Samuel Johnson once wrote that ‘being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.’ Having just returned to work after a two week leave and staring down the barrel of a six week stretch at sea I can’t help but sympathize. It should be noted that conditions today are considerably improved from when Johnson wrote those words in the 1700’s and that sailor’s from said era had a life expectancy comparable to that of a dissident journalist in present day Russia, which is to say, dismally short.
And really, six weeks is no time at all. I used to do it regularly but in the last two years I’ve grown accustomed to the 30-day cycle.
As I boarded the ship one of our engineers was disembarking. She had been on board without leave for 68 days.
So a bit of perspective is important.
I liken returning to the city after being on a ship away from the world, to that of a miner emerging from the tunnel’s mouth. Their eyes super-sensitive to the light, they wince as their pupilsadjust. So are my senses overwhelmed for the first few days at home. But,having recently been in the grip of some barnstorming blues I found that this time home my senses never adjusted and instead I walked and skateboarded around town like a raw and open nerve.
What are my blues? How do they ideate? They are the four dour old familiars: Shame, Guilt, Dread and Despair.
It doesn’t help that the city I am most familiar with has changed. It no longer seems like the place I grew up in. It has become the friend you remember fondly but no longer care to socialize with.
Firstly, it is dirty.
‘Toronto was always such a tidy city,’ my father said on a visit here last year when he saw all the litter and the rampant construction and its ensuant detritus everywhere.
There is the shocking condition of the roads and public transport.
The public bins all overflowing or broken or both.
There is an epidemic of homelessness and drug addiction and the ever-present and highly visible sight of people struggling with mental illness.
And I tell myself I must be a better person. I must strive to be a good man but it is hard to muster compassion when down in dumps like mine and confronted with a man on the street raving and screaming at passing women
‘I’M GOING TO RAPE YOUR PUSSY.’
Or when on the subway I saw what I thought was the beatific and smiling face of a sleeping fat man, only to notice that below the waxen tsunami of belly flesh that had breached the hem of his t-shirt and was crashing over his belt line, he had a hand down his pants and was quietly masturbating.
There is a tension in the streets. I see it daily. Palpable anger.
At least I read some crackerjack books when I was home:
Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets-Lucinda Williams – as good a memoir as any super fan of Lucinda’s, as I am, would have expected.
The Wager – David Grann – A fascinating piece of historical journalism and a riveting nautical yarn to boot.
Transit- Rachel Cusk – Brief, beautiful and spare. Literature at its most moving.
Old Babes in the Woods – Margaret Atwood – Short stories. Atwood. ‘Nuff said.
Balladz – Sharon Olds – Pandemic poetry from an American master.
Inside Story – Martin Amis – Autobiographical, meta fact/fiction from the recently dead British stylist. A must for writers or would-be writers or for any lover of literature, esp. fans of Christopher Hitchens, Phillip Larkin, Saul Bellow and Iris Murdoch.
We have just finished a 36-hour load of corn in Hamilton, Ontario. Hamilton stevedores are a special breed. To say they suffer from a collective cognitive deficit is unkind and unPC and not in keeping with these times. It would be more accurate to call it a cognitive dissonance. In a different life I once might have referred to them as ‘mouth breathers’. Combine this with a healthy meth addiction and it makes for some real talent in the workplace. In a 36-hour period, in which they work eight-hour shifts, two people at a time, two of them just stared at their phones, one slept for four hours in a deck chair on deck and another talked an endless stream of drivel while his colleague drew cocks with a gloved finger in the corn dust.
A brief note on corn dust.
It is utterly pervasive, insidious shit. It is now, everywhere on the ship. It coats every surface and the surface of every surfaces’ surface both inside and out. It makes the backs of our eyelids gluey. My skin crawls like I’ve rolled in fibre glass and my lungs are phlegmy.
You will have noticed, reader, that my dispatches have become rare beasts. This is because I feel I’ve played the form out in this context i.e. in the job I currently do and on the platform they’ve been appearing and I don’t want to start repeating myself. I have taken some time to explore what Isaac Babel, the great Ukrainian writer who was executed by another Russian despot, referred to as the ‘genre of silence.’
I have though, been busy in these last months, editing a book of my collected, previous dispatches that has the working title of ‘Big Ships Like Us’ while also working on some other writing projects.
So this is me checking in. Giving you the lay of the land as I see it. Offering you the view from my wheelhouse, where despite the cold and steely embrace of my malaise, the work is steady, the company is good and there is ample food on the table.
I am luckier than most.
To remind myself of this I need only look to Clive James’ Barry Manilow Law which I recently read about in Martin Amis’ aforementioned Inside Story. It states:
“Everyone you know thinks that Barry Manilow is absolutely terrible. But everyone you don’t know thinks he’s great.”
And as Martin Amis cautions, ‘bear in mind that the people you know are astronomically outnumbered by the people you don’t know…’ That’s how privileged and lucky I am.
Earlier I wrote of the short life expectancy of 18thcentury sailors and Russian journalists
-a shout out really must be given to all these brave Russian writers, for being able to “commit suicide” by shooting themselves in the back of the head and or jumping off the top of ten-story buildings, all while having their hands bound behind their back! I mean that takes some fucking Houdini-esque talent-
and in a previous dispatch I wrote of the doomed dogs of film and literature and I should have known better as last night I sat down to watch a film about a teen and a horse before my evening watch. ‘Not what you’d expect…’ wrote a trusted reviewer of Lean on Pete. So I thought it would be safe and I gave it a go. A wonderful movie but a rookie mistake when you’re feeling blue if there ever was one.
Word to the not-so wise,
the horse ALWAYS dies.