Way out in the Wild East

The bells, the bells! The Bow Bells, that is. Wild Bill, a confident first feature that sets the former actor Dexter Fletcher on the frog-and-toad to a promising filmmaking career, is a right proper bleedin' ding-dong and no mistake. Well worth a butcher's. Sorry, just to check: have I conveyed sufficiently that Wild Bill is not only set in London's East End, but that it has that area's cheerfully scuzzy atmosphere clinging to it like cigarette smoke? One is simply never certain if one's subtle messages are being successfully transmitted.

Even if my understated wordplay has not given the game away, the cast should do the trick: Neil Maskell (Kill List), Jason Flemyng (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), Andy Serkis as a drugs kingpin with creepy leather gloves and a faraway stare. Lots of other likely lads whom you've seen brandishing a cosh or a Stanley knife in the obscure corners of British cinema and television. Jaime Winstone makes a brief appearance. Her father, Ray, would be forgiven for wondering why he wasn't invited to the party. It's not technically the East End without Ray, is it?

Wild Bill marks a corking debut from Fletcher and an overdue showcase for one of Britain's most underrated actors, Charlie Creed-Miles. He plays Bill Hayward, a once-legendary gangster now stumbling out of prison in a rustling shell-suit and finding the world radically altered after his eight-year spell inside. He has two sons, 15-year-old Dean (Will Poulter) and 10-year-old Jimmy (Sammy Williams), who are fending for themselves in a Stratford tower block. Despite having been deserted by their mother, Dean is in no mood to welcome back this emaciated, bristle-faced ghost. The movie is about Bill's efforts to win over his boys without slipping back into his old thuggish life. That sounds soft, and it is. But the film's gentleness sets it apart.

I liked its mythical feel: the misty streets, the references to the Wild West (such as the tattoo on Bill's chest: a sheriff's badge with a British Rail logo inside) and a striking scene in which Bill and Jimmy throw paper aeroplanes from their high-rise balcony. One of Fletcher's smartest decisions was to set and shoot the whole thing within sight of the Olympic building project; Dean has a job on the construction site ("Grab a shovel and dig me a velodrome," barks his boss) and we can see the stadiums taking shape in the distance of many shots. This will make it a poignant time capsule for future audiences in much the same way that The Long Good Friday (in which Fletcher himself had a small role as a young urchin) and Close My Eyes have become cinematic markers in the evolution of the Docklands. But the Olympic backdrop also enriches our understanding of the characters' desperate lives. All that ostentatious profligacy administers a daily dose of salt to their wounds.

Another excellent choice was to give Creed-Miles the best role he's had since Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth, where he played Billy, a gormless smack addict. In Wild Bill, he makes his character's transformation seem both surprising and genuinely hard-won, and he brings palpable remorse and disgust to a slightly over-written speech about the agony of prison life. That scene creates one of those instances of accidental continuity between unconnected performances: at the end of Nil By Mouth, the family members set off on a prison visit to see Billy; now here he is, as Bill, reflecting on those years spent festering behind bars.

Creed-Miles has been careful in his career to give a wide berth to the post-Lock, Stock fad for Mockney malarkey. When I interviewed him in 2000 he was bemoaning the bad press for his latest film Essex Boys, a real-life crime story which had been accused of glamorising violence:

"Essex Boys is suffering, I believe, for the sins of all these films that I've been turning down. Love, Honour and Obey, Rancid Aluminium -- I could've been in all those, that's a fact, but if you instantly dislike the script, it's a bad sign. I was only able to do Essex Boys because I believed in the material, and believed that it wasn't glorifying violence. I'm very proud that we haven't got celebrity gangsters in our film -- it really annoys me when these horrible people get turned into folk heroes. It's not my fault that people are writing gangster scripts ten to the dozen. But I refuse to deploy my talents willy-nilly."

Nice one, sunshine. Sweet as.

 

Wild Bill is released on Friday.

 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

ADAM DEAN/EYEVINE
Show Hide image

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