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Geoff Dyer: “There should be an annual festival devoted to me”

Geoff Dyer likes to take down “dim-witted academics”. So what happened when he turned up at a conference on . . . Geoff Dyer?

In Geoff Dyer’s sixth book, Out of Sheer Rage, the narrator – who may be a representative of the author, a fictional persona, or a mixture of the two – is preparing to speak at an academic conference in Denmark. More exactly, he is failing to prepare. He has come down with what he calls “a virulent strain of the flu”. When he eventually arrives at the podium, clutching no more than a few scribbled notes, he begins to improvise, deconstructing the subject of his scholarly paper: “D H Lawrence and Englishness”.

“Let’s think about the two parts of this, uh, statement,” he says, alarmed to realise that people have started to take notes. “Do we mean he was a writer who was English? Or that he was an Englishman who wrote? Or both? And even when we concentrate on just one of these two terms we discover that that too is made up of two parts: English and man.” He continues to parse his thesis – that Lawrence is a problematic figure about whom it is difficult to say very much – for another 40 minutes or so, during which time his nose starts bleeding. Eventually he sits down, humiliated, coughing up blood in an attempt to provoke sympathy from a group of people he has spent a great deal of energy deriding and despising – those murderers of literature, academics.

And so I couldn’t help but smile on a recent, drizzly afternoon when an earnest, hyper-intelligent historian from Queen Mary, University of London, concluded a lecture entitled “What Colour Was the 1990s?” – an echo of Dyer’s debut novel, The Colour of Memory (1989) – by putting his head in his hands and confessing: “I suppose I don’t know what I mean by the 1990s. I don’t know what I mean by colour.”

It was a brave and welcome admission. I had no idea what he meant either. The lecture was the eighth in a day-long series of talks being given at the first international conference dedicated to the work of the English writer Geoff Dyer, held on 11 July at Birkbeck, University of London. It was a happy occasion, only complicated slightly by the fact that Dyer himself was seated in the back row throughout the day, taking notes with a yellow pencil on a floppy white pad. The main problem was one of etiquette. “When speaking about the work, use Dyer,” urged Dr Bianca Leggett, the convenor of the conference, in her opening remarks. “When speaking about the man in the room, use Geoff.”

For the next eight hours a series of professors and researchers took their turn in front of the audience to systematically abuse this rule. One speaker, whose paper focused on a great but unfinished opera by the name of Roggerio, felt no need to mention him at all. All the while Geoff sat silently, taking notes. “It’s the only time I’ve ever been in any kind of seminar where I have been unquestionably the leading authority on the subject,” he said later. “I’ve got so much to say, I can hardly wait.”

I first met the man in the room ten days earlier at an art fair in Chelsea, where he was chairing a discussion with the Hackney-based photographer Tom Hunter. There was champagne before the event, which I sipped while reading about Thomas Piketty in a complimentary issue of Vanity Fair. I was glad to see Dyer, who is 56, looking well, after hearing about his ischaemic stroke earlier in the year, which had temporarily impaired his vision. “I’m absolutely fine,” he told me, thanks to statins and “cutting down on pastries”. I asked him how he was feeling about the upcoming conference, especially given his protest in Out of Sheer Rage (1997) that the hallmark of academic criticism is that: “It kills everything it touches.”

“You have to bear in mind that book came out a long time ago,” he said, heading for the exit to make it home in time to watch the World Cup. “They are not ex cathedra truths, they are circumstantial.”

As one of a handful of non-academics attending the conference, I rolled my eyes when, after turning down a name-tag, an academic told me he respected my Dyer-esque refusal to be labelled. “Is it going to be like this all day?” I asked. I rolled them again every time a word like “polymorphous”, “interstitial” or “syllogistic” was deployed in attempt to pin down the genre-smashing nature of the Dyer canon – a total of 14 books made up of memoir, fiction, essays, criticism and travel writing, often within the same volume.

“One of the great privileges of my life was growing up in a house without books,” Dyer told me, three days before the conference in the study of his book-filled flat in Lad­broke Grove, west London (“We’re a no-shoe household, so wear your favourite socks,” he warned me in advance). “When I finally discovered them it was so totally transformative. This is my life’s work here, all these,” he said, pointing to the shelves.

Geoff’s mother, Phyllis “Mary” Dyer, was a school dinner lady; his father, Arthur “John” Dyer, a sheet-metal worker. (Both of them died in 2011.) As a student he progressed without great difficulty through Cheltenham Grammar School to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where his disillusionment with academia took root. “Contrary to popular belief Oxford has the highest concentration of dull-witted, stupid, narrow-minded people anywhere in the British Isles,” he wrote in Out of Sheer Rage, complaining of the “dimwit academics shovelling away at their research, digging the graves of literature”.

While this Bernhardian rant may have been trotted out for comic value, Dyer’s distaste is genuine. “There’s something awful about Oxford, I think. It’s such a little ghetto. My own trajectory has been so opposed to the standard path of education in this country, which is always moving towards finer and finer specialism. The paradox is that the ability came from that Oxford way of being taught – ie, not being taught but finding out everything for yourself.”

If the ability came from Oxford, the confidence to use it came from John Berger, the painter-turned-polymath – and art critic at the New Statesman in the 1950s – who became a kind of mentor to Dyer and the subject of his first book, Ways of Telling (1987). This combination of the autodidact’s mania for learning coupled with Berger’s insistent refusal to delineate fact from fiction produced books including But Beautiful (1991), a retelling or improvisation upon the lives of jazz legends, and The Missing of the Somme (1994), an extended essay, with all the deviation readers have come to expect from Dyer’s work, on the cultural memory of the First World War.

These examples typify his approach to non-fiction: gorging on a specific subject for a year or two then moving on. “The person doing the learning is the person writing the book as much as the person reading it,” he wrote in his 2005 book about photography, The Ongoing Moment.

That these early books did not sell particularly well may not come as a surprise. “This is exactly how you do not go about establishing a successful literary career, or a brand,” Dyer said in the Q&A that concluded the conference. It did, however, remove any pressure to please an existing audience – “Because there was none!” – allowing him to follow the digressive course of his curiosity and build a reputation over time. “Lawrence said that one sheds one’s sickness in books,” he writes in the final pages of Out of Sheer Rage. “I would say one sheds one’s interest.” The same holds true for his most recently published book, a record of two weeks spent as writer in residence on board a US navy aircraft carrier: the USS George H W Bush.

Another Great Day at Sea (2014) immerses the reader in a disciplined, martial, rubber-and-steel universe where deviation from the chain of command is unthinkable and “lessons are written in blood”. “It’s not necessarily a dangerous business,” explains one pilot (nicknamed “Disney”), “just terribly unforgiving of mistakes.” It is arguably the occupation most opposed to Dyer’s: physical, regimented, with terrible food.

“I was definitely conscious of that when I signed up,” he told me. “You join up to the military and that’s the last free decision you ever have to make, whereas in the writing life all you’re doing is making decisions, about one word or another. As I wrote in the book, ‘It’s a self-discipline which is almost indistinguishable from self-indulgence.’ Those two ways of living mirrored each other quite nicely, I think.”

It’s also the place where his admiration for all things American shows most clearly. The writer in his “cranial” helmet and “float coat” appears every bit as doltish, charming and naive as Louis Theroux in his early documentaries, only without the whiff of contempt. Dyer really does admire Americans – their dependable manners, commitment to liberty and overwhelmingly can-do attitude. If anything highlights the gap that has opened up between Dyer and Berger since they first met for a Marxism Today interview in 1984, it is Dyer’s refusal to argue with anyone on the ship. “I am not a confident debater,” he says in his defence.

Another thing he claims not to be is a reporter. He describes himself as a tourist: “a marine anthropologist whose data was so thoroughly and distortingly mixed up with the means of obtaining it that it probably had no value as data”. He avoids winding up on a British ship, fearing “the accents, the audible symptoms of the top-to-bottom, toff-to-prole hierarchy that is so clearly manifest in the British military”. His love of America, where he and his wife, the Saatchi Art curator Rebecca Wilson, now spend most of their time, away from the toxicity of class and British negativity, is not new.

“A key part of my formation as a writer is that I didn’t read people like Evelyn Waugh until later on,” he said. “I decided as a protest I would never read Kingsley Amis, because he was always saying he was never going to read people like Saul Bellow and Joseph Heller, who I read instead.” Amis is a surprising omission given that his debut novel Lucky Jim (1954) contains, in Jim Dixon’s “Merrie England” speech, the best-known conference parody in literature.

Which brings us to the question that most intrigued delegates at the inaugural Geoff Dyer conference, that of “Geoff Dyer and Englishness”. One participant argued his work was un-English; another, the University of East Anglia’s Jonathan Gibbs, praised him for “putting on page the shivering rage that never comes out at the world”, a symptom of “weapons-grade Englishness”, while a French audience member stated that though she loved his books, her English friend couldn’t stand them. The English friend happened to be sitting next to her and began shaking his head in Dyer’s direction, eyes wide in alarm. They all agreed that the essence, whatever it was, lay in his “vinegary” sense of humour.

Dyer answered with a quote from Lawrence’s letters: “English in the teeth of all the world, even in the teeth of England,” suggesting that hating England was perhaps every bit as English as identifying with it. Maybe more so.

At the end of the day Dyer conceded that he might have misconstrued the masochistic impulses of academia, happily proposing the inauguration of “an annual, weekly, not conference but festival devoted to me”. Afterwards we all disappeared to the pub, which everybody knows is the real purpose of these intellectual get-togethers: to share a room with people who harbour the same obsessions you do, then drink them under the table. So what next for Geoff? Ironically, teaching. In the past few years he has taught non-fiction workshops and reading courses (“This isn’t a course, it’s just a book group,” one student objected) at Iowa and Columbia universities and will move on to Austin, Texas, next year.

“Teaching is great: I enjoy the sort of parasitic, vampiric relationship I have with the students. One problem, though, is they all want to write memoirs,” he says. His own reading these days is mostly “straight-down-the-line history books”, thousand-page tomes by Pulitzer-winners such as Taylor Branch and Richard Rhodes.

“I’m one of the people who seem to have licensed the ‘I’m meant to write about this book but I’m just going to write how I got stoned instead’ essay – but it only works for certain subjects. It has to lead you into a deeper appreciation of the subject than could have been attained in a more direct way. It’s like those legal highs,” he said. “Some of them can get you pretty messed up. Really they ought to be proscribed.”

Geoff Dyer is a judge for the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction, in association with the New Statesman

Portrait by Eva Vermandel for New Statesman

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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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