According to a report in the Observer newspaper, Britain is again falling for the charms of the jellied eel. Apparently Tesco sales of the stuff have grown by “35% since the supermarket giant took a gamble and started selling them outside London”. The increase in consumption is being “attributed to a new, more austere environment”.
I’ve written and photographed jellied eels and the Pie and Mash shops of the East End a fair few times for different magazines over the last couple of years and I have to say reports that I have heard from there tell a completely different story. Very, very few people ask for eels in pie shops these days and those that do seem to fall into two categories. Firstly, older people that have always eaten them and remember their hayday pre-1950/60′s and secondly, young middle class emigres to the trendier spots of Hackney, that do so once for a bet.
What I suspect we might be seeing are the novelty buying habits of communities that still identify with the traditional accoutrement of a rosy, cosy fug of a dying white working class culture. These are to be found primarily in the post-war new towns of Hertfordshire and Essex. That would certainly explain the supermarket connection and why at least most pie and mash shops stopped killing and jellying their own eels years ago. Jellied eels are totemic of a simpler and now unrecognisable East End Victoriana but eels have long been a staple part of London food and were synonymous with the city and its people. In King Lear, Shakespeare’s Fool in his ramblings to the King, witters – “Cry to it, nuncle, as the Cockney did to the eels when she put ‘em i’ the paste alive; she knapped ‘em o’ the coxcombs with a stick, and cried ‘Down, wantons, down!’”
In a city dominated and bisected by the River Thames the eel’s popularity was that it was plentiful, cheap and when most meat or fish had to be preserved in salt, eel could be kept alive in puddles of water. The Victorian curate Reverend David Badham reports in his ‘Prose Halieutics; Or Ancient and modern fish tattle’ published in 1854 that -
“London steams and teems with eels alive and stewed. For one halfpenny a man of the million may fill his stomach with six or seven long pieces and wash them down with a sip of the glutinous liquid they are stewed in.”
Such was the demand that eels were brought over from The Netherlands in great quantities by Dutch eel schuyts and these were commended for helping feed London during the Great Fire in 1666. Although they were seen as inferior to domestic eels, the British government rewarded the Dutch for their charity by Act of Parliament in 1699 granting them exclusive rights to sell eels from their barges on the Thames. During the nineteenth century however, the Thames became increasingly polluted so that it could no longer sustain significant eel populations and the Dutch ships had to stop further upstream to prevent their cargo being spoiled.
The rise of the pie shops were a direct result of the adulteration of eels and pies sold on the streets. The shops were indicators of aspiration for sections of the urban working class and their physical rootedness. Their decoration and their hygiene were ways to ape ‘social betters’. The idea in the Observer article that jellied eels are traditionally austerity food is wrong. They were seen, certainly in the pie shops, as a treat. In wider society however, eating jellied eels and pies has a comedic value (but then the British always either laughed at or scorned its poor – except when it sent them off to die in the mud or Flanders or elsewhere) and a resonance with the ‘jolly’ Pearly Kings and Queens. Nowadays seen as quaint costumed charity workers, they were originally leading and respected costermongers that would settle often violent street disputes between gangs. A cartoon representation of poverty and tradition. The undoubted death of the pie mash and eel shops on the High Street is symptomatic of what the New Economics Foundation calls ‘clone town Britain’ where every High Street has the same shops. As Jane Jacobs argued in the Death and Life of Great American Cities (1960) communities are “created by myriad small daily encounters… the sum of such casual, public contact at local level is a feeling for the public identity… a web of public respect and trust”. It was that trust that made people flock to eel and pie shops in the late Nineteenth century because they knew that the food was ‘clean’ and somehow honest. It is what drives a more allegedly ‘sophisticated’ palate away today.
It’s what drives people to shop at Tesco. Even those whose families would describe themselves as ‘working-class East Enders’ whilst living in more affluent suburbs.
When I interviewed Graham Poole, one of three brothers that run the authentic, remaining Manze pie and mash shops, he seemed to bear this out.
“We get emails at all times of night – after people have had a few drinks… old East Enders that have moved out, reminisce – they want their eels and pies”.
They want their memories.
Some memories are dangerous however. As much as I personally enjoy eating them, eels are endangered. In 2010 eel populations in the Thames had fallen by 98% in five years. Across the country there are similar issues. Nobody really understands why elvers aren’t spawning – but then nobody actually knows the precise mechanism for and the location of, the migration to the Sargasso Sea.
Catholic priest Father Oliver Kennedy, 80, has for forty years run one of the only remaining commercially viable wild eel fisheries in Europe (Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland). “Things are very bad (for the eel) in Germany, Holland and France… we on the other hand are relatively safe – we buy elvers out of the Severn (River in the UK) and they take between twelve and twenty years to mature so our crisis might be delayed”.
It is clear however that unless we find a way to farm eels like salmon or clear migratory paths, the European eel may not see the end of the century.
I’m delighted that one of the traditional Pie and Mash shops that I was privileged to photograph a couple of years ago has been given Grade II Listed status.
According to the citation, “The building, which was first opened to the public in 1929, has been given the accolade for its ‘beautifully preserved interiors’, which have never been replaced or modernised”
I wrote and photographed at length about London’s dying Pie and Mash shops (and jellied eels) on this blog last year. See here.
Here’s a small selection of images from Manzes in Walthamstow Market.
I feel the weather turning. The mornings are colder. I hate it. I need cheering up. Here’s a picture with a big lump of red in it to do that.
Why did I choose this image? Just chatting to Michael Regnier at Panos. Sparked a thought about a lyric – John Foxx’s Hiroshima mon amour. Wonderful… “Features fused like shattered glass, the sun’s so low/Turns our silhouettes to gold/Hiroshima mon amour”
No relation to Delhi of course, but that image of light… I can feel the warmth of the late afternoon sun in the big lump of red…
In a blog post yesterday, I showed a very quiet image of a priest reading and walking around a cloister. Below is perhaps a more typical image of Palermo and (southern) Italy in general. It’s said that Italians can only speak with their hands and the New York Times has a recent, rather prosaic piece here on that very subject.
The consensus seems to be that somehow, in such crowded places people needed a further way to make themselves heard. Perhaps. Some years ago I stayed at a rather expensive hotel in Naples and they gave me as a gift, a lovely book (see below) about the secret meanings of Italian hand gestures. There are hundreds: some pleasant, some decidedly unpleasant. It occurred to me that in one sense it was a code, a language of the initiated in the way that rhyming slang was to the Victorian Cockney. A very real way to subvert authority (and of course the law) and build an identity that was separate and uncontrollable. Naples like Palermo are exquisite places full of art and beauty but are also brutal and fearful. Norman Lewis in his highly entertaining Naples ’44 recounting his time in the Intelligence Corp in that city remembers constantly being offered women by their families in order to eat. Peter Robb in his exquisite Midnight in Sicily (and later in his Street Fight in Naples) shows a labyrinthine society with bestial corruption at it’s very heart and violence meted out by mafiosi at every level. A society moved by an unofficial nod of the head, parallel governments. Secrets. Robb lived in Southern Italy, the Mezzogiorno for years. He immersed himself in the language and the culture and his writing shows the depth and commitment of that effort.
A photographer wandering the streets is usually a little different. He walks and sees a moment developing in the chaos of colour and movement and steps towards it. He takes two pictures and the image changes. He might have recorded something significant, something trivial but he has little hope of understanding anything on a deeper level than the symbol in the image – a gesture between two (or in this case three) people. The words he hears don’t mean anything – the gestures might be theatre. He might be ignored, or as in this case, sworn at and threatened. The language he is trying to communicate is equally symbolic as the hands of an Italian yet inevitably painted with a thicker, less subtle brush. He just sees the signs the hands make, not necessarily the subtlety of the meaning. He might interpret those signs as meaning something completely different – something as part of a visual culture that he has absorbed. Photography is as valuable but blunter than words. A more democratic code. Perhaps.
By the way, the title of this post comes from yet another language. Another collected word from another country. Palava(r). A word that I used to hear in West Africa all the time. Apparently it is Portuguese in origin. I didn’t know. Non capisco. So many words, so many countries. A mixture, an argument, a conversation. A beautiful mess. Just like Palermo.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the photojournalism festival held every year in Perpignan: Visa pour l’Image. In 1998 I had a show there with a two-year body of work from Africa called The Lord of the Flies. Since then, some of my work has also been projections but that first show was a really special moment and meant a great deal to me. I remember that I arrived in Paris to see the enigmatic founder of Visa, Jean Francois Leroy clutching a box of fibre prints under my arm. After he saw the first three images he stopped and said, “OK, you have the exhibition…” I was so shocked that I thought he was joking and I told him so. He assured me that he wasn’t and we signed a contract there and then. I walked around Paris that day at least a foot taller. It marked a turning point in my career and the first real recognition that I was on the right path professionally.
Subsequently, I’ve had an uneven relationship with Visa. I think it’s true to say that I find the whole networking aspect pretty uncomfortable and certainly it seems to bring out the worst in terms of ego in some people in the industry. Because of that, I haven’t been since the demise of Network. It might well be said that the exhibition selections also conform to a very rigid view of the world and of photojournalism. As I am writing this however, it occurs to me that although that certainly is problematic, I’m probably more on the side of Visa than I am of the narcissistic trend in what I’d call personal reportage about/within the world. I mean by that a self conscious style – a bleed from the art world that I see a good deal now. This is generally medium format, generally about close focus on objects and a melancholy that seems to me like a teenage angst. “Oh the world is so terrible/Oh, but it’s so beautiful/I’m so original and important” In a funny way, despite the protestations of ‘artists’ who photograph like this, stylistically it has more to do with them than what they purport to be photographing. I wouldn’t shoot The Lord of the Flies in the same way now (I probably wouldn’t shoot it in black and white for a start because of the connotations I think that has in terms of the West reporting Africa now) but serious stories that never get anywhere near a magazine do have a home at Visa and I hope that that continues. If nothing else and despite all its faults, Visa does stand for an engagement even if that is a little blunt and simplistic. The selection is purely down to Leroy and good luck to him. As he says in a very interesting interview with Time here, “You can like my taste or not, but at least you can see that there is a strong line”. He is also – absolutely correctly – critical of young photographers who have no idea of the heritage within the industry in which they are working. As Leroy points out “It’s very difficult to do a reportage about prostitutes in India, if you’re not familiar with the work of Mary Ellen Mark”. The internet generation may have more cameras and more opportunity to take pictures but they seem to have, according to Leroy, very little ability to tell stories. I agree. A random set of images are not a photo essay. This is worth quoting in full:
“It’s not because I have a pencil that I’m Victor Hugo or Shakespeare. It’s not because you have a camera, that you are a photographer. There is currently a trend in photography to cover specific communities, like poor people in Ohio, or very poor people in Connecticut, or really, really poor people in Arkansas etc. Where is the story? The other favorites are: my mother has breast cancer, my father has Alzheimer’s, my brother is a schizophrenic. I know these kind of stories. It’s personal, yes, but I’m not sure it makes good work”
Crucially for me, when Leroy is asked about advice for young photographers, he says “Work, work, work. Read everything done before you”. I couldn’t agree more. One’s work, although unique, is in a continuity; a flow of humanity and journalism gone before that is bigger than each of us but one that by adherence to an ethical framework, should be there to bear witness not simply to suffering but a better world. That multi-faceted, outward-looking storytelling is what is sorely lacking in much of visual journalism today and what Visa – with all it’s problems, it’s cliches and idiosyncrasies – is still largely about. Personally, I can’t stand the ‘Scarf and Leica brigade’ with their egos and delusions about being heroes but at least that tradition (although I’m the first to admit it needs a re-invigoration) is about reporting and not about photographing dying flowers as metaphor. In a world where print media and funding have almost disappeared, at least Visa is still there.
Here are a couple of images from my show at the Couvert des Minimes, Visa Pour L’Image all those years ago.