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ARCADIA


leaving refuges in deeper water which boats equipped with dredges eventually harvested too. The oyster beds of the central North Sea were estimated by the Olsen Piscatorial Atlas of 1888 to have been 200 miles long, all of which were fished out by the 1930s. As little as a century and a half ago, oysters were cheap and a food of the poor. Now the true native oyster, Ostrea edulis, is a delicacy for the rich. It is found growing wild in low densities in remote places but is commercially harvested only on what are called ‘private grounds’ – creeks around Essex and Kent and in one Scottish loch where laws confer the ex- clusive right to certain landowners to manage the oyster, which they still do very well. The rest of the oyster grounds around the coast of UK and northern Europe – 95 per cent of what once existed – are thought to have gone, the result of an often overlooked ‘tragedy of the commons’. Having exhausted the native oyster, com- mercial growers resorted in 1965 to the Pacific oyster, originally from Japan, which now ac- counts for 98 per cent of the world’s harvested oysters. The Pacific (or Rock) oyster takes only 18–36 months to reach marketable size, compared to 48–60 months for the European oyster. Annoyingly, in the past 20 years it has also started to breed in UK waters and has begun to cause competition with the struggling, disease-prone and temperamental natives. Now we have begun to realise that the val- ue of native oyster reefs is greater than the value of the oysters harvested from them. A single mature oyster has the capability to process around 200 litres of water a day. What’s more, the habitat provided by native oysters has an as yet unexplained ability to attract other marine life.


Oyster nurseries placed in marinas around the Solent as part of the Blue Marine Founda- tion’s restoration project there have so far at- tracted 130 species, including European eels, juvenile sea bass, tompot blennies, snake pipefish, sea squirts and, most miraculous of all, a seahorse.


So the native oyster is the key not only to cleaning up the murky, sewage-enriched wa- ters of the Solent, but also to restoring native species, including fish. What has given hope of reversing the massive depredations of his- tory is the creation of marine protected areas – some specifically designated for oysters, some not. These will act as refuges for brood- stock oysters, provided we can rear and rein- troduce enough of them to overcome the per-


ils of disease, invasive species and predation. The hope is that in a couple of decades’ time the water will be richer and clearer – and that an oyster fishery may reopen. Needless to say, all that will involve an element of risk too. S Charles Clover is executive director of the Blue Marine Foundation


LITERARY NOTES


THE ART OF RECYCLING Sam Leith


HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SPEAR’S. Congratula- tions, may I say as a grateful contributor, on 15 glorious years. A birthday is a new begin- ning, but it’s also the chance to look back – and those two things have been much on my mind lately. Think of Faulkner’s great line: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ I’ve just been reading the novelist and cul- tural critic Michael Bracewell’s new book Souvenir – which re-creates in a series of po- etic impressions the vibe (to put it no more technically than that) of London in the fag- end of the Seventies and early Eighties. Here is post-punk and electronic pop; Thatcherism in its early pomp; something stirring in the Docklands; the promise of a boom to come. Everything looks forward, from the down-at- heel analogue beige of the Seventies towards a giddy new electronic age. Yet what’s so striking about Bracewell’s book is how deeply entwined the future-yearning of the early Eighties is with the past. A close reading of Soft Cell’s video for What reminds readers of how self-consciously cluttered the promo for this synth-pop anthem (itself the cover of a 17-year-old song) was with the bric- a-brac of established art: all nods to Bridget Riley, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Piet Mondrian. And running through Bracewell’s account of the era – his guiding light in the book – is TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, which was itself mould-breaking as it was, notori-


ously a collage of cultural references from the whole history of the Western tradition. Modernism, in other words, has never been especially modern. The examples are just countless. Picasso and Brancusi looking back to African tribal masks; Ezra ‘make it new’ Pound with his plundering of ancient Chinese and Anglo-Saxon. When he wrote the canon- ical modernist novel, James Joyce adopted as his model Homer’s Bronze-Age epic The Od- yssey. Mashup, collage, remix, readymade... the 20th-century avant-garde was always, also, an après-garde. Even youth tribes are abundant in quotation – from ‘teddy boys’ taking their bearings from frock-coated Ed- wardian gents to goths swagging themselves in 18th-century attitude and 19th-century fu- neral attire. It’s not confined to the arts, incidentally. Another book I’ve been reading recently, Dennis Duncan’s fine new tome Index, A His- tory of the, makes clear that what Google – ar- guably the defining technology of the infor- mation age – is doing is essentially making a concordance of the internet. Talk about old wine in new bottles: the concordance, as Duncan tells us, was originally invented by Hugh of St Cher in a Dominican friary in or around the year 1230. But let’s stick to culture for the moment. It does prompt me to wonder: is it possible to conceive of a cultural movement that really does start afresh? I mean, that takes us leap- ing into a new world of artistic possibilities without starting out in a dialogue with what has gone before? It’s very hard to imagine. Obviously, at the absolute base level you’re al- ways working with five pretty well fixed sens- es through which your audience is going to take your creation in, an established language (be that visual or linguistic), and an estab- lished set of conventions to kick against. But the facts of cultural history seem to


suggest that it goes a bit beyond this base lev- el – that, indeed, more often than not the great leaps into the future are more, rather than less, indebted to the past. Science fiction – the most obviously future-oriented of popular genres – is notorious for it. Forbidden Planet was The Tempest with robots. Nobody had seen anything quite like Star Wars when it came out, unless they’d been watching westerns (and nobody had seen anything quite like westerns when they came out, unless they’d been attending to medieval chivalric romances). I find this not depressing, personally, but profoundly reassuring. Uplifting, even. It


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