Greetings Yankee-Jockers. It’s been a while.
We ended up so busy, I can’t believe it. Multiple surveys, and five days on the trot, working 15 hour days. A busy shipping area, with lots of narrow channels, fog, and ultra-large container ships barrelling down on my little aluminium ship. And five days added to my trip, some of which was spent training my relieving Captain, who was completely new to the ship and to Quad-IPS propulsion.
I fell asleep on my train from Vlissingen to Leiden Centraal yesterday, but I made it to the hotel in Hoofddorp with a sense of relief, and a persistent swaying motion still clearly in effect on my inner ears.
My fatigue runs deep. Physical, spiritual and intellectual. I used to do months away at a time, but without my wife and children, after nearly four weeks away I feel spent. Wild and empty. Like an answer without a question.
I watched an anime version of Dante’s Inferno on Amazon Prime Video last week. It was directed by one of the chaps who made Avatar, and worked quite well in this Japanese inspired format, although my instinct tells me the visual symbolism would have more sophisticated if they’d had an Orthodox-Christian Zen master on staff. Probably too much to ask.
I both sympathise and empathise with Dante. A soldier who has been on deployment for too long, and has to face the reality that the world he wants to come home to no longer exists, and that he is no longer the same person. He loved the wildness and sin that he embodied on his mission. He loved his strength and self-righteous, delusioned anger. And now he knows that the ideal and perfect Beatrice he longs for is only a memory. He needs to stop loving each of his sins, if he ever hopes to connect with his wife again.
Dante is suffering from what sailors call ‘The Channels’. A nervous shaking in fear and anticipation that comes over one who has been too long out at sea, and is now entering the channel, faced with the terrifying prospect of re-entering society, and discovering whether or not he can still fit-in.
The Merchant Navy is a strange thing, and it does strange things to you. A weird hybrid creature, militarised when the State calls for it, demilitarised in relatively free times. The strict hierarchy and rank system of the Navy, without the uniforms or ceremonial. Rights of passage have no ritual, except what we decide to enact on board. Selective in who can join, but welcoming to sinners, reprobates, fugitives and troubled souls of every stripe. 98% male, 100% masculine, in terms of discipline, routine and commerce. Yet, feminine in relationship to nature, markets, people and time. Always beyond the very edge of society, between all borders, always under suspicion, never pure. Yet trusted beyond the horizon with all wealth, and stewards of the very lifeblood of trade and civilisation itself.
We are the animals on the ark. We are the monsters on the sea charts of old. The inbetweeners.
You have to be tough to lead tough people. You have to be smart to endure commercial pressures in a dangerous marine environment. And you have to be self-aware, to navigate.
Every aspect of your life and personality becomes dichotomous, and every element of your being contains its opposite. Yet, like the aeroplane that will soon take me home, there is no time for balance or stillness. Rotation and forward movement are constant.
In the forty minutes or so between finishing work each day and falling asleep, I do try to read as much as I can. Since we last spoke I read ‘The Management Book’, The books of ‘Exodus, Romans and Matthew’, about 15% of Saint Augustine’s Confessions’, and I’ve started ‘The Living Company’ (Recommended by the good and prosperous Steven Wilkinson).
Don’t bother reading The Management Book, despite it’s rave reviews, awards from the Chartered Management Institute, and sycophantic fanfare online. It makes a few good observations but is so generic and dull as to be unfit for human consumption. The author quotes some suspect Stoic philosophy, uses the euphemism ‘issues’ for every human ordeal or obstacle, and contrives to use feminine pronouns (she/her) for all positive characteristics and hierarchy, and masculine (he/him) for every negative or lower character. From now on I will regard the ‘CMI Management Book of the Year’ award sticker on the front cover as akin to the stamp the British Board of Trade used to put on condemned meat: ‘For dogs and seamen only’!
At the risk of sounding like a bible-bashing cultist, I have found much more applicable and useful management advice in the bible. Although I’ll grant you, it takes a little more effort to unravel its mysterious code. Like, when you ponder, why , exactly, did Moses order the Israelites to kill the 3000 of their own brothers, friends and neighbours?
Whether you accept the Bible as true or not doesn’t matter. The fact is that the story and the legend of Jesus Christ is the foundation of our culture, and that the values contained in the stories are something that you absolutely should pay attention to, if wisdom and goodness are something you value.
The words of Jesus are absolutely fresh, modern, and shockingly applicable today. His main dialogue is a harsh critique of the hypocrisy of spiritual leaders (the Pharisees), and the wealthy (the ‘elites’). The spirit of his criticism stirs, pulses and rises up from my heart and through to my clenched fists every time I see Blair, Starmer or some other absolute ghoul of a person haunting a screen with the Satanic blue wallpaper of the World Economic Forum emblazoned behind them.
Christs criticism is the best management advice you could ever hope to get, from any overpaid consultant. He does not seek to overturn the idea of hierarchy itself. There must be leadership. We must first lead ourselves, and love creation actively, with our lives as an argument. And those lives will each have a special calling. An answer to a question. Somewhere in the emptiness of the world, there is a gap you can fill. The role of the wealthy, or the skilled, or the leader, is to acknowledge that every place in the hierarchy has value. And the leader must serve both up the hierarchy, to the highest principles and ideals (heaven), and down the hierarchy, all the way to the bottom (earth).
Modern management, and modern corporatism is cultishly obsessed with measurement and control. Shipping companies have become so dehumanised, that they sometimes view changing their crew with as much sentiment and cold disregard, as they might change the oil in their engines. Licensing. Planned obsolescence. The erosion of ownership and consent. Globalisation.
Covid and Davos have exposed and illustrated how completely the inhuman spirit of ‘The Census’ in the bible, has come to completely take over our worldview and our philosophy. The antithesis to the spirit of the Sabbath, that is about acceptance of the residue, or the fringe, or the stranger – The rest.
The view of a manager as the Nietzschean will-master, the controller, the ‘director’, as dictator. That is the view so completely embodied by the Davosian. The freak-like distance between Yuval Noah Harari, Bill Gates, and the people they claim to lead is beyond our ken.
Like the final days of a teetering corporation, where the distance between guiding principles of the enterprise (heaven), and the reality of customer and worker satisfaction (earth) is too great, coldness is creeping in.
Like the word ‘safety’, I no longer believe ‘management’ to be a useful term.
Our central bank, inflation fuelled, abstract institutions no longer serve the body that sustains them. The will fail. We need to be ready with solutions when that comes.
I am hungry for community, and relationships. I need a centre. Like Catniss from the hunger games, the freaks in the capital have nothing to offer me. My duty is to my district.
The mistake that the abstract, uber-managerial archetypes make, is that data and technology make them strong. That they are elite because they own and create powerful hierarchies.
What they fail to realise is that their distance from society, or from their employees is now so great, that an inversion has taken place. They are no longer the centre. They are now on the fringe.
The technology of digitalisation, biomedical surveillance and cryptography that has become their tower of babble, will be used against them.
Technology as a concept is the garments of skin given to Adam and Eve when they were sent of out paradise. A gift from God, to provide protection in the world. And when Jesus is captured, one of his followers is seized, and the Roman guard is left holding his fine white linen robes, as the man who abandon’s Jesus to his fate runs naked into the night.
The fine garments of technology are useless, and provide no protection when we turn our backs on God, goodness and truth.
We must not forget who we serve. We are our brother’s keepers.
To all those middle managers out there, let me ask you a question. Are your business processes so strong that you could fire every single employee today, replace literally all your people, and still be back in business next week or next month?
I suspect not.
If you can answer yes, then you are a real ‘corporation’. Your organisation has a body and a life of its’ own.
If, like most people, your answer is no, then your are a company. And then it actually matters who your people are, and how you treat them. And if there is one thing I’ve learned about trust, it’s this:
Your employees can see how you treat the least among them. And every hypocritical or improper action you make, they will know that you are capable of betraying them in the same way, one day down the line’.
Few managers are self aware enough to know how their word and actions are perceived by others. Particularly those below them. It is vitally important to know that this is why life experience is so important, before you advance to an unearned position of authority. Most of us will only know how it feels to be mistreated, by long and bitter experience. And that is how we learn to be better, more self-conscious people.
Someone below you in your organisational hierarchy will take any criticism, correction or guidance, as a personal threat to their wellbeing, survival and prosperity.
When you (intentionally or otherwise) threaten a person’s job, you literally threaten their chances of life, sovereignty and reproduction. You induce stress at a primordial, gut, heart level.
That is why when I have had to (recently several times), correct someone’s behaviour on my ship, I do it one-on-one, privately, ‘face-to-face’. And then follow up, with banter and comradeship, to reassure the person that I am not out to get them or threaten them. That I value them, and that they can trust me when I say that I need ‘X’ element of their behaviour to change.
It’s not always easy to commune and connect with people below you in your hierarchy, but if you can, it is money in the bank. Trust and respect will get you through.
And yes, it is difficult. That’s why everybody hates the Rabbi who says love your neighbour and love your enemy. Nobody wants to do that. We love our pride, and we love our anger. But that needs to stop.
OK, my friends I have to go catch my flight now. I’ll leave you with a few specifics of things that people have said to me or confided with me as a manager at sea, to give you an idea of the level of intimacy that you might be called to provide one day:
· ‘I shot my first black guy when I was twelve years old. God damn, my father beat the hell out of me for that one, but I got a way with it. He didn’t die, but my dad made me pay his hospital bill. Hahahaha.
· X-person (who shall remain anonymous) gave me this snuff porn boss. He said it’s fake, that it’s the same girl they kill in different videos, but I don’t know. Can you have a look?
· I need to go home (crying tears of happiness, with a big smile), my son has been arrested, and is handcuffed to a hospital bed. The police contacted us. I’m so happy he’s alive, he’s been missing for years.
· I fought with my father for two years to marry my girlfriend. He wanted to disown me from marrying a Black girl, especially an African. But we a child together. But when my ship got back there, Idi Amin had rounded everyone up. The neighbours told me that the authorities killed her. They shot my son. He was only newborn, and I never met him. (laughs and cries). I never met him, but there isn’t a day I don’t think about him.
Like the people stuck in the various circles of Dante’s hell, we’re going to have to let go of our pride, disgust and anger. Otherwise, in the coming years, or fractured identities and inverted hierarchies will destroy us. I’m trying hard to give up my pride, and anger. And I’ll share something with you all now. Once you start, something takes over inside you.
Have fun guys. Till next time.
Always a gripping, articulate and insightful read.
Another great weave of themes and life. Modern management know all the figures, but have no clue about what really goes on.
The quotes from people at the end are very moving.