In Search of Communism

It began in Scandinavia, for I heard rumours that communism – or perhaps socialism – had been achieved in that part of the world by stealth. As Warren Zevon would have it, the deal was done in Denmark on a dark and stormy day.

Or it seemed to be. True enough, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland have built impressive welfare states. Social-democratic regimes have seen to this since at least the Second World War (although a belated liberal turn is systematically dismantling bits and pieces of the system). And true enough, the so-called ‘happiness’ surveys indicate that Scandinavians are among the happiest and most contented people in the world – although how one quantifies happiness is beyond me.

In the end, I was disappointed. Do not get me wrong, I love being in Scandinavia, out in the countryside, cycling and hiking. But socialism it is not. They are bourgeois democracies and aggressively capitalist. As for the much-hyped welfare state, it is designed both to keep everyone consuming and generates a distinct type of xenophobia: the welfare is only for citizens of each state.

I kept looking. Perhaps I could find something in Eastern Europe – a memory perhaps, a cultural framework …

I dwelt longest in eastern Germany, for it embodied the recent history of Europe as a whole. Germany had been two parts for a while, a communist east and a capitalist west, until the east was annexed in 1989. The majority of East Germans were not in favour of the disappearance of their country.

Here at least one could find traces of communism past, strong traces. People over 40 years of age could speak a little Russian; the Free Youth organisation continued, albeit somewhat smaller than in its heyday; well-designed and constructed crockery could be found in any flea market; streets named after Marx, Engels, Ernst Thälmann, Thomas Münzer and others could be found in every town; grand communist-era architecture – Stalin baroque no less – was everywhere, from Karl Mark Allée in Berlin to the small garages found in almost every village. Coupled with this was a conscious effort by the Western Germans to erase any positive memory, associating East Germany with repression and greyness (even the photographs are black-and-white), if not seeking the dubious connection with Hitler, oinwhat may be called the reductio ad Hitlerum

In response, many East Germans push back, noting the destruction of their economy, the deindustrialisation and high unemployment. They remain suspicious of those from the West, while trying to find a place in the ‘new’ Germany. Above all, they have a strong sense that the collective identity they had has not been replaced by anything, whether religion or the nation. So they speak of ‘post-communism’.

While I was there with my partner, we began digging deeper into the history of communism, way back before the arrival of its modern form after Marx. We found that Czechoslovakia had championed Jan Hus, the first real reformer from the fifteenth century. And we found that the German Democratic Republic had made Thomas Münzer, the ‘theologian of the revolution’ (so Ernst Bloch), a hero. Films were made, the East German five-deutschmark note bore his image, and the five-hundredth year of his birth was elaborately prepared and celebrated – just before the DDR was dissolved and colonised by the western parts. Still, the monuments are there, in Zwickau and Allstedt and Frankenhausen and Mühlhausen, tracing the path of the ill-fated yet proto-socialist revolution of the peasants in 1525.

Meanwhile, she dug deep into the Moravian Brethren, the Herrnhutter Brüdergemeinde, who traced their history back to none other than Jan Hus. We dwelt long in the village of Herrnhut, deep in the far east of Germany, in the Oberlausitz part of Saxony. The feel is still there, the peace and collectivism of the village, where Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf und Puttendorf breathed new life into the movement in the early eighteenth century. So much so that the smallest of collectives became a great global missionary movement, emphasising practice of the collective Christian life over against dogma.

I could no help delving into Karl Kautsky, for all his faults (in criticising and dismissing the developments of the Russian Revolution). Yet, Kautsky had taken up the mantle of Engels by writing a full account of the history of the ‘forerunners of modern socialism’, which ended up being a four-volume work – Vorläufer des neueren Sozialismus – that he was unable to complete in his lifetime (he manged only three volumes, so others completed the fourth). Among the many, many movements of ‘heretical communism’, the early days of the Moravians could be located. They focused on communal living, trying the recall the early church, when ‘everything was held in common’.

I also moved eastward, of one thinks of the Eurasian landmass, following the successful socialist revolutions that seemed to escape the Atlantic corridor. I ended up in China, the People’s Republic no less. The word was that China had followed the ‘capitalist road’ since the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping, overturning all that Mao Zedong had tried to construct. So when I arrived I did not know what to expect.

At first, it did not look like the socialism that one so often heard touted. According to that version, everyone is equal, paid the same, living simple lives in communes, having property in common, and so forth. Invariably this turns out to be the equality of poverty, for everyone is equally poor. We might call this populist socialism. In China it cannot be found.

Instead, I found a place full of energy, constantly changing as old buildings and old factories were knocked down and new ones constructed. I found people full of energy, keen to learn from experience overseas, but even keener to return to China and enhance their skills. I found people who are experts at self-criticism, never happy with the state of things, always seeking to improve. Endless are the discussions concerning the main problem, the main contradiction in China, and the best way to solve it. And as they do so, they begin to leap ahead of the rest of the world, transforming what they have learnt to becoming the leaders.

Is this socialism? Some in China would say no, holding to some ideal from the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Some would say maybe, feeling that China has still a long, long way to go. And some stress the term, ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, deriving from Mao Zedong and championed by Deng Xiaoping.

What in the world does this mean? One may fill the meaning in one’s own way, from dismissal to appreciation. But I suggest it bears the other sense of socialism, which was always about improving the economic wellbeing of all. This is Marx’s famous unleashing of the forces of production, which entails using and refining what can be used. It is the basis of a Marxist approach to human rights, in which the right to economic wellbeing is the basis of all other rights.

For some strange reason, I continue to find it a great relief that the communist party is in power in China. Why? Not only is the party in charge of the strongest socialist state in world history, but it is, after all, the communist party.

2017 April 011

Fold-up Bicycle

Small enough to carry on a bus (and put at one’s feet) and sturdy enough to ride 100 kilometres in a day. Once again, after too many years, I had a fold-up bicycle (a Brompton). I could fold and unfold it in 10 seconds, although it had taken years of design and refinements to achieve this feat. A fold here, a flick there, a turn and twist with hands in a certain position and the job was done, seemingly effortlessly. Each part was carefully crafted to sit snugly beside another, so that one could scarcely believe how compact it could become. At the same time, its stretched-out condition could easily accommodate my lanky frame in comfort – for kilometre after kilometre.

Another form of self-powered transport it may be, but when I first mounted it, I was not ready for the rush of half-forgotten memories. I could not get over how the physical feel of the bicycle drew out a host of intensely felt, if not physically produced memories, from another life. Every component seemed to combine for such an effect: long metal tubes and small wheels, hinges and clamps, the feel of a single chain ring and internal gears, a distinct position and tilt, my leg muscles working in a particular way. We might call them bodily memories, but that hardly captures what I felt. It was as though the actual nature of being on such a bicycle and riding longer distances revealed a connectedness between machine, body and mind that makes mockery of the distinct terms themselves.

At the same time, it was not merely that the bicycle brought me to recover those memories. Instead, it had the curious effect of opening up two worlds at once. I was in two universes, folding into one another in a way that made them both present simultaneously.

The fold-up seemed to know what it was doing, seeking out quiet pathways far from the madding crowd and finding the zone where the worlds opened up.

On one occasion, I was in the Australian bush on a rail trail. Simultaneously, I literally felt as though I was in the Netherlands a dozen years ago on an earlier version. Then, I had been on the road for a week or so, following a paper map with trails (for there were no phones with GPS at that stage). I had turned a corner, dipping slightly into a stunning stand of trees through which soft light filtered on a summer’s day. I know I will probably never find the exact place again from years ago, but here it was once again, powerfully present with a feeling that was as rich as the first time.

Late in the day, weary and hungry, I was rolling down the last slope to my camping spot for the night. From the midst of the trees, the vista of the place opened before me. I was suddenly in southern Jutland (Denmark), not long after finally meeting my soul-mate. We had agreed to connect at Kolding and planned to ride long that day. But by Hederslev it was clear we would need to be a little more realistic. We followed the quietly marked route into town, looking out over the low hills and seeking out accommodation. On the last slope, we spied our place for the night – a cabin in a youth hostel. Soon I (and we) slept the sleep that comes only after being out on the road all day.

At another moment, the bicycle took me onto a path around a long lake, travelling at a fast pace that deceived many (they seemed to assume that small wheels mean one must be slow). The loping cadence of the bicycle and the path along the water transported me to a long ride along the Maas (Meuse, the French call it) towards Maastricht, at the southern tip of the Netherlands. It was the lack of hills that bemused me then, apart from the slopes of dykes. Days were spent in one gear, eating up the kilometres along well-signposted fietspade (bicycle paths). So it was today too.

Waiting to board a ferry for a river crossing. The last of its kind in Sydney, in a place few people know. As the ferry approached, the Parramatta river became the Rhine, crossing from south to north on my way to Rotterdam. My thoughts on both occasions meshed with one another. Who catches ferries these days? Surely a bridge, even if it is a characteristic bridge one can rise for boats to pass, is far preferable. Hardly, for the pleasure of waiting, boarding, chugging across, and disembarking cannot compare. One dreams of a longer voyage, to cross a sea or an ocean, and the mighty river becomes more like a stream by comparison. But one has to cross and this is the way human beings have done so for millennia.

The intimate and felt memories became constant companions. Even to fold the bike and simply carry it with me onto a train took me back to a rail journey from Copenhagen to Amsterdam, or from Maastricht to Tilburg, or to Kolding for that southern Jutland ride. At the other end, one simply picks it up, steps out, unfolds and sets off, fully self-sufficient.

Two worlds, two universes in one. I was riding here and there, then and now, in the same place and time. Perhaps that is why I have already planned for a long European ride in the summer to come. The bicycle longs for it too.

2017 February 010

2017 January 121

Paxton Pub, or, Great North Walking

Not the most inviting place on first impressions.

Outside, a handful of wrinkled men sat hunched over their beers, cigarettes hanging out of the corners of their mouths. Any stranger was sized up. A gruff word of welcome came from one pair of lips. But then they would accept you as you are.

Inside was warmer, the beers cheap, the memorabilia of years hanging on the walls. The publican too loved a smoke, but he also loved pulling beers in his Hawaiian shirt.

I have been to the Paxton pub twice, once on my own at the end of a long day hiking a section of the Great North Walk, and once with my partner at the beginning of a hike. The first time I arrived in a winter dusk, with a flu-induced delirium, the second time we were on the way to rediscovering one another after too long in different parts of the world.

During the short days of a local winter, I had been longing to complete a quiet section of the Great North Walk, on my own from Pokolbin to Newcastle. It would take me through my beloved Watagan mountains, with a mixture of camping and pub stays. Five days in all, after some rain so the creeks would have water to drink.

Perhaps I should have seen the warning signs, but I told myself that the wicked flu was passing, that I was feeling fine and could manage the hike. A bus and taxi eventually found the starting point, a bare sign in the midst of the Hunter Valley vineyards. The sun shone on a cool day, my new leather boots felt fine and I strode along absorbed by the pleasure of the hike.

By the first climb, I felt a twinge in my right foot and a flush in my head. The boot came off to reveal a raw blister, which I duly bandaged. I’ll tighten the boots, I thought, and it will be fine. Soon enough multiple points began to blister, burst and ooze. Multiple bandages tried to soften the continual pain.

In the midst of the mountains, the flu-daze was upon me. What should have been perhaps ten kilometres became one hundred. The last two felt like two hundred. All I could manage was one painful foot in front of the other.

In this state, I met the Hare Krishna hippie, or at least believe I met him. He was waiting at a bus stop with a young boy and seized upon me to pass on the news of warning. Apparently, the world was coming to an end, with the mark of the beast (666) everywhere to be found. I had enough wherewithal to wonder how the Book of Revelation might fit in with Hare Krishna teaching, but refrained from asking for clarification. He and his son lived on the local commune, and with his dreadlocks and bright clothes, his mission in life was to post small stickers in innocuous places to warn us all of our impending doom. I strode on, leaving him to his important task. Mine was to get to the pub.

By dusk the pub finally appeared. In my state, I could not imagine a more welcoming sight. Yes, my room was available, since I was the only one staying amidst the 30 rooms, the grandeur of which was still evident despite the years of neglect. Yes, I could wash, in the women’s bathroom in a shower-bath that bore a sign ‘out of order’. Yes, I could eat, for the publican’s partner had come in to cook her one dish, a meat platter. And yes, the beers were cold and cheap.

Such was my delusion, that I still planned to continue the next day in the mountains, camping for a few nights. A little more bandaging on my feet, a cold-and-flue tablet and I would be fine. At 3am I woke and realised it was not on. It would be the utmost foolishness to be lost in such a state in the bush.

Reluctantly, I returned home via buses and trains, longing to tackle it again.

After my feet had recovered and my partner and I were equally recovering our life together, we agreed to the hike to celebrate her birthday. Both of us were keen, as is our wont, to get away from the world for a little while.

We began at the pub, after the buses and trains. A balcony room, but again we were the only visitors. The few regulars tried to be friendly, the bistro was now closed for good, the pokies were long retired, and the beer garden out the back was overgrown. But the publican, festooned in his Hawaiian shirt, struck up a conversation.

We talked of the troubles of country pubs, how locals no longer came to the pub regularly, how the bowling club was closing down, how the last three years had been the most difficult in his life as he tried to make the pub work. I commented on the bikies rolling past on weekends, on the appeal of Wollombi up the road, of all manner of possibilities for attracting passers-by to drop in, for it is a beautiful part of the countryside.

After my partner ducked off to photograph the last light through the windows, the publican asked us directly: ‘are you interested in buying the place?’ Of course, we were strangers visiting (me a second time), asking all manner of questions about running a country pub, so he was interpreting it all as inquiries from prospective buyers. It would be one of the last things we would want to do in our increasingly unencumbered and simplified lives.

The next day, cooler after the rains, was glorious. Some twenty kilometres of mountains, bush, stunning views, stops to eat and talk, chocolate and muesli bars to share, water to find, and the deep weariness of bodies working all day as we reached our goal – it was a hike for the ages. We climbed and we dropped and climbed again. We ducked through overhanging bushes and branches on a track seldom used. We savoured the fresh water at an old vineyard. And we rolled over the last few kilometres through the flat countryside of the vineyards.

As we did so, we recalled our earlier hikes in eastern Germany, Scotland and Denmark, a mutual love of being out and relying on ourselves. She is a tough one, able to tackle such tasks in a way few are able. I can usually keep up with her, with the stamina of experience.

Above all, I relished being out together rather than on my own.

Ship Tales: From Australia to Europe

‘We have a rule in the Philippines’, growls the man to my left. ‘If you don’t sing, you dance’.

I seriously ponder dancing for a moment, but the prospect of gyrating before a dozen drunken Filipino sailors who are singing sensuous love songs, full of feeling and soprano tones, becomes less and less attractive. One sailor sticks the microphone in my face, another scrolls through the songs on screen and before I know it I am singing ‘Down Under’ – badly, very badly. I bellow, miss the words, am off key. ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ is much better, after I learn not to bellow and how to read the damn machine.

Meanwhile the drink flows; cigarettes are passed around; delicious Filipino concoctions mass on the tables; I breathe a sigh of relief, having done my duty.

But what am I doing singing karaoke with drunken Filipino sailors? Is this a seedy bar in the Philippines? No, I am in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on a container ship. I needed to get from Australia to Europe and since a sea voyage beats flying any day – for flying is one of the worst forms of transport invented by human beings – I boarded a ship from Melbourne. Not a cruise ship full of bored and overweight passengers desperately seeking amusement in the bars and shops and nightclubs, but a container ship, a working ship plying the run. And a long run it is: from Melbourne to Tilbury, via New Zealand, Panama, the Caribbean and the east coast of the USA. Two massive oceans, five seas, the Panama Canal, all in 37 days. Our ship is the La Tour, owned and run by CMA-CGM, the French company supplying the French possessions in the Pacific, sailing vast stretches of open sea on a route followed by few others.

On board we have 23 officers and crew: the captain and engineers are from the Balkans, from Montenegro and Croatia, while the crew and the three mates are Filipinos – hard-working and competent sailors who are not confrontational, preferring quite means of addressing problems when they arise. Over the next long month I would get to know many of them very well, sharing stories and drinks, singing karaoke, celebrating an equatorial barbeque, gaining an insight into the sailor’s life, pondering sex on the high seas …

Local: A Waterborne Village in Motion

What is life like on a working ship, especially for crews who live for nine months at a time on board? A container ship cares less for its passengers than its cargo, its arrival and departure moments to which you must adapt rather than expect it to bow to your own schedule. So also with La Tour (named after a French painter and not a bowdlerised form of ‘the tour’): I soon lose count of the changes in ETA and ETD for each of our half dozen calls at ports. It all depends on when a dock is available, how fast the containers can be unloaded and loaded, and directives from the central office in Paris. So when we have the chance for shore leave, doubt lingers as to whether the ship will suddenly up anchor and depart without us – so we always make sure we are back a few hours before the ETD.

Chinese built in 2000, La Tour is a smooth, clean, relatively modern and fast ship. Our cabin is anything but compact, reserved for spare voyagers – the ‘owner’ perhaps, company executives, repair crews for engine overhauls, and passengers. A bedroom, bathroom and living space with a couple of portholes, plus access to the communal lounge, small gym downstairs – and pretty much anywhere else on the ship. Yet we are contained by that absolute boundary of the ship itself, the edge of the constantly quivering deck and a sea that plunges to unknown depths a step away.

The ship is constantly alive, full of myriad inter-lapping movements. The quiver and surge of the engines at full steam ahead is the constant backdrop, but as I write (after a storm), we ride the oncoming waves like a slow and sensuous fuck: a gentle push, withdraw, push, with the occasional rush of blood. At other times, with a cross wind and diagonal swell from the stern, it begins rocking, heavily and deeply. At one moment you run down the hall, small steps acting as brakes; at the other moment you are climbing a steep mountain. But the roll is never consistent: a quiet half dozen may suddenly be followed by a massive lurch, the horizon now at what appears to be 45% to where it should be, chairs sliding, cups falling off tables, a roll onto your other side in sleep even if you didn’t want to. Turn the swell to the front of the ship, but at a good angle and the ship adds a juddering crunch to the roll, for the nose dives into the wave, the tail goes in the air, and then the ship shakes itself like a drenched dog, all the while rolling heavily either to port or starboard. But even on the quietest sea, the proverbial pond or Pacific doldrums, the tiny quivers, shudders, the gentle lift and drop, the tilt on the floor, remind you it is not at rest.

One word struggles to capture the feel: fluidity. I mean not the standard feel of a ship on a fluid surface, but the actual ship itself. What does that mean? It flexes, bends and wobbles! I first notice this flexing when standing on the bridge, watching for the massive bow wave in heavy seas. Slightly out of focus, peering into another world, I notice what seems to be the ship shaking itself. No, it is more like a slow, rubberised wave that runs through the ship’s hull. You can see the containers and crane at the bow move to a different rhythm than those closest. I had of course heard of flexible steel hulls, but to experience it: a massively reinforced steel hull, carrying engines, equipment and over 20,000 tonnes of freight, rippling, flexing, wobbling.

A ship alive; so also with the human beings on board. The human dynamics of the ship soon become apparent as we encounter the familiar roll of a wintry, windy and wet Tasman Sea – our first leg. It is a complex mix of tribal arrangements, following ethnic, linguistic and political lines. The ex-Yugoslavs – a Montenegrin captain and Croatian engineers and electrician eat together in the officers dining room, talking amongst one another in what are supposed to be separate languages (for political reasons) but which they all know is the same language. And the Filipino crew draws to its own dining room the officers who are also Filipino – the three mates, who are perfectly entitled to eat in the officers’ mess, opt for the noisy and crowded crew mess at the other end of Deck B.

Yet these are not ad hoc arrangements, as I find in a later conversation with the captain, for they are the result not merely of financial considerations but also of a reasonable amount of sociological study – some combinations work well; others don’t. On earlier voyages I had encountered Kiribati crews, Chinese crews, Papuan crews, Koreans. And he had worked with Indonesian, Japanese and Indian crews. The company finds that a few senior European officers work well with Filipino crews, but that Indian and Filipino do not (caste systems from India), or that European and Indonesian is not a good mix. So they are careful about organising crews, since they spend a long time together in restricted conditions.

The third tribe – apart from the ex-Yugoslavs and the Filipinos – is made up of the passengers, who have their own table in the mess. We – a Dane and Australian – meet three other passengers from New Zealand. They had come from Europe and are on the last leg of their voyage, from Melbourne to Napier. Obviously they have been too long together, driving each other up the wall: the logorrhoeic John, the retired minor bureaucrat with all the superficiality of an autodidact’s universal knowledge coupled with a mania for collecting things, the reticent and happy-to-follow Greg, friend of John and small businessman (radio transmitters etc), and the former seaman Les, bedecked with gold chains and bracelets, a sweep of white hair and the desperate air of one who had spent too many days at sea listening to John’s drivel. Les smiles broadly every time I cracked a mild joke at John’s expense or simply shock him. Napier could not come too soon, for otherwise one passenger would have been testing his swimming skills in the Tasman. After that we are the only two passengers.

On this flexing, quivering ship with its tribes, the rhythm of one’s day becomes very simple. Without ‘entertainment’ that serves only to remind you of boredom, the day’s simplicity becomes a pleasure: it turns around the meals and what you do with the time in between: breakfast 7:30 to 8:30, lunch 12:00 to 13:00, dinner 18:00 to 19:00. Unless there is a talker (but he had gone in Napier!) or the captain feels like a chat, the meal usually takes half an hour. The great excitement is reading the menu for the day (apart from breakfast, it is always ‘new’) or the news print-out – during our voyage, the World Cup results, or Tour-de-France, or, for some reason that is entirely beyond me, ‘Britain today’. Between meals: a quiet hour on the bridge before breakfast pondering the sea over a cup of tea, and then writing, some Danish language practice (don’t ask me why) and reading during the 4-5 hour stretches in between meals. Exercise? One might climb the endless stairs, inside and outside, up ten floors to the bridge and down again, or join a sweaty sailor or three in the simple but effective gym – for the weight machine, rowing machine and the surreptitious comparison of muscled bodies.

Eating, sleeping, writing, reading, being ogled by sweaty sailors … the other pastime is talk – as much or as little as you want. At meal times, an on-deck barbeque, during a safety drill, a pause on the deck, in the engine room or deep in the bowels of the ship, but above all on the bridge, mouths open, questions are asked, answers given, opinions shared, glimpses of other worlds and lives shared. But talk also takes wing beyond the outer limits of the ship, over seas and oceans to other places (often home) and other voyages. So let us stay on the ship a little longer.

Of Floatation Suits, Karaoke, Sex and the Mysterious ‘Passageway’

Calmly churning our way through ocean after ocean, peacefully reading and writing, wandering the deck … Not quite, for the ship is full of quirks and hidden corners, whispered secrets and the plain weird.

Take the floatation suit, for example. The overly keen third officer has given us a ‘familiarisation tour’, allowing us to peek into the lifeboat before plonking us down in front of a computer screen to watch a riveting presentation on lifeboat procedures. But I am soon transfixed by the floatation suits, barely noticing the questionnaires signed and the Yellow Fever certificates passed over. Back in the cabin I cannot wait to struggle into the snug floatation suit, stored neatly in the cupboard for that unwanted emergency which would require us to abandon ship. Made of the same neoprene as wetsuits, albeit in a bright orange that clings tightly to my body, it has a triple effect: I began sweating profusely, looked like a Telly Tubby and produced the most unflattering photograph I have ever witnessed.

Or Groundhog Day: on the first of July, the mate on duty announces that tomorrow we repeat the same day, since we are to cross that strange human invention, the International Date Line. And so, the next morning I wake with some excitement, for it is 1 July all over again. Will exactly the same events happen today, the same meal in the mess (probably, but it is the same no matter which day), the same acts, conversations, same stretch of ocean covered, same readings from the instruments that measured our voyage, same latitude and longitude, same markings on the sea chart? Groundhog Day? Sadly, it is not to be.

Or almost being strafed by a US Marine helicopter gunship: we are sailing along the east coast of the USA, past the Carolinas and up to Virginia. I am reading quietly earlier in the afternoon, only to look up at the hint of noise and see, through the porthole, close by and in great detail the massive, camouflaged helicopter gunship on our bow. It sweeps across our bow and then turns to pass up our starboard side, directly overhead. Holy shit, I think, running to the deck in time to see the second pass. Up on the bridge I mention it to the captain and chief engineer. ‘Americans!’ shrugs the captain. ‘Only in the US would they do that’, meaning … ‘weirdest people on earth’.

Or drunken sailors: at an outdoor barbeque. Crossing the equator, in the Pacific doldrums (a curse for sailing ships, a blessing for ships with engines), still calls for a celebration. Soon enough the music is blaring and the fire raging in a half 44 gallon drum fire, which is piled high with all manner of recognisable and unrecognisable meats. The deck is full of very drunken Filipino – or ‘Pilipino’ as most of them say – sailors and even more drunken Croatian engineers. As they toss bones, cans and cigarette butts in the water, occasionally pissing over the side, they lean alarmingly over the railing in the midst of the Pacific. Amazingly, the count of sore heads in the morning is the same as the night before. The Bosun speaks endlessly about praying, missing church on board, Muslim neighbours, his seasickness. The third engineer, a man married three times and with an impossibly white shirt and winning smile, chats up my partner, asking whether she has a twin sister he could hook up with. And the habit for photographs is not some stiff pose with a photo smile – the smile that you put on when you think what a smile might be – nor even a pose by a monument, but a moment of extravagant mockery: everyone piles together, arms outstretched, drinks held aloft, heads kinked, frozen in time … The best approach to photos I have seen for quite a while.

Or sex on the high seas? Is it restricted to porn and five finger fantasies? Or do the younger horny men, with testosterone pumping through their systems, form bonds at sea, bonds that are regarded as either normal for sailors while at sea (but not at home)? Or is all this kept in a classic closet? Or is there one who is the ‘tart’, who is sexually available for a bit of massage, fellatio or buggery for anyone who is interested? Is the strict hierarchy of the ship also maintained in ship sex? I do remember a passenger on a previous ship, who liked to invite the young men into his cabin for massages and lessons in English … and possibly some French and Greek. Perhaps the old saying from the navy still applies: on shore it might be wine, women and song, but at sea it is rum, bum and fiddle.

Which brings me to the ‘passageway’: the captain is not one to forget things, for on the second last day of the voyage he mentions ‘the passageway’, asking whether I would still like to be initiated. I had mentioned it once, on our first day, a long month ago. Today the chief officer turns up early – boilersuit, helmet, boots, gloves and torch. I am impressed and grab my helmet. The English might call it the ‘Burma Road’, but for the normal people in the world it is simply the ‘passageway’. What is it? Let us see.

Having cleared the alarms on the bridge, the chief undoes the massive latches on an air-tight and water-tight door – ‘for fire’, he says – and plunges down a stairway. More like a ladder, really, slippery with oil on the steel steps. ‘It’s easier to go down backwards’, he says, skipping down the stairs as if they are a garden path. The bottom is exactly that, the bottom, the bowels of the ship, beneath almost 30,000 tonnes of containers, let alone the ship itself. Between me and the sea floor – about 5 km below – is nothing but the ocean and a sheet of 10mm iron.

‘This way’, he says, ducking under the first of scores of scalping devices. Actually, they are part of the infrastructure of the ship, its bones, and we are climbing through them. An oval cut into the iron allows us to pass along, ducking, slipping, echoing, with the sound of water and creaking containers all about us. We are on our way to the bow, which soon announces its imminent presence by the curve of the hull. Tighter and tighter become the spaces, and I soon became well aware that tall people of vague European extraction are not even on the drawing board when it comes to this type of construction.

I may as well be caving, I think to myself. But at last we reach our goal: the bow and its thruster – a small engine used to get the bow over in tight spots in port. The thruster itself is down a surprisingly cavernous space, a couple of ladders slick with the obligatory oil. I feel as though I have happened upon a treasure cave, deep within the earth – except of course that we are deep in the ship and the ocean, the lowest point, in fact, that we can go. But the treasure is the not the thruster – no matter what any male might think – but the thrill of standing behind that massive knob at the bow of a ship, the one below the water-line, a little like a battering ram to part the water and protect the ship should it run into the odd whale, log, or debris of another ship. And the crashing noise is the water, like perpetual surf created by the ship itself.

Sadly, we cannot stay there forever, since the chief is busy with the duties of four imminent ports (Tilbury, Dunkirque, Le Havre and Rotterdam). So I set off the way we had come. ‘No, this way’, says the chief, ‘there’s more’. We had come up the port side; on the starboard side the passageway winds its way back to the start. Torch on, ducking, stretching, small steps to avoid slipping in the oil and then, like a horse sniffing the stable, I am off for the escape hatch. ‘Not so fast’, says the chief. He pulls me over, places a hand on my shoulder and whispers: ‘Do you want to see the cargo hold?’ I am awed, for now the deepest secret of the ship is about to be revealed. He bangs open the levers – alarmed as well – and hauls back the airtight door, beckoning me inside. I am a little worried that he doesn’t follow me in, imagining him slamming the door shut with a wicked chuckle, holding me there for ransom or perhaps as a sex slave for the crew. It is not to be … but the space looks like it could well be used for exactly such purposes: in between the deepest container, with reefer outlets and dirt scattered about, a talented artist had painted a woman wearing nothing but a wicked grin, her legs spread wide in invitation. ‘Do not enter here’, someone had scribbled, as if to state the obvious on a ship full of men.

Outside the cargo hold, we stand in reverend silence for a few moments. ‘Time to go’, says the chief. After climbing the ladder from the depths and stumbling out of the hatch, daylight feels strangely different.

The Sea

Beyond the boundaries of the ship is the ever-present reminder that Earth is a water planet; that land and land-based creatures are in the minority. No wonder ancient mythologies, such as those of Mesopotamia, depicted the sea as a chaotic threat to the order of land. But our presence on the sea embodies another paradox: the sea is both danger and support, both threat and succour, potentially threatening to sink us any moment and yet providing the only means of bulk, long-distance transport that we know. Ultimately, the sea holds the power of death and life.

Needless to say, I find it absolutely fascinating, spending long hours on the bridge or on deck, watching and experiencing its constantly changing nature. From the Tasman, through the Pacific, the Gulf of Panama, the Caribbean, the Atlantic and finally to the English Channel, we are crossing half the world by sea.

Pacific

After the Tasman, our next challenge is the Pacific itself. It is a big fucking ocean. Even with a reasonably fast, modern ship, it takes us 16 days from New Zealand to Panama. On this crossing we pass from one hemisphere to another (on the tenth day at 400 in the dark of early morning), water in the toilet and plug holes begins rotating in the other direction; the southern cross disappears and the pole star appears – the great navigational device of timid Euro sailors who feared to pass out of their comfort zone. To experience the Pacific in this physical sense, day after day with the horizon only the circle of the sea, brings home the sense of vastness as nothing else can.

And that vastness is ever-changing. With my eyes compensating for the lack of distinction between sea and sky, I watch the ocean change from pitch black to the first glow of dawn and then hiss at the end of the day as the sun set. Over the length of the voyage, the sea’s colour shifts from metallic blue under late cloud, to deep aqua on a sparkling morning as we slip into port, to white capped black beneath the heavy clouds, to translucent light blue in the full glare of a winter sun, to light grey in a moment’s diffused light, to silver when the sun shines through a hole in the clouds directly in our path, to a deep clean glassy blue under a tropical sun, to what is perhaps the most disconcerting of all: the feel of the surf at home, for I feel on those days like putting on my board shorts, walking down the stairs to the beach and going for a swim on a stinking hot day. At others moments I would experience an astonishing moment that can only happen at sea: the clouds open for a few minutes and a full moon throws a couple of patches of glistening light directly before the bow of the ship.

Squalls of rain pass, especially on the Tasman Sea. Whipped across by the winds blowing from the Southern Ocean, cumulus and stratus and altus and cirrus and nimbus clouds (and their myriad combinations) skid by on the horizon or blow down upon us. Once you get into the Pacific, they say, it will be smooth, especially in the tropics. But the first two days of the crossing have a heavy roll, with the south-westerly swell (from the Southern Ocean), lifting us from the starboard rear and rolling through to port. And then the swell turned to ENE, precisely our direction, gradually gaining strength. A tropical storm hits us: rain belts down, leaks through the portholes; the ship’s gentle up-and-down motion, running directly into the swell, gains a sideways judder and roll. We began to hit the waves hard, creating massive bow waves and the occasional wall of spray that is whipped away by the wind. Some sleep less well than they might, although I sleep in rocking comfort.

Being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has a curious estrangement effect. The seasons arrive in a hurry, skipping along in a way that suggests the earth’s orbit has sped up: hour by hour the light becomes stronger, the day lengthens, temperatures rise and the clothes come off of their own accord. Sap rises, as does lust … Soon summer arrives. The water looks inviting, and given that at home I swim at the beach for nine months of the year – all of summer and most of spring, summer and autumn – the urge to go for a swim comes mightily upon me. But then I know that as a MOB in the middle of the Pacific I would have little chance of survival, given the difficulty of keeping one’s eye on a face bobbing in the water, the speed of the ship and its slow turn.

Sitting on the bridge I think often of sailors in small boats navigating the Pacific: Islander sailors setting off for distant and most likely unknown shores on rafts and canoes; Magellan and his crew as the first Europeans who were promptly becalmed and spent months on the ocean; Bligh and the open boat that he navigated all the way to Batavia, but above all lone sailors, especially at night in heavy seas, having to rely on the boat-builder’s skill and a good deal of luck, especially when the stars are obscured, the moon is on strike and the night pitch-black. For the captain, to take on an ocean like this as a solo sailor (we are talking about 16-year Jessica Watson) is pure madness, the risk of accident at night – a log, a whale, whatever – far too high. And it certainly wouldn’t be pleasurable.

Animals

Perhaps the greatest surprise is the animals. This time I know what to expect, but I am still astonished at how much animal life can be found out on the ocean. Of course, the kilometres of ocean depth beneath the surface team with life, but I can see only what goes on above the water, far, far from land. In the Tasman and the southern reaches of the Pacific we meet the mollymooks, smaller cousins of the albatross, spending like their larger relatives – the royal albatross – years at sea after they learn to fly, using the wind to bank, turn and fish, snoozing on the rolling swells of the south.

Later, in the tropical zones, we would meet the flying fish. I first spot one skimming the top of a wave, disturbed by the ship’s passing. I think it is a small black bird like a swallow … but then realise: in the middle of the Pacific? And then there are those strange seabirds from the legendary Galapagos Islands (what a thrill to be so close the islands at the heart of evolutionary theory), with their webbed feet, long beaks and big black and white craps. They bring home the effect of land-based birds on a sailor: four appear initially, hovering, with wingtips curled, waiting for the flying fish to appear. As soon as one is spotted, they flip over, pull their wings in and dive bomb into the ocean before flapping up again with their catch. They join our ship for a few days, sleeping on the foremast at night, or even resting there and drying out during the day. But land birds signal hope for sailors; an anticipation for creatures hard-wired to walk on terra-firma.

Alongside the birds, strange insects might join us in Panama or Georgia and then perish as we change latitudes, fish might flit about and myriad wriggly things would swim out of sight beneath the ship, but the highlight for me is the brief sighting of a whale. Gripping the handrail, about to climb the outside stairs to the bridge, a movement catches my eye: less than ten metres away, a massive grey-black back, slick with sea-water, breaks the surface and rolls in a leisurely fashion on the surface for a moment before plunging again into the deep. A dolphin? No, too small and not out here. A whale? It must be.

Upstairs on the bridge I ask the mate on duty: a whale, he assures me. Until now we have sighted a few spouts in the distance, viewable only through binoculars, but this one has come right by the ship. Did it come to have a look, I wonder, attracted by the thundering noise of its engine and propellers thrashing away in the water? Or is it as surprised as I am, thinking that it had a whole ocean in which to surface, only to find a ship at the tip of its left fin?

Atlantic

The grey Atlantic! The Pacific might have myriad moods, colours and facets, but the Atlantic is – primarily – grey. For a brief moment or two, the Atlantic may glitter in the sun as I make my way about the deck. But the captain says that sun on the Atlantic is unusual, even in summer. He speaks of storms, the sea rising up to two metres during a fierce one, of the mere half dozen captains who take ships in winter on the northern Atlantic route, for most cannot sleep on the winter roll, of how I too would find be troubled by such storms even if rough weather doesn’t bother me. As the captain speaks, the fog and rain return … But the Atlantic is a signal that the end of the voyage is in sight – about nine days away.

Global: The Look to Land

We may be a waterborne village in motion, the far-reaching sea may be the natural boundary for that village, yet thoughts always pass beyond the sea to land. I may be talking with a quiet captain on the bridge at dusk, with a bosun in the bow, a wary first mate or a keen (and newly-capped) third mate, but each of them would inevitably bend the discussion to home.

The bosun is happiest to talk in two of his elements: his natural home on the open deck or after a drink at the Equator barbeque. I first find him in the open space of the bow. Past the pilot access points, the stages and stacks of containers, ropes, grease pots, ladders, storage and safety cubicles, the bow is a peaceful spot, away from the noise of the engines – assuming you are not crashing through mountainous seas. Here he is, along with his mate, AB Lorenzo of the pock-marked face and deft table-tennis hand. The bosun sports a bandana, whiskers and twinkling eyes; I am not sure whether the resemblance to a pirate is conscious or not. He tells me of his home in the south of the Philippines, in amongst the Muslim separatists who are working towards their own state. Does that create tensions? I ask. No, we Christians and Muslims just live amongst each other … and my brother is a senior officer in the army. No trouble. He told me of the dislike of Spanish due to its colonial associations, of the way kids want to learn English, of Tagalog, the Philippines’ own language. And all this before a drink: at the Equator barbeque he tells me of his faith, of missing church, of women and children …

The captain’s personality usually defines a ship. I have experienced a loud-mouthed racist with whom everyone feels comfortable, since he was direct and clear; in contrast to a mercurial brooder who scared the daylights out of the crew since they never knew what he would say or do next. On La Tour the ship runs quietly and of its own accord, again a direct effect of the captain. This one leaves what needs to be done to those who did it best, never raises his voice, never loses his temper, retreats when needed for time to himself (fully confident that the officers can do their jobs) and the emerges to speak when he feels the need. The crew confides that they much prefer his approach, since Filipino culture is generally non-confrontational.

At dusk or in the early dawn the captain is happiest to talk. From Kotor in Montenegro, a walled city that once had its own fleet like Dubrovnik a little to the north, he comes from a long line of seafarers. So strong is the tradition that sailors from elsewhere in Eastern Europe (he mentions Russia) come to Montenegro to study and train. Kotor is like Dubrovnik, he tells me, a walled port that dates back to Roman and even pre-Roman times, with a long and proud maritime history. Once, Greek and Roman triremes docked, as did the ships of the crusaders, Arabs and medieval traders, each leaving their mark. But with a wife and two small children he finds it difficult to be away for up to five months at a time.

I mentions that he would have been born in the former (or ‘ex-’ as he called it) Yugoslavia and ask about languages. Now Montenegro claims, he tells me, to have a separate language, at least since independence after 2008. But they all know it is the same language – Serbian, Croatian, Montenegrin – with regional variations within and across countries. I also ask what he thinks about the breakup of Yugoslavia: everyone wants his own little kingdom, he says. And the possibility of centripetal forces bringing Yugoslavia together once again? We are beginning, he says, to realise that small independent states are quite weak against the multinational companies and powerful states around us, so there are some moves to cooperate and present a united front.

But his comment about the Balkan war strikes me. He too feels that Yugoslavia had worked well as a socialist country. And he had witnessed its destruction, the NATO attacks, had served for a year in the army, although a senior officer had given him a non-combat role since he was so young and at the maritime college.

I ask, ‘what was the war like?’

After a pause, he says: ‘We didn’t know what was going on’.

Next down in the chain of command is the first mate, or ‘chief’. Should anything happen to the captain – a two-day rest after the murderous string of ports, or accident, illness, abdication, dismissal – he is in charge. The chief is a wary man, suspicious of officialdom (especially at port), deferential to power. But on a dark bridge he fires back a question at me after I had assumed our brief opening exchange is over. He wonders whether we are bored, how much we pay for the passage (a lot for him!), why we choose to go by sea. We talk more openly of the ship’s cook – I think he is pretty good, but the mate says they always complain about the cook. He laughs at the invitation we had received to the third engineer’s birthday party, especially when I say I have never sung Karaoke before. Sometimes we have a band on board, he says, since many play instruments.

Soon enough our conversation turns to work on board and, of course, home. He had gone to sea out of tradition and for the money, for the pay is much better than at home. But he comes from an island in the north of the Philippines, where people still manage largely on their own, something he much prefers – fishing villages, vegetables and animals, no big cities at all. His girlfriend too is from there. But I ask about contracts and work, especially in light of the many captains and officers who cannot get work during the ongoing Great Recession.

‘We are paid less than them’, he says simply, ‘but it is big money at home, so we don’t mind. We have work’.

‘What do you do with the money?’ I ask.

‘According to the contract’, he says, ‘80% has to go home, although what you do with it after that is your own business’.

‘Like the many other Filipinos working overseas …’ I say. ‘But do you like working as a mate?’

‘I’m not bored!’ He assures me, for it is hard work. “But I do find myself caught between company and crew, each making demands one way or the other’.

Yet in all these conversations, a simple comment from the second mate stays with me. We are talking about pirates and their extent – from Port Said and the Suez to Indonesia and the South China Sea, from Madagascar to the West African coast. And then he says: ‘83 Filipino sailors are being held on ships right now by the Somali pirates, and have been for some for months. If it is a French or American captain and crew (as on a recent Maersk ship), they rescue them immediately’.

Land: Signs, Ports and Pilots

Talk and thoughts may constantly turn to our preferred firmament, especially that section of it called home, but the signs of land are a sailor’s delight. Eagerly anticipated, warily assessed (reefs and rocks and so forth), the signs of land are inescapably part of being at sea.

Signs

And the most telltale signs are the birds; not the seabirds which spend years in the deep ocean, not the land birds who crap themselves at the smell of a sea-breeze, but the coastal dwellers who don’t mind heading out to sea for a day or two. So the cormorants arrive. I make my way to a quiet bow to make closer acquaintance. About fifteen pairs of webbed feet cling onto the white steel of the foremast, wings out to be cleaned, bums dropping massive blobs of white and black shit. A dozen or so today join their four friends, who had been with us since yesterday. But as we draw nearer to land, they are off to find another ship further out to sea where it would conveniently disturb the flying fish so they could snap up one or two.

And the birds do their trick, for as I am out perusing them and avoiding their shits, I sight land for the first time in over two weeks: this time the mist-covered and mountainous coast of Panama. While thinking of Spanish invaders first viewing the Pacific, indigenous people responding, the accident-prone first efforts to build the canal, I realise once again that this gentle approach to a new land, which suddenly emerges from beneath the mist, is – paradoxically – both a privilege restricted now to a few and the way most people have done it for centuries, if not millennia.

Ports

Ports, ports, ports: the meeting point, for a ship of our size, between two elements, water and land. Half a dozen ports for our voyage half-way around the world: Napier, Tauranga, Manzanillo, Kingston, Savannah, Philadelphia, and then at last Tilbury. They involve tight schedules, mad rushes to unload and load containers, chronic lack of sleep, quick visits to town for all manner of necessities (food, gadgets, sex, internet, telephone calls), and of course the age-old excitement of a port town.

Napier might represent the myth of merrie olde England to its myriad English immigrants, Manzanillo might be far too dangerous to visit at night, shore leave at Kingston might be forbidden due to a very brief stop, and Savannah and Philadelphia might manifest that increasingly strange American phenomenon: internal heritage tourism that reinforces their extraordinarily insular view of the world. But two moments in port stand out for me: the Panama Canal and the port of Philadelphia.

The Panama Canal: legendary, anticipated, thoroughly engrossing and tiring. We are booked in as soon as we arrive – at 1.30am. So, short of sleep, we stagger onto the bridge to watch the passage: by Panama City, into the Pacific entrance and the Monteflores locks; tight fit, up one, two, three locks and into the dammed up channel (almost a lake in parts) that is fed by fresh water streams. We arrive early at the Atlantic end, so after lying at anchor for four hours, we enter the three locks to drop to sea level once again.

Of what do you think when passing the canal for the first time? I ponder the stories of its construction, already told to me at primary school, especially about the mosquitoes and yellow fever that killed so many of the French workers on the first effort. They had arrived here after a triumphant construction of the modern Suez Canal, only to come to grief with disease, landslides (due to an effort to cut a sea-level canal) and bankruptcy. Only then did the Yankees put together a consortium, construct it in the 1910s and 1920s and promptly arrange for as lengthy a lease as possible – so much so that Panama did not get control of the thing until a few years ago. The Yankee concern about losing control to those lazy Panamanians has become an embarrassment, for the new owners have done more development and upgrading than the Yankees ever did.

Of course, the canal and its myriad derivative industries probably provide the primary source of employment in Panama. With a fee of half a million dollars for each passage, it functions much like the Danish ‘sound tax’ on the Øresund, or the similar Dutch tax for passage through Amsterdam. Thousands of ships pass through month by month, year by year, providing employment in maintenance, renovation, new construction, drivers of the land tugs, and the endless pilots. We have five pilots: two to share the initial passage, one to get us out through the Atlantic locks, another through the breakwater and a fifth to get us into Manzanillo.

More of those pilots in a moment, for the other signal experience at port is Philadelphia, after the eight-hour run up the Delaware River. It is pushing midnight and I cannot sleep. By the port window are too many lights, too much excitement for the little boy within. So I kneel on my bed and look out the porthole, which has a view directly over the container deck. I watch the last container loader scurrying to get the job done, for he is late. The massive machine moves smoothly back and forth, pulling out container after container and then slipping in their replacements. Fifty meters above ground, with a glass floor to see what he is doing, the driver deftly lines up the massive container latch, dangling on the end of cables that can easily tangle, clamps it shut over a container and hauls it out or in. If out, it is gently lowered onto a waiting truck – those curious semi-trailers used only in ports – while men scurry about beneath (with a death-defying confidence beneath those 40 tonne containers); if in, he picks one up from the truck and lowers it into the grooves designed for it on the ship. First containers go deep into the ship, out of sight for me; later the final layers are laid. Midway, the massive metal separating plate – the deck, really – is raised and dropped carefully into place. The containers below are now sealed, the ones above still to come. As the containers swung out and in, I notice figures on the deck, wharfies and seamen, ducking out of the way when a 40 tonne container comes in, jumping out as soon as it settles into place to secure it with the braces and connect the cords – if a reefer. Mesmerising stuff.

Almost before the last container is in place and before the ship’s crane is swung back and nestled back into its nest (the seaman has been waiting in the cockpit, cigarette glowing), the engines rumble and I am on the bridge. Half an hour it takes for a 200 metre ship to manage a turn in a river that seems 201 metres wide. Tugs puffing and churning, bow-thruster pushing, rudder hard to port, engine astern, walkie talkies crackling, pilot and captain hanging out over the fly bridge. Bow down the river and the tugs are gone, along with the harbour pilot. Now it is the quiet river pilot and the eight-hour run back to the ocean.

Pilots and Cigarettes

Pilots: possibly one of the most fascinating features of a voyage like this and often the main human contact between sea and land. Personality types may have something to do with differences between taciturn and the garrulous, the sourpusses and the charmers, the obnoxiously rude and the gratefully polite. But each port also has its own pilot cultures. English pilots are overly officious, uniformed and officious. Australians and kiwis tend to be quiet and focused, sipping a coffee, uttering commands quietly and often saying a calm thankyou when the reply comes. They seem to prefer compass points – 231 or 067 or … – rather than the more usual ‘port 10’, ‘starboard 20’, ‘midships’ and so on. The Panamanians are something else, all of them – and there are many – given to pilot versions of machismo. Disdain for the crew, ignoring passengers, barely acknowledging the captain’s authority, never saying a thankyou for a command carried out and gold chains on hairy chests. By contrast, Jamaicans simply charm the pants off you (there is but one woman present): smiles, jokes, stories, laughter, a constant chatter that made you feel like you are sitting at a pub with the best of friends. All the while, the commands are passed on in between the long narratives, calmly and in plenty of control. Only when the ship has to dock in a tight corner does he stop for a few moments, although now chattering into the walkie-talkie. As for the Americans on the east coast, they are garrulous and friendly to a superficial fault and usually full of crap – at least whenever they open their mouths, which is almost all the time.

But what does the pilot do? Vital for the very functioning of the world’s shipping networks, pilots specialise in access to ports for large ships. They may be canal pilots, guiding ships through the Panama or Suez, river pilots for long hauls up navigable rivers such as the Savannah or Delaware, or harbour pilots, specialising in the intricate knowledge required to escort ships in and out of the world’s harbours. In each case, they require intimate and specialist knowledge – of shoals, rocks, sandbanks, currents, tides, quirks and tricks – in order to navigate those massive ships in the tightest of spaces.

Even though I have encountered pilots often enough to be familiar with their roles, they never cease to amaze me. Some use computer mapping, GPS and whatever the latest gizmos might be, while some rely purely on years of experience, along with sight and sound. But they carry out their tasks with uncanny precision. Let me give three very different examples, one from Australia as we depart Melbourne, another in Jamaica and the third in the run up to Savannah.

In Melbourne, the pilot guides the ship out of the tight heads on a dark and stormy night, after the long, four-hour passage through Port Philip Bay. The echoed calls on the bridge are enough to thrill any lover of the sea: port 10, port 10; midships, midships; 222, 222 …. But the most astonishing of all is, when out past the heads and in a heavy swell, he goes down to the side more protected from the swell, climbs down the side of the massive container ship on a swaying rope ladder and leaps – in the dark – onto a tiny orange pilot boat bobbing in the waves. As he speeds off to join another ship, now heading into port, we turn to New Zealand and are off.

The second moment comes from Kingston, Jamaica, where a tense and furious situation is overcome by the sheer force of personality on behalf of the pilot. We arrive early, are told to wait for a berth in port, then told to ‘go, go’, and then, when we are at full steam, to wait once again. The captain is absolutely furious and gives the ship the equivalent of an ocean burnout: 40,000 tonnes hard to port at full steam. A foul mood ensues on the bridge, until the calypso pilot comes on board and eases the mood within minutes. A smile, a joke, a declaration that the harbourmaster is responsible for the stuff-up and therefore an idiot – he has the captain laughing in no time.

And then Savannah, with its quite river pilot and garrulous harbour pilot: here the pilots are willing to talk with me rather than the captain and mate on duty, although I suspect they are immediately drawn to me since I am the only ‘native’ English speaker on the ship. In the dog-watch hours the river pilot boards, preparing to guide the ship for about four hours up the Savannah River to the city of the same name. Intrigued with long-distance travellers when his job keps him to the end of the voyage, we talks of the sea and home, of destinations and plans – as one does at sea, I suppose.

As river pilot, his task is to protect the river itself, ensuring that the ship does not do anything too outrageous. Not so the ageing harbour pilot, who comes on with the tug and guides the ship into its berth. In about fifteen minutes I have his life story, his politics, and his view of the world. He has done it all – tug captain, salvage captain, NY pilot, for 40 years – and takes no shit, whether that is homeland security (‘what do you think, that I’m a terrorist?’), or the feeling that Japanese ‘fishing boats’ have far too much surveillance equipment upon them, or that container screening is pointless, since if you actually get caught smuggling you are really, really stupid.

But I also learn that American pilots occasionally accept cartons of cigarettes as ‘gifts’. Australians and Kiwis do not accept them – or rather, they are never offered – whereas everyone else seems more than happy for a carton or two. Never a word is said, the pilot expresses feigned surprise and gratefulness when the carton appears, even though he has perhaps placed a cigarette packet in an obvious place to to indicate a preferred brand – a ritual of practised exchange.

Intrigued, I later ask the captain about the cigarettes.

‘If their opinion is important’, he says, ‘it makes things easier. The inspector at Panama, who checks the worthiness of the ship before entering the canal, is vital. Without his OK, the pilots won’t board and we won’t proceed. That’s why he gets two cartons. The others, if they have been helpful, one each’.

‘What about New Zealand?’ I say. ‘No smokes there’.

‘No’, says the captain. ‘They tell me they could take them, but it would create far too many problems with customs if caught. Actually, I prefer the Jamaicans and Panamanians. It is easier to get things done; no masses of paperwork; no small-minded officials who will find something if they look hard enough. You know, in Australia or the USA, a blinkered petty bureaucrat will look over all the paperwork in minute detail, looking for a slip. Waste of time’.

But after I notice a carton slipped to one American pilot, the captain simply observes, ‘It is the way it has always been done, a way to build relationships’.

Economics: Sailors, Ships and Profits

It may have been a waterborne village in motion, surrounded by the dominant element on this water planet, and those on board may have enjoyed the simple solitude while bending their thoughts homeward, but the main reason the ship plies these routes is economic. Beneath the patriotic French-flag-waving and chest-beating claims to being the third largest shipping company in the world, CMA-CGM is in the business of making a profit. And they do so by generating surplus value – trying not to pay the workers what they are worth and charging more than they should for the goods shipped. In short, cost-cutting here; over-pricing there. This economic reality influences every moment of one’s day on a container ship.

Everyday Life

So let us begin with the seemingly small moments of everyday life and then work our way to the big picture. Initially, the major events of the world seem very distant from our day-to-day reality, appearing only as printouts on the back of used paper from the captain – the World Cup, Tour de France, Gulf of Mexico oil spill … More interesting and important for our daily lives is the new menu at breakfast. The first meal of the day may be largely the same (four different versions of egg on toast; four types of ‘breakfast meat’, should you want them; some more toast), but after that everyone reads the menu for lunch and dinner with great interest.

Why the great interest? Are we starved for news, seizing on the smallest piece of information like hungry lions? Not at all, for precisely with the food does capitalism on the high seas influence our lives. From the deckhand to the captain, all talk of the dropping food budget – from USD $12 to $9 to $7.25 per person per day – and the consequent pressures on the cooks and what can and cannot be requisitioned. Even more, the company has decided that the second cook is to go in Rotterdam, leaving them with but one cook.

As these complaints roll on, I find a shopping list for 23 sailors and passengers, from the back of a news print-out:

Bonded stores:

Beer                                                         8 Cases

Cigarettes                                79 CTN      15800 Stick

Whisky:

Johnny Walkers Red, 700 ml,     4 Btl           2.80 Litres

Johnny Walkers Red, 1 Ltr        7 Btl           7.00 Litres

Liquor:

Bacardi Rum, white, 1L            2 Btl           2.00 Litres

Ricard Aperatif, 1L                  7 Btl           7.00 Litres

Wine:

Sparkling wine Seaviw Brut (75cl) 9 Btl                  6.75 Litres

Assorted red/white wine (75cl)   65 Btl          48.75 Litres

Cask wine red/white, $L & 5L each 17 Cask  76.00 Litres

Engine:

Fuel oil                                                     196 MT

Diesel oil                                                  146.0 MT

Lube oil                                                    51,560.0 Litres

Fresh water                                               500.0 MT

General:

Detergent & soap                                       40 kgs

Grease                                                     550 kgs

Paint                                                        1,815 Ltrs

Thinner                                                    274 Ltrs

Kerosene and solvent                                 nil

Steward:

Cereal & pasta                                           35.0 Kgs

Coffee ground & instant                             5.8 Kgs

Tea (in bag @ 2 gr.)                                   8.0 Box

Sugar                                                       21.0 Kgs

Salt                                                          8.0 Kgs

Fresh meat                                                511.0 Kgs

Fresh fish                                                 155.0 Kgs

All canned food                                         310.0 Kgs

Eggs                                                         900.0 Pcs

Fruit, fish                                                  53.0 Kgs

Vegetable, fresh                                         114.0 Kgs

Butter                                                      8.0 Kgs

Margarine                                                 nil

Cheese                                                     33.0 Kgs

Milk                                                         96.0 Ltrs

Bread                                                       30.0 Lvs

Flour                                                        75.0 Kgs

Spices                                                       5.0 Kgs

An extraordinary insight into what makes a ship tick. Yet, while the dwindling amount of food is the major focus, everywhere one looks, miniscule cost-cutting is in place – all ‘justified’ by the ongoing economic crisis that began in 2008. For example, the first mate feels that he is caught between the crew and the company, with the latter making demands for stringency and the crew complaining. He knows full well that as a Filipino chief officer, he earns far less than someone from, say Europe or the USA, but it is still big money at home and he has more work than he can take on. The chief engineer (from Rijeka) finds it ridiculous that he should be questioned about every request for spare parts and maintenance. ‘We used to have four engineers’, he says, ‘but they want to cut us down to two’. The catch is that then they have to pay for extra personnel while in port for maintenance work. The captain talks of the communications equipment, which was replaced recently with a much cheaper version, which also happens to be far less effective. Now he can wait for up to two hours for a satellite connection in order to carry on the necessary business of a container ship.

Marx’s old point is still perfectly valid: in order to increase profits and market share, companies seek to cut costs in terms of personnel and equipment, shaving wherever possible, flogging people to work harder for less. Of course, the excuse for such cuts is hard economic times, a recession, the worst downturn since the Great Depression. But do they increase expenditure again when business improves?

Sailors (Workers)

The brunt of these perpetual efforts to squeeze out extra surplus falls on the sailors themselves. Seeing them at work, calling the deck of the ship their home for nine months at a time, you soon realise that it is hard, physical labour. Part of the international working class, they toil with heavy machinery, with all its dangers and concerns with safety, much like train drivers and truck drivers, miners and farmers. And it is their labour that keeps capitalism running. Obvious enough, but their work is usually (and conveniently) hidden on passenger vessels; here you simply can’t miss it.

The crew is Filipino, a common enough feature of international freighter shipping. They may be Korean, or Kiribati, or Chinese, but the reason is the same: they are a cheap labour source that keeps costs down. Or rather, they enable a greater profit margin for the companies who employ them and ship all that crap around the world. The perversity of the situation is that at this time and place, the current arrangements suit this Filipino crew. How? Again and again, I ask them – able seamen, bosun, steward, cook, perhaps a third or first mate – why they went to sea. Some say it is tradition, but all say it is money. Even at their reduced wages, it is more than they could earn at home. Better still, as Lindo the steward tells me, they are paid in US dollars – worth even more at home.

Inevitably, they send money home to support families, as do the ‘maids’ and cleaners who work in hotels in Copenhagen, wealthy homes in Hong Kong … wherever Filipino maids are wanted. It is a whole economy that relies on a large slab of its able workforce going overseas to send money home. Although it counts as a rational response in a deeply irrational situation, attempting to extract a morsel or two from a feast that is largely denied them, in the end it suits the owners of capital far more than underpaid Filipino workers.

But are they competent? Jim Stanaway, a captain on the Hansa Flensburg in 2008, once opined: pay peanuts and you get monkeys. And the news reports of shipwrecks (such as the Pasha Bulker in Newcastle in 2007) will always make the point that the crew is Filipino, or Korean or what have you. The implication: incompetence is a national trait. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth, since I encounter capable, hard-working seaman, welding, painting, greasing, operating a neat and tidy ship. Ideal if you are a shipping company: they work hard and competently and accept far lower pay packets.

Perhaps crews like this one may have the last laugh. With their quantitative increase in skills, crews and officers may eventually lead to qualitative change: Filipino, Kiribati, or even Montenegrin or Russian, may well bring about a quiet mutiny at the heart of capitalist trade. One can only hope so.

Officers

What about the officers whom these mutineers would overthrow? Do they share the perspective of the crew? Or are they a distinct on-board ruling class? The answer is yes to both questions. On board the ship itself, they do seem to function like a ruling class. Often the shipping companies attempt to reinforce the difference by clearly demarcating the in-board ruling class from the crew by ensuring the officers are from a different linguistic, ethnic and national background. But once we move beyond the confines of the ship, the officers too are subject to the real owners of capital. For example, like the crew, the officers fudge their hours when in port (10 hours is mandated for rest); everyone knows it happens, the authorities keep checking paperwork to pretend it doesn’t. On the Japan (Tokyo, Yokohama), Korea (Pusan), China (Shanghai, Tianjin, Shenzhen, Fuzhou, Hong Kong etc) run, it is perhaps two hours between ports, so in a week you may get one or two hours sleep a night. Then accidents happen. However, at other times the shipping company blurs the difference between officers and crew, training some crew to become officers. While this might be an old policy to divide and conquer the working class, it is also due to a shortage of officers worldwide – in the vicinity of 1500. So pressure is on to reduce the requirements to become an officer. And also to reduce the pay – hence the Filipino officers. Less and less common will be the degrees from maritime universities such as the one on Kotor, with its four-year degrees and strict requirements for experience.

Ship

Ultimately, both crew and officers serve the ship and its contents. Or rather, while they serve the company and generate its profits, the way they do so is to focus all their energies on the ship and its ‘vital’ contents. The ship itself is a product of the Chinese shipyards, about ten years old. A cheap Chinese ship? In some quarters it is fashionable to think so. But as the chief engineer points out, the Chinese know perfectly well how to build prohibitively expensive state-of-the-art ships; it all depends on how much the client is willing to spend and in most cases those buyers want cheaper ships. Why? Firstly, for the buyer an expensive ship that will last thirty years or more is no good, since by the time you have paid it off it will be hopelessly obsolete. So you order a cheaper one without all the fancy gear, which will be paid off in a few years and can then turn a handsome profit for a few more before it is sold – at the moment when problems begin showing up. Secondly, for the manufacturer a ship of lesser quality has a built-in obsolescence, since it will need to be replaced sooner. As with washing machines and computers and mobile phones, so also with ships.

After all, as a buyer you need to reserve funds to run the thing and buy fuel. Halfway between diesel and oil, that fuel is so thick it needs to be warmed in colder climes before it can be used. And given the volumes, they speak not of litres but of tonnes. At about the 80 revs a minute needed to sustain a speedier vessel like this one at 20 knots, the engine burns about 100 tonnes a day. A quick calculation: with about three days’ stoppage for six ports in a 37 day voyage, that is 3400 tonnes for our voyage. All of which does not include diesel for the four generators and fuel oil heater. It takes little imagination to see that with Peak Oil, the shipping industry is severely fucked unless it finds an alternative mode of propulsion – the only viable option left is sail.

Nonetheless, the ship’s purpose is to carry cargo. So while we are engaged in calculations, let me offer a few more. The maximum load for this ship is 28,000 tonnes, made up of no more than 1100 containers, some full, some empty. According to Marisec (http://www.marisec.org/shippingfacts/worldtrade/number-of-ships.php), as of October 2010, the world has about 44,000 ships that carry freight (and 6600 passenger ships). Given that this is a medium-sized ship, we can multiply the amount this ship carries with the number of ships and come up with a reasonable idea of the amount of material goods shipped around the world with each voyage: 1,232,000,000 tonnes. Mind you, that is not per year, but per voyage.

If we want to find a rough calculation of how much freight is moved per year, we may take the number of containers in the world (which ship 90% of all cargo), take their average capacity at 27,500 kg (not including the 4000 kg of the container itself) and multiply by the number of trips made each year for each container. These figures come from 2005.

Number of containers:     18,000,000

Average capacity:            27,500 kg

Subtotal:                        495, 000,000 tonnes

Number of trips per year: 200,000,000

Total:                                     99,000,000,000,000,000 tonnes per year

Increase to 100% (from 90%):  110,000,000,000,000,000 tonnes per year.

As the engineer says: people shift a lot of crap.

All of these thoughts – whiling away the time on a long voyage – lead me to another point that first struck me in the middle of the Pacific: what of the much-vaunted volatilisation of the market? This is supposedly the generation of wealth out of speculation on finances and the money markets, the removal of any material base in the old sense for the generation of surplus value (which winds up being profit most of the time). One has only to travel on a medium-sized freighter like this one, or perhaps a tanker, in order to see the hard, physical reality of the stuff unloaded and loaded at each port, the sheer volume that this one ship can hold. Multiply by hundreds and thousands of ships like this, as well as the oil tankers and gas tankers and coal bunkers and, plying the world’s trade routes … they are as concrete as ever and those who work on them and for them are as exploited as ever.

End of the voyage

Standing on a bridge and silently watching an Atlantic dawn over the port bow I realise two things: this is an experience impossible to express and it is to be one of the last mornings at sea, for the voyage is drawing to a close. The last part of a journey always has the mixed pleasure of endings and beginnings, the knowledge that what you have is passing and the anticipation of what is to come. That sensation is much slower on a ship, for it builds up over the last few days.

One way to deal with that imminent end is to list the achievements of the voyage:

We have crossed two oceans and four seas.

My partner lost 15 cm from her waist through rigorous exercise.

Roland gained 15 cm on his chest and about 30cm on his shoulders from the weight machine.

My partner read 22 novels.

My partner read a 600 page commentary on the book of Acts by none other than the riveting Dick Pervo.

Roland learnt how to tie 18 different types of knots.

We ate 106 meals at the officers’ mess and four on land.

Our table tennis game has become very mean and sharp.

My partner elicited winks from the captain.

… was told by the third engineer it was just as well she hadn’t had children, since they would have ruined her beeeyuuuuutifullll body.

… was smoothly told upon disembarking by the first oiler that he would meet her in his dreams.

On Day 38 we pass from the English Channel to the Thames estuary, eventually taking on the harbour pilot for Tilbury. However, even in the channel the crowds are evident. For the English Channel is like a ship highway – massive container ships, tankers, ferries, sailing boats, para-surfers, wind-surfers, swimmers and dog-paddlers. Already I feel a resistance to the crowds – of people and tasks – and a longing for the solitary stretches of the Pacific. I wonder what it would be like to be on land again in the midst of myriad people in summer frenzy, desperately trying to get home, crowding into trains. I feel a strange disconnect with the world of the land and its ways. Above all, I feel like a traveller from strange and distant lands, much more ancient than here, lands to which I long to return.

Returning to St Alban’s

Would this be my last time here?

This question played on my mind as we drove through the dark of a late night to a place that has drawn me for many a long year. Three or four former lives came back to me, reminding me that things change, don’t they?

I speak of St Albans, at the edge of the Yengo Wilderness, between Sydney and Newcastle. Its core is the Settlers Arms – an inn originally built in 1836 for travellers on the Great North Road to Newcastle. I am still such a traveller, seeking out the road yet again to stop for a while in a place that has had a curious pull on me.

A river valley, rugged and densely bushed mountains, a village of a dozen houses, a common and free camping area by the river, a sandstone inn built in a style long ago abandoned in light of Australian conditions …

Such a list does not capture the pull the place had had on me, the beckoning curve of a path that opens out to an ancient spreading tree or two, which invite you to sit and reflect, or the community of locals in for a drink and a smoke after the tourists have gone, or the smallest bar in the world, a window really, where one person at a time can order a drink, or the mists of the morning, when the towering cone-shaped crown of the rare Deane’s Gum is lost in the fog while the birds noisily shake off the drops of the morning, or the memories of a lifetime the place invokes, or the wilderness all about that draws me in, the chance to sense a way of being that is slower and quieter, along ancient Aboriginal paths. …

On this late evening, we – my partner and I – had arrived after a harrowing summer. St Albans, at the Settlers Arms, was a respite, a place where there is no phone coverage, where we could be free from the world and its demands (our preferred mode of being).

Much may have changed in my life to this point, but St Albans seemed to have remained the same. In its very continuity, it has been able to map the phases of that life.

The quietness of the place initially had much greater appeal during times of turmoil and frenetic demands. I recall stumbling across it in the early 1990s, a detour taken along a dirt road while exploring wilderness camping with young children. Through that decade I had a dreadful job, the children grew and a relationship broke down. At first we would all go, camping up the road at a quiet spot (Mogo), just by the Great North Road – the slave road from the 1830s, built by convicts. My parents seized the opportunity to come along, my father still fit enough to camp, growing close to my children over those years. But as the two boys became teenagers, they preferred to do other things, and as their mother increasingly preferred not to camp, I took the two girls, still with my parents coming along. Once, in 1998 I think, we stopped at St Albans on the way through to the camping spot and my youngest ate the ‘best mashed potato’ she had ever had. Mention St Albans today and she will say the same thing.

St Albans was the point where many different paths collided at the end of the decade. We tried to repair a relationship with a romantic weekend at the Settlers Arms in those last years, hoping to do it yearly, but it happened only once. I met another woman there later, who would bring a glimmer of hope and then much turmoil and pain.

And I indulged in my preferred mode of travel to get there too – a bicycle. At times with one or two companions, we would pedal the 100 km or so to get there from western Sydney, drink, eat up and then pedal home. On the last event of that life, in the first year of the new millennium, it was just me and a close friend, following the river on a different route. At the time it seemed like a farewell of sorts. We camped by the river out the front of the pub, drank many dark ales, I smoked a few cigars (for I had taken up smoking in the mess of my life) and we talked late into the night.

But after a few years – the ‘lost years’ – I returned, first in tragic circumstances and then to feel the old pull.

On a fateful winter’s night in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, my second son almost died in a house fire as I camped out the front of the Settlers Arms during a long-anticipated ride along the Great North Road. My world felt out of kilter that night and I was spooked by the place for a little while – but that occult sense draws one in as well.

Yet a couple of years later I would return with a woman whom I wished I had met in my youth, a woman from across the seas and halfway around the world. She at first fell in love with the place, relished the beer under the ancient tree, the sandstone inn, the low, smoke-stained ceilings, the long deep rest in a warm bed. We would return again, I on my bicycle to the camping spot and we with her parents to stay at the inn in the last year of that decade.

Some years passed without a visit, as my life – with the only one who really had become my soul-mate – took on many new dimensions.

But one Saturday during winter, my second son phoned me to say – in his characteristic nonchalant way – that he was getting married. This was the son who had entered his terrible twos and left them at about 25. At last, he had met a down-to-earth woman who knew when he was trying to charm. They grew closer together, but surprised everyone with the announcement.

And they wanted to get married in St Albans. Or rather, they wished to do so in the old ruins of St Joseph’s church, a few kilometres out of the village. I had ridden past the ruins many times, noting the broken-down walls, vegetation growing as it will and the missing roof. Of late, someone had stabilised the ruins, cleared the vegetation and added a roof that highlighted the ruins. The church was converted into a function centre, with kitchen facilities, seating and accommodation upstairs. My son and his fiancée had asked me to officiate at the wedding, recalling a life of many years ago when I undertook such tasks.

So I returned to St Albans, still with my soul-mate from across the seas. As we wound our way along the dark road, I became – momentarily – acutely aware of the years that had passed. Memories came flooding back. Many lives collided with one another. The wedding itself would happen soon enough, with its expectations and duties – which I would perform with deep appreciation. Given our complex history, my son and I had drawn very close and the feeling ran very deep.

Yet St Albans had truly remained the same. In the past, it beckoned to deeper continuities, to passions deeply held and commitments one is reluctant to relinquish. As we talked late into the night, sharing in a way that is rarely possible with another human being, we realised how much we had changed, how much we had seen of the world, how other places beckoned and how our commitments had changed.

Perhaps we will return to this place, but more likely not.

Shandong Village

‘I grew up in a small village’, she said.

An open face and a tentative lip, a direct manner and a shy blush, but above all a question mark in her eyes: why had I come? Why was I so full of questions? What is a ‘foreign’ friend really like?

But I was interested in something far different: her life growing up in a small village in Shandong Province. I had been to other villages in China, up in the mountains or out west, but I had not visited this one. The image relied purely on her words.

‘Where?’ I said.

‘Near the big lake in Shandong province’, she said. ‘Zhaoyang Lake’.

‘The one on the border with Jiangsu province?’ I said.

‘Yes, that’s the one’, she said. ‘We lived on the north side’.

‘How many people are in your village?’ I said.

‘Oh, maybe a couple of hundred,’ she said.

‘Do you come from a big family?’ I asked.

‘I am the youngest of five children’, she said.

‘Five …!’ I paused. ‘That’s not what I am used to seeing in China’.

‘Obviously, I was born before the one-child policy came into effect’, she said. ‘I am the baby of the family, born when my mother was already forty’.

‘A big family!’ I said.

‘Many nieces and nephews’, she laughed. ‘When we all get together for spring festival, my parents’ house is very full and very noisy (renao)’.

‘Does any one of your brothers or sisters still live in the village’, I said.

‘One brother and his family’, she said. ‘They help with my parents – who are in the eighties now’.

‘What do they do for a job?’ I said.

‘They are farmers’, she said. ‘But the way they farm has changed much, with technology, computers – you know, all the modern stuff’.

‘But tell me what it was like to grow up in a Chinese village in Shandong?’ I said.

‘I was born in 1970’, she said. ‘I remember we had to go to a well in the middle of the village to get water and everyone worked on the land’.

‘A well?’ I said.

‘We used it for drinking water (after boiling) and washing water’, she said.

‘Does your village still have a well?’ I asked.

‘Yes, of course’, she said. ‘But each house now has running water. At first – I remember the moment when I was a teenager – we had hand held pumps in the house. Pull up and down and the water would come out. Taps and basins came later’.

‘What about the well?’ I said.

‘Oh, we believe the water is very fresh’, she said. ‘But we must make sure we drink it all if we take some’.

‘Why?’

‘The local dragon will get angry if we waste it’, she laughed.

‘What did your father do?’ I asked.

‘He was a teacher in the village school’, she said.

‘Did he teach you too?’ I said.

‘Of course’, she said. ‘He taught my brothers and sister, as well as my cousins. He was the only teacher’.

‘What did you learn?’ I said.

‘Many people think it was still a traditional time, before the reform and opening up’, she said. ‘But it was already after the revolution of 1949, so we learnt about the Long March, Chairman Mao, along with reading and writing’.

‘At a young age?’ I said.

She laughed. ‘Yes, our textbooks for reading and writing told the stories of the revolutionary struggle’.

‘And Confucian teaching?’ I said.

‘That was more at home’, she said. ‘It is Shandong Province, after all, where Confucius was born. We are very serious about his teachings’.

‘But why at home?’ I asked.

‘Well, you know …’, she said. ‘During the Cultural Revolution, Confucius’s thought was not so popular. It was seen as part of the old, traditional China that had to be overcome. So we learnt it only at home’.

‘Since then, a new form of Confucianism has flowered, hasn’t it?’ I said.

‘Yes indeed’, she said. ‘But it is a bit different, since it works together with Marxism, or rather, socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

‘What did your family experience during that time?’ I said.

‘Since my father was a teacher, he was seen as one of the intellectuals’, she said. ‘Part of the old tradition in China, held up by the intellectuals. So he was not able to teach’.

‘What did your family do?’ I asked.

‘We farmed like everyone else’, she said. ‘But we were very poor … again, like everyone else. And I remember as a child eating endless baozi, steamed buns made out of wheat’.

‘Not rice?’ I said.

‘No’, she said. ‘Shandong is towards the north and is famous for its wheat’.

‘What about today?’ I said.

‘It is both the same and very different’, she said.

‘How so?’ I said.

‘The village is still very traditional in its outlook’, she said. ‘I am a traditional woman. It is very important to me. But much has changed. Farming has been modernised; the school system has been reformed a few times; my old home now has running water, electricity, internet …’.

‘And you now work in a modern Chinese city’, I said. ‘What is it like to visit your village again?’

‘We all return for spring festival’, she said. ‘At least those of us who do not live in the village’.

‘And your parents?’ I said.

‘They are very close now’, she said. ‘In their eighties’.

‘Why do you say “now”?’ I asked.

‘Well, it was an arranged marriage’, she said. ‘My mother is one of the last of her generation to have small feet. She came from a big peasant family and the marriage was arranged by her family and my father’s’.

‘Really?’ I said.

‘Yes, and they did not really like each other for a long time,’ she said.

‘While all five of you were born’, I said.

‘Yes’, she said. ‘I remember they argued all the time. But then, some time in their sixties, they fell in love with each other. And it has been that way ever since!’

The Selfie Tour

The familiar and the strange – they came together sharply on a bicycle ride into the remote mountains hereabouts. The familiar: a bicycle, tent, food to cook on a fire, warm clothes for a chill winter night. The strange: a smartphone, bought in China, full of a language I am learning. Above all, it had the inevitable feature of the selfie camera – something I had never experienced before.

Having been away from home for some months, I longed to refresh myself in the mountains. Familiar haunts beckoned, where I knew I could camp freely, light a fire and have the bush to myself. I would ride into the Watagan Mountains and then Yengo Wilderness, before descending to the coast on the third day. All too brief, but three days would be enough. After all, the direct route was one and a half hours by train.

On the first day, I was seeking a resting place I had found by happenstance many years ago. At that time, I had been exploring, looking for a space away from the breath of other human beings. As the light faded, I had turned up a dirt road, hoping for the best. It appeared as if made for me, in a corner of the bush with a magnificent view north-westward over the valley I call home.

Now I arrived, only to find that camping was no longer permitted in this spot. The arrow pointed to another place, without water and without toilets (and thus with much old toilet paper in the surrounding bush). But it did have one or two other campers, as well as a young man sitting by a fire next to an old caravan. He waved as I rode in, so I came over to say hello.

Less an intrepid mountain-biker using some makeshift accommodation on a cold night, he was at a loose end. He was squatting in the abandoned caravan, albeit with the claim that he had asked a friend to tow it up there. As he threw pieces of old foam rubber on a fire and lit another cigarette, he asked, ‘Pudding?’ I assumed he meant desert, but I declined and retreated to my tent, not quite taken with the unfamiliarity of the spot. I knew from then I would return only of necessity.

The next morning, I breakfasted at my old spot, lingering in saying farewell. By the time I was on the bike, I knew I would need to keep moving, for on winter days the sun is reluctant to hang around too long. Along familiar back roads I pedalled, through Ellalong, Wollombi, and Bucketty, until I turned onto the dirt track of the old Great North Road. On this day, I knew every curve, every rise and every drop.

As an old mood was upon me, the unfamiliarity of the smart phone began to assert itself. It provided nothing more than a glorified version of the Brownie Box Camera of half a century ago, yet it enabled me to see what I knew so well in a new way. The question became: how to take a selfie that was not self-indulgent? An oxymoron perhaps, but I recalled the old photographer’s advice that an ugly portrait is easy to make. Unwashed, unshaven, sweaty and wearing a brightly coloured bicycle helmet, it seemed that the task would be even easier.

I began to experiment. A late splash of sunlight through the trees; long shadows on the dirt track; angles from above and below; a look at or away from the camera; flick the camera direction and take a conventional shot; flick back and take another selfie. Less a proof I had been there, or even a set of poses for an Instagram account (God forbid), I realised that for decades I had been behind the camera taking shots of others. Rarely was I to be found in a photograph. Now it felt like my opportunity to catch up.

With no-one to share the photographs with, I began to enjoy myself. A couple of shots became a score, a score became a hundred. But what would I do with so many photographs? Later that evening, after pitching the tent, lighting a fire and cooking a meal, I perused the shots. The multiplication of the digital age was upon me, in the midst of the wilderness where I had no other electronic device. It was as though the sheer repetition of ones and zeros of digital codes unwittingly influenced the number of shots one took. Keep one’s finger pressed on any part of the screen and the camera reeled off shot after shot after shot. Yet, the solution was disarmingly simple: I deleted the majority and then perused the constantly varying flames of the fire.

Why delete so many? Was it too unfamiliar, so that I sought a way of controlling it? Perhaps. Yet the act itself was part of a larger and quite new strategy of the last year or so: to let go and excise so many parts of daily life. Fewer and fewer were the obligations, expectations, commitments and engagements. Email checking had become a process of deletion without reading them. Deadlines had largely disappeared, and so sleep had become peaceful and long. And I really would not be on a bicycle in the bush, taking three days to travel through the mountains to a destination that took me an hour and half on the train if I had pressing matters to complete or deadlines to meet. So used had I become to the buzz of constant, frenetic activity, that letting it go felt decidedly strange.

That evening I enjoyed a rare glass of wine, a dry white that I had never tasted before. But the strange wine joined a familiar meal when camping: two-minute noodles (or ‘convenient noodles’ as the Chinese call them), a can of red kidney beans and a can of tuna – all of them cooked together in a battered and black billy that doubled up as a bowl. A big feed for a hungry body, restocking for the energy needed in the morning. I also needed it for the night to come, for the weather was uncommonly cold.

On the next and final morning, I lit the fire for warmth, packing and dressing in between moments of warming my frozen fingers. By the time I was winding out along the dirt track from this remote corner, the unfamiliar had become part of me. Yet what seemed familiar had now been estranged.