“The society which has abolished every kind of adventure makes its own abolition the only possible adventure.” Paris, May 1968

Monday, 10 May 2010

The Box That Changed Britain.

Last night BBC 4 showed what I thought was an exceptional programme in poet Roger McGough's wonderfully narrated story of containerisation, The Box That Changed Britain. I have never been a huge fan of technological determinism but much of what makes up the world we wake up to each day, from "Broken Britain" to the nature of High Street retailing, can be traced back to the introduction of the container. Containerisation was to impact on all of our lives but it was in shipping and the docks that the changes were felt most keenly and eventually it would change the East End forever. The two words most frequently used to describe dockers are "tough" and "militant" but dockworkers were also highly skilled and that whole area of pride and skill is a part of what was lost with containerisation. It's easy to romanticise the docks but the truth is that it was hard, dirty and dangerous work and the hiring of labour was brutal and humiliating. The cargo handling practices of the 1960's had hardly changed since Victorian times and, as always, if the new technologies had been at the service of the workers rather than the service of profit.... well who knows.
Dockers were not some leftie fantasy revolutionary proletariat. They were real people with all the usual strengths and failings. But I do think that when the docks closed we did lose something of value. I remember a gang of dockers working in the hold of my barge, stowing the bales as they were craned over from the hold of the ship that we lay alongside. There was some disagreement in the gang about how good a stow they should be making. I should explain here that the quality of the stow is not just a matter of getting more into a given space but an important safety consideration. Some members of the gang were all for a slap dash job but one old docker was insistent, arguing for a good stow and asking, "what about the blokes the other end?" Another group of workers, unknown and miles away, would have to eventually unload the barge and this old docker had their welfare at heart. I was impressed at the time and looking back now across almost fifty years, I still am.

1 comment:

henry said...

Saw that programme too. It was a good documentary, maybe a little one-sided in favour of how "positive" and "unstoppable" that thing called "progress" is... but very interesting all the same.
Pity they didn't follow up all the other unintended consequences of the Big Box - like the worldwide phenomena of them being used for weed farms buried out of sight and undetectable by infra-red police choppers, or their use in the development of low-cost housing in places where damaged ones are dumped (or in the trendy parts of the Netherlands and Germany), or the growing number of accidental "reefs" on seabed areas under storm zones where they regularly drop from above.