Show Hide image

My selfish shellfish behavior has ensured the farmers’ market is no longer my oyster

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

My editor communicated a heartfelt request that this column should be a Thatcher-free zone but she needn’t have worried: I have heavier matters on my heart. Namely: Oyster Man. Regular readers who have not been deprogrammed will recall that a couple of months ago I wrote a column in which I expressed grievances at this tradesman’s way with his customers, which stopped well short of libel but perhaps not, if you were the offended party, offence. I was intending to be amusing but, with some justification, the actual cause of the amusement failed to be amused. My folly lay in imagining that the circumstances of being a fishmonger, which is hard enough work as it is, precluded members of that fine trade from such effete, bourgeois pursuits as reading this magazine.

Well, either he was an unusual fishmonger and had a subscription, or one of you lot sneaked on me, but the next time I went for my Sunday morning oysters – which are my one real luxury, a family tradition and are moreover shared with my eldest son – he refused to serve me.

Now, if I were a cheerleader for the free market I would have shrugged this off and taken my custom elsewhere. But I’m not. I wouldn’t be happy in these pages if I were, would I? Also, his oysters really are very good and he shucks them for you. I can shuck them myself but it is a much more time-consuming business when I do. It is also freighted with peril, and the memory of peril. Should you ever get the chance to inspect the ball of A Certain Well-Known Author’s left thumb, you will notice the rather impressive scar left in a shucking accident in my kitchen in the spring of, I think, 1996. Believe me, it was even more impressive when it happened. It was like something out of Macbeth.

Anyway, I wrote a column in which I apologised to Oyster Man and when it was printed, circled the relevant paragraph and left it on his table when he wasn’t looking and then ran away. I am normally good at facing up to unpleasant duties but a face-to-face confrontation with Oyster Man doesn’t appeal. His oyster knife looks sharper than mine, for a start. But what is the etiquette here? I asked my children but all they said, with some asperity, was that they bet other people’s children didn’t have these kind of problems with their parents.

I did try the local posh supermarket. I had noticed that there hadn’t been any oysters there for a couple of weeks (it’s that posh), but assumed that this was because they’d sold out before I got there. After an exchange that confirmed that my eyes were not deceiving me and there were no oysters there, the following colloquy occurred.

Me (affably): “So when are you getting them back in?” Fishmonger: “They’re out of season.” Me: “What, in April?” FM: “That’s right, there’s an R in the month, they’re not in season then.” Me: “But that’s exactly when they are in season.”

FM (patiently): “No, it’s when there’s an R in the month that they’re out of season.”
Me (making sure I eliminate all traces of sarcasm from my reply): “You mean, like in December, or January, or Feb-ru-are-ree?”
FM (with a slight jolt, as if coming out from hypnosis): “Yes, there is that.”

We cleared up the confusion (I put his down to one of those kind of moments of mental collapse we have all had, such as when we fail to remember the name of a lover right under us – or a desire to try and cover up for his ultimate bosses, who for reasons undivulged have decided that for the posh supermarket, oyster season ended in March, which I gather is actually the case).

So that’s it. Oysters are now off for me. To think that this is because of my own recklessness and not because I ate a mottled one. I still wonder whether it was one of you who passed the offending column on to Oyster Man. I was brought up under an ethos that frowns upon tale-bearing, but I shall forgive you this once. Although much pain would have been spared all round had you been around and murmured caution into my ear while I was writing it in the first place. Anyway, the season’s almost over, although Oyster Man looks like the kind of man whose memories last long and vivid, and he probably won’t serve me next time I roll round in September. I shall have to find a new tradesperson to offend unthinkingly in this column.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.