I’m an intrinsically sceptical person, the sort of individual who’s the thorn in the side of marketers, focus group organisers or pollsters. Give an advert saying “The best book of the year” and I’ll immediately think ‘bullshit’. Make me read the reviews on the rear of a paperback, and I won’t believe any of them, even if I end up liking the book.
But today I’m taking all my preconceptions, I’m wrapping them into a ball and I’m throwing them into the virtual dustbin that sits under the writing desk in my mind. Yes, because today, on my way home from work, I finished reading Ninety percent of everything and, ladies and gentlemen, this is my best travel book of the year. Yes, even if it’s only April 19th, even if it’s been published in 2013. And, guess what, I even agree with what the anonymous San Francisco Chronicle journo said in his review, obligingly quoted on my paperback (“If there’s a downside to seafaring, it’s that it comes to an end too soon”).
Yes, this is a book about seafaring. No, it isn’t about Ellen MacArthur and her latest solo voyage around the world. It’s by a lady called Rose George and, to quote the subtitle, it’s a book inside shipping, the invisible industry that puts clothes on your back, gas in your car, and food on your plate.
I can see your eyes going blank. Perhaps you’ll be thinking I’ve lost it. My favourite travel book of the year (not something to take lightly, considering we’re barely one third into it) is a dispatch about the merchant navy? I mean, about big ships laden with boxes that get hijacked by Somali pirates, driven by people so uncool that it took 45 years to grant them the status of WWII veterans?
Yes, them. They’re everywhere, and they are the real lintel of our modern economy. Almost everything we import, or export, will end up on ships. Shipping is so ubiquitous, so cheap, that – apparently – it’s less expensive to send Scottish cod to be filleted in China rather than to find a local Scot willing to do the job. Yet, no one seems to be thinking about the vast world of shipping, but for when something bad – shipwrecks, hijackings – happen.
Rose George’s has a relatively simple main plot – a chronicle of her journey as a supernumerary crew aboard Maersk Kendal, a 299.5-meters-long container carrier plying the route from Felixstowe, Britain, to Singapore – but to stop there would be akin to say that the Divine Comedy is about a man that popped one LSD too many and had quite a vision. This is because Rose’s voyage isn’t only done through space and time, but is also a journey through a human landscape as rich and as compelling as the marine one cut through by Kendal.
Indeed, Ninety percent of everything is a portrait of an entire industry, made of people exposed to dangers we wouldn’t consider acceptable anymore, thrown into situations – loneliness, fatigue, exhaustion, outright abuse – that you would expect to see in a Dickensian mill, not AD 2010 or thereabouts. But it’s also a tale of how networks based on utter trust, selflessness and genuine generosity can thrive across distances of thousands of miles, seas and multiple frontiers apart. Finally, it’s an excursion into modern day reporting, from the headlines of hijackings to the fight to keep ships and whales away from bumping into one another.
Why, then, is this book my favourite travel book of the year? Well, apart from what I’ve just said – its multiple facets, its great prose, its humour – what makes Ninety percent so great is that it’s about something completely new, fresh, at least to me. I’m so used to think that, in order to find something that nobody had written about yet, one needs to go to the extremes of this increasingly small world, but Rose George has proved that, sometimes, all you need to do is to look out of the window, towards the sea.