Thursday, 11 July 2013

Holy Catfish

 I was idly surfing the Net the other evening, and came across a reference to an essay by artist Paul Nash, "Swanage, or Seaside Surrealism".  Well, that had me hooked right away.  Swanage is the Dorset coastal resort where we went for our family summer holiday probably five or six years in a row, which -- when you're a child -- feels like forever.

In various contexts -- therapy, grief-counselling, pain-relief, and so on -- you may be asked to identify your Happy Place, in order to be able to go there in your mind.  For me this is very easy: I am 8 years old, walking down the hill to the beach from our hotel in Ulwell Road, on the first, brilliantly sunny day of our holiday.  As you turn a certain corner, the whole sweep of Swanage Bay comes into view spread out below you, the morning sun glittering on the waves in a complex, hypnotic dance -- a pure instance of what literary types call an objective correlative.  But Swanage and Surrealism?  It's not an association that happens in my mind.

Idiot on the beach

Looking for a text of the essay, I came across this picture in the Tate's collection:

Paul Nash, Swanage c. 1936 © Tate

It's a typical Nash production, a portentous mixed-media collage, with no obvious purpose or connection with Swanage beyond that all-purpose Modernist symbolic heavy-breathing (I blame Freud).  The Tate's description, including a blow-by-blow account of the objects invoked, is worth reading, if only because it makes a dull picture (the original is in 1930s monochrome, too) rather more interesting.  But what caught my eye, though, was this passage:
The bleached bony object to the right of the ‘Lon-gom-pa’ is a crucifix fish. Eileen Agar, who herself spent the summer of 1935 at Swanage told the compiler in conversation (4 July 1974) that she met the Nash’s through Ashley Havinden who was also staying at Swanage, and they subsequently became close friends. In a letter of 6 March 1974 she wrote ‘I also had a crucifix fish (the white object in the centre), and we used to compare notes as to who had the best example.’
A crucifix fish?  More surfing led to the discovery that a certain common ocean catfish (Ariopsis felis, or the Hardhead Sea Catfish) has an extraordinary secret.  Common down the coast of the southern United States and in the Caribbean, this fish is easily caught and tastes pretty good.  You can imagine the scene:  a pirate crew are sitting on the beach, enjoying a catfish barbecue.  One of the guys is especially hungry, and breaks open the roasted catfish head -- mmm, finger lickin' good!  When he's done licking out roasted catfish brains, this is what he finds he is holding in his hands:

© Brian W. Coad

OMG WTF??  On your knees, sinner man!  Check it out:  let a little rum-induced pareidolia run loose over that catfish skull, and it's practically like looking at a mediaeval carved ivory Calvary.  Amazing.

Needless to say, these things have attracted folklore, and (I believe) are widely sold as tourist items.  Apparently, if you shake one, there are loose bony bits inside that make the sound of dice rattled in a cup, calling to mind the soldiers gambling for Christ's garments, if you're that way inclined.

Why Paul Nash thought to include a photograph of one in a Swanage-influenced collage is hard to say.  It's a long way from Swanage Bay to the Gulf of Mexico.  In the end, I suspect he may have brought his own surrealism to Dorset, rather than found it there.  Mind you, if it's surrealism you're after, there is one very peculiar thing about Swanage.

Back in the 19th century, Swanage exported boatloads of Purbeck marble from the local quarries up and around the coast to London.  It is a very hard-wearing stone, well-suited to building and paving.  The returning boats, empty of rock, needed a compensating ballast, and very often this took the form of scrap metal, generally old ordnance or redundant iron street furniture. Which is why, if you check out the street bollards in Swanage, a lot of them are either old cannons or bollards bearing the name and shield of the City of London.

Oh, and there's that ridiculous Portland stone globe, carved in 1887 in John Mowlem's stone-yard (yes, founder of the building firm).  I suppose that's a bit surreal, too.  And, look, London bollards!

Globe at Durlston, Swanage
Painting by Job Hardy, 1908


Martyn Cornell said...

I am constantly amazed at the things I never knew that I am still finding out about. Thank you for the Crucifix Fish.

Mike C. said...

All part of the service. And thank you: how else would I know what there is to drink in the Vida Rica bar in Macau?


Dave Leeke said...


I would also like to add my thanks about the Crucifix Fish. Wonderful stuff. However, I'm more taken with your own Kodak Ghost moment. Photos like that one can suggest so many stories. That could be any of us looking out across the centuries.

Mike C. said...


It seems I need to give my taste for the bizarre freer rein...

Yes, there's nothing quite so evocative as a good "found" photograph -- I love them.

I was left a holdall-bag full of family snaps by my grandmother, which I'm gradually working my way through with the scanner. I was amazed to find this and a few others of me -- my parents were ridiculously unsentimental, and didn't even keep a photo album. Any good snaps went straight to Nana C.