GEORGE BELL HAS NO RIGHT still to be alive and well in Spain at the age of 81, if even a quarter of the tales in this book are true. I have no reason to doubt them, however, because you couldn’t make this stuff up.
For everyone whose diving consists of admiring pretty corals in warm water and keeping a strict eye out for animal-rights infringements, this book is at the opposing end of the spectrum, as rufty-tufty as it gets.
But in mitigation for what might often seem politically questionable, it is set mainly in 1950s, ’60s and ’70s apartheid South Africa with a spell in Kenya, and it’s about diving not so much for joy as for hard cash.
Deaths, injuries and near-misses abound in these tales of George Bell’s career. He made a good living diving for abalone and crayfish before moving into marine salvage, and the 112 tales here are littered with petty criminality, casual violence and potentially lethal pranks mingled with many epic achievements.
It’s only in the 111th chapter that we learn that Bell was born in pre-war London of Scottish parents who emigrated to South Africa with a spell in Australia.
The sea played a big part in young George’s upbringing, and as much as a diver he was a champion surfer, a Hobie Cat sailor and a fisherman – for him the Sardine Run was not about photographing sharks but catching sardines.
He was clearly a natural leader who, despite many desperate experiences, retained an instinct for survival and the luck of the gods.
He has been attacked or pursued by sea creatures of all sorts, involved in multiple car, truck and motorbike crashes and hit twice by trains. He has self-treated for the bends, suffered from falls, bad air-fills, imbibed detergent, survived a tsunami and almost been suffocated by a wetsuit.
He holds world fishing records, invented a precursor of the modern surfboard in 1950, uncovered coins on a Spanish treasure ship and has carried out many impressive rescues.
With all this to share, his self-published book could have been so much better. The short, tersely related adventures are not in chronological order but they do overlap – a lot.
You soon start thinking: “Haven’t I read that before?” Sometimes the duplication is recognised with a cross-reference but usually not.
In the last third of the book the problem becomes more pronounced, getting into triplication and more.
You start to feel like the last person left at the bar buying drinks for the old-timer who can’t remember how often he’s told the same stories.
Grouping these tales thematically could have been a more rewarding idea, because in the end the book’s scattershot approach doesn’t give George Bell the kudos he deserves.
But for all that, it’s still worth a read.
Softback, 314pp, £16.50