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Breakfast cereals are the glue that holds our civilisation together

Snap, crackle and pop is really this: the snap of our bones on the wheel of fate, the crackle of our skins in the fires of damnation, and the apoptosis that awaits our mortal cells.

Let us recast the riddle of the Sphinx: who snaps, crackles and pops in the morning; snaps, crackles and pops in the afternoon; and snaps, crackles and pops in the evening? Answer: me – and probably you, too, for if there’s one food that unites infancy and extreme old age, the toothless and those defanged by time-the-devourer, then it’s breakfast cereals. Indeed, to allocate these comestibles a given slot within the daily-go-round is just as spurious as confining them to any point in the human life cycle; cereals are . . . Well, there’s no other way of putting it: serial. Other foods may come and go but the great granular underlay of cereal remains. We are just as likely – arguably more so – to find ourselves standing at the kitchen counter in the middle of the night crunching down Golden Crunch as we are to be up with the lark and the iconic Kellogg’s rooster.

Yes, the snap, crackle and pop is really this: the snap of our bones on the wheel of fate, the crackle of our skins in the fires of damnation, and the apoptosis that awaits every single one of our mortal cells. (Memo to Self: must pitch Kellogg’s an ad campaign along these lines.) I started out eating Rice Krispies, savouring their delicious timpani as I plunged home my spoon and I dare say I shall exit this world with this same susurrus in my ears – and in between, bowl of cereal has followed bowl, as night succeeds day. Moreover, cereal being a food that comes with high sugar content, on to which you add still more, the eating of it is highly addictive, so it might be more appropriate to say bowl follows bowl as minute succeeds minute.

It’s fair enough, this serial cereal, because even more than bread, cereal returns us to the very roots of our civilisation, which lie in the amassing of food surpluses in the form of grain storage. If you like, one productive way of viewing the early despotisms of the Fertile Crescent, which arose from the domestication of einkorn and emmer wheat, hulled barley et cetera, is that these were in fact giant cereal boxes upon which the cultural plan of the future was incised in cuneiform. Archaeologists have actually discovered primitive cereal boxes at cave sites in the Zagros Mountains, although there’s considerable dispute over whether they fulfilled practical or merely ceremonial functions. For my part, I think the decipherment of an inscription on one of these rectilinear clay vessels – “Free Toy Inside!” – is pretty much a clincher.

If cereal is foundational (we have no difficulty envisioning Nebuchadnezzar tucking in to a bowl of Lucky Charms and asses’ milk), it is also ubiquitous: not simply in our diets, but also in our environment. What other foodstuff is so widespread in the domestic sphere? One moment we’re puncturing Coco Pops strewn across the lino, the next we’re crunching Cheerios into the carpet; indeed, the experience of having small children is essentially one of witnessing the merging of cereals and floor coverings into a single, semi-edible mass. But cereals don’t just lie underfoot; due to their high concentration of sugar and the addition of milk, they are the very mortar of disorder: entropy is held in check by them; a cornflake glues a mug to a table; a Golden Graham rivets a textbook to a desk; and such is the bonding strength of Weetabix that entire houses can be built using it in combination with courses of Shredded Wheat.

Then again, of what other foodstuff can it be said that its packaging really is of equal significance? When I was a child, the reading of the back of the cereal box was an integral bite of the whole munch. Frequently, in those days, new technological projects were blazoned on cereal boxes; it was from these that I first heard about the jumbo jet, the hovercraft, the Channel Tunnel and all sorts of other wonders. Cereal box copywriters were bold apostles of progress who nonetheless always managed to place their future wonders in credible time frames: as I recall, almost always in the next five to ten years. Imagine getting a box of Honey Loops from the pantry now and discovering from a screed printed on it that a high-speed railway connecting London with the northern cities will be built by 2020 – and then, lo and behold, this actually coming to pass! No wonder the 1960s and 1970s now appear a more optimistic era. Yes, there was racism, poverty and terrorism aplenty, but at least you could have faith in what was written on cereal boxes.

Some readers will no doubt be wondering when I’m going to get on to discussing the merits of individual cereals, but the answer to this is: never. Or, rather, the very supposition that one breakfast cereal can be better than another is to call attention to the elephant in the room that’s studded with raisins and dusted with whole grains and nuts. I refer, of course, to muesli – which surely deserves a column of its own. Besides, barring spurious flavourings, and shapes that are so evanescent they barely maintain their three-dimensional form long enough to make it from bowl to mouth, there is little to distinguish these slops. This is why I’ve returned to Rice Krispies time and again, although I still have absolutely no idea what riboflavin is.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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The marine, and human costs, of illegal fishing

Two new books take us inside the least regulated industry on the planet.

How big the sea is, how big. How poor a description that is, too, but the ocean usually resists description and words, no matter how many of its plains are named after Herodotus or how many fracture zones are called Charlie-Gibbs. It is rare to find good writing about the sea: that’s why everyone who tries quotes Conrad and Melville. It is rarer still to find good writing about the people of the sea, those strange creatures – strange to us, on our supposed maritime island, from where the ocean as a place of industry has long retreated – who set out to sea in boats and ships to make a living from it. These two, very different books try to bring them alive, although both really are about death.

Fishers and Plunderers is dense and dry, but within it are riches and horror. Seafaring is the second most dangerous job in the world, but deep-sea fishing is worse. In the UK, between 1996 and 2005, the rate of fatal accidents in the fishing industry was 115 times higher than that for the overall workforce.

The dizzying facts and stats come, and come again, like tides. We start with the ocean, and the fish in it – or the fish that used to be in it, before human beings learned to build vessels that could scrape the seabed, that could entangle dolphins, sharks and other unlucky passers-by. How wrong indeed was T H Huxley, the eminent biologist and chairman of a royal commission on sea fisheries, giving the inaugural address at the Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883, when he said: “I believe . . . that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish.”

He did not account for our greed. There are 16.5 million fishers catching 90 million tonnes of fish a year in four million fishing vessels. Pelagic long-lines, stretching dozens of kilometres, to hook tuna. Super-trawlers that can retrieve the equivalent weight of 20 busloads of fish a day, using nets 600 metres long. A biomass of predatory fish that has decreased by two-thirds in a hundred years. One-third of fish stocks fished unsustainably. Thousands of tonnes of “bycatch”, a benign word for a horrible thing: fish that are caught and discarded. An indictment of us.

But the sorry heart of this book lies with the fishers. There are the natural dangers that face them – ice, water and weather – such as the ones that overcame the crew of a British trawler near Iceland in the first half of the 20th century. They couldn’t beat the ice, so the skipper got everyone in the radio room, from where they phoned home. The crew “said goodbye, and eventually were just turned over and were lost”.

In every British fishing port, you will find a memorial to those lost at sea. There will not be a memorial to the fact that, in 2008, 75 per cent of those who died on UK boats were from eastern Europe or the Philippines. Fishing is the most unregulated industry on the planet, infected with abuse, slavery and worse. Some West African states lose 40 per cent of their catch to foreign vessels that come and steal from their waters, such as the bottom trawler Apsari-3, found fishing less than two nautical miles off the coast of Sierra Leone. The boat and officers were Korean, the crew from China, Indonesia and Vietnam. They had no contracts and no salaries, but were paid in packets of “trash fish” to sell ashore. They shared wooden and cardboard bunks in the hold. It was not an isolated case. Distant-water fishing nations operate vessels that abound with these ghosts: men trafficked or bonded into appalling conditions or contracts, stuck at sea for months at a time.

Modern shipping, with its “flag of convenience” system, makes slipperiness easy. Pay a fee, and you can fly the flag of any state and are then governed by its law at sea. Unscrupulous owners and operators can switch flag, name or identity almost instantly (hence “convenience”). Escape is easy for the criminals, and for the abused: often they go overboard. The illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing industry is worth up to $23.5bn each year, and it is extremely difficult to police. Much illegal fish from West Africa passes through Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, which has hardly any inspectors. It is repackaged, presented as legal catch and sold in western Europe. Some subheadings in the chapter on “Abuses and Slavery at Sea”: Abduction; Abuse; General; Beatings; Children; Death; Exploitation; Imprisonment; Murder.

Fishing has never been an easy life. It’s not that it was better then than it is now, but that now the abuse is industrialised, organised. The authors are a sober lot, and include Father Bruno Ciceri, who chairs the International Christian Maritime Association. The port priests are often the ones who save and soothe the fishers, though they can only do so much. I’m glad they do that. And I’m glad I don’t eat fish.

Julia Blackburn’s Threads is what you should read after finishing Fishers and Plunderers. Read it as an antidote to rigorous investigation, because this is a gorgeous, dreamy quest, for a man named John Craske, who was “a fisherman who became a fishmonger who became an invalid”. He also became an extraordinary artist, but one whose legacy is scattered and maligned.

Craske was born in Norfolk in 1881 and went to sea, like the rest of his family. At the age of 36 he fell ill with a mysterious illness, and never recovered. There were months of stupor and disability (Blackburn concludes that it was diabetes), of becoming, as his valiant wife, Laura, wrote, “very quiet. Sudden turns. Must get outside.” He did go back to sea, when his brothers took him on their fishing boat, lashing him to the mast in rough weather. He stayed for three months, rolling about in the hold or on deck until, somehow, he realised “it was not his home” and he came back to land.

Craske began to paint. They had no money, so he painted on what he had, which was the surfaces in his house. On the mantelpiece. On bits of cardboard. “On the seat of the chair he did a frigate in a storm.” His love of the sea and knowledge of it were clear, as a fisherman whom Blackburn interviews tells her. “You can’t put that energy out unless you’ve been there.”

This “quest” is meandering: don’t expect great events. The revelations are of emotion: sadness throughout for Craske’s life, though he may have been happy. Grief for Blackburn, who suffers a great loss while she is writing the book, so that from then on “grief is prowling close”. And joy, for being exposed to the embroidery of Craske, who took up the needle as he lay abed, finding a vocation. His little fishermen in their boats, sewn in careful stitches; his giant portrait of Dunkirk, with sweeping seas and tiny figures: they are amazing, yet were scorned by the museums and odd places where his work ended up, turned to the wall, ignored.

A doctor once told Craske’s wife that “he must go to sea. Only the sea will save him.” And it did, but not for long enough. We should thank Julia Blackburn for bringing back this quiet fisher and man of the sea; and Bruno Ciceri and his co-authors for exposing an unforgiving and cruel industry, where men die and the seas are depleted for the sake of our fish supper, out of sight beyond our horizon.

Rose George’s books include “Deep Sea and Foreign Going” (Portobello)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle