Endurance test: Houses close to the Hoe in Plymouth. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Will Self: Plymouth is for me ever associated with a certain outwardly bound derring-do

As I sat in the cavernous and entirely empty dining room, delicately abstracting flesh-flakes from my perfectly poached cod, my only desire was that I could stay longer. Much longer.

Plymouth should, I think, be twinned with Hull: both are oddly remote-feeling cities for our right, tight little island. Hull, unlike Plymouth, at least has a motorway connection, but the Devonian capital must have felt like ultima Thule last winter when the mainline rail connection was severed in the storms. The cab driver who took me from the reconnected station to my hotel descanted on the depredations of wartime bombing, and how the brutalist/modernist and now postmodernist rebuilding of Plymouth has never compensated for the dreadful damage caused by wartime bombing. I must say I’m beginning to find this excuse – which can be heard in South­ampton and Coventry et al as well – a little grating; I mean, it’s been nearly 70 years since VE Day, surely time enough to effect civic beautifying.

Mind you, the only extended stay I’ve ever had in Plymouth was in the mid-1970s and mostly spent underwater. A friend of my brother’s, Bob Farrell, was a marine archaeologist who at that time was diving on a wreck in Plymouth harbour. Out of the goodness of his large heart he enrolled me, aged 15, in the fortnight-long British Sub-Aqua Club course at Fort Bovisand. All the other diving trainees were in their twenties or older, but I manned up, and despite it being April, spent many frigid hours squatting on the seabed laboriously completing emergency drills with my appointed buddy. (You have to be able to remove all of your kit and replace it while sharing a single scuba apparatus.) One day we drove to a leisure centre and passed the afternoon sitting on the bottom of a particularly deep swimming pool – but beyond this I can remember very little of the locale.

Still: remoteness, Francis Drake bowling on the Hoe, me diving in the harbour – you get the picture; Plymouth is for me ever associated with a certain outwardly bound derring-do. The cabbie dropped me at the Duke of Cornwall, an imposing late-Victorian edifice with the top-heavy lines of an Atlantic steamer redesigned by a disciple of Augustus Pugin. Despite being under the auspices of a large chain, the hotel didn’t seem to have had much by way of a refurb’ since at least the mid-1980s: unseasonable palms lurked in the tiled vestibule, and the original bell board was still on the wall by the lift, complete with buttons for signalling to the Writing Room and the Manager’s Sitting Room. As I checked in I sensed the deep, looming vacuity of the establishment: an ambience somewhere between the Overlook Hotel and Last Year at Marienbad. And as I sat in the cavernous and entirely empty dining room, delicately abstracting flesh-flakes from my perfectly poached cod, my only desire was that I could stay longer. Much longer.

A desire that was only sharpened when I saw the brass plaque that had been put up on the patch of wall on the other side of the lift; this told me that Ernest Shackleton had stayed at the Duke of Cornwall on 7 August 1914, the night before he sailed in his ship, the Endurance, bound for his final expedition: an attempt to reach the South Pole from the Weddell Sea that ended up with him and his men stranded in pack ice for months. As I’ve had cause to remark before, there’s nothing I like more, when the evenings draw in and the wind gusts hard, than to lie in bed – preferably in an overheated old pile like the Duke of Cornwall – and read about the British officer class getting their bollocks frozen off in Antarctica. That Schadenfreude having been acknowledged, Shackleton is by far the most sympathetic of the frozen-stiff-upper-lips: he never lost a man (and treated his men well), and while he may’ve been driven, it wasn’t by the same imperialist demons as that loathsome narcissist, Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

I went to my bed up the great and yawning staircase, admiring the thick pile of the runner, which was patterned with three ostrich feathers argent, the ducal crest. My room was snug; the electric kettle boiled and I settled down to my hoosh of tea and courtesy Jammie Dodgers (three-pack, naturally). It was difficult to imagine somewhere more powerfully somnolent, and as I undressed I gaily anticipated unconsciousness as heavy and blubbery as an elephant seal descending on my febrile head.

Then, hanging my jacket up, I was arrested by a bizarre sort of ledge that had been implanted in the bottom of the corner cupboard. I suppose it was intended as a shelf for shoes, but the way it had been neatly covered in the same red Axminster as the rest of the room struck me as hilarious – our human interiors are like that, aren’t they, always enacting a transformation of the utile into the decorative, or the cosy. Or at any rate, trying to enact it: the more I looked at the triangular carpeted shelf, the more absurd it seemed. And then the talking began in the room above.

There were several loud and excitable speakers, and it sounded like a language spoken somewhere far to the east of Plymouth; not Hull, but possibly Afghanistan. I wondered why exactly a loya jirga was being held in the Duke of Cornwall Hotel at midnight on a Tuesday evening in late October – but not for long: the silence had been deafening, and I was happy to slip into sleep serenaded in Pashto – or possibly Dari; it seemed entirely in keeping with my remote situation. 

Next week: Real Meals

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

ADAM DEAN/EYEVINE
Show Hide image

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