Caught by the River

Another Great Day at Sea by Geoff Dyer

Ian Preece | 8th October 2014


Review by Ian Preece

It’s a phrase casually bandied around all the time in the media, although it’s not really that often you can say a book ‘changed your life’. But back in the summer of 1989, bumming around in Cardiff, not so recently graduated and going nowhere with casual shift work, I read Geoff Dyer’s first novel, The Colour of Memory. My memory of it is that it was wonderfully understated: there was plenty of sitting around in cold, rented kitchens, drinking coffee and smoking dope, listening to John Coltrane and Roland Kirk records, going-nowhere-slow jobs, hanging out with beautiful women at parties, and playing tennis across the rooftops of adjacent blocks of flats in Brixton, or somewhere in south London. ‘I don’t half fancy that,’ I thought (well, not the working bit), and a year later I too was living in Streatham Hill, smoking too much dope, watching Italia ’90, enjoying a hot South London summer, hanging out with close college friends, Neil and Hélène, swimming in Brockwell Park lido, the sun glinting off the water at Tooting Bec, cycling to house parties in Clapham and Stockwell . . .

I got a job (in book publishing, of all things), saw Geoff Dyer talk about his new book on jazz at the ICA, bought plenty of ‘discontinued’ Blue Note vinyl in Honest Jon’s for £2.99 a throw, became temporarily obsessed with John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, attended a Sunday night organ jazz club by Blackfriars Bridge (my mate Neil, not only a better joint-roller but far more capable of dancing to Jimmy Smith and ‘Big’ John Patton), fell in love, moved to east London, listened to plenty more records, and continued picking up every new Geoff Dyer book on publication. I remember reading Out of Sheer Rage, Dyer’s book that’s not really a book about D.H. Lawrence, in conditions approaching the fabled publishing bullshit of ‘one sitting’ (actually three or four), mostly on the balcony of a crumbling old hotel in Lisbon. At that point, I don’t think I’d read a better (funnier) book about life (I discovered fresh fish, red wine and sunsets on that holiday too) – and I’m not sure I have since. (The critic James Wood, in his book of essays The Fun Stuff, notes that Dyer practises ‘a kind of comic English whining’ and sees the influence of Austrian side-splitter Thomas Bernhard everywhere: ‘Bernhard is very funny, but despair – particularly the menace of suicide and breakdown – is always present. Dyer is more deliberately funny and lighter.’ There’s still despair though.) But by the time of Yoga for People Who Can’t be Bothered to Do It, Dyer’s collection of travel writing, I worried there might be a parting of the ways: while I was a newly-stressed dad suddenly fretting over mortgages and nursery schools; Geoff was getting high and getting laid in a commune in Thailand.

Before that, full of the stupidity of a young editor who thinks they might be able to pull off anything, I even wrote to Dyer’s agent, inviting Geoff out for lunch, wondering if he would like to write a book about ‘electronica’. I remember him looking around the restaurant, hoping to catch the eye of his existing editor. Over coffee, when I’d finally finished talking about how the symphony of distressed-sounding CDs rendered Oval’s Systemisch possibly the best album of all time, he proclaimed, in the nicest possible way, ‘That sounds truly awful.’ It was briefly fashionable to slag off his breakthrough novel, Paris Trance, in a man-approaching-middle-age-has-his-Henry-Miller-moment kind of a way, ‘experiencing the exhilarating highs of ecstasy and sex, reaching a peak of rapture’ (as the blurb had it), but I secretly loved it. The Ongoing Moment was a great, outsider’s ‘idiosyncratic’ book about photography; I winced through a frank reading of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (in some ways a kind of Paris Trance, part 2) at a newly hip boutique literary festival, but only because my young son was the sole minor in the room (he seemed gripped – and perhaps that explains, several years on, his new-found love for ‘piff-ting women’ in books by the likes of Jack Kerouac and Nelson Algren).

My mate Neil was always ahead of me. He said not to read Zona until I’d watched Stalker; he downloaded Stalker on to a blank dvd, stuck it in the post from Glasgow, where he’d moved for a new life, and I still haven’t carved out the three hours needed before tackling Geoff’s 2012 Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room – but Working the Room was a brilliant collection of essays and short articles, featuring everyone and everything – from critical accounts of Denis Johnson and Richard Ford; to notes on ‘life as a gatecrasher’ (not just of parties but of cultural disciplines such as photography, for instance), the ‘death’ of jazz, the correct terms and conditions for the right kind of doughnut, and a fantastic piece on life with his parents. It felt like his best for a while; a new high. If anything, Dyer’s journalism has probably increased in recent times. I’ll still – always – read him on anything: whether its bemoaning traffic in LA (where he currently lives), meeting Charlie Haden in the toilets of the Village Vanguard, or reviewing Norman Mailer’s Moon-landing writings. In the world of broadsheets he stands outside of all that middle-brow, middle-of-the-road ‘comment’ – sure, he went to Oxford and is to be found regularly sipping bellinis at the Venice Biennale, but his mum was a school-dinner lady and his dad built fighter jets and then worked nights in a nylon factory. That, I think, is what ultimately shapes a writer’s ‘comment’.

And now comes Another Great Day at Sea, Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush, Dyer’s account of his fortnight spent on a US aircraft carrier in the middle of the Persian Gulf, and the first title in the Visual Editions Writers in Residence series which seeks to team up well known writers with big-name Magnum photographers in unusual work locations (Douglas Coupland’s time spent with French telecommunications giant Alcatel-Lucent is about to come out). For someone prone to heightened, Nicholson Baker-esque rumination on the absurdities of modern-day existence, avoidance of any kind of real work and a natural inclination to having a problem with authority, Dyer – whose qualification for the job appears to amount to a deep (but not that unusual in the mid-sixties) childhood fixation with Second World War films and Airfix models – joining the US Navy seems a fine comic conceit. And, true to form, a fair bit of time is spent early on establishing just how important it is for Geoff to have his own quarters, just how bad the food is that’s dished up in the staff canteen, and just how hopelessly out of place he feels, the rake-thin, six-foot-plus writer, taller and greyer than anyone else on board, being shepherded about the carrier, continually trying to avoid banging his head. All this while the various departments are paraded before him, as he notes himself, as if he’s conducting some kind of excruciating royal inspection – there’s the kitchens (‘Country Sausage Gravy, Great Northern Beans, Victory Garden Pork and Beans, Popeye Leaf Spinach’ all in tins the size of ‘big pots of paint’), the chaplain, and the mechanics polishing and re-fitting hardware below deck, where he falls for a ‘bright-eyed’ female mechanic from Wyoming (‘“Wyoming,’ I trilled. “Really?”’) up to her elbows in grease, patiently fixing something on the wing of a plane. Accordingly, the opening pages, prior to this exchange, feel just a little stiff: even Geoff’s fart jokes (one of the reasons he needs his own room) don’t seem to quite come up to scratch, and his musings on homosexuality in the Marines (prompted by his observation of Tom of Finland-like scenes in the gym) feel slightly weak – although it’s somehow extremely surprising and pleasing, infectiously so, that such a large a proportion of the crew are female (leading to a better atmosphere, orderliness, sense of perspective and hygiene).

I was beginning to worry, though, is this just a light-hearted magazine feature?; what’s Dyer doing, fussing about the pasta, when above his head, on deck, blasting off around the clock, there’s several million tonnes of US military hardware ‘raining steel’, blowing Iraq (presumably) to pieces? To an extent, the political/military question remains a bit of an elephant in the cramped quarters, but as Geoff eases his way into life below deck, riffing off his designated guide, Ensign Paul Newell, bearer of a ludicrously clipped moustache, he gets into his groove.

It would be crazy, anyhow, to look for a political discourse on the Middle East, or some economic analysis concerning the fading of America as a world power here – Geoff, probably bound by terms of secretive US engagement abroad, isn’t even sure where he is half the time (28 miles off the coast of Iran it’s rumoured at one point) – and, ultimately, the fish-out-of-water approach makes for a far more powerful book. What follows is a fine, warm, curiously life-affirming portrayal of real, human lives in the US Navy. Late on there’s Leesa, the captain’s personal cook whose heart is set on a job in the White House, and who, to the dismay of Newell, Geoff befriends to the point of securing off-cuts from the Captain’s table. The scene where he secures his first Captain’s fare – ‘it’ll be seared chicken breast, grilled zucchini and a port wine reduction,’ Leesha informs him, while Ensign Newell whimpers in a corner – is every bit as good as the seafood scene in Out of Sheer Rage. Food problem sorted, there’s a trip to the ship’s dentist, where Geoff is delighted to get a free check-up and a thorough going-over; there’s a couple more sightings of the mechanic from Wyoming; several trips to the bridge; an entertaining interlude on the capacity of the carrier’s waste-disposal system (5000 crew; a lot of digested hot dogs; plenty of malfunctioning toilets); and a compulsively readable awkward final meal at the Captain’s table (where Dyer, out of place, is reduced to saying very little).

I thought there’d be more on the actual sea; but it soon becomes clear the very last thing most sailors see is the sea; stuck below deck, fixing bust wing-tips, refuelling and greasing jump jets, polishing handrails or sweating over industrial-capacity ovens, the vast blue is only very occasionally glimpsed through an open hatchway or entrance to a hangar (or just occasionally in one of Chris Steele-Perkins’ accompanying shots, which tend to be of steel fixtures and fittings, oily flight decks and slightly bemused uniformed personnel). For most it’s a life of endless toil, stuck below deck in the middle of the sea in a floating ‘garage with fifty thousand cars in it, each suffering a major fuel leak’. There’s no time for staring introspectively over the handrail, seeing life reflected in the churning blue-green mass. But after the occasion of the ‘Steel Beach Party’ on deck, just as the paper plates are being swept away and the sound system dismantled, Dyer catches a lone sailor snoozing in a deckchair at the front of the boat: ‘He was like a lone figure in an Edward Hopper painting. I had no idea what he did on the ship but it’s possible that he had a job that meant he rarely got to see the sea and the sky. And whatever job he did it was certain that he never got silence – or space – like this to himself.’ The ‘beach’ party is a climax of sorts. The dj blasts out Steve Earle, Lynyrd Skynyrd and plenty of hip-hop; sailors eat burgers beneath a blazing sun and blue sky, for once getting to hang out by the ocean; and Geoff even manages to engage a high-up visiting Admiral in conversation about James Joyce like he’s at a book launch in Notting Hill. That section is preceded by a fantastic piece of writing – where Dyer has a crisis of confidence in the book and his presence on the boat after reading Tom Wolfe stationed on an aircraft carrier at the height of Vietnam in 1975 – and is followed by an account of the incredibly moving promotion ceremony of Lieutenant Commander Clinton Stonewall III from Birmingham, Alabama (‘Was it possible to cram more history into a name?’), a black sailor of reasonable navy vintage who gives such a humble and edifying speech that Dyer and, you suspect, half the assembled party (and all future readers) are in tears by the end of it.

As John Peel used to say, you keep living because there’s always another Fall record around the corner. My mate Neil and I held that exactly the same was true about Geoff Dyer’s books. But Neil missed this one. He took his own life in January, and flipping back through the pages now, twenty-five years on, I can see the huge spilt-coffee stain on p.126 of my first-edition hardback of The Colour of Memory – and I’m pretty sure that was Neil. I hope that wherever he is, he gets to read all the new Geoff Dyers (he’d have loved the parade of lives in this one), listen to the new Hildur Gudnadottir and Eluvium records, and catch the sun glinting off a CD of the latest unearthed John Coltrane live recordings, just like it’s 1990.

Another Great Day at Sea is published by Visual Editions. Ian Preece’s book about the heyday of the football annual (with Doug Cheeseman of When Saturday Comes) should be out next spring, published by Constable and Robinson.