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In the New Statesman this week: Autumn Fiction Special

This week’s New Statesman kicks off a seminal publishing season with reviews of new novels by the biggest names in British literature.

This week’s New Statesman kicks off a seminal publishing season with reviews of new novels by two British literary heavyweights, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. Our own critical prizefighter Leo Robson argues that scientists and historians have captured the brains of these two writers, now in their mid-60s, bringing them to the point where facts overpower their fiction. You can read Leo’s review online now, as a taster of our Autumn Fiction Special, which also includes:

Lionel Shriver on The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Frances Wilson on the Booker-longlisted How to Be Both by Ali Smith

Eimear McBride on The Wake by Paul Kinsnorth, published by innovative crowdfunding publisher Unbound

Rachel Holmes on The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Olivia Laing on The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Neel Mukherjee on The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation; Authority; Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Ian Sansom on J by Howard Jacobson

And finally, although he enjoys reading Shark, the latest novel by Will Self, the NS’s critic at large Mark Lawson recommends it only to unemployed readers who have both “insomnia and a catheter”, because it is a “chapter-free, gap-less, italics-and-ellipsis-strewn chunk of 480 sides”:

Although driven by considerations of plotting and pace, the structure of a work of literature often also acknowledges the ease of the reader: the crime writer Peter James recommends short chapters so that people can read two or three before going to sleep. In that sense, the ideal reader of Shark might be someone who doesn’t have a job but does have insomnia and a catheter. Even the most diligent Self fan, when confronted with such density of typography and exposition, must sometimes think: give us a break. But, in an era when publishers and reading groups exert so much pressure towards the soft read, Self (along with Philip Hensher and both Smiths [Ali and Zadie]) is saving the life of the hard read that rewards the attention demanded.

This week’s New Statesman, “The New Caliphate” is available in shops NOW. To purchase a copy, visit www.newstatesman.com/subscribe or visit the App Store.

And if that wasn’t enough to chew on, Philip Maughan has written a preview of the next clutch of new big-name novels, due out later this year:

The year’s most beautiful season is also the busiest for those in the book business. Canadian dynamo Margaret Atwood kicks off the second wave of notable titles this autumn with a new collection of dark fables, Stone Mattress, on 28 August (look out for an interview soon in the NS). Competing with her for the prize of hottest story collection of 2014 is Hilary Mantel (the deliciously titled Assassination of Margaret Thatcher lands on 25 September), Kirsty Gunn, whose Infidelities will be published on 6 November along with another Canadian, Eliza Robertson, who publishes her hotly-tipped debut Wallflowers on 16 September.

Virago will release the new novel by Marilynne Robinson on 9 October, the third instalment in the Gilead series, Lila, which tells the story of a rogue child coming to terms with her new life as a minister’s wife. Irish writer Colm Tóibín begins what might turn out to be a Robinson-style character survey in Nora Webster, when Nora, the sister who stayed behind in his 2009 novel Brooklyn, attempts to rebuild herself after a shattering bereavement.

On a break from producing the film script for Tóibín’s Brooklyn (which stars Saoirse Ronan and Domhnall Gleeson, and will be released in 2015), Nick Hornby returns on 6 November with Funny Girl, the story of a Blackpool beauty queen, Sophie Straw, beginning to doubt whether she is cut out for the showbiz world. After the unearthly cool of Jonathan Glazer’s film adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel Under the Skin, Faber returns with The Book of Strange New Things, also on an extraterrestrial theme. Peter Leigh, an evangelical Christian, is a missionary expedition to the planet of Oasis, where he must translate the Gospels into a language comprehendible to the alarmingly enthusiastic natives.

The beginning of November sees the return of Frank Bascombe, Richard Ford’s most endearing alter-ego, surveying the damage done to his New Jersey home by Hurricane Sandy in Let Me Be Frank with You. Finally, on the slippery slope to Christmas, trains and planes worldwide to fill up with copies of Us, the new novel from One Day author David Nicholls, published in hardback on 30 September.

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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