Q & A with John Simons, author of Goldfish in the Parlour

John Simons is a British Australian writer and academic who currently lives in Tasmania. He is an Emeritus Professor of Macquarie University and has published on a wide variety of topics from medieval romance to the history of cricket and specialises in the history of animals.

A close-up photograph of a man with white hair and a beard, wearing glasses with round black frames, sitting in a soft pink room.

Throughout Goldfish in the Parlour, you communicate a powerful sense of respect and compassion for marine life. Where does this come from for you?

I’ve been interested in animal welfare and subsequently animal rights since 1972 when I became a vegetarian at sixteen. It had always been clear to me that there is something wrong with the way that animals are treated, but that practical personal step of giving up eating meat and fish came then. So really it’s been all my adult life. And it’s about treading lightly on the earth. It seems to me that change comes from a myriad of personal decisions and that the moral scope of society is never widened by governments but only by concerned citizens. And once there are enough of them the thing becomes a political issue with votes tied to it and more starts to happen. But it has to start with an individual decision.

The book contains many fascinating details and anecdotes (from octopus capers to the evolution of women’s seaside fashion), along with meticulous research and analysis. How important is it for you to both entertain and inform the reader? How do you strike a balance between both objectives?

I try to write in such a way that you don’t have to be a specialist academic to understand what I’m saying. Also very few, if any, days go by when something doesn’t strike me as amusing, and this gets built into my books as I am writing them. At the same time I am a scholar with a background in some of the most rigorous disciplines – philology, codicology and palaeography – so traditional scholarly methods and, especially, tests for the authenticity of evidence are hardwired into me. I’m lucky that, over the years, I’ve stumbled on a way of making serious scholarship accessible and entertaining. And I’ve always been able to write very fluently, so that helps.

In the book, you note that sea creatures are often overlooked in animal rights and welfare legislation. Do you see this changing in the future?

Maybe in some countries. I don’t think much is likely to happen in Australia as the default position of government is usually to ask industries to develop self-imposed regulatory codes rather than [introduce] legislation when it comes to anything to do with agriculture (including pisciculture), and its unlikely the fishing industry or fish farming industry is going to impose on itself a code which would pay more attention to the welfare of fish. And I have no objection to agriculture or fishing in itself, just to the way it is often conducted. I’m not sure if the now extensive academic field of animal studies will take up fish or not.

You have published on a wide variety of subjects from medieval romance to the history of cricket, as well as animal history. As a reader and a researcher, what other historical subjects or eras do you find particularly appealing?

I’ve had a somewhat unusual career. I started as a classicist doing Latin and Greek, then moved on to a BA in medieval Germanic and Celtic philology (Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Welsh and Irish), then a PhD on the transition of English medieval verse romance into Renaissance prose romance and a PG Cert in palaeography. And I spent very little time as a lecturer. Almost the whole of my 40-year career was spent as a head of department, Dean or DVC, and sometimes acting VC, so I never had a contract which required me to do research or take any notice of the university’s research plans as far as my own work was concerned. Being a curiosity-driven scholar, this enabled me to write what I liked about whatever I was interested in at the time. So the answer to the question about what else interests me is hard to answer as I never know where things will take me. My current passion is Syriac, for example. I came to animals in the mid-90s when I wrote a couple of articles about speciesism, followed by a book called Animal Rights and the Politics of Literary Representation, which many people see as the first monogram which sought to put animals at the centre of critical inquiry. Since then I’ve worked almost exclusively on animals, mainly on the history of human–animal relationships in the Victorian era, and I’m increasingly interested in Victorian cults and crazes. If I had access to the materials, I’d like to write a history of zoos in nineteenth-century India, but that is not going to happen. There’s also room for a full-length study of Manchester’s Belle Vue Zoo, and that is a greater possibility as I spent a good deal of time on that when I was writing The Tiger that Swallowed the Boy, which was a study of zoos, menageries and the exotic animal trade in Victorian England.

For readers looking to understand more about human–animal history, what other books might you recommend?

I blush to recommend my own Obaysch: A Hippopotamus in Victorian London. But I will. I think Helen Cowie’s Exhibiting Animals in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Victims of Fashion are excellent, as is Andy Flack’s The Wild Within, which is a history of Bristol Zoo. Carol Freeman’s Paper Tigers is a fascinating study of perceptions of thylacines and a model of its kind.

What key messages or lessons do you hope readers will take from Goldfish in the Parlour?

Don’t say you’re a vegetarian if you eat fish! More seriously, it is that all our interactions with animals have a constructed history, and knowing something about that history will probably help us to be kinder in our treatment of animals. And also that utilitarianism is not a credible basis for an ethical framework.

Goldfish in the Parlour: The Victorian Craze for Marine Life is out now. Order your copy here.