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The fish and chips dilemma: can our national dish be both sustainable and British?

When it comes to a traditional battered cod and chips, is there no such thing as a good catch?

You can’t get more British than fish and chips. Winston Churchill exempted the dish from wartime rationing, Amy Winehouse ate them on her wedding anniversary, and George Orwell believed they could avert revolution.

But can our national icon be both British and sustainable? Not if you want cod, according to the criteria of the 28th National Fish and Chip Awards.

Over five months and three rounds of judging, the awards scour the UK’s 10,500 chippies to find the best experience in terms of both service and taste. The search culminated in this afternoon's ceremony hosted by Seafish in central London, and a haul of prizes including the “Good Catch Award” for the best sustainable seafood.

The shortlist for this category was narrowed to just three businesses: Habourside Fish & Chips and Kingfisher Fish & Chips, both in Plymouth, Devon, and Olley’s Fish Experience in Herne Hill, London. All were selected for the care they take in ensuring their fish is "Blue Tick" approved. This means that the international Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)  has deemed that the produce comes from a fishery practising responsible stock management.

At Olley’s restaurant, certification involved ditching swordfish, replacing wild halibut with farmed halibut, and sourcing its cod – the heart and shoal of any self-respecting chippie – from Norway rather than the UK’s North Sea. By 2006, severe over-fishing in the North Sea had almost wiped out its native cod species, prompting a decade of strict catch-controls. Yet this year some are hopeful that 2016 could see a sea-change in this sad story.

In September, MSC experts began a new assessment of North Sea cod’s “stock status”, raising hopes it could soon join Scottish haddock and Cornish hake on the list of certified British fish. As the MSC's James Simpson tells me: “The question will be if it has recovered enough to be considered sustainable while it continues to improve. In more straightforward terms, ‘Are there enough fish in the sea?’”.

Furthermore, this month sees the launch of the EU’s "discards" ban. This legislation obliges fishermen to land their surplus catch, rather than throwing it straight back into the ocean. After a long campaign to end the practice, led by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish-Fight team, it is widely regarded as a hopeful step towards greater sustainability.

However, things could be set to get worse before they get – cough – batter.

The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations says: “The landings obligation was a misconceived reaction to a misleading public campaign”. And the EU’s approach to the issue of discards is certainly baffling. It is insisting that no part of the surplus-to-quota catch can be used for human consumption. A policy that seems to overlook the fact fishermen have little control over what kinds of fish swim into their nets, and that many fisheries are populated by more than species. The winner here: tiddles the cat and his fish-jerky treats. The losers: the fishermen who now have to freeze and pack fish for which they will receive no payment. And, of course, the fish themselves.

The British government could also be inadvertently making matters worse. Thanks to re-negotiated EU quotas, from next year, fishermen in the North Sea will be permitted to catch 15 per cent more cod something conservationists fear could slow or even reverse the current population recovery.​

For now, however, Plymouth's Kingfisher Fish & Chips at least has something to smile about, having just been named winner of the "Good Catch" award AND runner up for "Independent Takeaway Fish and Chip Shop of the Year". Co-sponsor of the awards and UK Commercial Manager of MSC, George Clark, says: “This year’s entries have proven once again how progressive the fish and chip industry is when it comes to good sourcing practices.”

Ensuring such reform continues will take close co-operation between government, the industry and consumers. For cod's sake, let’s hope they can get it right.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game