Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Otto Dov Kulka, Tracey Thorn and Henry Hitchings.

Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination by Otto Dov Kulka

Otto Dov Kulka, professor emeritus of Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, attracts widespread praise for his memoir of his childhood incarceration in Auschwitz.

Linda Grant, writing in the New Statesman, describes the book as a “short memoir of inquiry [which] consists of ten chapters that are transcripts of tape recordings he made in the 1990s, followed by three extracts from his diaries. It is almost unclassifiable.” Grant praises the way the book “tries to penetrate the maze of established fact and personal experience in order to arrive at what seems unreachable.” She concludes, “nothing else I have read comes close to the profound examination of what the Holocaust means. ...The journey strikes me as a quest similar to the attempt to describe the face of God or the structure of the universe. They are too vast and mysterious, not that it stops us, or this author, from trying.”

Arifa Akbar, in the Independent, describes the book as composed of “philosophical inquiries into the relationship between memory and forgetfulness - what a boy remembers of such traumatic events and how memory re-processes the trauma.” Made up of “descriptions, reflections and dreams, emotionally restrained but so intense that they read like nuggets of interiority ... Kulka's reflections have an unsettling rawness.” Kulka describes a world in which death is ever present: “it is the dark stains left by blood in the snow during the evacuation of the camp. It is there in the ritualised violence of public beatings and the magnetic force that surrounds inmates." Yet, “there are also moments of protest, black humour and beauty.” Akbar finds a “grave, poetic and horrifying account of the Holocaust which does not so much revisit the Auschwitz of the past, but the Auschwitz of Kulka's inner world.”

Simon Schama in the Financial Times begins by setting out the pitfalls of writing about the Holocaust: "language, especially the wrought language of literature, struggles to register atrocities unrecognisable as the acts of sentient humans. Yet however unequal to the task, writers persist in their efforts to give form to smoke; to match words to madness...chroniclers of what Otto Dov Kulka calls ‘the Great Death’ continue to be torn between redundancy and futility.” In Landscapes, Schama finds “not so much a book about Auschwitz as one about coming to terms with the shock of survival ... the writing hovers around the incineration, as he puts it, ‘like a moth circles a flame.’” In “Kulka’s patient but exacting self-interrogations; his postwar circumlocutions and confrontations” Schama finds something “bony and austere, with scarcely a note of literary striving in the hundred-odd pages.” For Schama “what, ultimately, makes Kulka’s book unlike any other first-hand account written about the camps is the authenticity of its vision of an 11-year-old boy .. .All this is unimaginably horrifying, yet through the eyes of little Otto we can, again, apprehend it.”

 

Sorry! The English And Their Manners by Henry Hitchings

George Pendle, writing in the Financial Times, describes how “tripping from medieval documents to contemporary popular culture, Hitchings traces the role manners have played in the history of England, not to mention the considerable role the English have played in the history of manners.” “Hitchings ranges widely, ducking into psychiatry – ‘in the absence of good manners, the rawness of our primal urges burst forth’ – and physiology – ‘feelings of affiliation and attachment cause the hormone oxytocin to be released’ – to explain our use of manners.”  "As befits the author of The Secret Life of Words (2008) and The Language Wars (2011)," Pendle writes, "it is the English language that he sees as shedding the most light on his subject. ‘Good manners are like the principles of grammar,’ he writes, ‘we make use of them all the time but also violate them frequently.’”

Robert McCrum in the Observer says Hitchings “has been suffering from a mild case of anglophilia for some years ... Now, he has succumbed to a full-blown case of anglomania, a study of English social behaviour through the ages whose title – Sorry! – suggests that he knows his affliction is both contagious and untreatable.” McCrum sees this as part of “the agonies of the ‘British’ question. The catalogue of commentarians who have been driven to the edge of insanity by this topic is long and distinguished ... The English have never ceased to find themselves, and the complexities of their island inheritance, fascinating.” For McCrum, “the best parts of Sorry! are when Hitchings re-examines the English ‘manners’ of, for example, Samuel Pepys, Lord Chesterfield, who invented ‘etiquette’, Edmund Burke, or Fanny Trollope (Anthony's mother) and her entertaining strictures about the vulgarity and self-belief of Americans.” However, “as his exposition of English manners, and why we behave the way we do, approaches the present day, the rigour of Hitchings's absorbing analysis starts to break down as he becomes distracted by myriad contemporary issues and concerns ... His research becomes impressionistic and personal.” It is concluded that “Hitchings has made a bold, entertaining, and often imaginative, assault on a fundamentally impossible subject. Perhaps in writing Sorry! he will have found a cure for his affliction.”

Simon Heffer in the New Statesman finds Sorry! “an undisciplined book.” It “lapses into social history or rudimentary sociology , not exploring manners as such as asking why communities are less cohesive than they used to be.” Heffer criticises the way in which “Hitchings introduces little chats with passers by... And there is a lot about the US, which as far as I remember is not in England at all and not even in many cases a useful point of comparison.” Heffer comments “there are some interesting observations and facts in this book...But - if its not rude to say so – it should have been better edited and about half as long.”

 

Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star by Tracey Thorn

Judging by the usual content of musicians autobiographies, you’d expect this memoir to be an all round celebration of alcohol, drugs, and the joys of casual sex on tour. Bedsit Disco Queen is, in fact, quite the opposite: for a start, Thorn met her husband (and other half of Everything But The Girl) Ben Watt on her first day at university in 1981. She also barely mentions any use of narcotics, apart from one vague brush with barbiturates.

Not that we should focus on what this book is not – as Zoe Williams points out in the Guardian, “the gift of an interesting protagonist allows its author to be somewhat reticent about the aspects that other musicians would have to go large on”.

Whilst talking about her teenage years and various musical projects, Thorn manages to show a side of the 1980s that is often forgotten – a world of “John Peel on BBC Radio 1 every night; a world of bands, including EBTG, who played benefit gigs for striking miners”, writes Isabel Berwick in the Financial Times. She is also a refreshingly honest narrator, making it clear that she was always ““awkward” woman who just happened to become a pop star”.

And this is essentially why Bedsit Disco Queen works: as Williams explains, it manages to be a “critical but sensitive portrait of an idiosyncratic but intensely appealing character” as well as a story music lovers will enjoy. The anecdotes about Paul Weller, George Michael and others are sweet and funny, and the reflections on her relationship with Watts, professional and personal, will satisfy EBTG fans, as it is the first time either of them has talked openly about their private lives.

All in all, Thorn’s memoir touches on a lot of things – music, politics, intimate memories – except maybe what we might have been expected of her. It's about, as Berwick puts it, "everything but the glitz".

"Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star" will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Good manners: Roger Moore opening the door of his Volvo for Isabelle McMillan [Photo: Len Trievnor/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