Call me Ishmael. I've been hunting a monster of the deep. Not from the prow of a whaler, but from another equally dramatic vantage point: the kitchens of London's Chinatown. In the steaming tureens of dim sum dives, in the limpid fish tanks of Chinese restaurants, I've been seeking this piscine prodigy.
You see, I'd heard from the United States about a so-called "Frankenfish", aka "the fish from hell". Ostensibly a freshwater denizen of Far Eastern origin, this creature is said to eat rats. Its unusual tastes are a clue to the truly freakish fact about the fish. It is well adapted to dry land, its sinewy fins apparently propelling it over terra firma like so many pectoral castors. In the Chinese communities of New York, the guys have been running a book about which is the faster animal out of water, the turtle or the scaly newcomer. This has emerged just as literary Manhattan is agog over a fictional contest between different species, in a novel called Bear v Shark. I immediately set out to see if the Frankenfish had reached these shores. This magazine has its knockers, but you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times we've allowed ourselves to be scooped on stories about racing fish.
There was more to it than sheer old-fashioned professionalism. I had memories of a Huckleberry Finn moment on a British foreshore, watching sand fleas hopping towards the sea and constructing a steeplechase course for them, with lolly sticks for Beecher's Brook. I remember a beach party at a university hall of residence, and a derby for well-matched crustaceans that was as keenly backed as the snail race in the recent Guinness commercial.
The first thing I noticed in Gerrard Street, the heart of oriental Soho, was that the road was up. Not ideal going for an amphibians' handicap. But, I reasoned, there would be plenty of level ground inside the restaurants, once the last orange segment had been sucked dry and the tables pushed to the walls. However, my inquiries were met by glacial glances. It was no better at the Chinese fish shop and the supermarket. A Sinologist might say that I did myself no favours by referring to the fish by another of its aliases, the snakehead, which can also mean a Triad-style syndicate. But then a maItre d' told me that he had seen such a thing. Another drew a sketch of an outlandish serpent on his own palm. "Sure, I've seen this," he said. "You want to take a look?"
"Yes," I breathed.
"Then buy a ticket to Hong Kong."
Can I say at this point that to quibble about the lack of an authenticated snakehead sighting in this report would be as literal-minded as saying that Moby Dick is a book about a fish? The quest is everything. (Though, fair dos, Melville does eventually serve up something to go with chips and tartar sauce.)