Ten years ago, I spent a couple of weeks working at a warehouse on one of Basingstoke’s industrial estates. Cardboard boxes full of glassware manufactured abroad would arrive in a shipping container on the back of a 25-tonne truck, to be unloaded onto pallets and stacked up in the warehouse, where they were stored until it was time for them to be separated out and distributed to shops around the country. It would take three of us an entire day to unload one container: monotonous work, though there was satisfaction to be gained from the way the different cartons tessellated, and from slotting the last of them into place on its pallet and watching it be driven out the length of the empty container, eight hours and forty feet after the doors had been opened to reveal a daunting eight-foot-square wall of cardboard waiting to be dismantled.
In Felixstowe, or Seattle, or Tanjung Pelepas, as Marc Levinson writes in The Box (Princeton, £15.95), his compelling new history of the shipping container, an 1100-foot ship can both discharge its cargo of 3000 containers and be fully reloaded and ready to sail in less than 24 hours.
Fifty years ago, freight wasn’t moved around like this: it was delivered from factories and unloaded at dockside warehouses, from where longshoremen loaded it onto ships piece by piece. When a ship arrived at its destination, the freight was unloaded piece by piece into dockside warehouses, from where it was loaded once more into lorries or onto trains for the next stage of its journey. The huge reductions in cost and time brought about by the rise of the container led to radical economic changes.
‘For workers,’ Levinson mildly writes, ‘this has all been a mixed blessing.’ For cetaceans, too: in the old days, the famous whale that swam so misguidedly up the Thames to die in front of thousands of gawping Londoners would surely never have reached anywhere near Chelsea Bridge, safely deterred by the noise and filth and bustle at the docks downriver.
The man behind the modern global container system – and therefore, Levinson argues, the modern globalised economy – was Malcolm McLean, a trucking magnate from North Carolina, whose ‘fundamental insight’, Levinson writes, ‘commonplace today but quite radical in the 1950s, was that the shipping industry’s business was moving cargo, not sailing ships’. It took a while for McLean’s idea to catch on: the turning point was the war in Vietnam.
Supplying the US troops in South-East Asia was a logistical quagmire. Partly because the US, claiming for so long that it was providing nothing more than ‘advice’ to the South Vietnamese government, couldn’t keep up its denials if it was simultaneously building roads, docks and warehouses; partly because once that pretence came to an end in April 1965, when Lyndon Johnson sent 65,000 soldiers and marines across the Pacific, the matériel to supply them began leaving California at a far greater rate than they could cope with in Vietnam. McLean, hearing about the problem, persuaded the army that container ships were the answer.
And now it’s standard practice for cardboard boxes of tumblers, wineglasses and ash-trays to be packed into a container at a factory in Guangzhou; for the container to be taken by rail to Shenzhen, where a giant crane loads it onto a ship, which three weeks later docks at Southampton, where the container is lifted off by another crane and loaded onto a lorry, which drives it to the warehouse in Basingstoke, where the boxes are at last unpacked from the container by me.
If it’s a ‘mixed blessing’ for workers, it’s ‘a curse for customs inspectors and security officials’. ‘Containers can be just as efficient for smuggling . . . illegal drugs, undocumented immigrants and terrorist bombs.’ A former US Coast Guard commander has estimated that 35,000 customs inspectors would be required to check every container arriving at Los Angeles and Long Beach each day: clearly impossible. But the container system presents problems for smugglers, too: it’s all very well for a worker in the glass factory in Guangzhou to load a few kilos of heroin in with the tumblers and ash-trays; the question is, how’s he going to let me know about it?