Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton star as a married couple caught in conflict in Half of a Yellow Sun. Photograph: Slate Films
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Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film

Half of a Yellow Sun, dir: BiyiBandele, cinemas nationwide, Friday 11th April

The film adaptation of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2006 novel is released today. The screenplay (adapted by director Biyi Bandele) tells the story of the Nigerian-Biafran War in 1967-1970, from the perspectives of four different people whose lives were torn apart by the conflict. The story is a rare example of an African struggle being presented to a Western audience by African voices, although the legacy of colonialism, from all perspectives, is by no means ignored. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton follow up their respective Oscar and BAFTA successes by taking on starring roles which explore the social, political and ethnic tensions of this often overlooked conflict.

Television

True Detective, Sky Atlantic, 9pm, Saturday 12th April

The first series of another one of the "greatest things to happen to television" finishes tonight (that is if you were patient enough to avoid the HBO Go website a few weeks ago, which crashed due to huge amount of traffic the finale garnered). The final episode is both thrilling and poignant, although some critics have said that it lets down the "meticulous mystery" of the previous seven episodes. Nevertheless, it is sure to still draw in viewers and cement Matthew McConaughey’s status as a heavy-duty actor; his performance as Detective Rust Cohle has been credited with lifting the sometimes laboured dialogue into cinematic profundity. How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days seems long lost indeed.

Performance

Soul Trip: Funk Da Cirque, Camden Roundhouse, Friday 11th-Sunday 13th April

Following on from its hugely successful 2012 debut, CircusFest returns to the Roundhouse this weekend. Soul Trip displays the talents of some of the best young street dancers and acrobats from across London, who have recently taken to the stage at the National Theatre and Camp Bestival 2013. The dancers, all aged 11-25, fuse street dance and ground-based acrobatics to test the limits of human rhythm and flexibility. A combination of boogaloo, house, waakin’ and b-boying with theatre, acrobatics, human pyramids and body percussion is sure to tire out the audience, let alone the performers.

Concert

Gary Barlow, Manchester Phones 4U Arena, Monday 14th April

Gary Barlow is back on the road, promoting his new album, Since I Saw You Last (jokes about seeing the last of Barlow can wait outside the door, thank you). Although his re-launched solo career certainly lacks the ammo of Take That’s stratospheric comeback, Barlow has cultivated a strong and loyal fan base. His status as a national icon, if not quite treasure, was confirmed with his OBE in 2012 for services to music and charity. This latest tour, which will surely feature many of the band’s classic hits, will draw in many middle-aged fans, but his appeal to young and old will see him through many more future tours.

Comedy

Russell Howard: Wonderbox, Royal Albert Hall, Monday 14th-Thursday 17th April

Firmly established as a household name, Russell Howard returns for his first live stand-up tour in three years. Fans of his boyish charm may be surprised to learn that he is in fact now 34, but nonetheless, Howard's energetic and enthused routine makes him the boyish antithesis to the Jack Whitehall’s public school breed of rugger humour. His Wonderbox tour has already been called "juvenile" and "smutty", but combined with searing observations about English parochial life ("Some families in England have to wait two weeks for their wheelie bins to be collected. Their suffering is unimaginable"), Howard has managed to tread carefully the line between middle England and its discreetly base sense of humour.

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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