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.

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