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There's something fishy in our food – or not. . .

Certain communities aside, we Britons today aren’t big fish fans. Can places like Billingsgate Market teach us to love seafood?

It’s just before dawn on a damp autumnal morning, and I’m standing in what must be the coldest building in London while a man in a hat waves a live lobster in my face. If my day has started weirdly, then I guess the poor old crustacean has it worse. The creature, a handsome American of about 40, seems unimpressed by the honour of his unexpected close encounter with Barry O’Toole, inspector of fish and shellfish at Billingsgate, Britain’s biggest inland fish market.

Around Barry and the lobster, the business of the market, which moved to its present site between the A1261 and the towers of Canary Wharf in 1982 after 900 years upstream, ebbs and flows like the river it once hugged. A trolley of polystyrene boxes, silvery tails spilling from the tops, sloshes across the shiny floor behind me, narrowly missing a Chinese grandmother scrutinising the salmon heads. Men shout and wheels squeak, phones ring out as orders are placed and couriers are booked, and, at the risk of coming across a bit Emily Thornberry, I haven’t seen so many St George flags in one place since the last World Cup.

It’s a strange, crepuscular world where the working day starts at 10pm, with the first deliveries. The processors, the men whom I see deftly filleting and gutting to the strains of Radio 2 as the sun comes up over the Barclays headquarters, get in at 1am, roughly the same time as the stock from the British coast.

The merchants themselves – the men (for they are all men; I don’t see a single woman working on the market floor, though Barry assures me they do exist) who run the 130 or so businesses that rent space at Billingsgate – are in and on the phone striking deals from 2am onwards, though until the bell rings at 4am not a single fish is allowed to leave. Four hours later the place is a sea of melting ice and discarded packaging, and in the car park a large gull pecking at a salmon carcass is the only sign of life. If you’re not there by 6am, forget it.

Given this, it’s not surprising that Billingsgate is still largely a trade haunt. I pass my local fishmonger’s van on the way in. Yet it also attracts a significant number of ordinary shoppers on the hunt for specialist ingredients, or just a bit of a bargain. A couple of Japanese students in padded jackets size up the halibut with a critical eye, and I spot an African-Caribbean couple discreetly sniffing a piece of saltfish. These are people who know what they’re looking for.

But the name you hear over and over again at Billingsgate is “China”. The boys at Mick’s Eel Supply, the market’s last remaining vendor of live eels (stored in what appears to be a giant wet filing cabinet), say the Chinese are some of their best customers though they’ve yet to catch on to the delights of the jellied variety. As Barry checks a consignment of live brown crabs on their way to the airport, I am astonished to learn that they’ll be dinner in Shanghai in a little over 24 hours. The market sent 14 million tonnes of shellfish to the People’s Republic last year and its appetite for our seafood shows no signs of slowing.

Which is perhaps lucky for the merchants of Billingsgate, because, certain communities aside, we Britons today aren’t big fish fans: the average adult consumed little more than a single portion a week last year. We’re conservative, too, the same five species of cod, haddock, tuna, salmon and prawns accounting for 75 per cent of all sales. Little wonder, when most supermarkets offer little else. C J Jackson, who runs the Seafood Training School at Billingsgate, says she hasn’t seen any change in eating habits since she wrote her first fish cookbook over 20 years ago.

It may be chilly, and blokey, and annoyingly located. But I can’t help thinking that, if everyone was lucky enough to have a Billingsgate on their doorstep, things might be quite different.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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