Redmond O'Hanlon, Trawler Review

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jfderry's review of Redmond O'Hanlon, Trawler


“Trawler ”

Written on: 22/11/2004 by jfderry (208 reviews written)

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By Redmond O'Hanlon

Redmond O'Hanlon has previously shown us his aptitude for exploration in his other books; Into the Heart of Borneo, In Trouble Again and Congo, and, as a past natural history editor of The Times Literary Supplement, he should know a little about marine life. So why, in his latest book Trawler, does he find himself all at sea? Perhaps there are more reasons than simply that Redmond lacks sea legs; he is a landlubber, born with scarecrow's legs. His shipmates aboard Jason Schofield's The Norlantean gave him the nickname "Worzel." This was probably through affection rather than derision, because Worzel was good company, and mucked in with the rest of the lads. But, he was unlike the others, and perhaps the crew's disease with Redmond's imposed presence (he bought his place for £50-a-day) does help to explain some of the imbalances in Trawler's narrative.

The premise is sound. Head off into the worst weather you can imagine to errr, to . Well that bit isn't actually revealed, or is it lost at sea? We're simply told that Redmond wants the roughest seas and that's when he gets the call to high tail it to the Orkneys to join The Norlantean, with an owner in so much debt that he has no choice about when to go fishing. The result is that Redmond gets his rough sea, all he way up to "extreme destruction, devastation" on the Beaufort Scale, and all the way down to the head when it was actually calm enough to chuck his guts. So, why did he do it? Well, I'm reliably told that initially this book was going to be about Redmond's travels around the UK. What happened to the rest of the story is a mystery, but perhaps his publisher's persuasion got the better of him. Perhaps there was more of a book in the first draft, but cut down, like a Greenland halibut passing swiftly through the skilled hands of a knife-wielding trawlerman. Some inevitably ends up on the gutting room floor.

So, to provide you with some context, here is Redmond O'Hanlon, reputed author, plebeian academic and adventurer, not to be otherwise confused with an expert on 'Irish Stage Versions of Greek Tragedy' nor a well-known gallant rapparee from Ulster, who share his name. With several exotic missions under his belt, our Redmond now chooses a somewhat comparatively domestic excursion into the North Sea aboard a deep sea fishing trawler in the guise of a research assistant to Luke Bullough, a marine science postgraduate and ex-lifeboatman. The rest of Jason's crew comprises hardened trawlermen. Thus Bullough, a seaward-gazing free spirit, at home amongst the deafening void of the parochial Hebridean wilderness, has fewer bridges to build with the other crewmembers than does our trespassing author, who lives somewhere in the leafy environs of dreamily-spired cosmopolitan Oxford. Indeed, Luke has already ingratiated himself with Jason, owner of The Norlantean, and arguably the most important individual onboard (arguable because the mechanic receives the only salary) by talking turkeyfish with his publication on deep-sea hauls. And who is this O'Hanlon? Och, he's a famous writer. He's going to tell the world the truth about who brings them their fish supper.

Although at first appearances this seems to be a book about fish, in typical fashion Redmond actually focuses more on the humans involved, while using bizarre animal subjects as ritual decoration. Some piscine pics would have helped augment Redmond's wonderful descriptions of unearthly creatures lurking in the bottom of the trawler's net. Instead his anthropic focus is essentially reflected by the lack of fishy photos, entirely substituted by snapshots of his shipmates. Not so much the "wonder of nature", but wonderment at the wonder about nature. This is why throughout his description of life onboard The Norlantean and its dramatic effect on his own psyche, Redmond's true fascination is betrayed by his absorption in the turbulent Force 10 psychology that bounces around the shipmates' repetitive slimy metallic existent. While his genius writing is wrapped up in a carapace of natural history, Redmond is really a natural sociologist, an explorer of tribal bonds and raw human emotion. But, too often, this calling drives him to distraction, an insatiable itch that someone has to suffer. James Fenton wore the brunt of it in Borneo, and Simon Stockton in the Amazon. Redmond himself lost his wits and detailed every painstaking moment in the Congo.

Now, in Trawler, incarcerated in a tin box on a violent sea, like a thimble in aspic, he is forced to look through a microscope at his own consciousness, but his reader is left disappointed when he finds not much more than piscine pudenda. Redmond's self-depreciation is mainly based on the age difference between him and the others, which he contrasts in deference to the rugged youngsters about him, but there is also a greater, cultural divide. Throughout northern Scotland, the differences can be felt moving from island-to-island and chiefly from island-to-mainland, so inevitably soft Worzel O'Hanlon didn't stand a chance amongst these hard Celtic islanders. His inability to engage with these guys, or find the opportunity to engage with them, or effectively contribute to their work effort must have been like a slap in the stomach with a wet kipper when Redmond eventually sat at his desk. "Shit! So what am I going to write about?" Maybe this explains why Trawler gets cast adrift, and why narrative is submerged under deeply disturbing dialogue.

Literary dialogue is a construct, a vehicle for storytelling that suits the introspective purpose of this book, but perhaps fails to capture the natural fluidity of everyday conversation, especially when most dialogue is constantly drowned out by the clamour of the sea. Marine scientist Luke Bullough comes across as not so much a boffin as an automaton, regurgitating encyclopaedic fishy facts at the drop of a woolly hat. As necessary as it was to convey information about the marine life that they encountered in the gutting room, in places the penned dialogue becomes bogged down by the weight of information. Redmond might have been attempting not so much to fill us in about every detail of these marine specimens, but more he was trying to convey the enthusiasm Luke has for his subject. That as well as drawing out the onboard personalities and their unuttered grievances of daily hardships and the tough existence for them and their families. Before Trawler even got published, The Norlantean was decommissioned for scrapping which is one (far too common) way to repay the banks their loans, and I'm sure it's not the method of choice for Jason and his fellow ship owners. Notwithstanding this setback, he clearly proved his earning power or sufficiently paid off his debts for The Norlantean II to set out on its recent maiden voyage.

Trawler is a gripping and absorbing read, which is amazing given the monotony and unpleasantness of the onboard routine. Redmond's skills as an author are certainly not in doubt. The overly contrived dialogue is the main problem I had with the book, and I hope it won't impede its ulterior potential as a warning shot across the bows of the troubled fishing industry. Although, the Luke I know about is not the Redmond Luke, but a different, gently-spoken Luke, who does not gush nor apologise for his profanities, but whispers "I didn't really get on with it. I couldn't get past the second chapter". That Luke didn't stay in academia too long. Even though Redmond paints the picture of a boffin, all the indications are there in the book and after a short stint at the North Atlantic Fisheries College, the real Luke went back to the lifeboats on Shetland. But, aye, it's a beautiful sight, his own pretty wee sloop "Alcyon", dwarfed by Aith's giant 17 m Severn Class All Weather lifeboat.

However, never fear if you're a naturalist used to, and expecting, Redmond's enthusiasm for nature. There's enough of his usual obsession with reproductive biology adorned with anecdotes of great scientists like W. D. Hamilton, and passing discussion of their work, like Ernst Mayer. After all, Redmond does have a doctorate titled Changing Scientific Concepts of Nature in the English Novel, 1850-1920 from which there was spawned his first brilliantly intelligent book Joseph Conrad and Charles Darwin: The Influence of Scientific Thought on Conrad's Fiction. Compared to this and his other books, I would doubt that Redmond considers Trawler anywhere near his best work. His usual brilliance does not surface and the routine monotony he experienced confines his narrative. His writing is claustrophobic. Some magic moments survive and Redmond's fine writing skills are evident throughout, but, I suspect that the book resulted from an impromptu opportunity, or obligation, that did not fully realise its potential, either as a psychologically thrilling journey into typical O'Hanlon realms, nor as the perhaps intended treatise on suffering in the North Sea fishing communities. Damn those literary agents!

J.F. Derry


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