I was on Kangaroo Island, in the great Australian Southern Ocean, when I heard about the terrorist attack on Paris. It was Paul, an abalone diver, who passed on the brief story of atrocity as we bobbed in his chaotic old rubber boat beside black swans, piebald cormorants and piping oystercatchers in the silver morning chill. He was putting on his wetsuit and checking his air line, strapping on his weights before slipping over the side to collect urchins and purple-shelled king scallops. ‘It’s terrible, just terrible,’ he said, in a tone that implied I must be used to this sort of thing. ‘It’s why we live out here. Nothing happens. It’s quiet and safe.’ Just before this, he’d been telling me about the increasing number of great white shark attacks. Overfishing has forced them into shallower, narrower corridors of plenty. He’d had 11 encounters with them. Two abalone divers have already been eaten. His diving partner has been crippled by the bends in a panicked escape from gaping jaws. Abalone diving is now one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. The silent, committed ripper killer can sidle out of the dank darkness behind you at any time, and it’s only a matter of the wrong place and the wrong time, like being in the wrong café.
The perception of danger and fear are all relative to what you know, and your own sense of competence in an infinitely unknowable world. The king scallops straight out of the ocean were a glottal-stopping, ozoned, umami’d, sweet, complex flavour. Some of the best I’ve ever eaten. And a reminder that the globe is still more wonderful and miraculous than it is benighted and tragic.
This is an extract from A.A. Gill’s Christmas Notebook.