(first published in Flash Fiction Press January 5th 2017
A routine visit to the town library with my daughter. My pedagogic overtures rejected, I drift over to a display of new books. A shock: the photo on the dust-jacket of a book about the Channel Islands. It’s Fermain Bay, Guernsey. For years, I carried in my wallet just such a photo, taken from among the headland pines on a day of luminous light, looking down into the narrow sandy bay. On the dust-jacket, I can just make out tiny, scattered deck-chairs, once my summer-long responsibility.
The things you forget. The great Martello Tower, built to dominate the beach and deter Napoleon – forgotten. A mere stone obstacle to be skirted on journeys between my deck-chair store and Ginny’s beach café. An historic monument rubbed out and Ginny’s brown eyes and deft movements given Conservation Area status. The things you remember: our first kiss, when I couldn’t stop my knees trembling; how the smell of the pines gradually gave way to the smell of the sea on morning walks to work; the taste of fresh Guernsey milk. And there’s the bad stuff too: the café break-in when all the fags were stolen and the owner blamed me; my night at the police station – a brief episode, but a lasting after-taste of how it is to be the bewildered outsider, the stranger deemed suddenly to be the enemy. That summer was my passage into adulthood, backlit by the ‘vision splendid’ of childhood, but treading step-by-step into Man’s Estate.
Twenty-odd years have passed since that library visit, just as twenty-odd years had stretched between my Guernsey days and my discovery of the dust-jacket. A strange exercise, to sit and recall the time when the memory of Fermain Bay engulfed me like an incoming tide— the memory of a memory.
(First published by Flash Fiction Magazine January 4, 2017)
By Michael Bloor
The trees should never have been planted in that place: the slope was too steep for a mechanical harvester. Alan’s father reckoned they had been planted in the 80s, as a tax-dodge, with no thought of selling the timber. Now the Estate was wanting the conifers cleared from the slope so that hardwoods could be planted in their place—there were grants for planting hardwoods. So the Estate Factor had called in Alan and his father to do the felling. They didn’t fancy the job, but they didn’t dare turn down a contract from the Estate—the biggest employer on the island.
His father’s chain-saw was out of fuel, so the old man had shuffled down the slope to get a couple of full jerrycans from the pick-up. Alan had watched him go, silently noting that the old man’s arthritis was getting worse. Alan then breathed a deep breath and stepped up to the largest tree left on the ridge. It had grown slightly apart from the others, with plenty of room to grow side-branches. The side-branches sloped downward—so when Alan stepped up to the trunk with his saw, it was as if he was in a green tent.
It was a minute’s work to fell the tree: He took a wedge out on the side where the tree was to fall and then made a cut towards the wedge. Alan withdrew the saw and waited for the tree to topple. But it didn’t topple. To his amazement, the upper trunk slid neatly down the wedge and buried itself in the earth and rocks, just a couple of feet away from him. The felled tree continued perilously upright, shivering on its new base—a one-in-ten-thousand occurrence.
Alan had heard stories about such fellings, but he had never witnessed them. Until now. He knew what he had to do, but it was the hardest thing imaginable. He had to wait.
The tree was quivering on its buried point, it could fall in any direction, crushing a fleeing man: he had to wait until it was clear which way the tree was falling and then, only then, leap out of its way. He glanced upward: the curtain of side-branches cut-off any view of the top of the tree – there would be no early warning of the tree’s movement. Two or three seconds passed and, incredibly, the tree was still upright and shuddering, as if in its death-throes.
The fall, when it came, was astonishingly sudden. It fell away from him, but he leapt aside anyway—both his mind and body needed the motion.
The tree slewed into a companion spruce, toppled off it, and bounced down the slope. Alan cut the motor on the saw and watched its downward progress. Finally, it was stopped by the more recent plantings near the road. It was then he saw his father emerge beside it, a jerrycan in each hand, screaming in rage. Ashamed, relieved and exultant, Alan could only laugh.
(first published in Platform for Prose, Nov 1st, 2016)
For want of reading matter (other than the label on the sauce bottle), I was reading the story in my gran’s magazine. It seemed that Madeleine, a nurse with a mass of dark curls and a pretty retroussé nose, had been initially drawn to Jimmy, the gynaecologist, who was a lot of fun. She’d thought Andrew, the surgeon (blue eyes, strong jaw), a bit stand-offish. But eventually she’d found herself respecting his calm, commanding manner in the operating theatre. At the end of a particularly tricky, but successful, procedure, he turned to her with smiling eyes and said, ‘We seem to make a pretty good team, don’t we?’
I was impressed: ‘We seem to make a pretty good team, don’t we?’ struck me as a first-class chat-up line. I reckoned I’d try it out on Sandra at the carpet shop tomorrow. Every Saturday morning I went into Saunders’ carpet shop on St Peter’s Street to collect 750 carpet circulars that I’d deliver over the weekend for thirty shillings. Sandra Saunders, the owner’s daughter, would hand me the circulars, but first she’d get me to show her on the street map where I’d delivered the circulars last weekend. This was partly because her dad didn’t entirely trust me not to stuff ‘em down the loo, and partly because he had a theory that it was a waste of money delivering carpet circulars round the posh end of town. Sandra was a lot nicer than the old man. And prettier. Neither Sandra nor I was a particularly good map-reader and we’d sometimes have to put our heads together (blissfully, in my case) for a few minutes to work out exactly where I’d been the previous week.
Last month, I’d failed disastrously with my only previous chat-up line: ‘I’m thinking of buying a horse.’ Sandra had snorted with derision and I realised that spontaneous boasting would not suffice to bring home the bacon. Subsequent enquiries with my dad about the price of horses had deepened my shame, but hardened my resolve: I would have to plan a Sandra Saunders Campaign. I had been emboldened by my success at the youth club disco, where I’d found that in order to walk a girl home you had to first ask her to dance – a discovery that seemed quite beyond the likes of Slug Gardiner and Tank Thompson, nursing their glasses of lemonade as they palely loitered on the edge of the dancefloor. However, Sandra was a good year older than the girls at the youth club, with (seemingly) real breasts and a (seemingly) real smoker’s cough. The Sandra Saunders Campaign would need to be a step-change from youth club disco night.
I practised Andrew the Surgeon’s line in front of the wardrobe mirror in gran’s room. I liked the concept, but the execution seemed a little too cucumber-sandwiches-and-croquet-on-the-lawn. Eventually, I came up with, ‘I reckon you and me make a pretty good team, Sandra.’ Perfect.
The next Saturday morning, the campaign started well enough. Sandra seemed mildly interested when I pointed out to her that the Browning Circles and Coleridge Streets of the Normanton Estate (saturation carpet-leafleted last weekend) were all named after poets. Sandra’s long auburn hair fell over her face as she bent over the street map and carefully coloured in red the streets of the Normanton Estate; I longed to gently tuck her hair back behind her neck. I marshalled my forces and made my surprise strike: ‘I reckon you an’ me make a pretty good team, Sandra.’
‘Eh?’ She stood up straight, still holding the red crayon.
‘A good team. Y’know. Like Laurel & Hardy, Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, Roy Rogers & Trigger.’ I see now that this last comparison was a mistake.
‘Trigger?? I suppose you’re Roy Rogers and I’m the horse?’ She snorted with a new thought: ‘Or is Trigger the horse you’re thinkin’ of buyin’ with this week’s thirty shillings?’
When Sandra stood up straight, she was a couple of inches taller than me. When she laughed, she was a couple of feet taller than me. So that was the end of that.
I’d hear bits and pieces of news over the years. When I was away at Uni, I heard she’d married Nigel Butler, who’d been head boy at my school when I was in the third form. He was working in his dad’s solicitors firm. A few years later, back home for gran’s funeral, I was surprised to see Saunders’ Carpets had disappeared, correct apostrophe and all, from St Peter’s Street – a chain selling ‘Chunkie Whoppa’s’ was there in its place. Dad said Old Man Saunders had dropped dead in a bunker at the golf club. My brother and I would still make the journey to the footie once or twice a year, and one time we bumped into Tank Thompson and his wife, Sally. Sally and Sandra were old friends and she mentioned that Sandra was now divorced. Sally reckoned that Sandra had been screwed in the divorce settlement, but she didn’t know the details.
I don’t remember hearing anything else for maybe twenty years, til she found me through the wonders of the internet. Her email was headed: ‘Bought that horse yet?’ She said that she’d been going through some old papers of her father’s and she’d come across a packet of old carpet circulars: would I like one for old time’s sake? After that, we kept in touch and, when I was on a walking holiday in Derbyshire, we met up for a pub lunch in Wirksworth, where she was living. I recognised her right away, though she was no longer a couple of inches taller than me. It turned out that we had a lot more than carpet circulars in common, and the day before I headed home she walked out with me in Wolfcote Dale and we had a long and cheery meal in the pub at Hartington.
(first published in Ink Sweat & Tears Oct 15, 2016)
She didn’t think things could get much better. Madame Blavatsky blew out all the candles on the cake, closed her eyes and wished. Each of the encircling adepts then extinguished their own single candles. A cloud crossed the lambent Sicilian moon, she breathed in a mixture of incense and mountain thyme. The ceremony had reached its climax. Aleister Crowley rose up from his oaken throne, cast his eyes upward and uttered a short prayer to Horus. The entire assembly stood in reverent silence. Apart from the goat.
Crowley then took a step nearer to the Unicursal Hexagram that had been incised on the flat-topped limestone boulder. Unluckily, in the shadows, he collided with L. Ron Hubbard, crushing Hubbard’s toes beneath his glass-beaded sandal. Hubbard groaned and inadvertently released his hold on the goat. The goat should perhaps have escaped at this point, but leaping away in alarm from Hubbard’s groans and curses, it only succeeded in thumping into the massive posterior of Lord Tankerville, who was shaken but not stirred. The stunned goat was then instantly recaptured by W.B. Yeats. However, a great glob of hot wax from Lord Tankerville’s extinguished candle spilled onto Madame Blavatsky. Naked as she was, the hot wax caused her to send up an animal howl of shock and rage, which would have surprised her old Tibetan Lama-Instructor. Crowley made a mental note concerning Blavatsky’s probable unsuitability for sado-masochistic rituals.
The shredding cloud tore away from the moon’s face and ghastly light returned to the pagan grove. In a compelling voice, Crowley called for the ceremonial blade. Gerald Brousseau Gardner stepped forward into the circle, wearing his newly-designed Wiccan robes (golden sickles, sprigs of mistletoe, and wreaths of oak-leaves, all on a pink background).
‘Hast thou the blade, O Scire?’
Gardner, bowed his head and produced a long-bladed knife from the folds of his robe.
A ragged chorus murmured: ‘He has the blade! He has the blade!’
‘A terrible beauty is born!’ (this last was from Yeats).
Crowley received the knife and, with a bow, passed it to Madame Blavatsky. Blavatsky began to utter a long, hissing incantation in a strange tongue. The adepts listened in awed silence. The strangely passive goat gazed upward at the long, glittering knife. Dennis Wheatley averted his eyes.
In one flashing movement, the knife plunged downward. And sliced the cake – icing, marzipan and all.
Seafarers International Research Centre, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, Wales, United Kingdom
First Published in Sociology, 47: 30-50, 2013
It is a global Mariner, And he stoppeth one of three. ‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye, Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?
‘The centre’s doors are opened wide, And Bourdieu got it right: Consumption lends distinction. So get you out my sight.’
He holds him with his glittering eye – No Big Issue1 sale is sought, But fifty yards from B&Q The would-be Consumer’s caught.
So spake the doleful mariner, Transfixing with his e’e, In fluent, graphic English – The language of the sea.
‘I had no wish to work on ships – Filipinos2 know it’s hard – Mouths were many, jobs were scarce, From birth my life was marr’d.
‘From green island homes we travel, As mariner, nurse, or maid, And remit3 to our loved ones The pittance we get paid.
‘Father scraped up money For training college fees – A scam of the local senator, Whose throat I’d gladly seize.
‘The college had no equipment, Just endless, pointless drill, No qualifications either – The news made my father ill.
‘Course passes gained no certificates, Without some time at sea. There was no ship to serve on, But the senator had his fee.
‘Father paid a crewing agent: Yet another fee required, But at least I’d get a berth, And that’s what we desired.
‘The agent sent me to train then At a dismal-looking place More fees and little learned, Sad repetition of my case.
‘A lifeboat stood on davits, By a creek filled-up with mud. “For audit purposes only”, That pristine lifeboat stood.
‘There’s so many schools for training – Why’d the agent send me there? The training was quite useless – Why didn’t that agent care?
‘It seemed he got a “rebate” (kickback to you and me) For every trainee sent there, A percentage of their fee.
‘They issued my certificates, But their paper had a price: My father’s hard-earned money, Stolen once, then twice.
‘Ever since it’s been the same: When I come home from sea, The agent wants another course, And I must pay the fee’.
[Enter Chorus of Greek Shippers4]
‘O woe to us, and to our ships, But what are we to do? The wages they are paying now, Won’t draw a young Greek crew.
‘So we take these global mariners, Who’re really up for it,
But they can’t begin to work a ship: Their training’s frankly s**t!
‘Someone, somewhere, should sort it out, We’ve really had enough: Inspect and close the colleges, It’s time for getting tough!’
A globalised Mariner meeteth three gallants outside a shopping centre and detaineth one.
The Consumer protesteth against detention outside the shopping mall.
The Consumer is spell-bound by the mariner and constrained to hear his tale.
Proficiency in English is a requirement of a seafaring career.
The Mariner telleth of early hardships and how he and his parents were cheated by the maritime colleges and the crewing agents.
Filipino maritime training institutions are often controlled by persons with powerful political connections.
The academic training often follows a military model and is of poor quality. And it does not qualify cadets for certificates of seafarer competency without additional practical experience – ‘sea time’. Most colleges fail to arrange ‘sea time’ for their cadets.
Many ship operators out-source crew recruitment and employment to specialist crewing agencies with offices in the major labour supply countries. Cadets graduating from maritime colleges must pass a basic safety training course before they can go to sea. The courses are usually conducted at specialist training institutions with requisite equipment such as lifeboats. State regulatory agencies inspect the training institutions to ensure the requisite equipment is present, but not that it is used.
Corrupt crewing agents distort the seafarer training market
Specialist short courses must be taken to allow employment in particular trades, such as tankers. Usually, the seafarer must pay the course fee.
Ship operators moan that international standards of seafarer training are not being properly enforced.
Consumer groaned to Mariner: ‘So you each believe the same! But if all think your training’s s**t Then, truly, who’s to blame?’
‘Our union said, there is a law – A real law, no invention – That lays down training standards, An international convention5.
‘Government should enforce it, End the bribing and the feigning, Close-down the useless paper-mills And give us decent training’.
‘Yes, yes’, the Chorus chorused, ‘Our ships need well-trained crew.’ ‘So what went wrong?’ Consumer asked, But the Mariner hardly knew.
‘There are no simple answers,’ Voice grated, knife on rock, ‘The true path’s no open highway, Good governance no wind-up clock.’
A gaunt figure stepped among them: He gave each a piercing look. His boots were worn, his cloak was stained, And he bore a calf-bound book.
‘Who art thou?’ they cried in wonder, ‘And what thing’s your burden there?’ ‘I’m the Inspector,’ spake the stranger, ‘And the Law’s my burden fair.’
The Chorus shrank and muttered, The Mariner downed his e’e. ‘I’ve heard tell of you,’ he whispered, ‘As have all who sail the sea.
‘You come aboard, unheralded, You seek out the rusting hulks: You cow the cruel masters, Ships’ agents get the sulks6.’
Consumer viewed Inspector, Eyes lit with wild surmise: ‘It’s up to you to punish, Right wrongs, and nail their lies?’
‘In truth, that is my duty – The goal for all my kind – But the journey is a long one, And the road’s not paved, nor signed.
‘Those who inspect the colleges In each poor country of the Earth: They’re government employees And are not paid their worth7.
‘The owner is a man of power, The inspector – he is not, The one dines in his castle, The other in his cot.
‘The inspector has a check-list, To work through, line by line. If a lifeboat’s at the college, Then it gets a tick – that’s fine.
‘We know it can’t be launched: It’s to be ticked, naught more. Poor men must heed the letter, Not the substance, of the law.’
The mariner had silent stood, Hands clenched and visage pale, Eyeing the Inspector, As he ground out his tale.
‘I thank you’, cried the mariner, ‘Now I know the bitter worst: No remedy in law books – My mates and I are cursed.’
The Greeks had been quite nervous While yet the Inspector spoke, But confidently dealt with The Mariner and such-like folk:
‘Don’t blame the law, nor malice, Nor trade that’s getting slack, Global economic forces Strapped these burdens to your back.
‘Colleges could train you better – With lifeboats working too – But higher costs would close ‘em down, Then where’d we find a crew?’
The Inspector laughed most harshly, And turned to face the Greeks: ‘He who looks for truth Must beware of that he seeks.
‘Good training’s too expensive: The poor can’t pay the fee. You state the matter clearly, And I cannot but agree.
‘Yet I can well remember When companies paid the fees, Time-Past – they paid for training, Invested in their employees.
‘You complain of training standards, Cackling like geese You want action to be taken, But you don’t pay a penny piece.
‘It seems to me, hypocrisy, When the poor turn-out their pockets, To criticize their training, While adding up your profits.’
The Mariner relateth that there are international standards on seafarer training.
But these international standards rely on national enforcement.
An Inspector calls.
The Inspector concurreth with the mere lip-service maritime colleges pay to international training regulations, but believeth that the local inspectors are powerless to obtain fuller compliance.
The ship operators see poor-quality training as an economic consequence of the seafarers’ need for cheap training.
The Inspector recalleth that 40 years ago, it was commonplace for ship operators to pay for seafarer training through cadetships and apprenticeships.
The Chorus blushed and shuffled, But still they stood their ground. They’d got their MBAs, They knew their case was sound:
‘You’re talking of the past, Dim, distant days of yore, We don’t train our seafarers – We don’t employ ‘em any more!’
Consumer quizzed the Chorus: ‘You don’t employ your crew??’ – ‘Our labour’s all outsourced, ‘The late-modern thing to do.
‘If a shipper paid for training, He’d have an extra cost, He’d be under-cut by others – His business would be lost.
‘Pay for training? Better wages?? Remember shipping’s quite anarchic: We’d love to be more generous But you cannot buck the market.’
The Inspector gave a mirthless smile: ‘The market’s always cited As a sovereign power and reason Why wrongs cannot be righted.
‘But the remedy is simple here: The flag-State of every nation Shall charge a levy on each ship, Paid at each ship’s registration.
‘The levy would pay all training costs, A burden shared without distortion. It would pay for good inspections too – No need for doubts or caution.’
The Mariner did slowly nod: ‘The scheme would work – I see – My last ship flew Mongolia’s flag, For a three-thousand-dollar fee.’
‘Mongolia?’ quizzed our Consumer, ‘That’s surely rather queer?’ ‘Not really’, saith the Inspector, ‘Some think a proper flag too dear.
‘Each ship is like a piece Of far-off, sovereign soil – Its flag denotes allegiance, Republican or royal.
‘The flag-State has a duty, Be the country rich or poor, To check each ship is ship-shape – As laid down in the law.
‘But flags can be commodities, And flags can be for rent, To businessmen and lawyers, Who’re out on profit bent.
‘When ships are policed badly, Their seafarers should beware. Policing ships for profit Is a mighty strange affair.
‘Some run their business well, Some run it as a racket, With only one objective: To make themselves a packet.
‘Now, compliance is expensive, So compliance is a sham When the flag a shipper flies Really doesn’t give a damn.
‘A shipper heeds his costs, A shipper looks to save, But if he flies a cut-price flag, Consequences can be grave.
‘Ships that fly a proper flag, And meet their obligations, Incur much extra cost To comply with regulations.
‘They’re under-cut, bankrupted, bust, When complying as they should. There’s an iron law all must obey: Bad ships drive out the good.’
The Chorus sighed and scuffed their feet: ‘What the Inspector says is true, But the fault is not all ours – Ship charterers are guilty too.
‘If they wanted well-found ships, And skilled, contented crews, They should have thought to ask us, Or given us some clues.
‘Truth is: they don’t want “good,” Or freight rates getting steep. We skimp, they save – Truth is: they’re wanting “cheap.”
The Inspector sighed in turn, ‘Some charterers do care, Oil majors first and foremost, Others – rather rare.
‘Inspectors board all tankers – For days, they sniff around – Ensuring chartered ships Are those that pass as sound
‘Oil majors don’t like bad headlines When tankers hit the rocks And oil pollutes the beaches Because the ships are crocks.
‘The public doesn’t like to see Seabirds black with oil; Alas, for all the tanker crews, The public doesn’t care at all.
‘So the tankers get inspected With much resource and care, But the crews of all the rest Make do with me…and prayer.’
The Inspector proposeth a training levy to be paid when each ship is registered by the flag-State. See Afterword.
Although Mongolia is 850 miles from the sea, the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party granted a license in 2003, to a Mr Chong Kov Sen, a Singaporean businessman, to operate the Mongolian Ship Registry. Mr Chong previously operated the Cambodia Registry under license until 2002, when the license was withdrawn following international protests at Cambodia’s failure to police its ships. In 2008, 73 ships were flying the Mongolian flag.
An OECD report states that ‘a significant percentage of total vessel operating costs could be saved by sub-standard operations’ (OECD 1996: 27).
Thomas Gresham, a sixteenth-century Chancellor of the Exchequer, found it was impossible to improve the quality of the English coinage, by simply issuing good quality coins. People hoarded the good coinage. So it was necessary to also withdraw the clipped and debased coins from circulation. Hence Gresham’s Law: ‘Bad money drives out good’.
The Oil Companies International Marine Forum (OCIMF) has set up and funded its own private inspectorate, SIRE, to ensure the seaworthiness of tankers under charter. Those tankers deemed satisfactory on inspection can expect more business and better terms from the oil majors, eager to avoid the bad publicity of marine pollution incidents.
The Mariner then spoke up: ‘Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Turk, Many pray who sail the seas, But their prayers concern their work.
‘We do not fear a foundering – Hull pierced, stove in, or rent. Such a thing may happen, But it’s a very rare event.
‘Pirates may seize the ship, And hold us on foreign soil, But what we fear most is different: It’s the endless, grinding toil.
‘Each and every ship we join, Seems there’s fewer crew, An officer gone, a rating gone, But there’s still their jobs to do.
‘The master now must take a watch, Though there’s paperwork aplenty. So many crew have disappeared, The vessel’s almost empty.
‘The master’s nodding on the bridge, His tired eyes are red. He’s still to call Head Office, Before he gets to bed.
‘The mate then takes a watch, Though it’s two days since he slept – Problems with the cargo – But his watch must still be kept.
‘Turnabout, the two must watch, There is no other way, Six hours on, six off, Twelve hours in every day.
‘In sickness and in health, Each watch they duly take, Dog-tired, red-eyed, grey-faced, Four months, four months, without a break.
‘No gentle couch our cabin: The ship is pitching in the waves, There’s engine noise, vibration, Yet we sleep the sleep of babes.
‘Too soon, too soon we’re wakened, We scarcely catch our breath. An ignoble thing, this tiredness – As if we slowly bleed to death.’
Increasingly, ship operators have been seeking to save crewing costs by reducing the number of watch-keeping officers. Where second officers have been dispensed with, then watches must alternate between the master and the first officer (mate), although each of them has many other duties to perform. An OECD (2001a) report instances a saving of $37,000 pa by undermanning a 20-year-old 30,000 dwt bulk carrier by two crew. See Afterword.
See Author (2011) on crewing levels, fatigue and seafarers’ health.
As ever when the Mariner spoke, The Greeks did swell with pride: ‘There is no law that’s broken there, There’s nothing for us to hide.’
‘You surely lie,’ Consumer cried, ‘I know little of the sea, But to have a master standing watch – That’s folly, plain to me.’
The grim inspector then did speak: ‘In truth, they break no law. The law itself is here at fault – Therein we find the flaw.
‘The law on Minimum Manning Lays down for every ship The crew that must be carried On each and every trip.
‘What is the minimum manning? This is what we’re taught: It’s the smallest competent crew To bring a stricken vessel safe to port.
‘To make that stricken vessel safe, Huge effort they’ll expend, Yet must they slave thus daily? Til their contract’s at an end?’
Consumer scratched his head: ‘If some members of the crew Exceed twelve hours each day, Surely that’s illegal too?’
‘We falsify our working hours’, Replied the old seadog, ‘To keep the owners happy, Each day, we flog the log.’
‘Then change the minimum manning law – No more idle chatter – Require crews to be larger, It seems a simple matter.’
The mariner sighed and shrugged. The Inspector took-up the tale: ‘Flag-States must vote the change, Or else the measure fails.
‘Flag-States that exist for profit, And take the operators’ gold, They can’t increase the crewing costs – They’ve reputations to uphold.
‘The flag with the greatest tonnage Flies o’er the Panama Isthmus, When Panama votes for change, Then turkeys’ll vote for Christmas.’
In fact the maximum number of daily hours of work for watch-keepers is specified by the IMO as 14 hours, and the maximum number of weekly hours is 91.
Falsification of working hours is so widespread in the industry that it has entered everyday slang as ‘flogging the log.’
Consumer doth not understand why the flag-States at IMO do not change the international legislation to provide adequate crewing numbers, allowing shorter hours.
Part VI [All in chorus: …]
‘So come all you kind consumers, Who the honey’d wine have sipped, Take pity on the mariner, Beware how your goods are shipped.
‘The crews are outsourced workers, A study in dejection – Casualised, long hours, poor training – And the law is no protection.
‘If charterers thought the public cared How seafarers are mistreated, They’d pass the message down the line: “Our consumers are quite heated.
“It’s bad for our public image, Like seabirds and pollution, So get your act together, And find a true solution.
“We’ll pay your higher freight rates, If you’ll deploy more crew. Or we’ll contract your opposition – See if they know what to do.”
‘So the shippers get the higher rates, Increase the crews and cut the hours, Strike the flag of Panama, And so, at last, they smell of flowers.
‘One day it really just might happen, A fairy tale come true, It’s even very possible, They’d employ and train the crew!’
It is suggested that public concern for seafarers’ welfare might act in the same way as public concern about marine pollution and be transmitted down the supply chain from charterers to ship operators. Operators who could ‘brand’ their vessels as well crewed could then command premium freight rates.
The decision to write this article as a poem requires some explanation. There is, of course, some satisfaction to be gained from rhyming ‘Panama isthmus’ with ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’, but that is certainly not the sole reason for writing, and seeking to publish, the above. There are two inter-related arguments to be made here.
Firstly, the worlds of sociology and poetry are not wholly distinct. Denzin (1996) has argued this point and Laurel Richardson, in particular, has published sociological studies in poem form (see, for example, Richardson, 1994). But most important to the present argument is the short paper written in the 1940s by C. Wright Mills, called ‘Sociological Poetry’ (Mills, 2008). Mills called for, and defined, sociological poetry as:
‘… a style of experience and expression that reports social facts and at the same time reveals their human meanings. As a reading experience, it stands somewhere between the thick facts and thin meanings of the ordinary sociological monograph and those art forms which in their attempts at meaningful reach do away with the facts, which they consider as anyway merely an excuse for imaginative reconstruction. If we tried to make up rules for sociological poetry, they would have to do with the ratio of meaning to fact, and maybe success would be a sociological poem which contains the full human meaning in statements of apparent fact’ (ibid. p.34).
Successful or not, this paper is an attempt to find a style of expression which conveys the human meanings behind the social facts of contemporary seafaring life in the international fleet. Coleridge’s friend and contemporary, Wordsworth, in the 1802 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, famously described poetry as ‘the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation’ (Coleridge and Wordsworth, 2006: 10). It is the vividness of expression in poetry to which we can turn to convey those human meanings.
Secondly, over the last twelve years, I have authored and co-authored a number of research reports and academic articles on seafaring and the shipping industry, presented papers, served as a delegate to the International Labour Organisation’s Joint Maritime Commission, and have been quietly dismayed at the lack of impact of the research findings of myself and my academic colleagues. This piece is therefore framed as a contribution to ‘public sociology’ (Burawoy, 2005), appealing in a small way to the public over the heads of policy-makers. Possibly, a poem, and particularly a pastiche of one of the best known poems in the English language, is a potentially valid and effective way to make such an appeal. Just as Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner borrowed the old popular ballad form to explore the then contemporary conscience and consciousness of the Romantic Movement (cf. Reeves, 1959), so this paper borrows the form of Coleridge’s Rime to describe and analyse the social situation of our late-modern contemporary, the globalised mariner. The burden of the dead albatross that Coleridge’s mariner must wear around his neck is the burden of guilt that is coupled with the romantic sensibility; the albatross of the late-modern mariner is the burden of globalisation itself, transformative economic processes experienced more acutely in the shipping sector than in any other traditional industry (ILO, 2001). The mariner’s spell-bound auditor in Coleridge’s poem is the wedding guest detained unwillingly at the threshold of the feast; the main auditor here is the late-modern consumer detained unwillingly on the threshold of the shopping centre, wherein lie all the glittering prizes of the globalised economy made available by low-cost maritime freight rates.
There is the further question of whether a sociology journal is the best place to publish a sociological poem, framed as a piece of public sociology. The public influence of poetry has undoubtedly fallen substantially over the last hundred years or so. It comes as a surprise to discover that William Morris was better known to the Victorian public as the author of the multi-volume poem sequence, The Earthly Paradise, than as a pioneer of the arts and crafts movement, or as a campaigning socialist (Thompson, 1955). Sales for contemporary poetry books in the UK are small, and are likely to fall further following the 2011 withdrawal of the Arts Council’s grant to the Poetry Book Society. So a poem in the journal ‘Sociology’ is quite likely to have a larger readership than a book of poetry. But such a calculation is irrelevant, because a long contemporary poem such as the Rime, composed by a previously unpublished poet (as opposed to, say, Seamus Heaney), has a vanishingly small chance of being published by specialist poetry publishers. Magazines which previously published sociological articles for a wider public have largely disappeared (witness, New Society in the UK and Ramparts in the US), but self-evidently, a long poem is disbarred by its length from publication in general magazines and poetry magazines alike. The same properties of Coleridge’s Rime that make it attractive as a vehicle for a sociological pastiche – its narrative content and its generous length – make it almost impossible to publish as a poem rather than as a sociological article.
But once published, poetry can be disseminated much more widely than its print-run might suggest. I don’t just refer to electronic downloads here, but to the mysterious way that snatches of poems snag the memory and enter everyday speech. Many who’ve never read a line of Coleridge can quote the lines ‘Water, water every where/ Nor any drop to drink’. Publication of a poem can be the starting-point, not the end-point, for dissemination. Burawoy’s clarion-call ‘For Public Sociology’ (itself published in a sociology journal) is disappointingly vague on the media for the dissemination of the many forms of public sociology that he identifies. However, he is clear that ‘the success of public sociology […] will come when public sociology captures the imagination of sociologists, when sociologists recognise public sociology as important in its own right with its own rewards, and when sociologists carry it forward as a social movement beyond the academy’ (Burawoy, 2004: 25). Sociological poetry is no social movement, and it would be presumptuous for any author to claim a poem had an importance in its own right, but sociological poetry – through the vividness of its expression – can undoubtedly capture the imagination and convey the human meanings of social facts.
The social facts of the condition of the world’s seafarers are a particularly appropriate topic for a would-be piece of public sociology. Part I of the Rime is concerned with the inadequacy of seafarer training, Part II with inspections of training establishments, Part III with the inadequate governance of the industry by national ship registries, Part IV with the exhaustion of crews consequent to the progressive reductions in crewing levels, Part V with the inadequate international regulation of crewing levels, and lastly Part VI is concerned with a possible partial remedy for these ills. Each of these will be examined in turn, but first it is necessary to address an emergent underlying theme in the Rime, namely the political economy of the globalised shipping industry.
The shipping industry underwent a rapid transformation in the late 1970s and 80s. The OPEC oil price rise caused a contraction in world trade volumes at the same time as the shipping industry was experiencing a rapid increase in carrying capacity; the result was a disastrous collapse in maritime freight rates and a wave of bankruptcies and mergers. Many of the new-builds had been financed by ship mortgages from financial institutions. When the mortgagees defaulted and ownership of the vessels reverted to the mortgage-holders, the latter found the second-hand or scrap values of the vessels to be so low that they resolved to continue with the operation of the vessels at a loss, leading to the growth of specialist international ship management companies operating fleets of vessels on behalf of a variety of transnational corporate owners (Lane 1986). The continuing market presence of these previously bankrupt vessels did little to assist industry recovery and very many operators sought to cut costs by ‘flagging out’ from traditional national maritime registries to the ‘open’ commercial registries such as Liberia and Panama (later joined by bizarre entrants such as Mongolia). Originally set-up between the wars by US interests to evade US shipping regulations, by the 1980s the open registries were attractive to ship operators who sought to exit from national collective bargaining agreements and employ cheaper seafarers from the new labour supply countries, like the Philippines. The new labour force was also casualised, with only some senior officers being retained on permanent contracts: junior officers and ratings would be contracted to serve for a ‘trip’, typically of between four and eight months.
Just as separation was occurring between ownership and operators through the rise of ship management companies, so also separation now increasingly occurred between operators and employers, with the rise of specialist crewing agencies who would contract with operators to supply a crew with the required paper qualifications for a global sum for a given trip. However, the late-modern shipping industry is characterised by still more complexities: ship-operators and owners do not own the cargo – this is normally owned by the charterer; charterers and ship management companies can ‘re-let’ vessels to other charterers and ship managers; and vessel ownership can be hidden behind ‘single-ship’ companies and off-shore brass plates. 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). Thus the shipping industry is a textbook example of the complex ‘global value chains’ identified by Gereffi et al. (2005) in their structural analysis of late-modern capitalist enterprise.
The sub-contractor/outsourcing principle, a characteristic of these global value chains, is strongly associated with casualisation of the labour force, and casualisation is in turn associated with reduced labour power (Bernstein, 1986). Part I of the Rime is intended to show how the outsourcing of labour may also impact on the quality of training. Forde and Mackenzie (Forde and MacKenzie, 2004; MacKenzie, 2000) documented this process in the UK construction and telecommunications industries, while the case of training in the global shipping industry was examined in Author (2009). The growth of employment agencies has been shown to be associated with segmented labour markets (cf. McDowell et al. 2008), and some crewing agencies will seek to position themselves as suppliers of high quality labour to blue riband companies, and some agencies will seek to guarantee the quality of their recruits with their own training centres. But other agencies will have no strong interest in the quality of the training received by their employees. Indeed, pressure from ship operators to supply them with ‘just-in-time’ qualified labour may encourage agencies to cut corners in securing necessary training. The structure of seafarer training varies cross-nationally and, in some of the new seafarer-supply countries (e.g. Indonesia), the cost of seafarer training is part-met by the State, but in most of the developing world (including the Philippines) the burden of training is largely borne by the seafarers and their families. And seafarers and their families are likely to prioritise low-cost over quality of training.
The narrator in the Rime has been given a Filipino identity because the Philippines provides fully a quarter of the seafarers in the international fleet (Wu and Sampson, 2004). The Philippines has also had its share of training scandals. For example, the Norwegian Maritime Directorate refused to recognise the certificates issued by two large Filipino Training Centres, MTCP and Admiral (later closed down by the Filipino authorities), because they were alleged to be ‘paper-mills’, issuing and charging for certificates without any training (Shipmate, 2002). The scandal of the ‘rebates’, described in the Rime, is particularly difficult to address because it is nigh-impossible to distinguish from the offering of legitimate corporate discounts: corrupt office employees of the crewing agencies will direct their agency’s seafarers to attend a particular training establishment because they are pocketing a ‘rebate’ (kickback) from the training centre. Filipino training centres thus find themselves competing, not on the quality of their training, but on the size of the rebates they can offer. To afford the rebates, training centres economise on the training. In outsourcing the labour supply, industry loses control over the quality of training with a strong potential for adverse consequences.
Part II of the Rime is concerned with whether good governance of international regulations on training standards can avoid those adverse consequences and introduces the figure of The Inspector, as the agent for the enforcement of those regulations. There is a comprehensive framework of international law governing the shipping industry (even – uniquely – an international minimum wage) regulated by two UN agencies, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO); the former regulates training standards through its convention on standards of training, certification and watch-keeping (‘STCW78’) amended in 1991, 1994, 1995 and 2011. The 1995 amendment required labour-supply countries to demonstrate their compliance with these standards: only those countries demonstrated to be in full compliance would appear in an IMO ‘white list’; certificates issued by non-white list countries would no longer be internationally recognised (International Maritime Organisation, 2011).
The three main maritime inspection functions are flag-State control, port-State control, and inspection of training establishments; in some countries the inspectorate is also concerned with seafarer examinations, but in other countries this is function overseen by bodies answerable to the respective ministries of education. Flag-State inspections are conducted at regular intervals on behalf of the national ship registry with whom a ship is registered. As will already be evident, the rigour of flag-State inspections varies across flag-States: flag-State control has been described by the UK judge, Lord Donaldson, as “a broken reed. Sub-standard shipowners can transfer their ships to the flags of those states which ignore their international obligations. And they do” (Donaldson, 1996: 4-5). Port-State Control has evolved to compensate for the perceived deficiencies of flag-State control: regional associations of port-States deploy national inspectorates, following a common methodology of inspection, to enforce international regulations on berthing ships in their ports, regardless of flag. It is these port-State inspections that, in the Rime, cause the Chorus of Greek Shippers to shrink and mutter and the Ships Agents to get the sulks. Port-State control has adopted a governance strategy, termed within socio-legal studies ‘smart regulation’ (Gunningham et al. 1999), which seeks to incentivize ship operators to pro-actively comply with international regulations by ‘naming and shaming’ vessels found to be deficient on inspection, thus influencing the freight rates that those deficient vessels are able to command in the market. However, a cross-national study of port-State enforcement of seafarers’ health and safety regulations concluded that port-State inspections were having only a limited impact on market freight rates, because of the widely recognised variation in inspection practice (Author, 2006).
Similarly, international regulations on seafarer training have been shown to be enforced variably and ineffectively by local inspectorates (Author, 2009). Appearance on the IMO ‘white list’ of approved STCW training countries is achieved by the submission of paperwork to IMO by national maritime administrations demonstrating that their local training institutions have been audited. Socio-legal studies writers such as Hutter (2001) have demonstrated the weakness of this governance strategy of ‘enforced self-regulation’, which may only secure paper compliance. Some of these weaknesses are illustrated in Part II: the disparities in wealth and power between members of the inspectorate and owners of training establishments, and a checklist approach which is satisfied with the mere presence of a lifeboat as opposed to evidence of its use. Many developing countries struggle to resource and train their inspectorates. In India, a generic inspectorate undertakes port-State inspections, flag-State inspections, seafarer examinations and college inspections; although they are experienced seafarers (typically ex-masters and ex-chief engineers), their salaries are only about a fifth of what they could earn in the international fleet. In the Philippines, college inspections are overseen by the appropriate government authority but the inspectors themselves are not government employees, being drawn from a pool of Filipino seafarers from the international fleet currently on shore leave and seconded from their employers.
Part III begins with the Chorus explaining the shift towards outsourcing of labour and their abdication of responsibility for training. It then goes on to identify the major difficulty of a flag-State structure of global governance where flag-States operate for profit, with the flag of landlocked Mongolia as an illustrative example. As an OECD report put it, the national maritime administrations of many open registry countries have been ‘less rigorous in their pursuit of high standards, as this has conflicted with their greater aim of maximising the number of ships under their registries’ (OECD, 2001b, 8). Additionally in Part III, the Inspector proposes a remedy to the resourcing problems faced by developing States in policing seafarer training: ship operators could pay a levy towards training costs as part of their ship registration fee to the flag-State, which in turn would remit the levy to the IMO for controlled distribution to the new labour supply countries. This is not a proposal that has received serious consideration, but were it ever to be adopted, then ship operators would seek to pass the cost of the levy to their charterers. And as the Chorus point out, while operators may wish for well-trained crews, the charterers merely want them ‘cheap’. Cheap maritime freight rates have been one of the motors of globalisation, with the transportation costs of a pair of Chinese jeans to a British consumer standing at only around 33 US cents. The need to motivate charterers to concern themselves with seafarers’ conditions is a topic that is returned to at the conclusion of the Rime.
Thus far the Rime has been concerned with the problems of enforcement of regulatory standards in a globalised industry, but Parts IV and V of the Rime are concerned instead with inadequate regulation. In common with labour forces in many other industries (cf. Green, 2004), seafarers have been required to expend increased effort for each hour of work (‘labour intensification’) – containerisation has dramatically reduced port turnaround times and crews’ ‘deadtime’, email communication has increased head office surveillance, etc. But, unlike many other occupations, seafarers have also experienced increased hours of work (‘labour extensification’) through reduced crewing levels. While technological changes such as automated enginerooms have allowed some reductions in crew numbers, the changes in crew levels that have occurred go far beyond what is warranted by technology. The changes are particularly glaring in respect of reductions in bridge watch-keeping officers. As the Rime reports, on some vessels bridge watch-keeping officers have been reduced to two (the master and the first officer [mate]), requiring each to keep watch turnabout for 84 hours per week on top of their multiple other duties – liaising with head office, ships agents and port authorities, supervision of cargo handling, supervision of bunkering, being the ship safety officer, being the ship security officer, being the ship medical officer, personnel reports, course planning, chart corrections, supervision of deck maintenance, purchase of stores, etc, etc. Ironically, an additional duty for senior officers is that of keeping records of hours of work and rest, but these are widely falsified to give the appearance of keeping within international law.
Falsification of international regulations on seafarers’ hours of work and rest is difficult for port-State inspectors to detect, but the root problem of governance in this area lies in the inadequate regulation of crewing levels. Individual flag-States specify the minimum safe manning level for each ship on their register. As stated in the Rime, traditionally the minimum safe manning has been considered to be the smallest crew with the requisite qualifications required to bring a ship safe into port in an emergency, although the IMO definition runs to many pages and (from January 2012) embraces the European Union’s earlier Maritime Working Time directive which requires seafarers to have a minimum of 10 hours of rest in any 24-hour period and 77 hours of rest in any seven-day period. Responsible flag-States, such as the UK, define the manning level as one which ‘ensures that the manning level is adequate at all times and in all respects, including meeting peak workloads’ (Maritime and Coastguard Agency, 2002: 6) and endorse the Maritime Working Time directive. Whereas the popular open registry of Antigua and Barbuda (based in Oldenburg, Germany) simply states that its certificates specify ‘the minimum number of persons necessary for the safety of navigation and operation’, continuing that ‘additional personnel as may be considered necessary for cargo handling and control, maintenance or watchkeeping and as needed for required rest periods, are the responsibility of the owner and master’ (Antigua and Barbuda Maritime Administration, 2012). Another open registry, St Kitts and Nevis (based in suburban London), has a table for guidance on its website indicating that coastal vessels of under 10,000 gross tonnage need only have a master and a mate as bridge watchkeepers (St Kitts and Nevis Maritime Administration, 2012). This is despite the fact that the relevant IMO convention commits flag-States to ‘require that watch systems are so arranged that the efficiency of all watchkeeping personnel is not impaired by fatigue’ (IMO, 2011: 37). As the statutory authority, commercial maritime administrations administered for profit may allow minimum manning levels which attract cost-conscious ship operators to their flag to save on operating costs by manning their vessels with skeleton crews. The same commercial maritime administrations vote on, and participate in the drafting of, the international conventions that they administer.
In Part VI, the Rime addresses the fact that vessel charterers currently have no strong interest in the living and working conditions of the casualised and outsourced crews. However, public pressure has required the oil majors to take a very strong interest, as charterers, in marine pollution from tankers, and a number of major companies in other sectors are now seeking to demonstrate to the public a ‘green profile’ in the transportation of their goods. It therefore seems plausible that seafarers might find their conditions of work materially improved by public pressure on charterers, who might in turn tolerate higher freight rates in return for operators providing more satisfactory crewing conditions. Walters et al. (2011) have shown how attention to seafarers’ health and safety on oil tankers has increased as a result of pressure from the oil majors and the International Transportworkers Federation has attempted to pressure cruise ship operators into improving crew living and working conditions by its ‘Ships of Shame’ publicity campaign.
Thus, a political economy of the shipping industry highlights the complex global value chains that are said to be typical of globalisation, including the outsourcing of labour. In outsourcing their labour, enterprises lose control of labour-force training with consequent threats to the quality of the labour force. Effective governance of globalised industries has often been considered problematic, and it is clear that in the shipping industry, firstly, recourse to international regulatory controls of training has so far been relatively ineffective through defective local enforcement, and secondly, that international regulatory controls of seafarers’ hours of work have been relatively ineffective through defective local regulation. With effective global governance problematic, and seafarers lacking labour power, it may be that only public pressure on charterers to demonstrate a ‘labour standards’ (as well as a green) profile in the transportation of their goods can serve to improve the quality and the conditions of the shipping industry labour force.
It is right that, in a sociological journal, the commentary on a poem should give some account of the empirical work that lies behind it. Fuller accounts appear elsewhere of the three main studies that have been referred to (Author, 2006; Author, 2009; Author, 2011). In the first of these studies, funded by ESRC (grant R000239864), a comparative study was undertaken of port-State inspections in India, Russia and the UK: 104 inspections were observed and 37 semi-structured interviews were conducted with inspectors and a range of industry stakeholders. The second study, funded by the European Maritime Safety Agency, was part of a larger qualitative and quantitative study of training capacity in seafarer supply countries; in one of the major supply countries I visited 18 maritime education and training institutions, conducted 9 focus groups with local seafarers, observed two examinations, and interviewed six employers, two staff of national regulatory bodies and one senior examiner. And the last study, core-funded by the Seafarers International Research Centre, I conducted 37 semi-structured interviews with seafarers, either in one of two port missions8 or when accompanying a port chaplain on ship visits.
One final point. There are around a million seafarers working in the international trade, so their welfare is no small matter, but the applicability of this analysis beyond the shipping industry might be thought to be quite limited. However, while shipping might be the traditional industry which has been most radically changed by globalisation, many other industries have been affected by globalising economic forces to some degree, and may be further changed in the future. The seafarer labour force may be proto-typical rather than atypical.
Common figures in UK shopping centres are homeless street-sellers of the ‘Big Issue’ magazine.
The Mariner is a Filipino because a quarter of the world’s one million seafarers are Filipinos (Wu and Sampson, 2004). While there are national differences between the various new labour supply countries in the organisation and delivery of seafarer training, problems with the quality of that training are widespread.
Remittances of overseas workers are by far the largest ‘export’ earner in the Philippines’ balance of payments.
A literary conceit. Strictly speaking, shippers are forwarding agents, not ship operators, but the term ‘shippers’ is used here for scansion’s sake. Although Greek ship operators remain an important section of the industry, ship ownership is increasingly separated from ship management and both ownership and management have a wide international distribution. As Reed (1980) recognised in his oral-historical analysis of the ballad form, the ballad narrative inevitably entails a partisan perspective – that is its strength – and so (to remind both the reader and the auditor of the mariner’s partisanship) the device has been chosen of periodic commentary by a Chorus of Greek Shippers.
A reference to the International Maritime Organization’s 1978 convention on standards of training, certification and watch-keeping (known as STCW78). See Afterword.
Ship operators appoint local ships agents in berthing ports to arrange a variety of shore-side services from provisioning to health-care. A ship that is detained by inspectors, until repairs are made and deficiencies are rectified, thus creates a headache for the agent.
Arrangements for college inspections vary cross-nationally. See Afterword.
Missions to seafarers perform an important welfare function and cater for seafarers of all religions and none.
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This paper draws on the accumulated experience of research on seafarers and the shipping industry over a 12-year period. Over that period, three projects in particular shaped my thinking on the industry; they were funded by the UK’s Economic & Social Research Council, the European Maritime Safety Agency and the core funds of the Seafarers International Research Centre. I gratefully acknowledge that support. I am also grateful to Tom Deveson and Rory Williams for their careful literary criticism, to Nick Bailey and Helen Sampson for their careful academic criticism, and to Doreen Gemmell for sorting out my formatting problems. Lastly, I wish to thank the editors for their willingness to publish this piece of public sociology, since long poems are effectively un-publishable, unless written by Seamus Heaney.
(First published in Hektoen International, Feb 8th, 2014. Republished by Hektoen International, Fall, 2021.)
Anton Chechov (1860–1904) is Russia’s most famous literary doctor, but another of Russia’s great twentieth century authors also practised medicine. Mikhael Bulgakov (1891–1940) was the banned author of The Master and Marguerita, first published twenty-six years after his death, a novel credited as a progenitor of magic realism and as the inspiration of both Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and Mick Jagger’s Sympathy for the Devil. Bulgakov qualified in 1916 and at age twenty-four found himself in sole charge of a country clinic 32 miles from the nearest town, the roads to which were frequently impassable. Czarist Russia, despite its ramshackle absolutist monarchy, had a rural medical service (provided by the local government “zemstvo” councils and financed from local taxation) that many countries would envy today. Bulgakov found himself treating the local peasants, in charge of a facility with beds, an operating theatre, a staff of two midwives, and a feldsher (physician’s assistant). In the collection of short stories he wrote about his early isolation in that country clinic (A Country Doctor’s Notebook), he dwelt often on the terrors induced by the combination of total clinical responsibility and utter inexperience.
In the story “The Steel Windpipe,” he tells of the arrival at the clinic of a three year-old girl, Lidka, with diphtherial croup, close to death—her throat already choked with membrane. The mother and grandmother are appalled when he tells them (with enormous silent misgivings about his competence) that only an operation—to cut open the windpipe and insert a silver tube—will save the child’s life.
Already injected with camphor as an analgesic, the little girl was laid on the operating table by a midwife who strapped her down, washed her throat, and painted it with iodine. The surgery began:
I picked up the scalpel, still wondering what on earth I was doing. It was very quiet. With the scalpel I made a vertical incision down the swollen white throat. Not one drop of blood emerged. Again I drew the knife along the white strip which protruded beneath the split skin. Again not a trace of blood. Slowly, trying to remember the illustrations in my textbooks, I started to part the delicate tissues with the blunt probe. At once dark blood gushed from the lower end of the wound, flooding it instantly and pouring down her neck. The feldsher started to staunch it with swabs but could not stop the flow. Calling to mind everything I had seen at university, I set about clamping the edges of the wound with forceps, but this did no good either.
I went cold and my forehead broke out in a sweat. I bitterly regretted having studied medicine and having landed myself in this wilderness. In angry desperation I jabbed the forceps haphazardly into the region of the wound, snapped them shut and the flow of blood stopped immediately. We swabbed the wound with pieces of gauze; now it faced me clean and absolutely incomprehensible. There was no windpipe anywhere to be seen. This wound of mine was quite unlike any illustration. I spent the next two or three minutes poking about in the wound, first with the scalpel and then with the probe, searching for the windpipe. […] I despaired of finding it. ‘This is the end,’ I thought. […] ‘She will die with her throat slit open and I can never prove that she would have died anyway.’ The midwife wiped my brow in silence. ‘I ought to put down my scalpel and say: I don’t know what to do next’. As I thought this I pictured the mother’s eyes. I picked up the knife again and made a deep undirected slash into Lidka’s neck. The tissues parted and to my surprise the windpipe appeared before me.
‘Hooks!’ I croaked hoarsely.
The feldsher handed them to me. I pierced each side with a hook and handed one of them to him. Now I could see one thing only: the greyish ringlets of the windpipe. […] I plunged the scalpel into the trachea and then inserted a silver tube. […] Silence reigned. I could see Lidka turning blue. […] The child suddenly gave a violent convulsion, expelled a fountain of disgusting clotted matter through the tube, and the air whistled into her windpipe.
In due course, the silver tube was removed and Lidka made a full recovery. The rumour spread that Lidka had received a steel throat instead of her own and people travelled to her village just to look at her. The clinic’s practice boomed and, with around 110 patients to be seen every day, Bulgakov found himself working an eleven hour shift.
(first published in Fictive Dream, Nov. 13th, 2016)
It’s a week since Kate and I had the row. It started at a far-away station (Kate’s reverse parking) and picked up more and more momentum en route – my old leather jacket, the joke I told at Kate’s sister’s wedding, the snore wars, the Spanish holiday from Hell, correct and incorrect loading of the dishwasher, and Kate’s dad’s halitosis. It ended with us hitting the buffers and Kate exiting at the terminus. Well, I’m certainly not going to be the one to call and apologise.
I inform the weather girl on the car radio of my iron resolve and switch to the CD player. It’s the Allman Brothers’ Ramblin’ Man and I’m soon joining in on the chorus. I reflect, not for the first time, that it should me barrelling along the freeway, heading out of Nashville Tennessee, not Greg Allman. Let Greg Allman try driving around the Castlemilk Scheme doing home interviews for a Medical Research Council study: not much to sing about there, Greg.
Not for the first time, I regret not getting a replacement satnav. It’s no good asking directions on these big Glasgow estates: people don’t even know the name of the next street. But eventually I find the address, only a couple of minutes late. It’s a distressed-looking, terraced maisonette. I walk up the path to the door; I can see the interviewee, a large guy, peering at me out the window. Waiting on the step, I consider the received wisdom that it’s natural for religions to represent paradise as a garden. Clearly those wise men and women had never visited Castlemilk.
Miranda, the study leader, gives me the most difficult interviewees. I’m the most experienced of the interviewers, having worked on the study since the beginning, six years ago. In return, Miranda never queries my mileage claims. We are now interviewing these ex-psychiatric patients for the third time. When this guy was last interviewed, two years ago, a note was entered on the file that there had been difficulties. That could mean several things: it could mean difficulty in understanding the questions, poor attention span, lack of privacy to conduct the interview on a confidential basis, and occasionally, also possible concerns about interviewer safety. The last one is always at the back of my mind. But when the guy eventually opens the door, he’s all smiles:
‘Hey boss! You’re the guy from the Uni, right? Cool. Been waiting for you, boss. That your car? Red, eh? That’s the only colour for a car, eh boss?’
I decide right away that this guy has been topping up his psychiatric medication with something less orthodox. We head into the sitting room. As we sit down, I show him photo ID with the university logo and Miranda’s signature as study leader.
‘OK, John. Here’s my ID. You’ve done two of these interviews before, so you know anything you tell me is confidential. When these study findings are reported, no names will be used. The interviews usually take about three quarters of an hour. Is it OK to begin?’
But I notice he’s not attending to me at all. He’s just staring fixedly at my ID card. When he raises his head to look at me, his good mood has vanished like snow off a dyke.
‘Whit’s this name? Damon McCarthy? Damon? Whit kinda name’s that?’
‘Do you not like the name “Damon”, John? Well, I’ve a twin – Desmond. You can call me Desmond, if you like. How’s that? Deal or no deal?’
But I’m not getting through. He’s rising to his feet.
‘You picked the wrong house, Mr Damon. I’m wise to you, you fucker.’
He picks up a DVD cover from the arm of his chair. He’s been watching something called, The Devil Rides Out. Oh dear.
I never saw the film, but I read the book when I was a kid. Not great literature, though I remember one character was memorably described as having a ‘leg-of-mutton fist.’ As to the plot, the clue is in the title: a witches’ coven, satanic rituals, the summoning of the Devil, etc, etc. I twig why John doesn’t like the name Damon. John has backed towards the mantelpiece and picked up a small holy picture and a paper knife. I’m standing too and edging round the back of the settee.
‘Hey, John. You’ve got this wrong, pal. Damon’s not the same as “demon”. My mum says it comes from the Greek, like Alexander. Damon means “gentle” in Greek. Look it up on Wikipedia.’
John is shaking his head and grimacing and brandishing in front of him the holy picture (The Assumption of the Virgin Mary, I think).
‘Can’t fool me, you fucker. You’ll have the witches’ mark on you, right enough.’
‘Eh? The witches’ mark?’
I’m playing for time here, but I should have stuck with the Wikipedia line.
‘Yeah, Mr Damon. The witches’ mark. The mark the Devil uses to mark his own.’
This isn’t going well. I can’t get over how BIG John is. He reminds me of Ron Yeats, Liverpool’s massive Scottish centre half when I was a kid.
‘You know, John, you remind me of someone…’
But John is following his own train of thought.
‘Let’s see that mark, you fucker. Let’s see it, LET’S SEE IT!!’
He’s screaming, spittled lips, advancing, knife-waving. I’m retreating. In silence, we complete a half-circuit of the settee.
I shrug my jacket off. Too late, I remember that my mobile – set on speed dial for emergencies – is in the jacket pocket.
John’s losing patience, as I fumble with my tie, and he starts around the settee again. Luckily, I’m wearing moccasins I can slip off without hopping on one foot. The socks are more difficult, but I manage somehow. I’m not sure how it happened, maybe John’s holy picture, started me off, but while I’m frantically shrugging off my clothes, I’m also sending a kind of silent prayer to Kate.
‘Kate, Kate, what an eejit I am. Who gives shit about your reverse parking, or your dad’s halitosis? I love you, I love you to bits.’
We’re on the second settee circuit now and I wonder about diving through the living room door while John’s on the far side of the settee. On the third circuit, my shirt is off and I can tell John is peering across the settee at my torso, looking for flaws.
‘Whit’s that?’ He’s pointing with the knife. ‘That wee thing beside your armpit, you fucker!’
I glance down. It’s a small skin tag. I’ve had it for a while – one of those wee flaws that develop as you get older.
‘It’s just one of those wee skin tags, John. Just one of those things you sometimes get on your skin as you get older. It’s nothing. Gimme your knife and I’ll cut it off to show you.’
‘You’re nae gettin’ my knife, you fucker!’
We start the fourth circuit, but John trips over one of my moccasins. I dash for the living room door and fling it open. On the other side of the door is a little white-haired lady with thick-lensed glasses, holding a tea tray complete with teapot, two cups and saucers, milk jug, sugar bowl, tongs, two plates and a packet of fig roll biscuits. I stop dead. She smiles at me.
‘Thanks for getting the door, son. I’m John’s gran. I thought the two o’ yez might fancy a spot o’ tea.’ She walks into a room containing a stranger dressed only in grey slacks and her grandson sprawled on the floor, clutching a knife and a picture of the Virgin Mary.
She puts the tray down on a small occasional table. That breaks the spell. I grab my jacket and I’m into the hall and down the path and into the car, faster than Hussain Bolt. Even though fig rolls are my favourite.
Once I get over the Kingston Bridge and into Partick, I park up and call Kate.
(first published in Breve New Stories, Vol 1, Issue 1, January 2016)
Sometime between 1700 and 1720 (accounts vary) an Inuit man landed in a kayak near the mouth of the River Don in Aberdeenshire. The fishermen who found him put him in a cart and took him to a nearby cottage, where he was cared for, but he nevertheless died three days later. His kayak, of an antique Greenlandic design, can be seen in the Aberdeen University Anthropological Museum.
I saw the nauja wheeling overhead and then I saw the breaking line of the waves. The strange men found me, their words made no sense. I was weary and I slept. This igloo is built of great stones, shaped like cut ice. Lumps of earth glow with terrible heat in the centre of the igloo, even though there is neither snow nor ice outside. I do not lie on warm, friendly skins, but on a structure made of very fine driftwood and filled with dried tussocks. The entrance is blocked by a huge slab of driftwood. Outside the entrance there are abominations. The men and the women are kind, but they are ugly, with huge noses. The men have hair all over their faces; one of them is an anik – when he enters the igloo, he stands over me, clasps his hands together and chants. He shows me many small, thin pieces of skin, bound together and covered with tiny marks. He smiles; I think he has taken my kayak. The food they give me is fearsomely hot. It burns my mouth. These people crave heat: some of the men draw heat into their mouths by sucking on hollow bones. All I can eat are the eggs of the nauja. I cannot return. I do not have my kayak and I do not know the way.