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Waiting for the bees and the blossom of the cherry plum

The author Katherine Swift gives us her reflection on spring, a time of the returning sun and fresh life in the garden. 

Illustration by Laura Carlin

Illustration by Laura Carlin

‘‘Look! We have come through.”

Some years you can smell it before you see it, like a trav­eller scenting land after months at sea – a smell of greenness that suddenly catches you unawares. Sometimes it’s the sight of the early-morning sun striking the corner of the window for the first time in months and you realise that the earth is swinging back towards the equinox once more. Sometimes it’s a sound: the birds beginning to sing again in the darkness before a February dawn. Or a feel: the texture of the claggy earth rubbed between finger and thumb, feeling dry and crumbly at last. Every year there is something that makes you think, “Yes! It’s here.”

But this winter has never seemed to end – no tidemark of returning sun, no sudden smell of greenness. Paradoxically, it never even seemed to begin. The grass went on growing; the horticultural fleece lay unused in piles in the shed; tender plants, unprotected, went unscathed. There were roses in bloom at Christmas and Lent lilies in January. Six weeks of gales and floods but never a frost.

The bell-ringers’ annual service was on 1 February, the Saturday before Candlemas. Parts of the garden were still underwater and the wind was so strong that it almost blew the plates out of my hands as I carried them into the church for tea. There was to be an hour and a half of ringing, then the service, then tea – mounds of sandwiches and scones, cakes and quiches, all laid out on tables in the back of the church – then the AGM and another hour or so of ringing. It was already dark when we sat to listen to the sermon. The vicar took for her text the story of Candlemas: how Simeon and Anna, two superannuated temple attendants who have been hanging on to see the birth of the Messiah, recognise him at last in the baby Mary brings.

And that’s when Simeon says the Nunc Dimittis – the lovely canticle that gives Candlemas its name:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word:

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation

Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;

A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

The words are familiar from compline and evensong and from funerals and memorial services. But we don’t know how old Simeon was. It’s always assumed that he was ancient. Perhaps he was young, the vicar said, one of those fervent young men who hang about and make a nuisance of themselves – a fan, a geek, just someone determined not to go away until he saw the Messiah. The point was that he persevered. Whatever age he was, she said, she felt God would have said to him: “Well done. You made it. You came through.”

Earlier in the day I had gone up the garden to check if the bees needed feeding again. I have been feeding them since before Christmas. Disease and the vagaries of the weather nowadays mean that every year a high proportion of bee colonies fails to survive the winter. One colony in particular was a cause for concern – a late swarm that hadn’t had time to make enough honey to last it through to spring. Cautiously, trying not to let the cold air in, I tilted the roof of the hive just enough to be able to slide another pot of bee candy over the hole in the crown board. I hadn’t seen the bees themselves since long before Christmas.

Waiting to see if the bees will re-emerge in spring is always an anxious time. Whatever I am doing in the garden – pruning roses, cutting out dead wood – I always find myself drifting up to look at the silent hives. This year the unceasing rain and wind had kept me, and them, penned indoors longer than usual. But then one day – a  gap in the rain – it was a little warmer and suddenly there they were, like a wisp of smoke above the hive. Creeping closer, I watched them coming and going on the alighting board. The queen was laying. All was well.

On my way back to the house I saw that the sudden warmth had also brought out the blossom of the cherry plum, a froth of white against the winter-dark hedges. There were red shoots of peonies in the rose border and silvery tufts of growth on the woody stems of the clematis. There was even a solitary snake’s head fritillary in bud in the sodden Lammas meadow.

Nothing to eat in the vegetable garden yet but as I passed the spinney I picked hawthorn buds, Jack-by-the-hedge and wild garlic leaves and made a wild salad to add to the last of the apples in the fruit store – Norfolk Beefing and Lane’s Prince Albert – together with a handful of walnuts picked last September from the trees behind the hives, and added them to the shop-bought celery languishing in the fridge: the taste of spring, that sharp mixture of old and new, hope and regret. It’s here, arrived at last, slipped under the wire when I wasn’t looking.

I fetch from the bookshelf D H Lawrence’s cycle of love poems – the chronicle of his first stormy months with Frieda – and read “Spring Morning”: “We have come through.”

Katherine Swift is the author of “The Morville Hours: the Story of Garden” (Bloomsbury, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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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