Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Brian Sewell, Ian Rankin and Chinua Achebe.

Standing in Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin

After a six-year hiatus, Ian Rankin’s DI John Rebus is back from retirement. “Admirers of the Rebus books will be relieved the hero has returned with little change except an increase in the severity of warnings from his doctor,” writes Mark Lawson in the Guardian. Rebus comes face-to-face with the hero of Rankin’s two most recent police books: Malcolm Fox. “The sections in which Rankin's two characters find themselves in the same book are fascinating psychologically because the author so clearly lets the older man have the better of the exchanges,” Lawson writes. “When Rebus notes Fox "sliming" around HQ and reflects that he seems more like "middle management in a plastics company", it's clearly what Rebus would think about the interloper, but also usefully channels a resentment that Rankin readers must inevitably feel about the loss of their favourite cop.” The plot revolves around a serial killer’s murders which take place along the A9. This results in Rebus undertaking many journeys around Scotland in his beloved Saab. His traversing of the country is one of several aspects – another being the book on Scottish myths that Rebus is reading – which leads Lawson to view Standing in Another Man’s Grave as a state-of-Scotland novel, a feature of which is the question of independence: “Although this book has only one direct reference to the prospect of independence, it is steeped in the feeling of a country on the cusp of potentially radical change.” Writing in the Sunday Times’ Culture Section, John Dugdale concurs, and adds: “If a statement is being made, though, it is a negative one... Agreeing with Clarke that Scotland is 'hard to fathom', Rebus sceptically calls it 'a nation of 5m huddled together clinging to notions of community and shared history'.” Though he praises the novel for being well-crafted, Dugdale is not excited by it: “Rebus’ thoughts are not just unromantic but humdrum, offering nothing of interest on the places he passes through.” Lawson disagrees however, finding wit and humour in the book: “While some elements of Rebus are generic (troubles with drink and women), he is without doubt the funniest among the classic fictional detectives, and his 19th case features some fine one-liners and a satisfying gag involving a bossy colleague's stapler.”

 

Outsider II: Almost Always: Never Quite by Brian Sewell

After releasing the first part of his autobiography last year, the life of Brian is proving to have no shortage of drama. This sequel includes, amongst other things, spies, stalkers and sex sprees. But is it worth reading? Sporadically so according to the reviews. “The book is of variable quality,” notes Lynn Barber in the Sunday Times, whilst Matthew Bell for the Independent suggests that Sewell is more concerned with marketing tactics than literary quality when he “divided what could have been one volume into two”. The general critical consensus is that the most eagerly anticipated aspect of this book – Sewell’s curious relationship with his Courtauld tutor and Cold-war Spy Anthony Blunt - ends up being the most disappointing: “These chapters don't necessarily make for the most entertaining,” notes Bell. Indeed, Sewell’s career as a whole isn’t the highlight of this memoir, as much of his art historical anecdotes are “too insanely detailed to follow” in Barber's view. A less-than-riveting account of his professional life is, however, more than made up for in his account of his personal life which is “lewd, very funny, not very likeable” according to Philip Hensher in the Guardian: “The joy of the memoir is largely in its filth,” he summarises. Indeed, Outsider II seems to have been written exclusively to the principle that sex sells, albeit not entirely successfully. “Sewell’s obsession with sex…grows wearisome after a while,” comments Barber, in agreement with Bell. “The relentless dishing up of graphic sexual stories becomes a little exhausting.” For those seeking scandal, however, Sewell doesn’t fall short. As well as unremittingly salacious details, his deliciously unrestrained assessment of certain newspaper editors will be “enjoyed by many journalists and possibly by libel lawyers” according to Barber, and, in Bell’s view, “will cause some choking on canapés in London's medialand.” Nonetheless, each reviewer concludes that the “energy” of Sewell’s prose is the redeeming feature of his memoir, transforming it into an undeniably engaging read. “Tremendously enjoyable” praises Hensher, whilst Barber summarises ““there is constant pleasure in Sewell's prose: the elegance of phrase, the wry humour, and the clarity of insight”. After all, as the Independent notes, “what should a memoir be, if not genital warts and all?”

There Was A Country by Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe’s first book in three years richly rewards his admirers’ patience,” writes Chika Unigwe in the New Statesman. “It is the work of a master storyteller, able to combine seriousness with lightness of touch, even when writing about the terrifying events of a war that cost the life of one of his best friends, the poet Christopher Okigbo, and the lives of millions of others.” This war was the Nigerian-Biafran War, which resulted from a failed coup, a coup that was perceived to be plotted by the Igbo, Achebe’s tribe. “Biafra was the world's first properly televised conflict, and millions across the world were appalled by the horrors flickering on their screens,” writes Noo Saro-Wiwa in the Guardian. “Such people as Joan Baez, John Lennon, Martin Luther King and Karl Vonnegut galvanised international responses to the tragedy, in an age before 'Africa fatigue' had set in.” Achebe’s poetry is scattered throughout the book in which memoir becomes neutral historical analysis before reverting to memoir. The end of the book sees Achebe evaluate his country and prescribe recuperative measures: “The final chapter is an exhortation to better governance,” writes Saro-Wiwa, “in which he examines corruption, ethnic bigotry, state failure and the steps Nigeria must take to rehabilitate itself.” “Achebe, as an African intellectual, is perfectly placed to ask the important questions about why so few of the newly independent nations became, by most measures, successful,” writes Tim Ecott in The Telegraph. “Nigeria, he argues, had people of great quality, and its chaotic, shambolic, corrupt society is 'a great disappointment'.”

Ian Rankin in Edinburgh (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/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