Bernard Trafford: There's something fishy going on

Journal columnist Bernard Trafford ponders digital campaigns - and a recent piscine slant to the news

AP Photo/Michael Sohn Actress Helena Bonham Carter
Actress Helena Bonham Carter

It’s all been about fish recently. I’m not referring to such unfunny puns about Scottish politicians as Nicola Sturgeon following Alex Salmond. When you make puns as feeble as that you tend to skate (sorry) on thin ice. But there has been a piscine slant to recent news.

What on earth was actress Helena Bonham-Carter thinking of when she allowed herself to be pictured nude clutching a huge big-eye tuna?

Officially she was drawing public attention to the plight of the tuna, dreadfully overfished (like so many other species, but I’m avoiding cod theorising on fish stocks or European policy).

I guess we can only wonder what Bonham-Carter was thinking of while she pressed a cold wet fish to her naked flesh: feeble puns were least likely to be on her mind.

It’s hard to imagine her thoughts were pleasant, since she reportedly had to overcome a lifelong phobia of fish before trapping the hapless specimen between her thighs.

Her picture was one of a series: other celebrities have adopted similar poses.

What I don’t understand is how that fish, which must have been dead, adds strength to the argument. I mean, I’m sure it was ethically caught from a sustainable stock, but it was still dead.

Maybe it died happy, knowing that by giving its life it was doing its bit to win the argument against over-fishing, but I’m not convinced that tuna are that capable of conscious or rational thought. As campaigns go it strikes me as dodgy, not to say fishy.

Then I read a newspaper report that the National Marine Aquarium was under fire for serving fish and chips in its café.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an animal rights charity campaigning on behalf of “all the fish in the sea”, accused the aquarium of double standards, comparing selling seafood at an aquarium to “serving monkey nuggets at a zoo”.

PETA suggested the aquarium should take all fish dishes off the menu, replacing them with vegetarian alternatives.

Colin Brown, Chief Executive of another aquarium (Hull’s “The Deep”) was unimpressed by a similar letter.

He’s careful to serve only sustainably caught fish, but asks, “Morally, how can you differentiate between selling fish or selling a burger or sausage? To be honest, it’s a matter of opinion”.

That’s just what it is. I like my meat and fish. I don’t knowingly buy fish or meat that has been inhumanely or unsustainably farmed or fished, though I confess I don’t demand to see documents proving the fact.

In the same way, I don’t condone tax evasion by small operators such as plumbers or window cleaners, but I do pay them cash if that’s more convenient to them or me, and I don’t demand a VAT receipt or proof that they are paying tax.

That’s none of my business: but if I thought they were cheating, I wouldn’t use them again.

It’s too easy to mount campaigns in this digital age. Some can be wonderful, others shrill and tiresome: they can be worse and threaten livelihoods. I believe we should all behave ethically: if we know a supplier or service-provider isn’t, we shouldn’t use them.

But it’s not my job as an ordinary citizen to check up, to act as some kind of tax or ethics police. I just make a judgement and get on with my life.

Fishy? I don’t think so. I think it’s about keeping things in proportion.

Talking of which, and to finish as I began, in the unique Swallows fish shop in Seahouses, a small postcard is displayed. On it is a period (century-old?) photograph of a small boy holding up a large wet fish which is as tall as he is.

Underneath is the caption, “Harry’s parents were too poor to buy him a dog.”

Not that funny? Well, it’s more entertaining than the current obsession with Fifty Shades of Grayling.


  • Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.


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