A man (not Will Self) surveys an array of spoons. Illustration: Jackson Rees
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The changing fortunes of my family can be measured in our use of the humble spoon

When it to comes to putting stuff in your mouth, only the spoon will do.

For the past fortnight or so, I have been much exercised by the handsome “personalised spoon offer” that Kellogg’s has had blazoned on its Rice Krispies boxes. My youngest and I decided we very much wanted a spoon with our own slogan engraved on it and he began working on the words while I set about eating enough of the desiccated little blebs to justify buying the two further boxes we needed to obtain the “secret code numbers” required to unlock the spoon trove. On the back of these boxes are winsome pictures of happy new spoon-owners – but we were dismayed at their lack of ­imagination. All their spoons were simply personalised with their names (Carol, Keisha, Tarquin, et al) and the Kellogg’s cartoon brand mascots, whereas we were thinking of something surreal and subversive, such as: “Which orifice? Your choice.”

Actually, when I saw quite how innocent the other spoon-personalisers had been – how untainted by corrosive irony – I wondered at the depths of my psyche. What is it about cutlery that spoons up from my unconscious such anatomically perverse thoughts? I meditated on my childhood. Our American mother often used to remind us of her childhood in the Great Depression and used this early experience of privation to justify her habit of nicking cutlery from hotels, restaurants and even transatlantic liners: for years, we stirred our hot chocolate with some particularly chunky Queen Mary-monogrammed teaspoons.

My father brought different cutlery to the table (what a pleasure it is for once to use this expression both metaphorically and literally). An epigone, he entered the marriage with several canteens of old family silver. As a child, I was fascinated by these polished, hardwood boxes, with their green-velvet-lined interiors in which lay odd-shaped fish knives, pinioned in rows, and spoons personalised with family crests. But he – and therefore we – were on the social down escalator, so there were few occasions that merited the deployment of the entire shiny complement: knives, forks and spoons arranged in descending order of size so as to parenthesise the placemats. In truth, such was the queered problematic of my mother’s snobbery that she regarded certain forms of tableware as hopelessly non-U, reserving the full weight of her contempt for those petit-bourgeois families that cinched their serviettes (“napkins” is the acceptable term) with personalised rings.

Hmm, personalised rings . . . I feel rather like the young Freud – the Freud of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life who discovered such rich seams of suppressed psychic content hidden beneath quotidian tongue-slips and semantic glitches. It would be a simple enough spoonoanalysis were I to have grown up intent on repairing the fortunes of the House of Self so that once more, as in days of yore, a quince spoon was required at every meal – but I didn’t. True, I am a reader of Private Eye’s Me and My Spoon column and I also have a fascination with sporks, the liminal status of which is a constant reproof to our collective obsession with cookie-cutter categorisation, but as regular readers of this column will be only too aware, the last thing I want is an amuse-bouche served in a china spoon.

What I do like is the thought that the ancestral cutlery will continue to tinkle and clank down through generations of Selfs and that, at some point in the distant future, one of my descendants will peer wonderingly at the faint letters incised in the handle of a spoon they’ve known since birth but never properly examined; and with the assistance, perhaps, of some late-21st-century optical technology of which we can have no ken, painstakingly decipher: “Which orifice? Your choice.” I would further like it if my hypothetical descendant was then visited with a similar epiphany to Shelley’s “traveller from an antique land”, so apprehending the folly of not just personalised spoons but all human endeavour.

It is a factoid oft retold that the flimsy fork is a comparatively late addition to the solid British table. Right up until the early-modern era, even the highest in the land were perfectly happy to eat with knife, spoon and fingers-in-lieu-of-tines. Were William Burroughs to have written Naked Lunch during this period, he would presumably have chosen a different title for it, given that this one was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s insight that a naked lunch is “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”. Forks are evil instruments, stabbing weapons comprised of four or five épées welded together. Knives are often the subject of amnesties but a spoon amnesty would be whimsical. As for fingers, there’s no telling what they might get up to.

No, when it to comes to putting stuff in your mouth, only the spoon will do. Only the spoon is rounded and smooth and often brimming with milk like a lactating breast. Only a spoon will nurture you and care for you and love you unconditionally. So there’s nothing in the least surreal or subversive about our personalising slogan, because that’s the thing about a spoon: it doesn’t judge you, it accepts you for who you are unreservedly and equally it accepts whatever it is you want to do with it. Which is just as well, because I for one take a dim view of extra-cutlery relationships. Running off with a dish . . . ? Hey diddle-diddle, Spoony, what are you like . . .?

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 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

ADAM DEAN/EYEVINE
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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