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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?