EPS Review #77 - Trawler

Trawler, by Redmond O'Hanlon, Penguin 2003, 339pp

O'Hanlon's Into the Heart of Borneo was a very funny book, right up there with Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. I reread both of these, but well, I guess the genre doesn't lend itself to rereading. ( Eric Hansen's A Stranger in the Forest was an even better book about a crazy traveler in Borneo, by the way.) O'Hanlon's books have gotten progressively more gonzo, first with In Trouble Again (who can forget the pubic tapir ticks, or sucking the eye out of a boiled monkey head), and then with Congo Journey. Interestingly, I also read Drums Along the Congo by Rory Nugent, which was basically the same trip as Mr. O'Hanlon's -- looking for a "dinosaur" in some Congo lake -- only without all the drama. Sometimes the drama is funny. But it can be a lot of work. And it certainly is work in this sort of "Fear and Loathing on a North Sea Trawler", which is written mostly in stream-of-consciousness, to give us an idea of what it is like to be seasick and critically sleep-deprived in a Force 12. I found myself pining for the clarity of a John McPhee: just tell us about the fish, already!

There are plenty of interesting things to be said about the fish. O'Hanlon is accompanying Luke, who is working on his Marine Biology PhD, while also helping out on the trawler. They find anglerfish and sea-bats (octopus in the North Sea!), and the hagfish, that kills with slime. We learn about the Wyville Thomson ridge, supposedly the only barrier to deep-sea continuity around the world. O'Hanlon impresses us with the vastness of the history of sea life, older even than plants, and how unexplored it all still is. He also talks a lot of trendy behavioral evolution. One bit that I think about daily is how, when his cat was in a bad mood with its ears back, Redmond would hold those ears forward and pretty soon, driven by ineluctable ear-signals, the cat would start purring. It reminded me of that amazing New Yorker article about facial expressions (has anyone found that face-reading video online?). I make an effort to hold my ears forward these days. The author should, too -- there is too much self-criticism in the book, although it is funny, especially when the skipper mistakenly puts Redmond in charge alone on the bridge, where he presses whichever buttons look pretty. It is clear that he really respects and likes the trawlermen, which is a good feature of the book. A disappointing feature is the photographs: they are only of the crew, and you can barely see the face of the fascinating captain. And what about all those photos of fish we read about, taken with Redmond's new Nikon FM? No sign of them.

Nic wrote: Nice one Erich. You've been a tad kinder than I would have been - I found the writing 'turgid' (about as elegant as a mutated hagfish) I knew there was something about the photos that was annoying me, and you put your finger on it completely. We're told that's it the DB's of a camera and yet the photos are appalling, and yes what happened to the fish?!

I replied: My suspicion is that the photos did not come out!

I also wonder what the trawlers' wives and alpha-female girlfriends thought of the book, given it was sort of a billet-doux to them. I bet, given the wonder of the web, we will eventually find out.

So, here is that New Yorker article, and the facial microexpression stuff. If the Dalai Lama and the FBI believe in it, it must be true. Anyone want to buy the software? [ Later ]. I think I will order them. Maybe the book, too. John Cleese likes it...

Scott wrote: I remember that, in one of these articles, a guy who became expert in this wasn't sure he really wanted the ability, once he had it. I don't recall his exact point, but it was something to the effect that little lies are one of those things people use to lubricate social interactions, and being able to detect every little lie and emotional tick was unsettling.

I wrote: Yeah, I remember that, too. Also, to read faces, you have to look people in the eye, something I have a semi-autistic loathing to do.

Mark wrote: I shall now try and face every day "ears held forward!"

Ewan wrote: I'll chip in half of the $30 if you want to share it.

Martin wrote: I ordered it! I'll try it out on you next time we meet up. Together with the X-ray glasses and the ventriloquism kit.

Nick wrote: Monkey eyes are probably better eaten raw; heating can change the essential fatty acids.

Tom wrote: Might be fun to provide practice faces for sketching.

I write: I purchased and ran the facial-expression software, but it did not change my life. It probably needs more practice than I put in.