I started work in the City in 1974; within walking distance of my office in St Mary Axe were three Admiralty chart agents – Kelvin Hughes, Brown and Perring and JD Potter, in the Minories, with its upper floor devoted to sextants of practically every make. There were uniform tailors in Fenchurch Street, the City Poly hard by the Tower of London was turning out deck officers and had a particularly splendid model of the Jervis Bay*, and there were, besides the shipbrokers, the banks, the Baltic Exchange itself, the Average Adjusters, the Admiralty lawyers, the Salvage Association, the Warranty Surveyors, the experts in almost everything to do with ships, and the then more modest offices of the P&I Clubs, there were shipowners offices in all styles, from the very grand, such as P&O, in their own modern building on Leadenhall Street with a polished bronze propeller blade in place of a group of statuary outside (I liked that) through the lesser lights of British shipping and down to the small tramp owners and coaster owners who seemed to live in garrets. You could tell which division of the P&O was next for the chop, because it invariably became the custodian of the British India brass cannons. When they arrived at Beagle House, pointing inwards, the senior staff of Overseas Containers Limited proclaimed their faith in their koi carp, a fish that was as old as the company. The carp would see off the bad joss of the BI cannons.
The fish died. As did P&O Nedlloyd. I wonder if Maersk took the cannons, along with the rest of it?
Today, we have London International Shipping Week. A distinguished friend tells me not to mock it, because “it sheds a warm glow over the resultant inactivity”.
Perhaps the rot started when the custom of “posting defaulters” – those scoundrels who had failed to honour arbitration awards made against them – on notice boards in the Baltic Exchange, became a subject for mockery. Posting a defaulter simply meant that you were admitting that you had been taken to the cleaners. The person doing the posting, not the defaulter, became the one who lost face.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics, in the specific form known as Parkinson’s Law, is operating with a vengeance. As less and less business is done, the rituals of doing it and the complexity of the rules by which it is done, increase.
There was a time when the British mocked the elaborate bureaucracy and the bad plumbing of the Europeans; today Britain is a by-word for bureaucracy (this very day, I have had to get the Master of a ship which had had a trivial incident entering Tilbury to copy out and sign a second copy of the Incident Report that he had made out and signed for the Port of London Authority, to be given to Forth Ports, who operate Tibury, because the PLA consider themselves too grand to give Tilbury a copy… yes, both organisations do have email…) and Britain imports European plumbers ( maybe we know where the OCL carp went…)
The British people were told by their Establishment, for 71 years, that they were Exceptional, and in due course a small army of spivs and chancers, led by the Dirty Digger and including Mr Nigel Farage, who was fascinated by the Nazis as a schoolboy, and has never grown up, the absurd Mr Boris Johnson, the slimy Mr Gove and the disgraced former Defence Minister Liam Fox, and Uncle Tom Cobleigh and his hedge fund, saw their opportunity to sell the British a dream of the 1950s as they never were, persuaded British voters that they were indeed Exceptional, and that they were being ill-treated by Europe, and thus brought them to commit national suicide, to the benefit of Mr Putin, who, after the Cold War, like Tolkien’s Saruman after the War of the Ring, still has his voice and is still capable of a little evil in a small way.
Job done. The Rees-Moggs will soon have solved the Servant Problem, as the hungry serfs queue once more for “inside work” as parlourmaids and cooks. There is nothing to detain the international shipowner here. A Rolls-Royce car is a Mercedes 7-series, ‘badge engineered’”, and if you want to know how good their ships’ equipment is, ask around.
This year’s London International Shipping Week is glancing fearfully over its shoulder at Europe, which is ignoring it, and is hardly daring to look past Europe at the spectre of its complete irrelevance to the rest of the planet. The British are lazy and ill educated, they have no manners and, increasingly, they have the morals to suit. They build no ships, they own few ships, they man fewer ships and yet they claim the rights to call themselves the world centre of maritime law, of marine insurance, of chartering, of hydrography, of finance and of the related trades and professions. But all these depend on the business of owning and running ships profitably. We no longer do that. The level of sheer ignorance to be found in a British P&I Clubs’ claims staff is shattering. You can’t blame the people; they just don’t know, and because they have never been told how useless they are, they think they are God’s gift to honest shipping.
In maritime terms, Britain is now an irrelevant embarrassment. Go East, young woman.
*If you need to know why the City Poly had a model of the Jervis Bay, I rest my case.