I think I read the Rime of the Ancient Mariner some years ago when i was young, but like a great many great works of literature, it is a poem that is wasted on the youth. Its sense of regret, loss, of cussedness, of deadened lives and of an anxiety so overwhelming that cannot be overcome are well transmitted through the rhythm and imagery and colour of the poem.
There is the moment of arrival in a windless sea which reminds one of the cursed ship in Conrad’s The Shadow Line:
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.
Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down,
’Twas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea!
All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
Even the sense of loneliness is the mariner is replicated in the helplessness of a captain all whose crew is ill:
Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.
And the leaden sky and sea, and the sense smell sound of pestilence upon the sea and on the ship which Coleridge so beautifully describes are replicated in that scene of a leaden windless cursed sky in The Shadow Line.
But there is now a Rime of the Globalised Mariner, which I first heard about on Laurie Taylor’s show. This one is slightly different: it is less about the psychic life of seafaring and more about its sociology. There is a chorus of MBAs, and instead of a wedding guest listening to the story, the audience is a “Consumer” on his way to B&Q. Michael Bloor’s poem is a tongue-in-cheek rendering of the curse of the ship, but entirely in a contemporary context. In this rime, there is a ship’s inspector as well – alongside the Filippino sailor- who tells us and the Greek Chorus about the complexities of a life of labour on the sea.
And we get to hear about flags of convenience, and Minimum Manning laws, about outsourcing and underpaid crew – all terrain of struggle between the maritime workers and the ship-owners.
Michael Bloor, who is a research professor at Seafarers International Research Centre at Cardiff University, has spent a lifetime researching the conditions of work for seafarers, and the note that accompanies the poem (at the above) has a very useful and lucid explanation of how the industry has divided the various elements of shipping into every more specific businesses -ship-owners, and ship-operators, agents, recruiters, charterers and so on – thus diffusing responsibility, destroying any idea of transparency, and resulting in a total absence of any accountability. Bloor gives an example:
As an illustration, when the tanker ‘Erika’ foundered in 1999 and polluted 400 km of the French coast, it was being re- let by an Italian ship management company (‘Panship’) to another operator (‘Amarship’), the main charterer (Totalfina) had re-let on a time charter to the Bahamas-based ‘Selmont International’, and the registered owner was a single-ship Maltese Company (‘Tevere Shipping’) although it ultimately emerged that the ‘beneficial owner’ was the London-based ship-owner Giuseppe Savarese, who had bought the 24-year-old tanker with a loan from the Bank of Scotland (OECD, 2001b: 30-33).
Ports are just as complex a set of operating spaces. Not to mention the processes of their construction, financing and insurance. Should be a lot of fun researching this!