O’Hanlon was less than eager to undertake
the journey that is the subject of his latest book,
Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic.
As he tells us in the book’s opening pages,
the only reason he left his family and warm, comfortable
house was the fact that he’d signed a contract
for a book to be titled The Wild Places of Britain.
Many readers may wonder, What
wild places of Britain?
“[I]t’s not that absurd,
there really is a wild place in Britain, wild in
world terms, wild however you look at it; and it’s
called the deep sea; the continental shelf edge,
the abysmal plain, the British North-east Atlantic,”
O’Hanlon assures us.
One problem: O’Hanlon didn’t
have any experience in the North Atlantic (his specialty
is the rain forest).
But never mind.
readily (perhaps too readily) encouraged him to
journey mid-winter up to Scotland, where he boards
a trawler bound for the frigid North Atlantic, which
happens to be experiencing a hurricane — “the
worst weather at the worst time of year,”
the skipper cheerfully tells him. (Facing a £2
million debt incurred when he converted the trawler
to deep-sea fishing, the trawler’s owner is
forced to go to sea obsessively, no matter what
the weather; when they leave port for O’Hanlon’s
trip, all other trawlers stay home.)
No big deal.
Another problem: trawlermen have
the highest death-rate of any workers in Britain.
Then there’s the matter
of sleep deprivation. O’Hanlon is told that
as a member of the crew he will get an average of
three hours’ sleep in thirty-six, and this
(finally) gives him pause. But he’s already
onboard when he learns this, and there’s no
turning back at that point.
What can you do?
Sounds like guaranteed fun, eh?
After all, O’Hanlon is a master of the hapless
adventure tale. His tone is a pitch-perfect blend
of alarm and self-doubt, and a reader will find
himself rooting for O’Hanlon’s seemingly
unlikely survival in a way he never would for a
cocky writer assured of his macho immortality. Nobody,
we know, is really going to perish on this
outing because O’Hanlon wouldn’t dare
to recount a tragedy in this comic voice. But it’s
fun to pretend, isn’t it?
Actually, it is. But it’s
not as nearly perfect a gem as some of O’Hanlon’s
Like all travel writing, I suppose,
it all comes down to place. Compared to O’Hanlon’s
typical tropical settings, Trawler is a
bit limited in range. There’s the sea (relentlessly
deadly) and there’s the work below deck (relentlessly
dull). The winds howl, the waves crash, the fish
are gutted. Surviving the experience may be impressive,
but readers seldom wonder what strange surprise
awaits O’Hanlon on the next page.
To entertain his readers, then,
O’Hanlon offers dialogue.
A lot of dialogue. It’s
hard to imagine him being able to record it all
in between the fish gutting and sleeping on his
feet, but it definitely sounds authentically manic.
Perhaps surprisingly, it works.
O’Hanlon engages Luke (a
marine biologist with boundless energy and an unfathomably
deep love for fish and the mysteries of the sea)
in frenzied, shouted, hallucinatory conversation
that draws us into the sort of intriguing places
the sea, in O’Hanlon’s hands, doesn’t
seem to offer. (Luke, if he had written the book,
might have made the sea’s underworld tremendously
exciting, but he would probably never have drifted
up high enough to encounter people.)
The two men are happily at odds
on enough topics to keep the narrative momentum
up, and the result reads like a zany, sleep-deprived
Platonic dialogue on fish, sex, alpha males, warfare
and the meaning of life (or the horrible lack of
Along the way, O’Hanlon
offers some beautiful passages of writing. Here,
for example, is Luke explaining to O’Hanlon
why he has covered three especially valued books
in protective paper (culled from Manila envelopes)
for their ocean voyage:
“Because, Redmond, you
understand, you must—when I’m old,
older than you, very old, if I’m lucky,
if I make it through, when I can’t go to
sea any more, I’ll tell you what I’ll
do, I’ll have a cottage by then, like I
told you, with a fire, so warm, and a
family, and we’ll all gather round, and
with my gutting knife I’ll slit the Manila
envelopes right off these three volumes, and underneath,
you know what? The covers—they’ll
be as new, like the day I first had them! They’ll
be perfect, the covers, and somehow I know they’ll
remind me of everything, all my life—well,
they’re not covers technically, of course,
there are no covers, no nonsense like that, no,
they’re the boards of the books themselves—and
the colours, the only colours in the whole big
deal are on the board, and volume one, it’s
the delicate surface blue of the calmest of days
in high summer, shading down to that dark blue
when light gives up and you can’t see in
any more and the vast world of all those miles
to go gets secret.”
For O’Hanlon, at least,
the trawlerman’s journey is largely about
running nets through deep, hidden places within
himself. Doubtless, a book about the sea’s
abysmal depths would have been compelling, but this
one certainly has its delicious moments of comedy
and existential terror.