Go folk yourself

It's time to embrace British musical heritage

There are a collection of images that seem to be indelibly linked to the phrase "traditional British folk music”": drizzly village greens populated by small groups of old men morris dancing while their families cower under umbrellas and look a bit embarrassed, blokes with unfortunate facial hair irritating the patrons of pubs with badly-tuned guitars, strange willowy women with over-the-top “ethereal” voices.

There is more than a grain of truth in this perception, but it also lacks an awareness of how much fun the British folk scene can be. I don’'t mean Mumford & Sons or Noah and the Whale - as entertaining as they are they shouldn'’t overshadow the thriving world of traditional British folk music. I have less musical ability than most (clapping in time at gigs is a tremendous challenge) but it doesn'’t make the blindest bit of difference. If you have a sense of fun and the ability to sink a few pints of ale, you can’'t go far wrong.
 
We sit on a vast vault of cultural history in this country and it seems a massive shame not to make the most of it – the timeworn tales of mischief and tragedy are still pleasingly entertaining to this day. Bellowhead, my favourite band, is a good example of how resiliently enjoyable our musical roots can be.
 
In an average gig they'’ll perform old songs about being robbed by sneaky prostitutes, losing your entire family to whiskey and the heartbreaking experience of seeing your girlfriend transported to Australia (life events I'’m sure we’'ve all confronted). The songs are a living embodiment of our history and there’'s something very evocative about listening to the experiences of our ancestors. It’'s historically interesting, but more importantly it’s incredibly fun. Whether it’'s in the Albert Hall or a crowded pub, there is a rich layer of culture just waiting to be experienced.
 
I acknowledge that it is futile for me to ramble on about my favourite genre to people who have different tastes - a variety of interests is obviously a very good thing and I don’'t want to force mine on anyone. The people I have a problem with are the ones who like to proclaim loudly and often that “Britain isn'’t British anymore!” Depending on who you speak to, the root of the problem can either be Muslims, the European Union or the left (sometimes all three, if they’'re feeling particularly annoyed). There is one consistent feature with this group, though - a complete lack of participation.
 
They will moan about a perceived loss of Britishness, but they are the last people you will find actually getting involved. There'’s no hope for a wider cultural acceptance of our musical roots if these people can’t be convinced to enjoy some British culture, rather than just moaning about the lack of it. I admit that the prospect of having my local folk night invaded by a cohort of tedious bores isn'’t an exciting one, but I’'m willing to put up with it for a bit. A diet of good ale and decent company should soon sort them out. Give them a few hours and I’'m sure they’'d be singing along with the same enthusiasm as everybody else.
 
I am aware that this call for greater links to our cultural past is something that the BNP would probably endorse, a fact that I find aggravating. Those on the far right are the antithesis of everything the British folk scene represents. Their dreary half-baked mewing for cultural homogeneity has no place in the hearts of folk fans. When the BNP tried to use the Show of Hands song “Roots”, there was an impressive backlash within the community, resulting in the creation of the “Folk Against Fascism” movement. You might think that traditional folk would shun the new and innovative, but it'’s really not the case. Just look at the wonderful Imagined Village project - their sound is composed of sitars and dhol drums as well as fiddles. This is where folk's true value lies, in its unique blend of tradition and innovation. Folk provides us with a strong link to our cultural history and more importantly, a source of merriment and joy. 

 

There's more to British folk than Mumford and Sons (Getty Images)
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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