The Casual Vacancy. Photo: BBC/Bronte Film and Television Ltd
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Alan Bennett is right: if you consult the literature, hypocrisy is a very English tradition

Alan Bennett's statement that the English excel at hypocrisy has upset the national press. But he's got literature on his side.

“What I think we are best at in England, better than all the rest, is hypocrisy.” Alan Bennett’s idea of the country’s greatest achievement has, perhaps understandably, not been received warmly by much of the British press. 

But if you, like five million others, have been watching The Casual Vacancy this week, these statements may seem less controversial. J K Rowling, the latest “quintessentially English” emblem, is constantly wrestling with this ugliest of British traits in her bitterly insightful exploration of middle-class suburbia. About halfway through the second episode, at a dinner party, frustrated doctor Parminder can no longer suppress her rage at this hallmark of the fictional Pagford, after her patient, Howard, has ranted at the injustice of taxpayer-funded support for recovering addicts.

How much did your heart surgery cost? Your stay in hospital, all the staff, the drugs, the medication you’re on now? How much did that cost? And you’re supposed to honour that work that’s done on you by staying below a certain weight. But you don’t. You eat, and eat, and eat - you’re practically mainlining foie gras into your eyeballs. So all that medication has to doubled, trebled, because you’ve made a ‘lifestyle choice’. And it all costs, right down to the cream for that disgusting rash under your belly. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pounds - which means that you, Howard, are a bloody hypocrite!

In making her speech on misguided ethics, Parminder reveals the private health issues of her patient to all present at the dinner table, exposing her own personal brand of hypocrisy. But the obese “burden” on the NHS railing against state-funded addict rehabilitation and the doctor who breaks her patient’s confidentiality on moral grounds are by no means the only hypocrites in Pagford. Among many others, we watch the lawyer who cannot fight for himself; the social worker who fails to keep her promises; the brother of the deceased councillor, who, using family values to campaign for his place, privately abuses his two sons. The moral centre of the work, troubled teenager Krystal, is in contrast praised as “authentic”: as the only character seemingly incapable of superficiality, she suffers most from Pagford’s institutional insincerity.

The Casual Vacancy. Photo: BBC/Bronte Film and Television Ltd

Rowling has repeatedly commented on The Casual Vacancy’s place as part of a tradition of sprawling novels about small towns, but, just like Bennett, she also takes her place as part of a lively tradition of authors mediating on the topic of English hypocrisy.

Bleaker even than Rowling’s Pagford is Hardy’s portrayal of an England under the grip of a structural, religious hypocrisy in Jude the Obscure. It’s a sexual hypocrisy that causes divorced Jude and his married lover, Sue, to be ostracised from their community: Sue grapples with her own potential to become “such a hypocrite”.

George Eliot’s provincial English town, Middlemarch, is coloured by double standards that stretch far beyond the novel’s famously hypocritical character, Mr Bulstrode, the evangelical banker who made his fortune on stolen property and appropriated inheritance. Eliot gives the town, and, by extension, the whole of English society, a faux morality that exists only to ensure personal gain over others. It’s with a thick, dripping irony that she writes, “On the whole, one might say that an ardent charity was at work setting the virtuous mind to make a neighbour unhappy for her good.”

Elizabeth Gaskell provides a rather more affectionate portrait of the English town devoted to keeping up appearances at all costs in Cranford, as her idiosyncratic characters refuse to let their anachronistic manners and values die. The women of Cranford despair at the visible poverty of newcomer Captain Brown, despite having no money for new candles themselves, and refuse to let younger women openly date, despite their own romantic regrets. The absurdity of this outdated kind of dressing up is neatly captured when Mrs Forrester’s hairless cow is given enormous pyjamas to hide its nakedness:

Of course, the most vividly acerbic complaint about England’s hypocrisy comes from Dickens’s miserably unfair London. From Reverends Chadband (Bleak House) and Stiggins (The Pickwick Papers), the creepily faux-humble Uriah Heep (David Copperfield), to the sanctimonious surveyor Seth Pecksniff (Martin Chuzzlewit), it does not take much reading of Dickens’s corpus before one begins to wonder if he might as well have scrawled “hypocrites!” on an enormous map of England before rolling it up and beating the reader repeatedly over the head with it.

Bennett mentions Shakespeare twice in his image of English hypocrisy, and it seems likely that Shakespeare would not disagree with his hypothesis. Why else would King Lear lose England to daughters whose words and deeds stand in stark contrast to one another?

Bennett’s theory might be indignantly splashed across the Daily Mail, but from a literary perspective, his thoughts are steeped in an ironic, deeply self-aware tradition. What could be more English than that?

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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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