On the quay at Port Isaac yesterday evening, lit by a midsummer moon, I stood before an assembled shoal of grizzled Cornish fishermen, fat Henry V in Fred Perry, waving my Olivier award like a sword. “I know you. You’ve survived storms at sea, gales that tear trees from fields. You’ve withstood winds that raise roofs, and endured the tossing of tempests. And if you have the courage to do all that, my fishermen friends, then maybe, just maybe, there’s a future for all of you… on the stages of British theatres!” A cheer went up. Oliver Dowden, the new secretary for digital, culture, media and sport, stood behind his film crew, loving what he saw. I knew he would.
The mythic allure of the British fishing industry was central to the dishonest Brexit campaign of 2016, a propaganda war that finally delivered the most incompetent and cynical government in our union’s modern history. As part of the 2016 offensive Michael Gove claimed the fishing business owned by his father, Ernest, was destroyed by EU policies. That June, however, Ernest contradicted his addled son, citing factors including competition for docking space from North Sea oil vessels as other reasons for his voluntary sale, complicating his son’s expedient and confected anti-EU narrative.
“I just decided to sell up and get a job with someone else,” Gove senior said, “And, I’ve never told anyone this before Stewy, but one day I was looking at Michael in his cot, sniffing and snorting, and because he reminded me of a little fish I knew I could never kill another one. I still eat any I find in the Aberdeen gutter, but only if they are already dead, and with little relish.”
Like Uncle César in Marcel Pagnol’s Jean de Florette, pursuing a vengeful campaign against a man who turns out to be his own son, Gove’s war against the EU may have been driven by a desire to avenge the assumed ruin of his father’s fish kingdom, based on a tragic misremembering of actual events, perhaps bought on by the mind-rot of Gove’s Bolivian excesses.
It is profoundly depressing to count the livelihoods, lifestyles, songs and stories slowly lost as the British fishing industry flounders. But the industry’s days, and those of fish themselves, are numbered anyway. Climate change and pollution and plastics will see to that. Is trying to save “the fishing” fiscally sound? Dominic Cumming has denied reports that he wanted to allow costly pensioners to expire in their thousands, though he has reportedly requested access to the pathogens lab at Porton Down, which manufactures mass death. If the elderly are economically expendable, isn’t the fishing industry? It would be better for the Brexiteers of the Covid government to concentrate on saving, and even expanding, a British industry, already far more profitable than fishing, that has a real future.
Given my long history of puerile mockery of the Covideers of Brexit government, I was surprised last week to find myself summoned to help the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, thrash out a policy statement. As a young man, Oliver had worked for Hill + Knowlton Strategies, who had done PR for the tobacco industry, the Church of Scientology, fracking firms, asbestos health-risk deniers, and various human-rights violating governments. But now he had to make the case for a far less attractive client – the arts.
“Have one of these costly bakes,” he said, pushing a Higgedy mushroom and puy lentil pie with kale and butter bean mash towards me across a Whitehall desk. “Their sales contribute to a British baking industry that had a £7bn turnover in 2018, over seven times the £1bn turnover of fishing in the same period. Likewise, the arts make our lives richer in every sense. Our theatres and live music venues brought in £32.3bn in 2018. We must save them! More expensive pie?”
“Hmmm. There’s another point you should be making too though, isn’t there, Oliver?” I offered, encouragingly. “Crumbs! Yes!” exclaimed the culture secretary, spitting delicious flaky pastry. “Our arts make our lives richer in a much deeper sense, too – in the way they bring us together and strengthen our communities, the way they civilise and enlighten; the things they teach us about the human condition, the centuries of memories they provide. As a normal teenager, I benefited enormously from jumping in the minibus at my comprehensive and going to that London to watch the West End shows from up in the gods. Children from more privileged backgrounds can take those kinds of opportunities for granted, and I want to make sure everyone gets the chance to benefit from them. It’s a central part of the government’s agenda in providing a world-class education for every child, no matter where they are from.”
“How does this newfound Tory idea that culture has a value in of itself square up, Oliver, with your predecessor Sajid Javid’s statement, effectively blocking affordable access to the arts for people of your background, that touts that charge hundreds of times over the odds for subsidised tickets, and tickets from subsidised venues, were ‘classic entrepreneurs’ and their detractors merely the ‘chattering middle classes and champagne socialists, who have no interest in helping the common working man earn a decent living’?” “Come on,” said the minister, “you’ve got an Olivier, a Bafta, an Evening Standard theatre award, two British Comedy awards and six Chortle awards. You’re one of our most decorated cultural practitioners. Drop the point-scoring and help me out here, or I’ll set the internet on you!”
And so it was I came to be standing by the sea, holding my Olivier award aloft, interposing it between the fishermen and the night sky. “This is your pole star now, fishermen, this your guiding light. There will be no fishing tomorrow. Learn to dance. Practise soliloquies. Devise award-winning theatrical representations of your unique lives. Oliver and I will make you fishers of men! Go back to your Cornish villages and prepare for power!”