The great Redmond O’Hanlon is on tour for Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic
A frenzied depiction of an alien, intensely hazardous way of life, Trawler is both edifying and hugely entertaining. O’Hanlon’s is a magnificently original voice: manic, scholarly, funny, sumptuously descriptive, and more than slightly deranged.” —Jon Krakauer
Have you heard of the man that Bill Bryson has called “probably the finest writer of travel books in the English language, and certainly the most daring.”
Here is his bio from Random House:
A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society of Literature, Redmond O’Hanlon was the natural history editor of The Times Literary Supplement for fifteen years. He lives near Oxford, England, with his wife and their two children. Among contemporary travel writers, according to The Washington Post, he has the best nose for the globe’s precious few remaining blank spots . . . Long may he trudge and paddle.
He has also written No Mercy: A Journey Into the Heart of the Congo, Into the Heart of Borneo, and In Trouble Again : A Journey Between Orinoco and the Amazon.
Here is an excerpt from Michael Shapiro’s interview with Redmond O’Hanlon in A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Discuss Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration.
What was the Trawler trip like for you compared to your other journeys? In the congo, South America, and Borneo, you could set a course and go. Here you were at the mercy of the skipper and the ocean.
Very good question, no control whatever. That was part of the horror. You plan it like a novel and then people walk right out of your plot. But if somebody has got a six-foot long arrow pointing at you, the immediate reaction is to think, Jesus Christ, these are the real people at last. And I looked up the shaft of this arrow to see this impassive-looking, expressionless face, and then I thought, Shit, he’s going to kill me. But then I thought, What a classy way to go. And you sort of panic but after that of course it’s all right.
But that’s wonderful in a way, and romantic, and plugs into a long tradition and you just cannot help feeling flattered: this guy is taking the trouble to kill you. It’s man to man. It’s thoroughly personal, whereas, even the tail end of a hurricane is terrifying, a vast, indifferent ocean out there that couldn’t give a damn about anybody. It all seems to be coming for you, though you know it isn’t. And you don’t think, What a classy way to go, you think you might bet a couple of paragraphs in The Times (of London) if you’re lucky.
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It happens to them all the time, twenty-six vessels went down in ’98, the last figures I’ve got, which is astonishing. And just a freak of statistics: twenty-six people drowned. There were 388 accidents, and that’s interesting because after I left, Sean, the youngest one on the boat, he cut the top of his thumb off with a gutting kife. Now you don’t stop for thatnot just that, but it doesn’t register as an accident. I heard three weeks ago that Jerry Thompson, the cookthey have no sleep so he was probably steadying himself with a winch, and the winch took off and he lost several fingers. So I rang Robbie and said, “How many is several?’ and he said “Four and three quarter fingers.” But you don’t stop for that either, you just bind the stump up. And they carried on fishing, but that does qualifyjustas an accident. Grim, but they’re all self-employed so they have no industrial compensation or anything. The community absorbs the injuries as it were. The rest of them carry on.
Trawler was meant to be The Wild Places of Britainit was going to be a tour all around the wild placesand then I realized there certainly were some proper wild places, even in European terms, but they’re all off the 200-mile limit in the Atlantic, so that was terrifying. And then this recurrent fear that I’ve had since I was a kid…I grew up in a vicarage so there was never any money. You could always have a holidaythe Anglican church here had an arrangement with the Church of Scotlandso my dad would swap his parish with a minister and we’d go up to Orkney and have a wonderful time.
I remember when I wa eight years oldit’s not in the book my dad passed down his binoculars. We were standing on a little cliff on Shapinsay, one of these islands; it was August but there was a big swell running. And it was pretty special, first time he’d handed me his binoculars, and he said, ” I want you to look at this.” There was this small Scottish trawler and she was blue, very blue, on the top of a wave one minute and in the next disappeared, couldn’t even see the masthead. So naturally, as an eight-year-old, I thought, Christ they’ve sunk. And then, they popped up again as, as if she’d come from the bottom of the sea.
And he said, “I want you to remember that because those men, they don’t know it, but they’re brave. That’s what bravery is, really courageous men, they don’t know that they have this gift of courage.” The only other group of men that he admired as much were the Spitfire pilots, the Hurricane pilots that he’d known in the war. At the height of battle, the life expectancy of these twenty-year-olds was three weeks. So, my God, did they fill his chapel on the base every Sunday. God they prayed, whatever they actually believed.
Anyway it was just Spitfire pilots and trawlermen that he thought were brave, and it must have gone into my subconscious. It was an image of fear, that’s what fear was, to be out on a trawler in bad weather. When I get these recurrent nightmares: you’re on a trawler, the world suddenly goes green and there are the bubbles in front of your face; then oddly enough it’s also cold. You wake up covered in sweat. I had that recurrent dream for years. After the Amazon it was added to, when we were there and rivers rose forty feet which added a bit to the dream. In fact you can’t see her rising, the river is so big. But in the dream the Amazon keeps risingit doesn’t stop so there I am clinging to a log and then I wake up. Death by drowning. But since writing this book I haven’t had that dream at all.
I’ll try to get to one of these Bay Area events. Let me know which one you’ll be going to…
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