Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Via Owen, a link to the first Ballardian Festival of Home Movies.

We’re all going to be starring in our own sit-coms, and they’ll be strange sit-coms, too, like the inside of our heads.

Stop texting and start shooting – the closing date for entries is 20 February, and the prize is Ballard’s autobiography and reissues of his doom trilogy. But sod the prize – I like the idea. Going to the cinema is usually, as I’ve said before, like going to church (or, for that matter, the art gallery) – we are expected to identify with something universally human which is nevertheless transmitted to us at several levels (literal and figurative) of remove. If there is a medium which is crying out for a DIY revolution, it is film.

My phone doesn’t have a camera, but I was bought a digital camera for Christmas. You can shoot movies on it, though of course it shakes and makes lots of noise and you have to pan round very slowly. I like it very much, because of, rather than in spite of, its limitations, and I’m thinking about making a short film with it: a non-fiction ghost story set on the Suffolk coast. I am particularly keen on shooting films in the passenger seat of the car – drives through forests, or approaches to significant places. I may post a few once I’ve worked out how to edit out the white background noise. In the meantime, here’s a non-fiction ghostly still taken in St Pancras churchyard on New Year’s Eve.


They say the working class is dead, we're all consumers now
They say that we have moved ahead - we're all just people now
There's people doing frightfully well, there's others on the shelf
But never mind the second kind this is the age of self
- Robert Wyatt

The post-modernist / structuralist / political (we might even say anti-political) argument states that the dissection of society along class lines which Marx achieved in the nineteenth century is now impossible. The proletariat no longer exists, class boundaries are blurred, and we now define ourselves according to other criteria (race, gender, sexuality, religion etc). The old working class stereotypes (white, ill-educated family man, works in a factory or down the mines, nasty tendency to turn militant at the merest thing) aren’t reliable, manufacturing industry has disappeared from our shores and, y’know, we’re all pretty comfortable nowadays, give or take. You’ve got to keep with the times. Progressive change can only be achieved via liberal, democratic, identity politics. Class is no longer relevant.

Or so the theory goes.

Our ideas of class are distorted, because we largely base them on social factors – accents, education, where you live, who you vote for, which school you send your children to. These social definitions (which, at most, only indicate class, and at worst are pretexts for utter contempt) help to explain why we misconceive our situation. Capitalism was taught a valuable lesson in the first half of the twentieth century, and acted on it in the second: being conscious of one’s class threatens the capitalist system because it creates bonds of solidarity far greater than the system can handle. The neoliberal model disdains such solidarity – its ideal citizen is the individualist. But while our sense of class consciousness may have evaporated, society remains rivened along class lines.

Tom Lewis, responding to Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of Marx and disavowal of class struggle during the 1990s, reminds us of the Marxist definition of class. That is, it is defined not by those social traits we mentioned above, but by economic relations. The working-class person is he or she who has nothing to bargain with except his or her labour power – the very labour power which will create profit for his employer. Let’s be absolutely clear: if labour is the only form of capital you have (if, in other words, you have no property or investments), and if you have no ultimate influence in deciding what you make or do when you work, you are by the Marxist definition a member of the working-class. This appears to be somewhat surprising. It includes, as Lewis states, “not only auto, steel, textile and trucking workers, therefore, but also nurses, schoolteachers, bank tellers, janitors, many engineers, clerical workers, most retail sales floor workers, fast-food workers, a variety of information producers and handlers, and many others – this is the contemporary working class.”

The postmodernists might argue that, for all Marx’s definition, conditions today are different. What is manufactured now is not so much material objects as information and media; commodities are not produced, but re-produced. But while this explains the dissipation of the working-class (along with the disorganisation that followed Thatcherite/Reaganite anti-union legislation and economic monetarism), it ignores the fact that the worldwide industrial workforce is today greater than ever. After all, the technology which enables such ephemeral business to be conducted must in the first place be built and constructed. “In all the industries that deal in information and representations,” writes Lewis, “the same processes of concentration and centralisation of capital occur as in any old ‘smokestack’ industry.” Trotsky’s statement – “in the beginning was the deed” – holds true: acts still precede ideas.

Why mention this now? Simply because we should not be phased by the dominant liberal-democratic argument that we are at the end of history – that revolutionary socialism is no longer possible or desirable. The Marxist analysis of capitalism is seen by many as outdated, but it remains fundamentally correct. As an aside, Lewis points out that Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy recalls Eduard Bernstein, who in 1899 suggested that improved standards of living would mean an end to crisis-driven militancy. Real wages had indeed been rising (not so for our modern-day working class), and the genesis of a German welfare system was underway (while ours is steadily eroding). But thirty years later, Germany had been brought to its knees. Capitalist dynamics show Fukuyama’s theory to be demonstrably incorrect (not to mention rather messianic). Radical change does not, I admit, seem very likely just at the moment, but we cannot say we have never been here before. We live in decidedly un-special times.

Thursday, January 17, 2008





There is a moment during a recent interview with the dubstep artist Burial when he recalls the uncanny effect of hearing the ghost story “Oh whistle and I’ll come to you my lad” as a child.

My Dad when I was really little, sometimes he used to read me M R James stories. On the South Bank last year, I was walking along, and I found a book of M R James ghost stories. I bunked that day off from my day job and I got this book, and now I’m well into M R James ghost stories ... the one that fucked me up when I was little. 'Oh Whistle and I'll Come To You My Lad'. Something weird happens with M R James, because they’re short - and I don’t read much – and even though it’s in writing, there’ll be a moment, when the person meets the ghost, where you can’t quite believe what you’ve read, you go cold, just for those few lines when you glimpse the ghost for a second, or he describes the ghost face.

You wouldn’t associate dubstep with Victorian ghost stories, but actually the linkage somehow fits. James’s stories deal in many of the elements found in Burial’s records: repetition, obsession, solitude, the feeling of being extra-terrestrial. They also share an ambiguous kind of morality. “Sometimes maybe you see ghosts on the underground with an empty Costcutters plastic bag, nowhere to go,” says Burial. We could never sink that low, we think to ourselves – but perhaps we could.


“This is a story of solitude and terror,” begins a learned voice, by way of introduction to Jonathan Miller’s 1968 adaptation of “Whistle and I’ll come to you”, “and it has a moral too. It hints at the dangers of intellectual pride, and shows how a man’s reason can be overthrown when he fails to acknowledge those forces inside himself which he simply cannot understand.”

M R James wrote ghost stories in the spare time afforded to him by his post as don, then provost, of Cambridge University. He had spent much of his childhood in Suffolk, and found its “bleak and solemn” coast and “dim and murmering sea” a good stage on which to set tales of the supernatural. “Oh whistle and I’ll come to you my lad” is set in Felixstowe, and a reader who is familiar with the town will immediately place it. It tells the story of the earnest, “hen-like” Professor Parkins, who spends a few days by the sea practising his golf swing and exploring the site of a preceptor of the Knights Templar. Parkins is Professor of Ontography at St James’s College. By a process of positivist logic, he rejects the ghosts which his golfing partner, a red-faced Colonel, asks him about at breakfast. After a round with the Colonel, Parkins walks across the links to the depressions and mounds which mark the site of the preceptor. He digs away a little with a pocket-knife, but it is too dark to see what’s what. The wind hampers his efforts at lighting a match to get a better view, but undeterred he continues to dig and finds a cylindrical metal object which turns out to be a whistle with the Latin inscription “QUIS EST ISTE QUI VENIT” – “Who is this who is coming?” – etched upon it. To answer the question, he blows sharply into the whistle – and that night receives his reply.

Miller’s adaptation takes a great liberty with James’s story – Professor Parkins is radically transformed by Michael Horden into an aching, convulsive figure and save for his Wittgensteinian refutation of supernatural life over a boiled egg, there is no dialogue to speak of. Internal chatter consumes him, and he finds it acutely difficult to communicate to others. He practices what he has to say internally, sounding out phrases to himself, wrapping his lips around words (“I think I shall go for a ..... trrrrrudge”) before launching them at his audience with a bark or a murmur. He is broadly comic – a prototype for Reggie Perrin, perhaps – until the final scene when the presence aroused by the whistle takes shape, when the uncanny peculiarity of what he has seen hits him. “Oh no ... oh no,” he repeats, his logic failing him. “Once I was so sure,” sang Japan’s David Sylvian on “Ghosts”, “now the doubt inside my mind comes and goes but leads nowhere”...

Before Freud gave his famous account of the uncanny (das unheimlich), Schelling explained it as that which ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light, and Jentsch characterised it as driven by “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate.” Freud takes the account further by describing the bizarre stories of Hoffman. One story, in particular, describes a boy called Nathaniel who is warned about the evil sandman:

He’s a wicked man who comes when children won’t go to bed, and throws handfuls of sand in their eyes so that they jump out of their heads all bleeding. Then he puts the eyes in a sack and carries them off to the half-moon to feed his children. They sit up there in their nest, and their beaks are hooked like owls’ beaks, and they use them to peck up naughty boys’ and girls’ eyes with.

Like Professor Parkins, Nathaniel is rational enough not to believe the tale about the sandman. And yet, reason is not enough to prevent the dread becoming fixed in his heart. Even more – Nathaniel seeks out the sandman, as though he must look death in the face, even if it kills him. Whatever Parkins sees in his hotel bedroom – and we are led to believe that this is a textbook ghoul, all rustling sheets and weird howls – has no place in his world. It is residual to his sense of order, it does not fit, and it will therefore haunt him wherever he makes his home.

It is Parkins who feels the shudder of the uncanny in “Whistle and I’ll come to you,” but it is we, the audience, who are disturbed by Lawrence Gordon Clark’s adaptation of James’s “A warning to the curious”.

The adaptation, first broadcast in 1972, is extraordinary, a subtle, starkly executed masterpiece of suspense. It tells the story of an amateur archaeologist, Mr Paxton, who visits the Suffolk coastal town of Seaburgh (based on Aldeburgh) to uncover a long-hidden secret. Legend has it that three crowns were buried in Suffolk during Saxon times, but that only one survives (one having fallen victim to the longshore drift at Dunwich centuries earlier, another having been unearthed at Rendlesham*). As long as at least one of the crowns remains buried, the coast will be safe from invasion.

But Paxton, typical of James’s protagonists, has a dream to fulfil. Like Parkins, he is a nobody. He has recently been made redundant in London, and is nagged by the feeling that he needs to prove himself, needs to be. All my life, he says to Dr Black, I’ve dreamed of doing something big. And so, despite misgivings from the locals and a trail of murdered archaeologists in the area, he is determined to find the crown. But when he finally unearths it, he is not so much enlightened as bewildered – and finally terrified. The ghost of Seaburgh’s madman, William Agar, pursues him through forests and across bare, surreal beaches, and we are left wondering whether Agar really exists, and whether his ghost ever catches Paxton.

It is a paradox that “A warning to the curious” illustrates the uncanniness of the Suffolk coast, since it is actually filmed in Norfolk. But it is the landscapes on which the film is set, and its horrible soundtrack and associated noises, which create its terror: the scuttling knife which scrapes away at the earth, the hard, wet coughs of the ghost, the peculiar and unplaceable accents of the locals. And, as James himself found, the bare, spectral trees and surreal dunes offer the perfect atmosphere on which to rehearse our spooky prehistory.

Freud has been criticised for placing the causes of the uncanny solely at the door of the castration complex, and the fear it produces. But if we take the concept of castration as a stage of human development – by which I mean the development of humans as a species – there is indeed something uncanny about facing up to a primordial deposit which our civilisation cannot accommodate. James introduces into his placid, bucolic settings something ominous - what Freud (and Lacan) might call das ding (the thing). For Paxton, the thing which will patch him up, restore his lost sense of unity, is the very thing he is forbidden from discovering: the crown. To extend the Freudian analysis further, we might say that William Agar acts as the representative of the reality principle, warning the curious Paxton that the crown's inaccessibility must be preserved, since Paxton cannot stand the extreme good it will bring. He is, in a sense, Paxton's benevolent double.

The conclusion of “A warning to the curious” is prompted by a man who looks like Dr Black – but who is not – calling out to Mr Paxton. The double and the lack it creates (“there is nothing worse,” says Burial, “than not recognising someone you know, someone close, family, seeing a look in them that just isn’t them”) is the product of our attempt to protect ourselves from forces which we do not understand. This incomprehension, which our learned friend tells us is "intellectual pride," but which Freud might put down to primary narcissism, is what returns to haunt Parkins and Paxton, the latter fatally.

*This is odd. It is true that a Saxon cemetery lay hidden beneath the earth near Rendlesham, and among the treasures unearthed by archaeologists was the famous death-mask and crown now in the British Museum. Yet, the excavation of Sutton Hoo did not take place until 14 years after “A warning to the curious” was published. How could James have known about what lay beneath the soil?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008


The Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648 after the Thirty Years War. It fragmented the Germanic states of the Holy Roman Empire, and gave them virtual autonomy, thus signalling the start of the Empire ’s long decline. One can see the potential for power vacuums and conflict from the jumble of states which emerged.

When the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI died a hundred years later, a debate raged over whether his daughter Maria Theresa was eligible to succeed him as Queen of Hungary and Bohemia . Charles had persuaded some Germanic leaders to accept the Pragmatic Sanction that she should succeed him, but Salic law stated that women could not inherit property. Frederick the Great of Prussia, who had territorial claims which were unresolved, did not accept the Sanction and invaded Silesia (the area around the modern-day Polish-German-Czech border).

The Prussians made rapid progress into Silesia , expanding their territory and population. The old European powers, realising that the previously inconspicuous Prussians were now a force to be reckoned with, entered the fray: France , Spain and Bavaria allied with the Prussians, Britain and Holland with Austria . The war lasted between 1740-48, and ended with a treaty which restored the status quo ante bellum. However, with the development of modern industrial capitalism in Britain, the bourgeois revolution in France, and the consequent battle for commerce in the West Indies, peace was not to last. More than 150 years later, wars of this kind were still being fought by similar actors.


While blood spilled in Europe, another type of laissez-faire commerce was in the ascendant in Suffolk : smuggling. Groups of audacious smugglers had expanded the trade of contraband to the extent that customs authorities, even with military support, were no match for them. Lord Orford had once commented that the only man in Orford who was not a smuggler was the parson (surely not!), and the intricate tributaries of the River Blyth a little way up the coast provided ideal routes for cargo.

A detachment of the Fourth Dragoons, who had fought in the 1740-48 war, was posted to Blythburgh in Suffolk to prevent the spread of smuggling. Fresh from battle, the dragoons resented their placement on the bleak Suffolk coast, and soon became unpopular with the locals.


One summer night in 1750, a local girl, Anne Blakemore, was found dead by the marshland near Blythburgh village. The finger was pointed at Tobias Hill, who some villagers claimed had raped and strangled the girl after being kicked out of the White Hart in a drunken stupor. He pleaded his innocence, but was found guilty and hanged on 14th September 1750, his body left swinging from the chains of the gibbet as an example for others. The Ipswich Journal described Hill as “a black, one of the drummers in Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment” – and it is here that we begin to wonder if a racially-motivated miscarriage of justice occurred. Just like Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, Hill had been charged without a shred of evidence to link him to Anne’s murder. In fact, given that there were no suspicious marks on Anne’s body, there was no evidence to suggest she had been murdered at all.

As the Foxearth and District Local History Society notes, even in death Tobias Hill was allowed little dignity:

To cover up their activities, smugglers made the dead dragoon the subject of a number of ghost stories, including the common one of being a headless driver of a phantom black coach drawn by four headless black horses. Certainly, the thought of ghost of Black Toby kept many of the superstitious indoors at night whilst the smugglers were at work.

The story of Toby Hill’s ghost is still popular in that part of the Suffolk coast. Some living people claim to have seen him. But the story appears to have been created to gloss over an unpalatable truth: the murder of an innocent man by a rancorous rabble.


Further to what I wrote last month about the Bolivian constitution, this article by Benjamin Dangl serves as a useful precis of the situation as it stands.

In essence, the agenda for Bolivia in 2008 (along with maintaining order and peace) is:
  • to hold a national referendum on the new constitution
  • to hold a national vote on the reform articles which, if passed, could see major redistribution of land from the wealthy haciendistas to the poor
  • to hold a national referendum on the Morales Presidency and all governorships.

That's quite a programme of work, but it further demonstrates what I discovered when I was in the country last year - that this is a truly democratic country. The wealthy business elite of the eastern provinces have always been politicised in so far as politics enable them to hold onto their property. But now the poor are becoming enfranchised, are talking about the country which, for the first time, feels like it belongs to them, and are taking to the streets in protest against the politics of privilege.

In establishing so many electoral mechanisms, the government is obviously taking a gamble - it may well lose these votes. But it also knows that if it wins, the Bolivian right will be unable to continue protesting against Morales's lack of democracy. The right has opposed the proposed national pension plan on the grounds that the plan diverts money from departmental revenues, and it argues this in the name of democracy. This year will put those arguments to the test.

Friday, January 04, 2008


Over at Histomat, Snowball wishes us a happy new year by quoting the anti-capitalist dictum par excellence:

The slave frees himself when, of all the relations of private property, he abolishes only the relation of slavery and thereby becomes a proletarian; the proletarian can free himself only by abolishing private property in general.

- Frederick Engels, The Principles of Communism, 1847

Thursday, January 03, 2008


No architect troubled to design houses that suited people who were to live in them, because that would have meant building a whole range of different houses. It was far cheaper and, above all, timesaving to make them identical.
- Michael Ende, Momo, 1973

A desolate-looking man approached me recently, and introduced himself as a psychotherapist looking for work. He had spoken to a number of NHS fundholders in London but had hit a brick wall - there just weren't any opportunities for experienced psychotherapists to provide therapy to people who were clinically in need but unable to pay the going rate. I had to confess - his chances of practicing in Camden were slim, unless he chose to go private.

This is a strange situation. Alan Johnson recently announced an injection of funding to the tune of £170m over three years, which would help lots more people to access psychological therapies on the NHS. You'd have thought people like my friend the psychotherapist would be jumping for joy. But unfortunately, he is unlikely to gain from the Secretary of State’s announcement, and it is doubtful whether patients will either.

The government's idea of effective psychological therapies is limited to say the least. Firstly, it says that ideally they should be short-term. Although you will hear some politicians and NHS managers claiming that this is to prevent people becoming dependent, most will admit that the advantages of short-term therapies are purely financial. In fact, evidence suggests that short-term therapies provide little long-term benefits to people with more profound illness.

Secondly, the government says talking therapies should have a body of evidence to back them up. No holder of public funds could possibly have a problem with this, except that the methodology used by policy-makers to demonstrate the effectiveness of talking therapies is pharmacologically-based. Empirical evidence suggests the government’s preferred form of therapy – cognitive behavioural therapy – is not the panacea it is made out to be. Indeed, the Institute of Psychiatry recently held a conference entitled: "CBT is the New Coca-Cola: This house believes that cognitive behavioural therapy is superficially appealing but over-marketed and has few beneficial ingredients."

The methodology used to demonstrate the effectiveness of CBT is the randomised-controlled trial (RCT), used to test the efficacy of pharmaceuticals. The irony is, the controlled nature of the methodology leads to gross inconsistencies in the evidence-base of psychological therapies.

An RCT will take two groups of randomly-selected people, and administer one group with the treatment under trial, the other with the current, standard treatment, and evaluate the results. In order to compare the two groups, each must be as uniform as possible to avoid the influence of mitigating factors. So, people with two or more diagnoses will be ineligible for the RCT because the secondary diagnosis might have some bearing on the treatment of the first. Next, each person in the first group must be given an identical treatment, otherwise they will not be comparable. Finally, the deliverer of the therapy must be identical – which either means one person acting as therapists for everybody in the group or, more likely, the therapy being manualised. So you see, we have identical patients being given identical treatments by identical therapists.

Psychoanalytic and psychodynamic therapies have a philosophy of different patients being given different treatments by different therapists, according to the needs of the patient and the nature of the therapy. Their course is unpredictable, because they are determined by the relationship between therapist and patient, and are sufficiently flexible and amorphous to allow unforeseen material to be uncovered. In fact, practitioners of nearly all psychological therapies will admit that actual clinical practice never follows the book word-for-word. Testing any such therapy via an RCT will therefore be futile.

If you want something which fits the RCT model, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has to be your premium choice, because of its highly structured approach. It is one of the few therapies approved by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, and is the favourite therapy of Richard Layard, the so-called “happiness guru” (an economist with little experience of clinical psychology or psychiatry) who advises the Government on mental health and social inclusion policy. CBT does not care to delve into any childhood factors which may have caused the symptoms to occur, but instead uses a by-rote approach to alter aspects of behaviour which the patient finds traumatic. Although symptoms will differ from person to person, the delivery of CBT will remain consistent, which means it adheres perfectly to the exigencies of the RCT methodology.

The conclusion drawn from all this is not that the evidence mechanism needs to be more flexible, but that psychotherapies are ineffective. Ministers and managers have accepted the dictums that (a) CBT is evidence-based, and (b) there is little or no evidence to suggest that long-term therapies work. This dictum is highly misleading since, as we have seen, its evidence-base is generated by RCTs which only use those rare (non-existent?) patients with a discrete diagnosis and no extenuating factors. For the moment, it is the CBT industry which will gain most from the Secretary of State’s funding. But it is up to psychotherapists to devise a methodology which is sufficiently objective, and which demonstrates positive outcomes for patients, and good rates of sustainable recovery (the extent to which CBT provides lasting psychological improvements is unproven). They may well have a fight on their aims, for CBT is emblematic of the rather blinkered and reactionary view our society has towards psychological health.


Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is the one so-called talking therapy (or talking cure) which chimes with the pharmacological approach to psychology, in that it takes an objective approach to human psychic activity, and proceeds by a method which is uniform from patient to patient. Pharmacologists and mainstream psychiatrists use the infamous Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders. Its diagnoses claim to be empirically founded, but in fact they are constructs based on what is considered socially normal and abnormal. Yet paradoxically, any claim that a disorder might have social as well as biological causes is dismissed as unscientific and unverifiable. The fact that diagnoses correlate with perceived social abnormality means that treatments favoured by the pharmacological community will aim to normalise a person, rather than to treat them holistically. Once again. we find that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy fits the bill perfectly.

The renaissance of the pharmacological approach – “blaming the brain,” in Elliot S Valenstein’s words – roughly coincides with the rise of neoliberal capitalism, and it is not difficult to see the association. Defining mental health in purely biological terms helps social and economic structures off the hook. Those diagnosed as having a disorder can be treated, via drugs, neurological interventions or standardised psychological therapies, so that they can become normal, productive members of society. This normalising approach can be dangerous: many authoritarian states have managed dissent by treating it as deviant, psychologically abnormal behaviour, and we can read about British care homes which administer medication to older people with dementia or challenging behaviour in order to sedate them.

Therapies which treat a person’s symptoms in the context of his or her circumstances (both historic and socio-economic) are liable to be more challenging to society. Their assumptions are also borne out rather more convincingly than the assumptions (which focus on genes and neurological make-up, rather than material factors) of the pure pharmacologists.

The World Health Organisation and the European Commission have studied the prevalence of mental illness in a sample of countries throughout the world, and their results suggest that genetic make-up is of far less consequence than the society in which one lives. Countries such as the US and the UK , whose economies are predominantly neoliberal have much higher incidence of depression and other neurotic illnesses than those with other economic systems. We know that, under the post-1979 New Right administrations of Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown, 1% of British earners doubled their share of the national income (from 6.5% to 13%), and that top chief execs now earn 133 times more than the average wage (in 1980, FTSE 100 execs earned 20 times more than the average). The Scandinavian model of capitalism, while still faulty, has curbed the gap in economic inequality.

The EU’s Outcome of Depression International Network found that 17.1% of people in Liverpool suffered from a depressive disorder, compared to 8.8% in Oslo and 5.9% in Turku , Finland . This cannot be explained by genes, and studies show that when people migrate from one place to another, their physical and mental health will change. In other words, those Finns would be nearly three times more likely to suffer from depression if they lived in the UK .

Why is this? Oliver James suggests that economic inequality does not merely create higher levels of misery – it also thrives on it. “Selfish capitalism stokes up relative materialism: unrealistic aspirations and the expectation that they can be fulfilled. It does so to stimulate consumerism in order to increase profits and promote short-term economic growth. Indeed, I maintain that high levels of mental illness are essential to selfish capitalism, because needy, miserable people make greedy consumers and can be more easily suckered into perfectionist, competitive workaholism.” Despite the disparity in incomes and access to cash which has grown steadily under Gordon Brown’s stewardship as Chancellor and Prime Minister, and despite the chances of upwards social mobility which have shrunk under the Tories and New Labour, still we reach further for the stars.

An end to this selfish capitalism would do a lot more for Britain’s mental health than £170m worth of CBT.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008



Red snappers snappin'
Clam shells clappin'
Muscles flexin'
Flippers flippin'
- the B52s, "Rock lobster"

I have written surprisingly little on this blog about food, and have blasted TV chefs and cookery columnists for their pretentious obsession with lifestyle and their presumptious snobbery. The intensely bourgeois attitudes with which food literature is constituted in the media could lead one to believe that good eating is a pursuit reserved for the upper classes.

Good food is not a lifestyle choice, and nor is it governed by fashion. Just because monkfish is popular with the TV chefs (and is therefore expensive) does not mean that it must be a superior food to pollack, a fish nobody is bothered about and which sells for peanuts. Only a few years ago, the hideous-looking monkfish was thrown back into the sea by fishermen who were more concerned about landing a more aesthetic catch. Suddenly, Keith Floyd began cooking with them, and their price went through the roof. In other words, if you ignore trends and fads, you can eat excellent food fairly cheaply.

I got Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s latest book for Christmas. He is the best, and most campaigning, of the current crop of TV foodies, and The River Cottage Fish Book is a beast – 605 pages of hardbound authority on fish. Providing context to some awesome-looking recipes and tips, the back third of the book gives all the detail you could ever need on which fish are caught sustainability, which we should buy with care, and which we should avoid altogether. I described the horrendous malpractice in tropical prawn farming recently, and such gluttonous commercial behaviour is not abnormal. You will find that many of your favourite fish are so endangered today, that it is difficult to justify buying them. Thankfully, there are alternatives out there – many of which will taste better, and most of which will be much cheaper.

Here is a summary of what’s hot and what’s not according to the Marine and Conservation Society. If you're in any doubt, go to a fishmonger and ask where s/he got his or her fish. If you're met with a wall of silence, you might think about taking your trade elsewhere. In my opinion, you really should not buy fish in the final section unless your life depends on it. And be prepared: January 2008 could be Homo Ludens’s fishiest month yet.





Mackerel (avoid fish caught in the North Sea)

Dogfish (effectively the only member of the shark family not threatened with extinction in British waters. And it doesn’t have any bones)

Flounders and dabs (the dab in particular is far superior to and sweeter than the plaice, and it's cheaper too – grill it briefly with a light dressing of lemon juice and garlic, and you’ll have a small feast).

Red gurnard

Grey mullet


Organically farmed salmon

Bivalves (mussels, scallops, oysters, cockles and clams are as sustainable as it gets)



Herrings, kippers and bloaters (we have fished the herring to near-extinction in the past. The fact it is still thriving owes more to its stubbornness than our moderation.)

Sardines and pilchards (more victims of over-exploitation in the twentieth century, the British coast has seen a renaissance in catches of sardina pilchardus)

Sprats (eat plenty, but avoid in the summer months)

Haddock (be very cautious. North Sea stocks have barely recovered from our hearty appetites, and the more lurid smoked haddocks usually contain more dyes than actual smoke)

Turbot and brill (the upper-crusters of the flatfish world are often fished from trawlers that erode ecosystems found at the sea-floor. Avoid the depleted North Sea stocks altogether)

Plaice (the only European source which is definitely sustainable for plaice is the Irish Sea. If it spent its last hours anyway else, it’s best to avoid it)

Dover and lemon sole (two more fish caught by destructive beam-trawlers – find out how and from where they were caught first)

Sea bass (bass really is a great fish, especially in Asian cooking, but it has grown too popular for its own good, and both wild and farmed varieties are under threat. Bream is a better bet)

Red mullet (the Mediterranean varieties have been overfished, but those caught off the coast of the UK are sustainable)

John Dory (sharing its Latin name with my preferred chain of antiquarian booksellers, eating the zeus faber is fine so long as the fish is pretty big, otherwise it won’t have spawned)

Trout (the Marine and Conservation Society say that all trouts are fine to eat as long as they are organically farmed. I have read reports of hundreds of trout being stuffed into small containers of water and, even if I’ve been mislead, I’m put off for life. My advice: err on the side of caution)

Perch (British perch are fine, but rarely sold in the UK; the stuff we buy usually comes from Egypt, while our own stuff is exported to the EU. Maybe try catching your own?)

Langoustines, lobsters and crabs (some langoustines are beam-trawled, but most – and all of their larger cousins, lobsters – are caught in creels or pots, which do little or no ecological damage. They may be the tastiest beasties on this list, so should be sampled in moderation. And you ever find a blue velvet swimmer crab on a slab, try one of them too)

Molluscs (winkles are fine as long as they’re not mechanically harvested, and in South Korea whelks are said to have aphrodisiac qualities. Plus, you can dig them up at the seaside, pop a load in your bucket, and hey presto – you’ve turned into a mollusc fisherman)

Cephalopods (cuttlefish abound in our shores, but there’s barely a market for it in the UK, whereas we are happy to import squid from the US and Pacific. Try and buy British in both instances, if only because this is a fish where freshness is everything)








Tuna (avoid fresh altogether; Glenryck tinned is ok)

Bull huss / rock salmon

Any skates or rays



All eels, including conger eels

Tropical prawns (see here)

Wild and farmed salmon


On lobsters:

The males are particularly belligerent. Even in tanks big enough for them to have their own territory, they’ll still do battle. Backing down isn’t their style. In one holding tank, a male lobster, who had already lost both claws and most of his legs in a fight, was seen dragging himself around the tank like the dismembered knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, challenging other lobsters to bring it on.

But not all conflicts are resolved by violent means. Bizarrely, the lobster’s urine plays a vital part. Both sexes have their bladder located in their heads, and its contents are not just a waste product. A male lobster’s physical assault is accompanied by an intense squirt of his urine. It’s deployed like a squid’s ink or even a skunk’s spray – as a tactical device in both fighting and mating.

This same scent is also used to impress females. When she is ready to mate, a lady lobster will move to a shelter close to the dominant male and start regularly parading past his territory. If he’s impressed, he squirts a jet of urine in her direction. If she is ready, she will return the gesture. Scientists now believe that the female’s urine also contains a secreted hormone that intensifies as she gets nearer to breeding time. The effect of this secretion is to tone down the male’s aggressive urges and turn his (very tiny) brains from thoughts of crushing and killing to ones of sex and procreation.

Besides squirting her urine when ready to mate, the female lobster will also shed her shell. When she has done so, the male will then mount her soft, shell-less body and impregnate her with his sperm. She will generally remain in his lair for a week or two, until her shell has grown hard. Then she’ll be on her way. The next female in line starts her seduction tactics almost as soon as the last one has left. It’s pretty much a dream scenario for the male : he gets to laze around at home while a succession of willing females comes to call.

- from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher's The River Cottage Fish Book, 2007