“Bastards I have sailed with” Gavin McLean

Where Giants Dwell: a Sailor’s Tale
Gerry Evans
David Ling, $34.95,
ISBN 0 908990 60 X

In just three decades, first the container/bulk cargo handling revolution and then the Employment Contracts Act have virtually gutted the once mighty maritime unions. These days a mechanical fault is more likely to halt your Cook Strait ferry sailing than the wage demands of a hairy-armed Glaswegian cook. Nevertheless, the death of a union supporter on a Lyttelton picket line this New Year was a reminder that the strategically vital waterfront remains an industrial battle zone. It also suggested that the museums might have to wait a while longer to claim the banners of the old maritime unions, historic bell-wethers of this country’s industrial warfare.

Gerry Evans subtitles his book “A Sailor’s Tale”, but that is only half the story. Evans shipped out from his native Wales in the postwar Indian summer of the great British merchant marine. This was the golden era when the last generation of graceful conventional ships still criss-crossed the world, providing jobs for just about every young man seduced by Conrad’s tales or simply captivated by a page of his school atlas. Where Giants Dwell serves up some wonderful tales of the “bastards I have sailed with” type, warm and affectionate with memories of old pals, but they are overshadowed by Evans’ memories of his three decades as New Zealand trade union official.

Gerry Evans held office in two unions, the watersiders and the seamen. There is nothing New Age about his views. “Unionism is basically a crude power struggle between employees and employers,” he says. “If a union cannot pressure its employer economically, it has no show of negotiating good contracts except at the whim of the employer. If a union can’t or won’t fight, then it gets only what the employer feels like giving.”

Fair enough. The problem, as Where Giants Dwell shows, is that for every victory won by the unionists against their employers, they scored at least another own goal. Union politics can be as destructive as boardroom politics but New Zealand’s tiny population and fervent parochialism brewed up a particularly noxious type of cabin fever. On the waterfront Evans watched the employers, unions and harbour boards squabble while Europe built a unit load system that soon swept aside the old ships, ports and practices.

The seafarers were no better. In the Seamen’s Union, internal quarrelling and fragmentation (unions represented officers, seafarers, cooks and stewards and engineers aboard a small Union Company “slow green”) meant that only a management as stupid as Railways could have lost as many battles as it did before National’s 1990s open coast policy scuttled what was left of the local merchant marine. Few emerge from this often-bitter story with much credit. As the registry name “Nassau” on the stern of Interisland Line’s newest ferry suggests, employers, employees and politicians went down in the same leaky waka.

The seafarer’s memoir has become rarer as the shipping industry declined and the ships disappeared behind locked terminals. The last decade produced two good ones, fisherman/boatbuilder George Brasell’s wonderful Boats and Blokes (1991) and Don Silk’s From Kauri Trees to Sunlit Seas (1994). These more classically-crafted works leave Where Giants Dwell in their wake but Evans gets third place on my list, making up for his stylistic jerkiness with passion and a degree of self-awareness. By turns he’s hectoring, scandalised by union or employer perfidy or happily nostalgic. Like a good session in the old Midland, the book is a sometimes disorganised slop chest of memories good and bad.

That brings its own problems. In recent times Gerry Evans has enlivened the Dominion with his short pieces on seafarers, but a 200-page book is a race of a different sort, one where a stronger hand on the editorial tiller would have brought big gains. General editors may be excused for not knowing how to spell company names such as Denholm and Withy, but they should be sufficiently alert to spot that “Union Steamship Company” and “Union company” appearing on the same page suggests foul ground, compounded by the correct “Union Steam Ship Company” surfacing nearby. There are far too many page-and-a-half “chapters”, too many doublings-back that a hard edit would have removed. An index would have helped, too. Despite this, I hope that Evans returns for more, for even in the days of straddle carriers, conbulkers and other unlovely machines, there are many more tales to be told of that realm where giants dwell and squabble.

Gavin McLean is an historian with the Historical Branch, with a particular interest in maritime history.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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