Book Reviews - Review 408
Category: Miscellaneous | Published: 2003 | Review Added: 06-03-2021
For his fourth book, Redmond O'Hanlon had been planning a jungle trip to New Guinea, but the project fell through, and he had to choose a less ambitious adventure, closer to home. He settled on the idea of joining a trawler crew in the middle of winter.
For reasons both practical and economic, trawler captains can't afford to have allcomers on board without good reason, and it took O'Hanlon a year of negotiations and planning to wangle his way onto a boat, the Norlantean. He was to be the nominal assistant to Luke Bullough, a marine biologist who would work on the trawler for free in return for access to specimens of interesting fish. O'Hanlon, useful for nothing but a bit of hamfisted fish-gutting, paid £50 a day for the privilege of joining the crew.
The crew's attitude to O'Hanlon is mostly tolerant. They appreciate his willingness to muck in; and his lack of "sea legs" and his misplaced determination to engage them in intellectual conversation meet with general amusement. One of them assures the author that "we've never had such laughs".
Not that laughs are what life on a trawler is about. The captain of the Norlantean is in debt by two million pounds from the purchase of his boat. Drowning is a certainty if the boat's engine fails or if it turns beam-on to the wind in bad weather.
But the most prominent and unremitting hardship is lack of sleep. For two or three weeks at a time, trawlermen snatch about an hour's sleep a day, and consequently have to take in their stride hallucinations and the weakening of rational thought. Their minds, unable to get proper rest, organise themselves by incessant conversation, and it is this conversation, often incoherent but candid, that provides O'Hanlon with most of the material for his book. Indeed, he shows rather little interest in the practicalities of trawling, focussing more on the lives of his companions: Robbie, a wiry brawler who spent three months in jail for assaulting a pair of police officers ("Prison - I'm telling you, marvellous! A holiday! A hotel for trawlermen!"); First Mate Bryan, laconic and gentle, who worries that he loves his wife too much; and a young man, Allan, whose life unravelled after he inherited a fortune but couldn't handle the freedom and spent the lot, leaving a trail of problems and complicated commitments behind him. He had to return to the trawlerman's life he thought he'd escaped for good.
For this reason, Allan is the most embittered and belligerant of the crew, and in a scene that O'Hanlon makes the book's climax, he launches into a tirade against the author with a penetrating analysis of his motivation:
O'Hanlon is so hurt that he escapes into a sudden access of sleep, planting his head onto his dinner plate. There is something touching about the author's childlike candour in recounting this incident, and in his almost pathological desire to be liked and cared for by his companions. Trawler is as much about him as about the trawlermen, and the book has in common with his others a distinct confessional quality.
It must be said that Trawler is written with less discipline and wit than O'Hanlon's earlier books. It is fascinating and often poignant, but conversations are recorded at excessive length, there is much waffle and digression, and there is little sense of what work on the ship was like, or of the passage of time - the reader isn't clear whether the book records two days at sea, or two weeks.
The dialogue, too, sometimes does not ring true, though this may partly be due to O'Hanlon's overuse of italics, a technique presumably intended to increase the sense of urgency and drama, but that merely makes the characters sound like those in a Marvell comic strip.
The reader will become well-versed in the subject of fish, thanks to O'Hanlon's and Luke's long discussions of piscine biology - if rather less well in how to catch them.
Trawler is a readable book that, at its best, says a lot about human nature in the face of adversity. It couldn't have been written by anyone other than this eccentric depressive thrill-seeker.