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3 November 2021

Will it be shellfish fed on sewage that finally makes us sick of this government?

I have a deep and sometimes fraught relationship with oysters – filth being dumped into the sea is unlikely to help.

By Nicholas Lezard

Sewage, and rubbish, have been much on my mind lately. As my fellow columnist Tracey Thorn observes over the page, if you’re reading a physical copy of this magazine, Brighton endured a garbage strike for three weeks or so; it’s over now, but it will take, we are warned, two weeks to clear the backlog. So, probably longer then. Not that I blame the garbage collectors: their cause was just, from what I can see. I am also prepared to make a small bet that this is an issue that is going to spread around the country. I do not think that Brighton is the only place where refuse workers are treated like… well, rubbish; nor is it, by a long chalk, the only area in the country that is starved of government funding. Here’s what you need, as far as I can tell, for a garbage strike to happen in your area: a shortage of lorry drivers, uncaring management practices, and an underfunded council. Got those on your local bingo card? Have fun.

The other filthy matter that has been preoccupying me is, of course, the matter – and I choose my words carefully – of raw sewage being dumped into our rivers, and thence out to sea. I will not belabour the metaphor (countless others have already done so), although I would like to point out that rarely, if ever, has a government allowed such a fitting metaphor to flourish as a judgement on its own effectiveness and probity. (Yes, I know they have performed something of a U-turn – I am brought to mind of the classic football supporters’ taunt, “You’re shit, and you know you are” – but I am prepared to make a bet larger than the one I made in the previous paragraph that this will have very little effect on water quality in our waterways and coastal areas.)

[See also: I am currently deaf. Is this it from now on, I wonder, one thing failing after another?]

I thought about this after I had treated myself to a small plate of oysters at one of Brighton’s best restaurants, the Regency. I’d done some sub-editing work for a friend – my rates are reasonable – and I’d been paid promptly, and thought I’d blow my fee, about £30, on a couple of glasses of white wine (yes, sometimes there is a time and a place for it) and half a dozen oysters and a plate of whitebait. I cannot recommend the Regency strongly enough, by the way. That I was actually able to afford it at all – I can’t remember the last time I sat down at a restaurant without either being paid for or panicking about the bill – is a testament to what good value it is.

But that’s not the point. The point is the oysters. A story in the London Economic published on 27 October revealed that sewage discharges earlier in the year could well have poisoned people celebrating the Whitstable Oyster Festival. James Green, director of the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company, told the Daily Telegraph: “If the water quality isn’t good enough to grow the shellfish, ultimately that’s the end of the business.” And he added: “If people’s perception of the water quality is that it’s not good enough to eat shellfish, that’s the end for the business as well, to be honest.”

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Long-term readers of this column may remember that I have a deep and sometimes fraught relationship with oysters. They haven’t made me ill since 1985 but if things carry on the way they’re going I suspect that may well change, and for a lot of other people too. The Regency gets theirs from Jersey, but I suspect this will be a detail that will not reassure the nervous. Oyster safety is probably not a rallying cry that the Labour Party will use to lift its fortunes in the polls so as to regain control of the levers of power, but maybe, finally, this sorry business (sewage, not oysters) will be the thing that (forgive me) turns the tide.

I imagine many readers of this magazine have been increasingly dismayed and baffled by Boris Johnson’s seemingly impregnable grip on the country. Its economic effects aside, Covid-19 has made this country collectively suffer a whole range of mental health problems: but the issue I’m having the hardest time processing is that no one seems to be punishing the Conservative Party.

[See also: A year in my flat – and I marked it by setting off the smoke alarm]

Nevertheless, I entertain a faint hope, and maybe there will be a poll that appears in the interval between my writing this and its publication that will show they are doomed. This, the third and final bet I am making here, is going to be considerably smaller than the other ones, and I expect very generous odds indeed. The garbage strike’s visible manifestation reminds everyone my age of the last time it happened (again, see Tracey Thorn). The British are a tidy people – I am afraid I buck the trend somewhat – and do not like to see their public spaces covered in shite. That, in 1978-79, was the tipping point (an inadvertent pun) which drove the public to vote the Thatcher administration into government. Add to this that they are making us literally as well as figuratively sick, and you start wondering if this will precipitate the downfall of the wretched gang of liars, spivs, toadies and chancers who currently rule us. I’m not holding my breath, except when I walk past a pile of bin liners, but I live in hope.

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This article appears in the 03 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britannia Chained