The Man in The Fish Van: The Story Behind The Morecambe Bay Disaster

Morecambe Bay (Reddit)

Last year I was introduced to the concept of ‘following the thing’. This felt like an obscure term to me, so I took to the internet to only find directionless results to what this term really meant. After some thought and further research, I have scaled back the true meaning of this phrase to a personal anecdote.

When I was younger, I went to a fish van every Saturday afternoon. It was parked up on the high street of my local town. I seem to vividly remember this meaningless tradition to the point that I can still feel that innocent, child-like excitement that filled me when I bought a bag of cockles and ate them from the bag on the way home. In hindsight, the beauty of this childhood memory is that I never once thought about the journey those cockles made to get to the fish van. How did they end up with the man in the van, and why did I never question where they came from? I don’t intend to over-complicate these seemingly simple and happy memories, but with these questions simmering in the back of my mind I realised that it was only a matter of curiosity leading me to follow the journey of the cockles. What this has lead to has spawned an opening into grim realities. 

The industry of cockling (source: Paul Barker)

The Morecambe Bay Disaster took place on February 6th, 2004. That night, as the quickening tide became the enemy of a group of Chinese cockle-pickers, the Irish Sea claimed 23 lives. 

A map to show the location of the Morecambe Bay disaster (source: REUTERS)

What lies behind the story of the man in the fish van is an issue that’s much more threatening that I ever thought it would be. This isn’t just a story from my childhood, neither is it a narrative of just one story. This is an ongoing political crisis. This is purely an example of one event, one night where the exploitative labour of illegal immigrants in a first world country was exposed. Not often do these tragedies come to the public eye and far too often are they left unseen and unheard. Was justice really served when the Gangmaster was given fourteen years in prison? Like everything, there’s always more behind the simple story. What had brought these untrained and inexperienced cockle-pickers to the Lancashire Bay that night? And did the disaster really end after that night, or is it still ongoing? These questions are starting to exceed my curiosity and instead they seem to be necessary questions that need to be answered to fulfil a much larger purpose: An investigation into the unlawful treatment of illegal immigrants in Britain. 

The Marxist economic geographer, David Harvey tackled the subject of ‘value’ in a capitalist society in his podcast, The Value of Everything. Among other things, he wanted to know why the direct producers of a commodity are not rewarded as they should be. In the context of the cockle-pickers on Morecambe Bay in 2004, how can we eat these cockles and become blinded to the work of immigrants? It is estimated that there are over 3 million migrant workers in the UK that continue to grease the cogs of the British economy (National Statistics, 2019). The group of Chinese immigrants in the sea that night were a part of the UK’s clandestine economy. In other words, their work was kept secret because it was illegal, which caused them to tiptoe around local cockle-pickers. This subsequently forced them to work in the dark, which contributed to the eventual disaster. However, this matter is not approached by the UK as something to change and improve. It seems that if the UK government start to recognise these illegal workers, then it opens a gateway for more immigrants to make their way to the country in search of a better life. Harvey toyed with the idea of the dynamic of contemporary capitalism; we tend to value ‘parasitic’ work, such as the advertising of products much more than we value the work of the people that directly create or harvest the product. Should the value of a commodity, such as the cockles, be measured by the number of hours and relative danger that was put into the labour? 

When an investigation was opened into the Morecambe Bay disaster, according to The Guardian, the investigators won a ‘top criminal justice’ award. As a nation, we only reserved our applauses for the immediate action that had been taken by the UK. However, the disaster didn’t end after awards were dished out. It is ongoing. 

The families of the victims that live in the Fujian province in China have debt to their family’s name to this day, as well as receiving no compensation for the tragic death of a family member. One victim’s wife, Su Zhenqin, is £19,900 in debt. This large sum of money becomes especially evident when she earns £20/month, leaving the family exposed to constant harassment from debt collectors. The Chinese Cockle-pickers came to England to send money back to their families in the form of remittances, however this has only ended up leaving the families in more debt. It seems that the families of the victims are still paying for something completely outside of their control and responsibility. As previously mentioned, the Gangmaster, Lin Liangren, has received a prison sentence, but justice is still not served. The disaster of Morecambe Bay shouldn’t be treated as an unfortunate accident, but as a consequence of people forced to leave from their hometowns in order to find work, as well as the poor treatment of illegal immigrants in the UK. 

The DVD cover of Ghosts (2006)

In 2006, director Nick Broomfield released a drama film based off the story from Morecambe Bay, called Ghosts (2006). The tale follows a young woman, Ai Qui, and her journey to England. The intent of this film was to redirect a common euro-centric focus to depict the UK as a ‘hostile’ and ‘heartless’ island. Using documentary-style techniques, it aimed to expose an unseen and hidden world, which positions the perspective from the eye of the illegal immigrants living in the UK. This film presents a very original take on portraying a true story, in a way that maintains a very unquestionable authenticity about it. As such, the people who play fictional characters are all non-actors and former illegal immigrants, as well as using an improvised script. From an interview with The Guardian (2017), it’s clear that Broomfield’s approach to filmmaking is expressed similarly across the majority of his work. How he describes his experimentation of filmmaking fits rather nicely into the making of ‘Ghosts’; he calls it, “direct cinema” and “enhanced reality”. As for the title, the term ‘Ghosts’ is used as a derogatory term for the ‘white westerners’, exhibiting this turn of perspective from the usual angle of European films. 

Momento (source: Ed Pein)

Another notable depiction of Morecambe Bay disaster comes in the shape of an art installation displayed at the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester. Artist, Ed Pien, created this interactive piece to signify the great risks taken by illegal immigrants. The art wasn’t specifically tied to the events at Morecambe Bay, however it assuredly inspired certain aspects, such as the ‘fishing nets’ and ‘engulfing waves’. The network of patterns acted as a metaphor for the human circulatory system, drawing attention to a wider message of the political crisis of immigrants in first world countries.

These examples from film/media that portray the fateful night on Morecambe Bay expose the story in a much more transparent light. This story of the Chinese cockle-pickers may well be outdated, but what happened that night is completely our business. The exploitation of people in search of a better life for their families continues. We live in a progressive world, yet modern day slavery is still present. 

Source: GETTY images

My thoughts on commodities and products that have influenced my own memories have been completely eroded.

“[We must] make powerful, important, disturbing connections between Western consumers and the distant strangers whose contributions to their lives were invisible, unnoticed, and largely unappreciated. – Ian Cook

The road that ‘following the thing’ led me down was unexpected and startling. I now know what it means to ‘follow the thing’ and the importance of doing it more often; questioning more of the products that we use regularly and the concealed inequalities that surround us. The most confounding question of this cyclical commodity chain remains pending; why are human lives sacrificed only to harvest these rubbery, vinegary Molluscs? Was it all really worth it?

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