8 NOVEMBER 2003, Page 66

Plumbing the freezing depths

Adam Nicolson

TRAWLER by Redmond O'Hanlon Hamish Hamilton, £20, pp. 339, ISBN 0241140145 pretty soon after beginning his twoweek descent into the Dantean world of the modern deep-sea North Atlantic trawler. Redmond O'Hanlon, far too old to be anywhere near one of these boats, let alone in January, let alone with a Force 12 Category One hurricane in the offing, not to speak of the burden of being Worzel Gummidge' or 'Mister Writer-Man', as the trawlermen call him, with his incomprehensibly expensive camera equipment and his vast literary-cultural-natural-historical baggage, lies in the cramped coffin of his bunk and starts to feel sick:

My gullet and stomach rose out of my body. Up above the trawlermen they flapped right and left, like fish-tails; still rising, they jinked and dipped and surged; they broke surface and, like dolphins, leapt undulating forward on the mass of a bow-wave. Go on, said the sequence of disjointed, feverish images, get this slimy head, get this long fat nematode worm of a body out of this burrow of a sleeping bag and extrude the whole lot into the lavatory.

His body responds to instructions and he spends the next hour or so staring at the bowl of the trawler's own loo, encrusted with the endlessly layered evidence of previous visits, to which from time to time he adds some more.

We have all, I am sure, stood on the quayside, probably outside Rick Stein's restaurant in Padstow, looking down, hands in pockets, into the rusty and incomprehensible guts of a trawler, full of hideously aggressive gear, a dieseled up mess of a floating abattoir, shuddered, clucked and headed off for a little Gewilrztrarniner and sole Veronique, courtesy of Rick, at £17.95 a throw. But O'Hanlon's not like that. He gets in. And you cannot help loving him for that plunge into the dreadful, looking for any riches that might he there. He shouldn't be doing it, he's 'an old fuck', an ancient mariner who knows nothing about boats, except wonderfully that their shapes are 'as pleasing as a buttock', but is full of a desire to know and know more, and yet more, and ask, and talk and talk and talk. He is never crude enough to say so, but the trawler of the title is more than the boat; it's the old man who's scouring the depths.

Trawler is a monument to a man's not wanting to be dead. It is a half-desperate attempt, despite all the impediments. to engage with the real world beyond the boringness of gravel drives and flabby bodies. It is a love letter written by O'Hanlon to the trawlermen and above all to Luke Bullough, the young handsome alpha male marine scientist who is O'Hanlon's guide and mentor during the monstrous, sleep-deprived trip. Redmond loves Luke. He wants to be Luke. He wants to set Luke up in perfect, sexy, romantic circumstances with a district nurse in the Shetlands. And in return Luke doles out the information about the mysterious mile-deep world through which the fishing boat is pulling its trawl.

It is a touching relationship. I guessed that it — or at least Luke — might be made up, but it isn't. He's a real man. On the internet you can find a paper by him on the effect of different mesh sizes on the value and size of the catch, But that doubt, the lingering suggestion of unreality is what O'Hanlon both consciously and unconsciously invites. People don't exactly have conversations in the O'Hanlon world. They bellow monologues at each other. He is not a visual writer — there is little sense of what an enormous and terrifying spectacle a midwinter hurricane must be — and so one is thrust back for any sense of the actual on to the acres of what purports to be transcribed talk. Often it works but then it doesn't. Chatting over the gutting table. beautiful Luke is meant to remark:

I. G. Priede estimated that for just two species of Rat Tails in the abyssal depths, Copyphaenoides almaties and Yaquinae, at a population density of about 200 fish per square kilometre you have a global biomass of around 150 x 106 tonnes.

He can't have! And perhaps because you know instinctively that this cannot be true, that it cannot have been written down at the time, and must have been reheated and reinformed later, with all that library work, disbelief creeps back. How real is this? Even to make that criticism feels ungenerous, because the book is soaked in a saddad love for a crew of brave young men. Ten fishermen on average die every month in British waters and page after page is energised here by the presence of the fatal chasm that opens and closes between the steel world of the boat and the dark and murderous mysteries which surround it. If you want information about the nature and practices of the North Atlantic deep trawling industry, this is not the place to look. There is the distracting high-octane buzz of O'Hanlonism itself, which is unremittingly high-energy, like the noise in an engine room above which you have to shout. Pages are thick with exclamation marks! And sometimes they are written as if a strap has been placed around O'Hanlon's testicles! But if you want to feel the vivid moment-bymoment engagement of a man with an unfamiliar version of the world and its creatures, relishing this dragging up of strangeness from the black and freezing depths, as if the trawler were not a boat but a dream machine, then you must read it.