Madame Bovary, c'est nous

Fay Weldon does Flaubert.

Emma Bovary is a very modern heroine: the original desperate housewife with a serious spending habit, she's a sex and shopping cautionary tale, a one-woman boom and bust in these credit crunchy times. One could imagine her working the charm and the plastic today, though perhaps the social climber might now be transmuted to celeb twitcher, stalking the net for Cheryl's on-trend accessories and new fall directions from Peaches.

Many have rushed to identify with her, from M Flaubert himself ("Madame Bovary, c'est moi!") to Fay Weldon, the writer of Breakfast With Emma, now in production with the Rosemary Branch Theatre. She goes as far as to say that we are all "Emma Bovarys to a woman". Leaving aside the vexing canard that there is a biological link between womanhood and shopping for a moment, she is indeed an Everywoman of sorts in the play, the agent for a proto-feminism, who has to deal with her husband's views on women's "tiny thoughts" and "fleeting passions".

And perhaps some of us have faultily imagined that we're made of finer stuff than our companions who fall asleep at the theatre, as Emma's husband does ("I had worn too many clothes and the plot was complicated!"). There may well be couples in our acquaintance where one's emotional thermostat is set higher (at Keatsian) than the other's (more Keynesian). There are bits of Bovary everywhere.

But equally it is a credit to Weldon's balanced conception, and Helen Millar's performance, that this is not an Emma we can necessarily identify with. There are suggestions of bi-polar disorder, and of a hysterical nature warped by a convent school education. She is a fantasist, and rewrites the past (and present) to suit herself. Her daughter, the only offspring of Bovary's ovaries "isn't a very rewarding child", and she is a mother in fits and starts only, when it suits her narrative of devoted parent.

Millar manages all the raging, seducing, rationalising and downright madness with ease, alternatively hard-faced and positively deliquescing with rapture. She even manages to look alluring in a frock so frumpy that surely fashionista Emma would have crossed the street to avoid it. She is well off-set by James Burton as lumpish cuckold Charles, who becomes less articulate and more klutzy as his wife reveals her affairs (both lovers, incidentally, played by Jason Eddy, who does Gallic smouldering outrageously well), and the titular breakfast wears on and wears thin.

Helen Tennison's production skips along nicely, though one sensed on other nights the experience might be way funnier: the burghers of St Albans seemed to be alive to the tragedy rather than the comedy of it all. Maybe this pensive mood explains why, on this night at least, the consciously quirky use of the furniture at times felt groundless and gratuitous; laughter might have done the job of forgiving filler, that seals the cracks and anchors gesture to text. But as it is, we're not sure why Emma conducts one of her scenes from half way up the bookcase, or why her mother-in-law exits into an ottoman.

Sometimes the visual payoff was good - a breakfast table tilting, dizzily awry - but the machinations to get there really cumbersome. And an odd timorousness set in: once having gone to all the trouble of hoicking the table to a kooky angle, with Chas Bovary squatting like an incubus at one end of it, Emma attempts to lay it, briefly, but really there could have been a maelstrom of cutlery, a storm of teacups. The surreality is stop-start, so it's hard to tell, for example, why our girl acquires a doppelganger as the petit-dejeuner unravels, draped around the stage in various supine attitudes and, frankly, variously in the way. She did look rather like a a Victorian engraving, along the lines of "Virtue Vanquished", so perhaps we were to read some sort of moral commentary in this.

However there are some great set pieces, notably the Agricultural Fair, with uncanny farmyard ventriloquism by the cast, and the night at the opera, where Emma and her lover lip-synch along to an aria while hubby snoozes, and loses. Both show and ensemble are immensely buoyant and likeable, proof that small scale can be big on heart and ambition.

And Emma, too, is likeable; her ruin is not so - well, ruinous in Weldon's version. Flaubert punishes her with death, the death of her husband, and penury for her daughter; here Emma flounces off, perhaps to take arsenic. Perhaps not.

ADAM DEAN/EYEVINE
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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