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Book Writes About Fresh Maldives Tuna from Sea To Shelf

In his latest book, Alain de Botton tracks a tuna fish from a Maldives fishing boat to a dinner table in England to explore parts of the working world that societies often overlook.

If you’re looking for some relief from talk of downturns, redundancies and downsizing, de Botton is the perfect antidote. He maintains it is a coincidence that The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work was published at a time when we’re hyper-aware of our jobs, but the poetic way in which he tracks an accountancy firm, an entrepreneur fair and a tuna fisherman in the Maldives achieves something really rare; a charming travelogue through some potentially mundane, real-world territory.

 “Having thoughts about work is something you do at any point during an economic cycle, because it’s so much a part of our lives,” he says. “The two great modern obsessions are work and love. And whether you’re in love or out of love, in work or out of work, there’s a perennial question: am I getting this part of my jigsaw correct?”

“There have always been two notions of work knocking around together. The first is that work is basically for money, for survival, to put food on the table. And in a way that’s the oldest view. It involves notions of suffering and penance. The more modern view is that it’s a way of fulfilling yourself, a path to freedom. It’s a very utopian idea. We’ve probably got both of those stories in our heads at any point, depending on our circumstances at any particular time. And right now many of us may be going back to the older view – a job is fine as long as it pays. It doesn’t have to have a higher meaning. Certainly I’ve heard the line ‘at least it’s a job’ many times over the past few months.”

De Botton suggests that such a hardening of a relationship with a wage actually lowers expectations and makes it easier for us to be happy. “In boom times, you can’t open a newspaper without hearing a story about some self-made millionaire. And for most of us, that’s incredibly anxiety-inducing. You end up wondering why you aren’t like that, why your career isn’t similarly turbocharged. In a downturn, being freaked out by that isn’t an issue, and it makes for a more relaxed state of affairs.”

All of which probably makes The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work sound like the kind of schmaltzy self-help books that are quickly discarded. Thankfully, de Botton is not that kind of writer. The Art of Travel, his 2002 book, did something similar to his latest work (which he admits he nearly called The Art of Work) but asked questions about what we expect from our holidays.

“In both cases what I wanted to do in a personal way – not as an academic but as a human being – was ask these outwardly banal questions such as ‘What’s the point of this? Why are we doing this and where is this heading?’ I may not have clear answers, but that doesn’t mean you can’t say something meaningful. One of the best things that books can do is allow you to think for yourself.”

This time, he tracks a tuna fish from a Maldives fishing boat to a dinner table in Bristol, England  “We live in a world where culture is really skewed towards art and nature and pre-industrial idylls. And that’s important to me because it means that very little of the way we actually live is reflected in photographs or novels. I wanted to make the point that we should open our eyes to people working in logistics, for example. It is pretty thrilling what they do. I guess there is a side of me that is inspired by geeky, technological pursuits. They’re usually handled in a geeky, scientific way, and I was keen to make sure they had a different kind of voice.”

That also means his book boasts some brilliant photography. De Botton aimed to make it less a journalistic exercise and more a book of ideas and thoughts – so the images are key to understanding this hidden work that goes on in industrial estates and windswept ports. It makes for a beautiful rhythm to the chapters and, at times, a sense that de Botton is baffled by our notions and expectations of what work means as much as he is delighted by the fact that it only takes 52 hours for the tuna fish to make it from sea to shelf.

A desire for escapism, however, ignores the presence of two hugely popular books that concentrate on the experiences of the workplace: the incredible comeback of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged and the arrival of the philosopher Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.

Facing its own blood and guts on the blue deck, a yellow fin tuna is dead on the floor of a dhoni boat in the Indian Ocean. After clubbing it dead, fishermen from the Maldives have removed its respiratory organs with sharp knives and washes it down with a hose. Next it will be plunged into ice containers to cool the flesh, reducing the risk of self-deteriorating flushed blood which renders it unfit for consumption under EU law (its live internal core temperature is 40 degrees centigrade). When as many fish have been caught (often weighing 50kg) before dark using hand and line method, rather than nets, the boat presses on to the processing factory at Himmafushi where they're filleted and boxed for export to Europe and in particular, for UK supermarkets like Sainsbury's.

If you’re looking for some relief from talk of downturns, redundancies and downsizing, de Botton is the perfect antidote. He maintains it is a coincidence that The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work was published at a time when we’re hyper-aware of our jobs, but the poetic way in which he tracks an accountancy firm, an entrepreneur fair and a tuna fisherman in the Maldives achieves something really rare; a charming travelogue through some potentially mundane, real-world territory.