A Suitcase Full of Eels

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This creative project brings together two academics and artists from different disciplines to use their love of narrative and absurdity to make artworks that draw on the historical importance and cultural relevance of the critically endangered European Eel, Anguilla anguilla.

The Eel Suitcase publications and Case of Eels box set are now available at 

The Creel
The Origin of the Silver Eel
A Suitcase Full of Eels

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>eel conservationExternal link to The Sustainable Eel Group website.

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My first memory of meeting an eel was as a young child on holiday in Wales. My brother had been fishing for brown trout in a small steam adjacent to our cottage and  had hooked a silver eel. Anyone who has ever caught an eel will know that they are particularly unpleasant slimy creatures that wrap themselves in knots around your hand or boot. On top of this, eels have an unfortunate habit of swallowing the hook making it almost impossible to retrieve. Attempting to remove this hideous creature from his line was simply too much for my brother, so the eel came home from the stream. It hung outside like a rancid dipped candle, slowly rotting for the remainder of our stay. I can think of several other occasions when a perfectly good fishing trip was ruined by an unwelcome eel.

            The first time I tried eating an eel was in East London near Canary Wharfe. I was working that day and feeling slightly under-the-weather. I found a small food van selling eels and liquor and thought I would give them a try. I have a healthy appetite - my parents, siblings and probably my friends parents would all testify to this - but the small circles of white eel flesh surrounded in greasy, chewy, soft fishy skin did nothing to help my constitution. Feeling rather sick I went into a nearby pub where I encountered a pair of friendly Cockney Queens, who, impressed with my manners said of me ‘your mother would be proud’.

I suppose you could say that the eel and I got off to a bad start, but the more I learn about this wonderful, idiosyncratic and adventurous species the more my respect grows. The eel holds a very special place in our history and culture, a thing of ridicule and absurdity; a species for the poor now fueling a multi-billion Euro illegal trafficking trade. The eel transgresses all boundaries and all ages. A once mighty spirit, a coursing writhing enveloping mass, emerging from the wet soil in such abundance that it seemed born from the earth, waiting, watching, endless, curled in anticipation, ready to run back to mysterious spawning grounds. Now a trickle instead of an unstoppable wave. The decline of the eel has been shocking, a direct contrast to the upward surge of humanity. At the time of writing, the eel is listed as critically endangered, this ranking placing it alongside some of the great iconic species for animal conservation - Mountain Gorillas, Bornean Orangutans, the Sumatran Rhino – but also many even less well known species, identifiable only by complex scientific names; strange parasitic flukes or obscure flying insects.  At least the eel has made a name for itself, it is well known if not well liked, there is much that can be brought to the surface and celebrated.

            The Eel Suitcase project began as a collaboration with the writer, poet and academic Dr. Luke Thompson. We both share an enthusiasm for nature and similar absurdist viewpoints on the state of everything and what needs to be done. The eel was a perfect fit for us and we soon became immersed in eel literature, eel art, eel people and eel science, as well as the stranger, weirder areas of Youtube where you can find live eels being swallowed whole or eels being crucified, stretched and disemboweled for the barbecue. We delighted in finding obscure eel cameos in Hollywood gangster flicks or trashy reality dating shows - when you start looking for the eel you will find it everywhere. We worked together with the University of Plymouth and the Sustainable Eel Group, asking illustration and writing students to respond creatively to the big issues affecting eel recovery, namely blocked migration paths and the international illegal trade, whilst celebrating eels unique place in culture, history and tradition. We sent out an invite for eel art, eel poems and eel stories and it wasn’t long before they started to flood in. Supported by The Sustainable Earth Institute we began preparing a series of publications and in June 2018 we took our eel collection to Brussels and exhibited at the European Parliament.

            The eels in our collections have migrated from as far as Italy, Slovakia and Australia and from as close to home as Plymouth, Falmouth, Bournemouth and London. The artists who have contributed to this book have all done so for the love of the species and their beautiful art is testament to the engaging and enduring nature of this animal. We have had contributions from students, academics, professional illustrators, artists and eel enthusiasts. The eels range from friendly and approachable to fierce, unworldly and mysterious. It seems a few related species have slipped into our net. Hopefully this work will make a few of you stop and think about your own relationship with the European eel - what stories do you remember from your own childhood? If you think of something, please get in touch, we would love to hear them.  If you feel inspired to draw an eel please do. We hope this is just the start for our collection and a positive step towards eel awareness and ultimately, real eel recovery.

~John Kilburn
The Eel Suitcase is supported by the University of Plymouth’s Sustainable Earth Institute’s Creative Associate Awards.

The Eel Suitcase. 2018.

images ©John Kilburn 2018 except Aguilliforms cover by Peter Morey.