Monday, 13 July 2015
I was in Bristol for a few days last week, and was walking along a street in the early evening when the decorative overnight display on a fishmonger's marble slab brought me to a sudden halt. There, before my very eyes, was a skate. Now, the skate is a sort of edible ray that is quite scarce these days, a protected species in fact, but once, in the form of "skate and chips", it formed a staple of the British diet. Not as downmarket as "rock and chips", or as bland as "cod and chips", it was something of an adult, acquired taste. But this skate was a plastic skate, which made it doubly covetable, for reasons I will try to explain. I wrote down the name and address of the fishmonger, just in case he was open to cash offers, and went happily on my way.
There is a certain creativity that seems to come easily to the young. It's generally not the Real Thing, but a precursor, an instar stage in the metamorphosis which may, eventually, see the emergence of the Real Thing. But probably won't: it is the fate of most youngsters setting out in pursuit of dreams of excellence to fall by the wayside, stalled in some intermediate state; good, but never good enough to stand among the best. Athletes, artists, musicians, magicians, scientists, scholars, cooks, comedians, and criminals: many are called, but few are chosen. True originality, in particular, does not recognise concepts like democracy and equal access, unfortunately, no more than it bows to privilege and wealth.
In the adolescent years, though, every field always appears empty and wide open, the rules seem to be few, and there is much fun to be had ignoring them. A little talent goes a long way at sixteen. What's more, wiring talents together can have an amplification effect out of all proportion. The Beatles, collectively, were a world-changing force; individually, less so. I'd guess that in any school at any time there has been a tight little gang of friends who make each other feel like Lennon, Lenin, and Lenny Bruce all rolled into one, with their private banter, obscure enthusiasms, and exclusive in-jokes. Regrettably, these years are also the time of shifting alliances and treacherous Best Friends Forever. As a parent, you quickly lose track of who's in and who's out, and learn not to ask, "Whatever happened to So-and-So?", when for a year or two So-and-So had seemed virtually to be a part of the family.
A long time ago, I had a medium-term BFF with whom the inventive spark was very strong. For a few years we were the closest of friends, spending long hours in each other's company, amusing ourselves with what we took to be the reach and depth of our originality, whether it be novel ways to destroy plastic aircraft, creative scatological wordplay, or the malicious pleasures of lampooning teachers and classmates. As a fixture I suspect we were tolerated, but not much liked. Nobody loves a smart-arse, especially two wired together in parallel.
In the summer of 1970, shortly before the sudden decay of our friendship, we spent a week camping in California. California, Norfolk, that is, just north of Great Yarmouth (I described this formative trip in a previous post). For reasons I cannot now recall, one of our joint obsessions was the possibility of making plaster moulds from real fish and casting replicas in rubber. The idea of possessing a rubber skate was a particularly enticing and amusing holy grail. So, given the prevalence of fishmongers in Yarmouth, we thought we'd make some enquiries. How much would a whole skate cost?
It seemed a simple enough question, but it drew us some very dark looks, and the sort of curt dismissal that says, "Go on, sling yer hook, and take the piss out of someone else, you cheeky little sods". Which was mystifying. Until one fishmonger saw the funny side, and told us that bringing whole skate ashore was actually illegal. Why? "Because fishermen, ah, sometimes use them, if you know what I mean? Are you with me? The skate's mouth is not unlike, um, a woman's part..." We were astonished, revolted, and, if anything, even more highly amused by our doomed quest. A rubber skate had taken on a whole new layer of in-joke nuance. We couldn't wait to get back and start spreading the news.
Such adventures get burnished, in time, into anecdotes. In my university years, my speciality became delivering tall, dark tales in the darkest hours to a receptive, if somewhat captive, audience. But, until I learned the New Manners of political correctness, I had a tendency to step over certain lines and find myself suddenly knee-deep in taboo areas. Who knew that stories about the perils of having sex with cartilaginous fish was not something to discuss at the progressive dinner table? Why, Frank Zappa had made the subject positively au courant with "The Mud Shark"! What, that's unmentionable, too? Jeez... I had such a lot to learn.
But the skate thing obviously stuck in certain impressionable minds. It is rather unforgettable. So about a decade later a recent issue of a small culinary history journal -- Petits Propos Culinaires 27 -- arrived in the post, with a covering note from an old friend. She wrote, "It seems you were right after all! See page 46." And there, under the title "A Further Tale of the Skate", the writer described a very similar series of baffling encounters with fishmongers, culminating in the information that "sailors on long, lonely voyages ... would nail a skate to the mast and gratify themselves by fornicating with it". Which is probably why cooks use the "wings" only.
A further interesting sidelight on this sordid matter is shed by the sometimes rancorous rivalry between the ports of Southampton and Portsmouth, and in particular the supporters of their football teams. To fans of Pompey, the residents of mercantile Southampton are "scummers", a naval term for the merchant marine. Whereas the followers of the Saints know their naval-base rivals as "skates", for reasons that should now be obvious. Apparently, Portsmouth women would reject the advances of sailors on shore-leave with the words, "I ain't no skate bait, mate".