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From the East Anglian Daily Times.

I cannot eat oysters. Tried them once. Didn’t get past the first one. I’ve retained an interest, however, because they keep cropping up in history, especially local history. A quick digest of oysters for you. They are bivalves, a form of life more ancient than humans They can also fertilise themselves, since they contain both sperm and eggs. According to gastronomes, they’re best eaten alive with little more accompaniment than a glass of crisp white wine. Enough to turn anyone vegan isn’t it? They are associated, when included in the diet, with human fertility and the libido. But I still don’t fancy them.

Some time ago I was invited by a kind Colchester mayor to attend the annual September oyster ceremony. This would take place aboard a boat out at Pyefleet Creek. It involved the traditional opening and eating of the first oysters of the season. With them would come gingerbread and a glass of gin. I’m not the world’s worst sailor, but I’m on the charts. So I did a quick equation: Me + boat + oysters + lunchtime gin + gingerbread? I declined as gracefully, as I could. Nor have I ever attended Colchester’s famous Oyster Feast, a beano held at Colchester Town Hall each autumn.

Colchester oysters have been popular for a very long time. I was somewhat surprised to stumble on a theory that it was Britain’s rich harvest of oysters which may have helped galvanise the Roman invasion of Britain. Tenuous as this may sound, oysters really were prized as a delicacy in Roman times. The status of the oyster in gastronomic history, tends to oscillate in fashion, between posh nosh and scran for the common man.

The golden age of oysters, is generally acknowledged to have been during 18th and 19th centuries. In London alone, during 1866 it was recorded that we got through 700 million of them. A century later, though, that figure had sunk to 3 million. Why? The Oyster is a tough old thing, but, it seems, not invincible. In 1963 an unusually cold winter severely depleted the oyster beds. Conversely, a hot summer in the early 1980s did the same thing. Over many years, too, a now banned anti-fouling paint used on the undersides of boats killed even more of the creatures. The biggest enemy of the once plentiful oyster, however, seems to have been over-fishing.

The almost insatiable Victorian thirst for oysters had already wreaked much damage. In the mid 19th century, the popularity of oysters as street food could probably compare to that of hamburgers and kebabs today. Oyster pie, too, was what poor people would often eat, when meat prices were high.

Interestingly, oysters, when left to their own devices, are good for the environment. That’s why in recent years, oyster beds have been reintroduced to the Humber Estuary, They clear the water. A single adult oyster will filter 100 litres of water a day. This beneficial attribute, then encourages other species to return to the waters, something which environmentalists consider a win-win.

Daniel Defoe in his Travels Through the Whole Island of Great Britain mentions ‘oyster beds at Wyvenhoe’ while Jonathan Swift also wrote a short, somewhat salacious poem, praising them. Here’s where I came in. Last autumn I was asked by a young film-maker, Matthew J Harrison, to read Swift’s poem about oysters to camera. Matthew, I learned, was single-handedly making a documentary film, Oyster Land. In his young 20s, with a clear plan but no major funding, I considered his project worthy of my support.

Now, as readers here will know, I don’t need to be asked twice to dive into the dress-up box. So I found some historical clothes and read the poem, That might have been it, except, weeks later, while sifting through my ‘unfinished symphonies file’. I found a few useful musical bits and bobs, which I’d been tinkering with earlier.

Might they do for a sound-track? I asked Matthew. I’ve worked quite a bit with young film-makers. They’re often on a tight budget and can’t always afford to pay music publishers for the use of existing music. So, if I have the spare time and feel so inclined, I’ll sometimes find, or even compose small pieces of original music for them. It’s not entirely altruistic. It’s more like betting on racehorses. You never know, one of them might be the next Stanley Kubrick.

 The thing is, that Matthew’s documentary contains unique footage and interviews which are not only of regional interest but of much historical value. He’s had the courage to go aboard ships (unlike me) and get tough old Essex lads to open up like oysters, talking about their work. It’s moving to listen to them; especially against a background of bird-loud marshland and the inscrutable old North Sea This is why I’ve ended up lending a hand. Matthew J Harrison’s documentary Oyster Land will be released later this year. More news soon, I’m sure.


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