In his review of X-Men (2000), Roger Ebert begins with an evocation of the mythological gods of Ancient Greece, and ends with a plea to die-hard comic-book fans, whom he wishes would “linger in the lobby after each screening to answer questions.” Sixteen years later, viewed from a cinematic present overrun by the cape and cowl, Ebert’s words read as both prescient and portentous.
After comparing the fish’s “fingerprint” against a library of species profiles, the computer presents its verdict. This time it’s not guilty: “cod”, reads the screen. But just as often, such tests will reveal fraud — cod mixed with something cheaper, whiting perhaps, or a different species entirely.
Professor Chris Elliott, the institute’s 56-year-old founder and an international expert on food integrity, puts it plainly: “What we eat and where it comes from, generally, we don’t know any more. It’s a very complex web. Every time you have a transaction [in the supply chain], there’s another opportunity to cheat.” And every week his lab picks up several cases of food fraud happening somewhere in the world. “If we think about Europe first of all,” Elliott says, “we pick up more and more reports now about the mafia getting involved in criminal activity in food. Part of that is because in other areas of criminal activity they’ve been involved in, they’ve been clamped down on.”
The title of Gerard Woodward’s new book of short stories offers a simile for the experience of reading the book too good to pass up. Immersion in these stories is comparable to entering an amusement park to which people carry the ordinary and everyday aspects of their lives, but which is also a hyperreal space marked by the marvellous and a carnival atmosphere. Repeatedly, Woodward’s stories astonish: they seem to offer a predictable direction, then swerve elsewhere. And just like the toy that lends the title story’s playground its name, these narratives are meticulously designed, building into dazzling and surprising structures.
How had this tranquil little beach assumed the sudden frenzy of emergency? It seemed surreal, almost ridiculous; the scene belonged to a disaster movie, not a family holiday. Even as I paced helplessly, I couldn’t quite take my own fright seriously. Emergencies in real life always turned out to be false alarms, didn’t they? And sure enough, a float reached the fishermen, and soon they had Tony in their arms. A neighbour and I stood in the surf holding the float’s rope, and together we hauled the exhausted tangle of swimmers ashore. The drama was over. In a minute or two Tony would sit up, complain about sand in his ears and ask for a Red Stripe. As the crowd gathered around him, I turned my attention to Jake, who’d not moved from the spot where I had left him. Pale and still, he was staring past my ankles at his father.
“What’s that white stuff coming out of his nose?”