Alive alive-o: cockles picked on the shore in Falmoth, Cornwall. Photo: Getty
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“A stained valentine, like a crash-landed space shuttle”: the beauty of bivalves

The poet Jen Hadfield describes foraging for clams, cockles and mussels in spring on the Shetland shores. 

“The winters must be very difficult in Shetland,” people often say to me. I think they imagine a Shetland winter as an ingrowing or hibernatory season. But my stomping grounds – mapped by quests and curiosities – are more likely to be domestic in the summertime: nest scrapes lined with milky chips of quartz, the intricate flora of bog and moor, pea plants in the garden.

A summer beach is bonny, but douce in comparison to the ravishing and slightly manic Shetland spring, the extreme highs and lows of the tides. As many birds are leaving as arriving. No more Northern Lights, or night skies in which Sirius is a disco ball of hot colour. Come summer, I’ll be foraging for puffballs, chanterelles and ceps, but winter is the time for rich pickings on the shore; the spring tides of March and April being the last chance to harvest bivalves until autumn.

In his poem “Collecting Pipi”, Glenn Colquhoun taps the apparently atavistic brain state of the forager: “They leave suckingly/and clatter/at the bottom/of the bucket./Quietly/the sea feels/with a tongue/round the holes/in her still-hidden/gums.”

Foraging – and I’m sure there are parallels with skip diving and hitting the sales – seems to engineer changes in brain activity and our perception of our place in the world. As a non-scientist, I would still dearly love to understand what’s happening; so, in the spirit of opportunism, please consider this a call for recommended reading about the neuroscience of human foraging. In the meantime, I’ll see what I can do with prose.

Consider a walk to the cockle beds in the lowest tides of March or April. The mud is littered with plundered white shells. Storm-waves have fossicked the bivalves from their shallow roosts and black-backed gulls and other opportunists have raided the survivors on the shore. One live cockle is half-buried in the mud under a mop of seaweed. Hardly a feed, so you return it regretfully to the shallows. It’s fine to be away from the desk: it’s more of a thought than a feeling. You scan the shore and horizon for otters, seals, birds.

Come along a second walk, now. Same low tide, a grund ebb, a greemster o’ an ebb. But we’re going further. That half-hidden cockle is the first of many and a perfect heart-shape, a stained valentine, like a crash-landed space shuttle. The cram of a live cockle in your hand is greed itself, leaking a little as it sooks its lingerie of translucent tissues back into its shell, folding them over frilled siphons and a glimpsed golden yolk. The bladderwrack is saying something in its click-and-trickle language.

As you stalk the mudflats, filling your bag, modest fountains spurt in your peripheral vision. What is that? A doubled pipe is poking out of the mud, scrunching up into a brown, muppet-like face. Clams are the hearts of the muddy shore; sucking in and discharging brine through aortic-looking tubes. Tapped with your finger, the thick siphon winces into the mud.

The ten-metre-wide bay is like a mouth that you probe as if with your tongue, lifting swaths of seaweed, shifting rocks. The more food you find – salty, muddy, muscly, plosive, protein-rich, heavy, free – the more you shrink. As you work the shallows, a pterodactyl-like heron lifts with world-weary wingbeats. Unnoticed, a furry wreath uncoils from its nest of bladderwrack and pours into the water, pelt melting to mercury. Your heart beats faster; you’re beginning to see.

The rocks are shellacked in sea lettuce, a single cell thick. In deeper water are sweet, salty, crunchy kelps, patterned with lacy bryozoans. The yellow feet of whelks smooch over blades of kelp like animate marshmallows. You find mussels in a groin of rock and tear at them. Hidden spines jab you back.

You will quit only when the tide chases you out. Otherwise, you would gather more than you can eat. At the cockle beds you are a hungry ghost, like those souls in Buddhist mythology who are perpetually unsatisfied, because their eyes are literally bigger than their stomachs. As a forager, to be hungry is to become small, but not necessarily to be diminished.

Jen Hadfield’s most recent poetry collection, “Byssus”, is published by Picador (£9.99)

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism