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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Wednesday, July 12, 2006
    Open the box
    I'm reading the world's first book about the history of the shipping container. It's called The Box and it's an absorbing read because, as the subtitle accurately explains, this simplest of inventions 'made the world smaller and the world economy bigger'.

    Also, for me, it's another way of deepening my understanding of my immediate environment. For I have spent half my life living a mile away from a major container port, which abuts a dockland wasteland stretching about eight miles down the Mersey, the residue of an earlier (and far less efficient) way of shipping goods.

    Marc Levinson, writer on the Economist and Newsweek, brings this story to life and shows just how crucial the transportation industry's adoption of containers has been to globalisation. Those ubiquitous ugly metal boxes are the reason I'm eating Chilean apples so cheaply and with far more ease than finding a farmer's market able to ply me with Lancashire fruit. They've laid to rest the dockers distinctive community and culture, and the brutal dockside working practices which maimed and killed so many. They've emptied the ports and filled the roads, and are the reason why previously unremarkable stretches of the south and east Midlands, close to motorways, have been transformed into major distribution hubs.

    Reading this it strikes me that in a working-class area like ours many of my neighbours would have been dock workers in the past. Now, what do many do for a living? They drive big trucks. Because of the container and how it is used. Truly the box has changed all our lives.