'We had the traders dancing in the market aisles'. Just buying the ingredients from London's Billingsgate Market for a wonderful fish meal exposes customers to moral, economic, social and ecological quandaries from around the world's oceans.
People coming from the market, on foot and wrapped warm, skirting the railings along the roadway, with Canary Wharf as a backdrop, all carrying something. Sometimes whole families, and the children carrying parcels too; most have large black plastic bin bags. What attracts them here is Billingsgate fish market.
Fish have always been landed in the City, first at Queenhithe, where old oyster shells still emerge from the tidal silt, and then at Billingsgate further downstream, with a bigger berth for boats. The market was first registered by act of parliament in 1699. A home for it was purpose-built on Lower Thames Street in 1850, which was then replaced by an arcaded riverside building in 1875, the largest fish market in the world. It had impressive rush-hour traffic jams by the 1970s, and in 1982 the market transferred to Poplar, where there were de-industrialised spaces on the edge of the new Docklands, strategically located for lorries coming in on the A13. The trade was already changing as supermarkets eliminated fishmongers, and fish logistics enlarged with port-to-depot refrigerated transport. The old Billingsgate site became a cultural centre, while the new market now serves smaller-scale customers: restaurants, tourists, and the fish people.
There are 40 stalls under one roof; from Mick's Eels on Wheels to Afrikana and Asian Fresh. Giant conger eels, huge halibut, baleful gurnards, oversize salmon, lobsters with their claws pitifully pinioned as they await death (there should be a law), rainbow fish. The officer on gate duty marshalls incoming tides of fish shoppers. No children, and shopping trolleys over there please. He quietly tells me he would never buy fish here: 'Have you seen what they charge for a pair of kippers? I can get them cheaper at Waitrose.'
The traders rent their small stalls from the market authorities and are almost as multinational as their customers: oldtime Cockneys, Indians, Africans and eastern Europeans. A BBC interview with a market trader warns of traditional strong language, but the banter is genial. Jostling fish porters with special leather hats used to head-load fishboxes; now they have wheeled trolleys and the fish arrives in polystyrene boxes, which the market assures us are responsibly recycled.
Jostling fish porters with special leather hats used to head-load fishboxes; now they have wheeled trolleys and the fish arrives in polystyrene boxes
The cleaners breakfasting in the café (run by Kurds who do a delicious bacon roll with scallops) proudly say that, unlike workers in other markets, they earn above the London living wage because they are classified as industrial cleaners. However, the porters have been stripped of the ancient privileges that allowed them to maintain a union closed shop and relatively good wages and conditions. (Their licences were withdrawn by the City of London Corporation in 2010.)
What were we doing at Billingsgate? It's a long story. We are a group of musicians, musicologists and ethnographers. We came to Billingsgate because we love to play music at fish markets. Just before last Christmas we had the fishmongers dancing in the aisles and throwing fivers in our hat. And - because we are class composition researchers in the tradition of Marx, Foucault and Alquati - we are much interested in the ethnography of the market and its clientele. We are also fish people (1).
We'd been planning a fish feast, based on Egyptian recipes we picked up in Alexandria, and we were now shopping for it. A tall black man sitting opposite on the bus looked quizzically at my bulging bag. 'It's fish, I said. 'Ah, I like fish,' he said. He goes to Billingsgate fortnightly to buy it. He is a security man in London bars and restaurants, but as a child lived on the Cross river in Nigeria where they had tilapia, mussels, catfish (black and white), sea snails and mackerel, and everyone lived on fish. Was that why he loved it? 'Well, maybe it's because all of our women give birth in the river.' I was amazed. 'You mean, you were born in the river?' 'Yes - and my brothers and sisters too - all seven of us.'
Not only is the market a node in a global market network, it is a node of moral, ethical and social dilemmas. Likewise our feast. Every purchase was a problem. Salmon. Prawns. Oysters. Cod versus pollack. Farmed or wild. Fresh or frozen or chilled (2). One stall had a large sign 'XXL Tiger Prawns - Kg £10'; two men with plastic scoops were busily pouring giant prawns into carrier bags, a scene of animated trade, vigorous activity and paradox. The market, an ancient thing, is a market of death. Your mind ranges through all the recipes you have ever eaten or desired, yet as far as your eye can see, there are the inert bodies of sea creatures, box after box, their lifeless eyes staring blankly into the fluorescent lighting. It is intimate, as all markets are. But it is also barbaric.
One prawn box I could see was labelled partly in Chinese, aimed at the Chinese market; it was from the Galápagos Islands, the Sociedad Nacional de Galápagos (SONGA). In 1982 SONGA constructed a huge water farm in mainland Ecuador for the breeding, genetic selection and processing of shrimps: 7,000 hectares of waterworks, coordinated in a highly mechanised and Taylorised production process with skilled and unskilled labour feeding the global market for shrimps. The plant produces 110 tons of seafood a day, with total annual exports of 16,500 tons, and is Ecuador's principal exporter to the world market. The careful, courteous environmentalism of the promotional video that SONGA has produced (3) contrasts with the intimate barbarism of the Billingsgate scene; it foregrounds quality control, advanced biogenetics, environmental responsibility but, most of all, the video insists: 'No chemicals are used in this pro cess.' Further down the Billingsgate aisle, another stall proclaimed in equally large letters: 'WILD Prawns.' Discerning Londoners disdain farmed fish.
'We are river people'
For part of the year I live on the River Teign in Devon, and I used to row across it for shellfish discussions with the late Captain Philip Gibbon, who farmed oysters at Arch Brook. This New Year, our band of SOAS musicians (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) took over the Devon Arms in Teignmouth for a rollicking session that had us trading songs head-to-head with the Back Beach Boyz, a local shanty-singing crew. They have written a funny song that gives a precious anthropology of the local oyster trade (4).
Teignmouth methods of oyster farming are open to experiment. There is a long-time operation run by ostricultor Barry Sessions and his son Matthew, who farm both oysters and mussels. The traditional method was to grow the seeds in flow-through plastic mesh sacks mounted on metal racks. The Sessions family have also scattered oyster seed on the foreshore, letting the oysters grow unconstrained, a random method that explains the otherwise surprising presence of rather large oysters in the river. But those oysters have problems with predators, both animal and human; and, unaccountably, mussel seed has vanished from the lower river. So the Sessions are pursuing new methods. With government permission, they lay mussel ropes at sea, and have bought a new boat designed for sea farming. As Matthew said, 'We are river people. Going out to sea is a bit of a learning curve for us.' The family celebrated its purchase with a film, made by Matthew's daughter Jess, showing their full mussel farmi ng process (5).
A former Chilean trade union organiser and political refugee, Alberto Paredes, a friend of ours, eventually returned home and now farms oysters and giant mussels at Puerto Montt, near the Calbuco volcano. He is an international expert on shellfish fecundation. For breeding oysters, he has invented a system of upwelling buckets mounted on floating frames in his local river. He argues, in the interests of sustainability, that this dramatically reduces the mortality rate of oysters in cultivation. He has produced a video about his method (6), and lectures internationally; Teign shellfish breeders have told me they are keenly watching the lessons from Chile.
In France, ostricology is part of the national culture. Fishmongers display oysters in many varieties; the local quincaillerie sells pointed instruments for extracting winkles; and waiters can shuck an oyster with a flick of the wrist. Our music group went to Calais, and at a portside stall, met a fish lady explaining patiently to a customer that there was no fish because violent storms had stopped the boats from going out.
Myriam Pont, a local shellfish woman who calls herself la paysanne des mers, proudly announced, in this Front National territory: 'I was born in France. But my grandmother was Indian in origin, and my grandfather was Arab.' She works in la pêche à pied (fishing on foot), working the natural mussel beds along the coastline to Wimereux, and bringing the mussels back on her bicycle. She combines seafood with pedagogy, taking visitors around the mussel beds of the region; they come from far and wide to learn about marine habitats, ecology, the intimate life habits of molluscs - and the ways they can be cooked (7).
(1) 'SOAS Ceilidh Band, Breakfast on the Thames, 27 September 2017'.
(2) Andrew Purvis, 'Farmed fish', Food & Drink, The Guardian, London, 11 May 2003.
(3) 'Songa - Sociedad Nacional de Galápagos - English'.
(4) 'Ode to an Oyster', Teignmouth in Verse, keatsghost.wordpress.com, January 2015.
(5) 'River Teign'.
(6) 'Ostras Chile'.
(7) Facebook page, 'La Paysanne des mers la pêche à pied avec Myriam Pont'.