Fish Out of Water

I am downright chopfallen this evening upon hearing some sad news from across the pond: there will be no conger cuddling in Lyme Regis, England, this year.

I’m sure that most of you have been following this exciting sport for ages; perhaps some of you have even been lucky enough to attend in person. But for those few of you who haven’t – perhaps due to a decades-long coma or a lengthy stretch in solitary – here’s the story.

Conger cuddling is a simple, beautiful, and quite obvious pastime, one of those things that make you smack your forehead and say “Why didn’t I think of that?”: a number of people stand on flowerpots or wooden blocks, arranged in two teams as human skittles, and have to dodge a five-foot-long dead conger eel swinging on a rope. The team with the most people still standing on their flowerpots at the end of the game wins.

The event is held to raise money for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, a worthy cause if ever there was one. The RNLI was founded in 1824 by courageous lifeboatman Sir William Hillary, and has been snatching the involuntarily immersed from UK waters ever since. Needless to say, there isn’t a lot of money in lifeboating, and the group, needing a new angle on fundraising, hit upon the simplest and most natural solution – publicly smacking people with a large dead eel – in the early 1970’s. The event, understandably, was a huge success, and quickly rivaled the town’s Philpot Museum as one of West Dorset’s premier attractions.

But in 2006 came trouble, in an all-too-familiar form: a group of animal-rights advocates, tragically handicapped by the increasingly common genetic defect, causing complete humorlessness, that is the universal hallmark of such activists, complained that the sport was – wait for it – disrespectful to eels.

Needless to say, this objection was not well received. According to the account I ran across in the indispensable journal Practical Fishkeeping, Lyme Regis mayor Ken Whetlor told the The Daily Telegraph that the complainant was a “gutless troublemaker with nothing better to do than stop people enjoying an innocent event that helps raise money to save lives.”

These are nefarious times, however, and everywhere we look, the simple joys of life – smoking, metal dashboards, rickety playground equipment, DDT, asbestos insulation, drift nets, you name it – are falling by the wayside, victims of the sanctimonious and puritanical legions of Those Who Know Best. And sure enough, rather than bear the withering contumely of the grim defenders of the Planet, the chairman of the Lyme Lifeboat Guild eventually issued this sheepish proclamation, showing even less backbone than the denizens of the local tide pools:

“We have been advised by the RNLI headquarters at Poole to abandon the Conger Cuddling event following a local complaint from animal rights activists.

“The RNLI is not prepared to be involved in an event that may be seen by some to be a barbaric throwback due to its use of a dead animal.”

“I cannot see how using a dead conger eel landed by a local fisherman is unethical,” said Mayor Whetlor. “Just where do you stop? Next they will be telling us it is unethical to use whitebait to catch mackerel!”

It’s a slippery slope.

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One Comment

  1. MikeZ says

    Yikes! What next???

    – M

    Posted August 16, 2006 at 10:07 am | Permalink