Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Last Spike

"Rails across Canada: A Pictorial Journey from Coast to Coast", David Cable

Despite sharing a telephone dialing code with its more populous neighbour to the south, one area where Canada can hold its head up with a certain level of distinctive identity is in its transcontinental railroad. Just as impressive an achievement as the American drive from sea to shining sea, the twin railroads of the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific span the continental lands mass covering over 30,000 route miles of track.

Culturally there's something very resonant about Canada's railways - perhaps it's because in the great north there's more isolation and the railroad provides one of the tenuous filaments connecting elements of civilisation in the opens wastes together. From the iconic image of Donald Alexander Smith hammering home 'the last spike' at Craigellachie in 1885, through E J Pratt's epic similarly titled narrative poem, to the Cowboy Junkies and their spectacularly melancholy ninth track from 1992's "Black Eyed Man". 

Those looking for a documentary history of the birth of Canada's railways, or indeed an insight into the nature of today's rail system, will not find this in Cable's "Rails across Canada", for this they would be better to start elsewhere, perhaps with Berton's two volumes on the system's origins ("The National Dream" and "The Last Spike"), but as context there is some real value to be had here. In just over 200 pages of photography taken over the course of several journeys across Canada Cable documents the reality of Canadian railways, showing the scale of engineering, the topography dealt with, and the reality that much as in the United States railways in this part of North America are enjoying a renaissance - just one that is comparatively invisible as it is one executed with passengers.

It's a book of few words, but still one that rewards leafing through, discovering Cable's engagement with Canadian railroads and getting a feel for trains draw such a vast country together. It's enough to inspire you at some stage to devote the time to riding the three day journey across the continent, but equally makes you think about the run of the mill elements that through freight stitch the continent together. Can one still dream of hitching a ride on the longest train you ever saw? 

Disclosure: a review copy of Rails across Canada was provided by Pen and Sword Books.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Strange Things Happen at Sea

"Death of a Supertanker", Anthony Trew

For all the efforts of the UK Hydrographic Office and its international peers, the oceans are still uncharted spaces. The rules of normality become suspended and distorted; what is transgressive ashore becomes accepted when out of sight of land. History is littered with such incidents, running through Tudor Piracy, the Russians firing on the Gamecock Fleet in 1905, and countless Cold War encounters. Much of the traditional narrative on this circulates on the high politics of state, but scratch beneath the surface and there is a strand of stories equally rich and somehow more accessible when you look to merchant shipping. As the likes of Rose George point out, the loss of a commercial airliner will be guaranteed to seize the headlines, the disappearance of a merchant ship, unless it comes to grief in sight of land, will often go unreported and uncommented.

Anthony Trew (1906-1996), novelist and former South African Naval Officer, first came to me in the 1980s with The Antonov Project, a classic Cold War conspiracy pot boiler which sadly has not aged quite as well as might have been hoped. By contrast Death of a Supertanker resonates of a maritime world more recently exposed to us by the aforementioned Rose George and Horatio Clare in Deep Sea and Foreign Going and Down to the Sea in Ships. Death of a Supertanker brings us directly into a world described in Noel Moster's Supership, and exposes the level to which ships cease to become the emotional engagements that they were in the classic era described by Alan Villiers and Adrian Selgimann, and become financial instruments, there to serve base levels of profit and loss, and where consigning a ship to layup is nothing out of the ordinary.  

Very much of its time, with a layer of casual sexism, and a reflection of the geopolitical world of the late 1970s Death of a Supertanker is distinctly a period piece, but usefully represents a period where shipping eras overlapped. Simultaneously this was a period when crews could still repair to a bar before dinner but there was the looming prospect of 36 hours loading in the Gulf before a turnaround and another 6 weeks voyage back to Rotterdam. The halcyon days of the supertankers, perhaps best typified by the French Shell vessels Batillus or Bellamya are evoked here, but so too is the long tanker slump, and the prospect of layup and redundancy, ships riding forlorn in Scottish lochs and Norwegian fjords.

There's a certain poignancy to this too. Many seafarers dream of managing to make the leap back ashore. As Death of a Supertanker closes one of the officer's secures what to him is a plum job - a loading master in Abadan, Iran. With the benefit of hindsight that the passage of time grants us one can't help wondering if that was the smartest move for him...

At its heart Death of a Supertanker is about maritime economics and the shady criminality that can exist at its boundaries. Decisions taken in small anonymous Swiss headquarters impact on the lives of the ordinary sailors aboard the Ocean Mammoth, and while it may frustrate the reader that at this level there are many hanging threads regarding whether or not the fraud leading to the loss of the supertanker pays off or indeed really how it all took place, in many ways this reflects the shadowy nature of the industry, and contributes to a feeling of realism.

Would all this appeal to someone not au fait with how shipping works? The truth is I suspect it might not. Death of a Supertanker is an ambiguous novel and there's a lack of certainty to it throughout, indeed I challenge anyone to be able to say conclusively really what the narrative chain of events described should be. Don't come to it looking for a parcelled up self contained novel - for this maybe Justin Scott's The Shipkiller might be a better bet, but instead use it as an insight into seafaring life in the 1970s, and one which still resonates.