I don’t get along with fish. As long as they’re in the ocean and I’m not, that’s fine. It’s not that I hate them. I have no objection to their continued existence: I believe in the conservation of different species through sustainable and selective fishing, I’ve cried at oil spills, and I’m always mildly annoyed when someone claims to be a vegetarian but thinks fish don’t count. After all, I’m not inhuman. If I was, then I’d be a fish.
My distaste isn’t unjustified. I spent the summer of 2004 working for Pinneys of Scotland, the Queen’s official provider of smoked salmon. Based in the Wet Fish department of their processing plant, my job was to remove the pin bones of salmon. It was a time of few friends and cheap fish. This is what would happen: a side of salmon would idle its way along a conveyor belt. I, clad in a long white coat, Wellington boots, pinny, mop cap and snood, would pick it up. I would then pull out its pin bones with a pair of pliers. The pin bones would drop into a little gutter, while the deboned side of salmon would go back onto the belt. I would then pick up another side and begin again. This would continue until about three or four in the morning, when it was time to go home. That was it. On a good day perhaps I’d be allowed to spend an hour further down the line, pulling strips of fat from the salmon, but other than that it was just me and my pliers. Here’s a conservative estimate: during that summer, I deboned about 115,200 salmon. I would dream about conveyor belts delivering endless fish. You can understand why one might become weary. Why someone would prefer that fish just stay out of his face.
In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that the key to success in a chosen field is to practice it for 10,000 hours. Bill Gates spent 10,000 hours programming computers at high school before starting Microsoft. The Beatles spent 10,000 amphetamine-fuelled hours in Hamburg honing their craft. I roughly spent about 640 hours removing the pin bones of salmon. So, okay, I’m not the Beatles of salmon deboning. Still, a hundred thousand fish has to count for something. I’m at least the Badfinger of salmon deboning. I’m good. I’m very, very good. If you were to pass me half a salmon I could remove its pin bones before you could count to ten. But that’s the problem: no one ever does.
It’s like speaking a dead language, or having a superpower no-one has a need for. For all my years of education, hobbies and work, the thing that I can do better than anyone else is something that is absolutely useless to me. In the seven years that have passed since that strange, lonely summer, not a single person has asked me to remove the pin bones of a salmon, or of any fish at all, for that matter. And why would they? You buy them with the pin bones already removed (quite badly, at times: I take a peculiar pleasure in looking at shop-bought salmon and judging it on how poorly someone’s removed the pin bones). I may as well not have the skill at all. I remember vividly my disappointment last year when I visited a friend in the country who had bought a whole salmon, only to find when I arrived that another guest had already filleted it. Without me. Did they not understand that I am the Badfinger of pin bone removal?
Maybe I’m focusing on the wrong thing. I didn’t hate the job. It took enough concentration to occupy my body, but not enough to be actually challenging. The machinery was so loud that you couldn’t have conversations, which meant you were left with your own thoughts. It was the most Zen thing I’ve ever done: essentially I spent four months standing in a cold white room, thinking. I would write in my head, racing home afterwards to type it all up. All of my protagonists worked in fish factories, but still. It nudged my other 10,000 hours that bit closer to completion. I’m grateful for that, even if part of me does yearn for the day that I will be reunited with some pliers, half a dead fish, and the opportunity for greatness.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Six .