Stand-Up Beer Hall

Stand-Up Beer Hall

Walter Benjamin

Sailors seldom come ashore ; service on the high seas is a holiday by comparison with the labour in harbours, where loading and unloading must often be done day and night. When a gang is then given a few hours’ shore-leave it is already dark. At best the cathedral looms like a dark promontory on the way to the tavern. The ale-house is the key to every town; to know where German beer can be drunk is geography and ethnology enough. The German seamen’s bar unrolls the nocturnal plan of the city: to find the way from there to the brothel, to the other bars is not difficult. Their names have criss-crossed the mealtime conversations for days. For when a harbour has been left behind, one sailor after another hoists like little pennants the nicknames of bars and dance-halls, beautiful women and national dishes from the next. But who knows whether he will go ashore this time? For this reason, no sooner is the ship declared and moored than tradesmen come aboard with souvenirs: chains and picture-postcards, oil-paintings, knives and little marble figures. The city sights are not seen but bought. In the sailors’ chests the leather belt from Hong Kong is juxtaposed to a panorama of Palermo and a girl’s photo from Stettin. And their real habitat is exactly the same. They know nothing of the hazy distances in which, for the bourgeois, foreign lands are enshrouded. What first asserts itself in every city is, first, service on board, and then German beer, English shaving-soap and Dutch tobacco. Imbued to the marrow with the international norm of industry, they are not the dupes of palms and icebergs. The seaman is sated with close-ups, and only the most exact nuances speak to him. He can distinguish countries better by the preparation of their fish than by their building-styles or landscapes. He is so much at home in detail that the ocean routes where he cuts close to other ships (greeting those of his own firm with howls from the siren) become noisy thoroughfares where you have to give way to traffic. He lives on the open sea in a city where, on the Marseilles Cannebiere, a Port Said bar stands diagonally opposite a Hamburg brothel, and the Neapolitan Castel del Ovo is to be found on Barcelona’s Plaza Catalunia. For officers their native town still holds pride of place. But for the ordinary sailor, or the stoker, the people whose transported labour-power maintains contact with the commodities in the hull of the ship, the interlaced harbours are no longer even a homeland, but a cradle. And listening to them one realizes what mendacity resides in tourism.


With many thanks to Alireza who brought this wondrous piece of ethnography to my attention.  It also reminds me of Foucault’s Hetertopia (about which I wrote here) and The Death Ship which keeps growing on me the more I think of it.

This entry was posted in capital accumulation, labour, political economy, ports, readings, seafaring, shipping conditions, the sea. Bookmark the permalink.

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