Cod wars

I have odd memories of television from my early childhood. Most of the memories are in black and white as opposed to the usual Technicolor memories of childhood (probably because we didn't have a colour TV till I was 14), and even more odd the images are virtually always static, very little (literally) moving memories of early television remain in my mind unless I've seen them more recently. It's an odd melange of the Vietnam war, the moon landing, Apollo 13, Mary Mungo and Midge, The Herbs and The Magic Roundabout, Belle and Sebastian, The Flashing Blade and Errol Flynn, silent comedy, Lord Lucan and the Munich Olympics.

The few moving images are either related to news stories that I've seen more recently - the storming of the US embassy in Saigon, the moon landing, or dog related - Dills, the canine star of The Herbs chasing his tail in an Elizabethan herb garden, or are to do with holidays - I remember being delighted by the big red London bus of Summer Holiday being viewed on the morning we were actually going on holiday. One of my earliest televisual moving memories though is just plain peculiar; and I have no idea why it is so imprinted on my brain.

"And now" says the announcer "the Cod War". Two men appear dressed in sou'westers and oilskins. They produce a large fish each and proceed to bash each other with them. The Cod War between Iceland and the UK was a part of my childhood even though I had no idea what it was really about.

Cod : a biography of the fish that changed the world by Mark Kurlansky is a "biography" of the fish that changed the world. And it truly is amazing what an impact this food source has had. From possibly pre-Columbus European discoveries of America while on the trail of cod, to the growth of capitalism in the States and the rise to power of Boston. Now, as cod stocks have diminished it's also an object lesson in what can happen when fishing stocks are fished to the brink of extinction as fisheries and the towns that were built on that economy crash worldwide.

In the 1990s there was a bit of a fashion for books about food, and Cod was one of the most popular. There's lots to admire in this book - plenty of "I never knew that" moments - always a good thing to have in a Christmas or Birthday book; some great recipes, a look at responses across the world to similar living conditions; and it's generally very well written.

What's not to like about the book? To be honest, as a British reader I often found it extremely irritating. Kurlansky is quick to accuse the working-class British of xenophobia, he's not so quick to accuse his own countrymen of what is in essence the same thing. The English blame the Spanish or the Scots for over-fishing, the Germans blame the Icelanders, the Americans the Canadians, and the Canadians the Americans. The problem seems to be less xenophobia than a general inability of any nation to accept that there is a problem and to deal responsibly with it. Even the British consumer got a fair bit of blame here - it's our fault that cod stocks are diminishing, we won't eat any other fish, our demand for cod is causing most of the problem.

In fact, as Kurlansky himself admits, the British are not the biggest users of cod. And as far as the accusation of not wanting to eat any other fish is concerned, I think Kurlansky does have a point. But personally I think this is less to do with not being willing to eat any other fish and more to do with not being offered any other fish. Cod is still the principal fish sold in southern fish-and-chip shops, it is also usually cheaper than other fish. I would be happy to try other fish if it was available, but it doesn't seem to be.

I did enjoy the book. I loved the recipes, and it was amazingly informative. But I did think that sometimes Kurlansky's approach was rather simplistic; and this spoiled what would otherwise have been a fascinating read.

For more information on cod stocks see


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