I recently re-read Redmond O’Hanlon’s excellent book Trawler. Redmond—writer, naturalist and academic—embarks on an Orkney Islands trawler sailing from Stromness. It is mid January and a Category One Force 12 hurricane is forecast. The entire North Sea fishing fleet is sitting snug in port but the Norlantean’s skipper Jason Schofield has a 2 million quid overdraught and can’t afford to miss a day’s fishing.
Nicknamed ‘Worzel Gummidge’ by the crew, Redmond, knowing little about boats except that their shapes are ‘as pleasing as a buttock’, is sick. But he immediately rallies and, fighting down his stomach while being hurled around the boat by the high seas, launches in to the work of sorting and gutting. Painfully aware of his soft-bellied, south-of-England background, he determines to work the same hours as the crew.
The crew can’t fathom ‘Old Worzel’ though, and at times you half expect them to sling him down the scupper-chute with the off-quota catch. Nobody can understand why anybody would willingly just come along for the ride, would want to go out in a Category One Force 12 hurricane. But as the force 12 arrives we realise that it isn’t going to take centre stage. It stays in the wings crashing and banging about like a drunken thespian doing a quick change. Not that there is anything comic about it, quite the reverse.
This book takes place inside a steel trawler. A male domain with flattened out cardboard boxes for carpet and a galley full of the fug of high calorie cooking and cigarette smoke. The feared sea is a dark presence beyond the rusting hull. It’s something that nobody wants to think about too much. The searing wind, the huge waves, the freezing depths are too terrible to be given quarter within the boat. Everyone knows somebody who’s been lost at sea. Only Redmond has the inclination to gaze at the horizon, but don’t expect a spellbinding description of wind, water and light because even he is too busy and sleep deprived.
Trawler is a manic, shouted text of enthusiastic monologues and sleep-starved harangues, reflecting the mad monotony of trawling. It doesn’t make for particularly easy or enjoyable reading. It’s disjointed, wild and edgy and there are more exclamation marks than in a teenager’s secret diary, but it does come over as an authentic recreation of what the north Atlantic deep-sea trawler fishery is like. As you plough through it, feeling pop-eyed and seasick, Redmond brings you face to face with the sleep deprived crew and you realise that the book is a tribute to the men who risk their lives fishing and to O’Hanlon’s guardian and mentor aboard the Norlantean; the marine biologist Luke Bullough.
This is O’Hanlon’s great achievement. Despite the erudition, the fascinating details of deep-sea species, the comedy and self-depreciation the winning feature of the book is the sense that you are getting the real story. It might not have been his original idea—about two thirds of the way through the book the crew rant about the various injustices facing trawlermen on land. In one of the most emotive passages in the book Robbie Stanger implores O’Hanlon to, if ever he does write the book, “tell the truth; then—we can give the book to our wives, women, our girls, whatever, that’s the point, that why Jason had you aboard…So we can give the book, if ever you do it, whatever, to our women.” Robbie goes on to ask, “Can you get our women to understand what happens out here? Can you? Because we canna tell them ourselves, that’s for sure, because they wouldna believe it—and no matter what, every last one of them seems to think that we want to be out here, that we want to be with the boys, whatever, or that we love the sea…So maybe your book, even if it’s a piece of shite, maybe she’ll read it and understand a peedie bit and love us, and aye, maybe she’ll let us sleep straight out for two days and nights when we get home—and then we’ll have sex!”