Dear Readers, I haven’t been to the office for almost a year now, and there are things that I miss, and things that I don’t. I don’t miss getting up at 6 a.m. on a cold, dark, January morning so that I can beat the crowds on the Northern Line. I don’t miss the crush on the same trains on the way home. I don’t miss the feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer size of the building and the number of people in it, or the sense of being surrounded by people who are mostly in too much of a rush.
I do miss my colleagues, and I miss chatting to the security staff and the cleaners. I miss the free coffee. But strange to say, what I miss most is the fish tank. While many people were too busy to stop and look at this wonder of nature, spending ten minutes catching up with the fish was often a space of serenity at a time that was filled with anxiety.
As you might remember, the charity that I work for is housed in the Bloomberg Building, the most sustainable office building in the world. Most of the charities that I’ve been involved with have been housed in decrepit, damp offices, often with mould on the walls, ageing furniture and an inadequate internet connection. Strange to say I feel more at home in those downbeat buildings – everything about this one makes me feel rather small and unimpressive. But hanging out with the fishes filled me with wonder, as I gradually got to know them.
In one corner of the tank there was a bright red crustacean with a delicate white filigree pattern on its claws. It shared a burrow with a little silver goby, who had orange and blue spots like a pantomime clown. They were most unsuitable house mates – the shrimp took up most of the deepest part of the tunnel and would sometimes tweak the goby’s tail, while the goby was forever fussing about, taking mouthfuls of gravel and spitting them out. Sometimes it appeared that the shrimp wasn’t allowing the goby back into its home, but on another occasion I came in early to see the goby firmly ensconced and the shrimp outside, sulking.
On one sad day, I couldn’t find either of them when I came in in the morning. The tanks are so well-maintained that I’m sure a fish could have died and been removed before anyone even had time to notice. But later that day I found the goby on the other side of the tank, happily constructing a new home. I wondered if it had just got fed up with its room mate, but by the next day the shrimp had moved in again. Whether there was any mutual benefit involved I have no idea, but in spite of the odd contretemps they seemed to generally knock along rather well.
But what made me think about this was an excerpt from a poem that I read in Jean Sprackland’s book ‘Strands’. The poem is an 1836 work by Leigh Hunt, called ‘The Fish, The Man and The Spirit’, which sounds very much like a dreary philosophical work. But then, I read this excerpt, and although we can never know what it’s like to be a fish, I thought it captured something of the essence of these creatures, so different from us and yet surely not so different as we’d like to think.
‘Man’s life is warm, glad, sad, ‘twixt loves and graves,
Boundless in hope, honour’d with pangs austere;
Heaven-gazing, and his angel-wings he craves:
The fish is swift, small-needing, vague yet clear,
A cold, sweet, silver life wrapp’d in round waves,
Quicken’d with touches of transporting fear’.
It seems strange to me that scientists are only just conceding the fish feel pain, make friends, have intelligence, even mourn their dead, but then, I suppose that thinking of animals as unfeeling automata has generally served us well as a species. What a different world it would be if we gave some credence to the notion that we have a lot in common.
Photo One from https://lookup.london/bloomberg-london/