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The Queen's English: Victoria brought to life

A N Wilson's book reveals the surprisingly diverse tastes of this quintessential English monarch.

Victoria: a Life 
A N Wilson
Atlantic Books, 656pp, £25

In the strange, gated chambers of Osborne House, her overgrown holiday bungalow on the Isle of Wight, the presence of Queen Victoria lingers like the smell of boiled cabbage in an institution. Preserved in this Italianate moment in time, Victoria and Albert remain a glossy, sexy, celebrity power couple, the Winterhalter epitome of mid-century certitude. But dark shadows lurk in the corridors, “strange gusts of cold in the atmosphere”, which, as A N Wilson discerns, began to blow even as that reign reached its peak; a foreboding of the grief that redefined it. “The 19th-century Cult of Death,” Wilson writes, “had no more operatic votary than Queen Victoria.” Indeed, in his elegant and sometimes Gothic retelling of her life, nothing is more striking than his evocation of Victoria, in the immediate post-Albert years, as a mentally ill woman.

In that shady light, Osborne’s bric-a-brac takes on a sepulchral tone. The disembodied limbs of Victoria’s offspring, rendered in marble and preserved under glass domes, are memento mori to match the Frogmore mausoleum where her prince lay in effigy. His queen, too, was carved in Carrara at the same time, ready to join him. It was as if she were already dead, as if one of the half-dozen or more assassination attempts on her during her reign had succeeded.

Wilson brings Victoria back to life by returning to original sources – the royal archives, through which we can hear her voice. Her correspondence is a wonder to behold, all underlinings and micromanagement, taking in everything from her children’s shortcomings (“I own I think him very dull,” she writes of Bertie, her eldest son and heir) to the police’s failure to catch Jack the Ripper. (She complains that her home secretary’s “general want of sympathy about the feelings of the people are [sic] doing the Government harm”, and comes up with practical suggestions of her own as to how to catch the killer.) In their negotiations, the queen’s more astute prime ministers learned to use extraordinary tact. Those whom she liked, such as Disraeli – described by Wilson as “a bizarre, pomaded figure” – engaged, and flattered. They knew they were dealing with a woman who could behave like a teenager, and they “could duck when the sparks flew”. Those she disliked (such as Gladstone, a “tall, fanatical, verbose man”) did not, or would not.

Psychologically, Wilson suggests, Victoria had surrendered her personality to Albert; marriage “infantilised” her. Her almost childish charm stemmed from “absolute truthfulness and simplicity”, as one of her confidantes put it. But that trait was her enemy, too. After Albert’s death in 1861, she invested her trust in John Brown, innocent of the public effect of her liaison with the Highlander. (On the exact nature of that relationship Wilson is undecided, but he leans towards the theory that Victoria and Brown, “the queen’s stallion”, were secretly married at Balmoral.)

This most British of monarchs (she was nearly “Elizabeth II” after pre-coronation objections to her use of the un-English “Victoria”) was also the most European. Her German ancestry, and her marriage to Albert – described here as a beautiful young man, gifted with many talents – expressed itself in a weird mixture of German and English: “Er wird für die Zukunft mein first object in life sein” (“For the future, he will be my first object in life”). Such foreignness provoked a disconnection between herself and her subjects. Hence her haughty reprimand to Mrs Tuck, her dresser, when displeased: “You English.”

She blamed her own children for their demands: producing baby after baby blighted the few years she had shared with her beloved Albert. As a parent, Victoria was forever directing, castigating, manipulating. And although she virtually disowned Bertie for excesses that threatened to unravel the respectability to which she had restored the monarchy after the PR disasters of the Georges, her own retreat from duty undermined that accomplishment. Wilson does not hesitate to draw parallels with the modern monarchy and the deep tension between private and public life. He sees Victoria like Diana, wanting to share her grief but unable to. “She was not only the Head of State. She was also a woman screaming inside the royal straitjacket and sometimes longing for release.” In a touching detail, Wilson notes that after Albert, there was no one to call her Victoria ever again.

Wilson weaves a wonderful overview of the political events around the queen. But it is in the personal that his book succeeds best. As Victoria turned into a caricature of herself – insular, obese, tipping whisky into her claret – she performed a marvellous turnaround. Suddenly, she bloomed into popularity as her empire burgeoned with transglobal pomp. She caught the spirit of a multicultural age as the “Mother of Nations”. Her new favourite was Abdul Karim, the “Munshi”. The queen ate curry, and parts of Osborne came to resemble Calcutta.

A stroll down those corridors, still lined with portraits of Indian aristocrats, evokes that authentic air of strangeness. Here at Osborne, Victoria’s empire ended, on 22 January 1901, in a room where Albert’s pocket watch still hung over the bed, and where her own dead hands now clutched a photograph of John Brown. It is a chamber that, as Wilson notes, “still possesses an electrifying atmosphere of her presence”’. So, too, does his book. 

Philip Hoare is the author of “The Sea Inside” (Fourth Estate, £9.99)

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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The marine, and human costs, of illegal fishing

Two new books take us inside the least regulated industry on the planet.

How big the sea is, how big. How poor a description that is, too, but the ocean usually resists description and words, no matter how many of its plains are named after Herodotus or how many fracture zones are called Charlie-Gibbs. It is rare to find good writing about the sea: that’s why everyone who tries quotes Conrad and Melville. It is rarer still to find good writing about the people of the sea, those strange creatures – strange to us, on our supposed maritime island, from where the ocean as a place of industry has long retreated – who set out to sea in boats and ships to make a living from it. These two, very different books try to bring them alive, although both really are about death.

Fishers and Plunderers is dense and dry, but within it are riches and horror. Seafaring is the second most dangerous job in the world, but deep-sea fishing is worse. In the UK, between 1996 and 2005, the rate of fatal accidents in the fishing industry was 115 times higher than that for the overall workforce.

The dizzying facts and stats come, and come again, like tides. We start with the ocean, and the fish in it – or the fish that used to be in it, before human beings learned to build vessels that could scrape the seabed, that could entangle dolphins, sharks and other unlucky passers-by. How wrong indeed was T H Huxley, the eminent biologist and chairman of a royal commission on sea fisheries, giving the inaugural address at the Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883, when he said: “I believe . . . that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish.”

He did not account for our greed. There are 16.5 million fishers catching 90 million tonnes of fish a year in four million fishing vessels. Pelagic long-lines, stretching dozens of kilometres, to hook tuna. Super-trawlers that can retrieve the equivalent weight of 20 busloads of fish a day, using nets 600 metres long. A biomass of predatory fish that has decreased by two-thirds in a hundred years. One-third of fish stocks fished unsustainably. Thousands of tonnes of “bycatch”, a benign word for a horrible thing: fish that are caught and discarded. An indictment of us.

But the sorry heart of this book lies with the fishers. There are the natural dangers that face them – ice, water and weather – such as the ones that overcame the crew of a British trawler near Iceland in the first half of the 20th century. They couldn’t beat the ice, so the skipper got everyone in the radio room, from where they phoned home. The crew “said goodbye, and eventually were just turned over and were lost”.

In every British fishing port, you will find a memorial to those lost at sea. There will not be a memorial to the fact that, in 2008, 75 per cent of those who died on UK boats were from eastern Europe or the Philippines. Fishing is the most unregulated industry on the planet, infected with abuse, slavery and worse. Some West African states lose 40 per cent of their catch to foreign vessels that come and steal from their waters, such as the bottom trawler Apsari-3, found fishing less than two nautical miles off the coast of Sierra Leone. The boat and officers were Korean, the crew from China, Indonesia and Vietnam. They had no contracts and no salaries, but were paid in packets of “trash fish” to sell ashore. They shared wooden and cardboard bunks in the hold. It was not an isolated case. Distant-water fishing nations operate vessels that abound with these ghosts: men trafficked or bonded into appalling conditions or contracts, stuck at sea for months at a time.

Modern shipping, with its “flag of convenience” system, makes slipperiness easy. Pay a fee, and you can fly the flag of any state and are then governed by its law at sea. Unscrupulous owners and operators can switch flag, name or identity almost instantly (hence “convenience”). Escape is easy for the criminals, and for the abused: often they go overboard. The illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing industry is worth up to $23.5bn each year, and it is extremely difficult to police. Much illegal fish from West Africa passes through Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, which has hardly any inspectors. It is repackaged, presented as legal catch and sold in western Europe. Some subheadings in the chapter on “Abuses and Slavery at Sea”: Abduction; Abuse; General; Beatings; Children; Death; Exploitation; Imprisonment; Murder.

Fishing has never been an easy life. It’s not that it was better then than it is now, but that now the abuse is industrialised, organised. The authors are a sober lot, and include Father Bruno Ciceri, who chairs the International Christian Maritime Association. The port priests are often the ones who save and soothe the fishers, though they can only do so much. I’m glad they do that. And I’m glad I don’t eat fish.

Julia Blackburn’s Threads is what you should read after finishing Fishers and Plunderers. Read it as an antidote to rigorous investigation, because this is a gorgeous, dreamy quest, for a man named John Craske, who was “a fisherman who became a fishmonger who became an invalid”. He also became an extraordinary artist, but one whose legacy is scattered and maligned.

Craske was born in Norfolk in 1881 and went to sea, like the rest of his family. At the age of 36 he fell ill with a mysterious illness, and never recovered. There were months of stupor and disability (Blackburn concludes that it was diabetes), of becoming, as his valiant wife, Laura, wrote, “very quiet. Sudden turns. Must get outside.” He did go back to sea, when his brothers took him on their fishing boat, lashing him to the mast in rough weather. He stayed for three months, rolling about in the hold or on deck until, somehow, he realised “it was not his home” and he came back to land.

Craske began to paint. They had no money, so he painted on what he had, which was the surfaces in his house. On the mantelpiece. On bits of cardboard. “On the seat of the chair he did a frigate in a storm.” His love of the sea and knowledge of it were clear, as a fisherman whom Blackburn interviews tells her. “You can’t put that energy out unless you’ve been there.”

This “quest” is meandering: don’t expect great events. The revelations are of emotion: sadness throughout for Craske’s life, though he may have been happy. Grief for Blackburn, who suffers a great loss while she is writing the book, so that from then on “grief is prowling close”. And joy, for being exposed to the embroidery of Craske, who took up the needle as he lay abed, finding a vocation. His little fishermen in their boats, sewn in careful stitches; his giant portrait of Dunkirk, with sweeping seas and tiny figures: they are amazing, yet were scorned by the museums and odd places where his work ended up, turned to the wall, ignored.

A doctor once told Craske’s wife that “he must go to sea. Only the sea will save him.” And it did, but not for long enough. We should thank Julia Blackburn for bringing back this quiet fisher and man of the sea; and Bruno Ciceri and his co-authors for exposing an unforgiving and cruel industry, where men die and the seas are depleted for the sake of our fish supper, out of sight beyond our horizon.

Rose George’s books include “Deep Sea and Foreign Going” (Portobello)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle