently made a video called Unreported Ocean. It asked the residents of Southampton, a port city in England, how many goods are transported by sea. The answers were varied but uniformly wrong. They all had the interrogative upswing of the unsure.

See more stories tagged with: