The Whyte House Fish

Louise Phillips

Photo by Jeffry Surianto

The clown triggerfish was mature in coloration, with a yellow mouth, white spots on its black stomach and a yellow lattice pattern covering its back. A canary strip above its mouth looked like a pair of headband sunglasses. The fish was likely harvested in 1970 or early ‘71, at the very latest. The word ‘harvest’ originally meant autumn. It became a verb in the 15th century, and wasn’t used in relation to harvesting wild animals until 1946, the first year of the mid-20th century baby boom.

The fish was probably harvested in a coral reef off the coast of the Indonesian archipelago. Three-quarters of the world’s species of coral live in Indonesia’s tropical water ecosystem. The islands act as a hydraulic brake on the current carrying water from the warm pools of the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. Clown triggerfish are usually spotted 10 to 250 feet down on the inner and outer portions of their reefs. They’re loners. The males maintain large territories and the females smaller ones within them, vassal states in 45-foot coral colonies.

In 1974 the philosopher Thomas Nagel published a thought experiment about consciousness called ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ Nagel had the idea to use bats after trying to evict some from his house. ‘Even without the benefit of philosophical reflection,’ he wrote, ‘Anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed space with an excited bat knows what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life.’ His thesis was that there is something that it is like to be a bat, but we can’t know what it is. Bats perceive the external world by sonar, a form of perception completely dissimilar to human senses. It will not help to try and imagine, Nagel wrote:

‘That one has webbing on one’s arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one’s mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves.’

We are bound by the limits of our own memories and senses in attempting to imagine what it would be like to be a clown triggerfish, scanning its reef for predators and food. Clown triggers have eyes set high on their heads which move independently. Researchers at the Sensory Neurobiology Lab at the Queensland Brain Institute were half a century away from establishing that reef fish see all the colours humans do and some we can’t. Reefs are noisy places. A soundscape of snorts, snores, and the crackle of snapping shrimps, which sounds like a tap-dancer moving across a surface lined with bubble wrap. But fish don’t have ears, they have ear parts inside their heads, so we can’t know what it sounds like for them.

We can’t know if the fish was female or male; if the fish had arrived at the breeding grounds to prepare nests or establish a territory, or to choose a mate and lay eggs. A male clown triggerfish breeds with a harem of two to five females. We can’t know if this clown trigger was a member of a harem, or kept one, or what it feels like to direct a jet of water from our mouths to uncover buried prey or crush mollusks with vampiresque teeth, or what the crushed mollusk would taste like, because fish have more taste buds than any other animal—extraoral buds can be located in their lips, gill rakers, and oesophagus.

The particulars of its territory are unknown. We don’t know if this fish patrolled a psychedelic landscape of giant red cabbages and stalks lined with iridescent beads, tiers of mossy pagodas, a moonscape, or bubble-tip anemones.  If the clown trigger was blowing on a nest to oxygenate eggs or wedged in between pieces of coral, paused in suspended animation. Fish don’t sleep, but they do rest. We can’t know if the reef was crowded and the clown triggerfish was distracted by a shoal of thousands moving like a murmuration of birds. If it spotted the diver with an independently moving eye or heard with the ear parts inside its head. Clown triggers are at risk of being preyed on by sharks, groupers and jack fish. They engage the spines of their dorsal fins when they feel threatened. It’s used for defence, or to lock themselves into crevices. The second spine has to be pulled back to engage it, like a trigger, but we can’t know if the fish had time to, in this instance. 

The harvesting might have been preceded by a number of scenarios. Clown triggers are territorial, and grunt like pigs when they spot a predator. They can put up a fight and attack the eels and hammerheads who patrol the cliff faces of their coral reefs. A video of a clown triggerfish defending its nest from a diver has been posted online. The fish head-butts an underwater camera, grunting and trying to bite the lens, indefatigable. But they also hide.

Only the collector would know if the fish tried to wedge itself in a cave, or fought back and tried to bite, maybe succeeding. It was likely an unimportant memory existing briefly in the prefrontal cortex of the diver’s brain. The collector would have been pleased—clown triggers have always been a high-value target species in the global aquarium trade—but beyond that, there was probably no reason the memory was stored for long-term purposes in his hippocampus.

Cyanide wasn’t involved in the capture. Collectors in the Philippines had already begun shooting cyanide into cracks of coral to stun fish but this method wasn’t used in Indonesia until the 1980s. It’s taxing, dangerous work in isolated locations, far from the shore. The diver was probably wearing a scuba mask and wooden flippers, and carrying a net and a bag. He might have used a snorkel or breathed through a long plastic tube. Most divers have a styrofoam boat with containers of sea water attached to their waists, bobbing above them and casting underwater shadows on sunny days.

The clown triggerfish’s passage to a form of immortality began at the moment of capture, but the details remain unknown. The diver might have driven the fish into his net, or grabbed it by the tail with his hand. Fish dislike being handled, and respond to stress like mammals, with elevated heart and breathing rates. Adrenaline and noradrenaline were released into the clown triggerfish’s circulation; hunger levels dropped. Many ornamental fish don’t survive the pressure of capture and transportation, but this one did.


Above water, the world had international air travel and landlines and long-distance phone calls and radio and television, which began broadcasting in Jakarta in 1962 with the opening ceremonies of the Asian Games. Indonesia’s transition to the New Order was underway. The country’s longest-serving president had begun his 31-year dictatorship. His predecessor Sukarno died of kidney failure on 21 June, 1970. Documents declassified in 2021 have revealed the involvement of British security services in carrying out covert operations to undermine Sukarno’s regime and eliminate the Communist Party of Indonesia. Between 500,000 and one million citizens had been massacred in Suharto’s 1965-1966 anti-communist purge.

The political instability was bad for the currency. Inflation of the Indonesian rupiah had jumped to 600% by the mid-sixties and a ‘new rupiah’ was introduced at a rate of 1000 of the old unit. Five thousand and 10,000 rupiah banknotes were added by 1970 and coinage was reintroduced. How much the fisherman was paid for the clown triggerfish is a matter of conjecture. In the 1970s a collector in the neighbouring Philippines could sell a reef fish for between 10 to 50 centavos for a reef. Adjusted for inflation, the clown triggerfish was worth $51.59 on the American market in 1970.

The collector who’d caught the fish probably lived in a stilt house over the water and kept catches hanging in net pens until the middleman arrived. His family’s life had many challenges. The average life expectancy in Indonesia in 1970 was 51. Hurricanes hit the islands approximately seven times a year. In 1970 collectors faced tropical cyclones Carmen, Janet, and Loris, and severe tropical cyclones Andrea-Claudine, Beverly-Eva, Dominique-Hillary, and Myrtle-Ginette.

There is no scientific consensus on the levels of the clown triggerfish’s distress. When a human is injured, it stimulates receptors called nociceptors. Electrical signals travel through nerves and the spinal cord to the cerebral cortex, which is processed as a sensation of pain. It was believed that fish didn’t feel pain because they don’t have a neocortex until 2003, when biologists at the Roslin Institute published ‘significant evidence of nociception in teleost fishes and furthermore [demonstrated] that behaviour and physiology are affected over a prolonged period of time, suggesting discomfort.’ In other words, fish do feel pain.

The Roslin team’s findings had implications for fish farming, industrial fishing industries, and sports like angling. A revised animal protection act in Germany stated fish were sentient vertebrates who must be protected against cruel acts but the dispute continued in scientific publications.‘Fish do not feel pain and its implications for understanding phenomenal consciousness,’ (Biology & Philosophy, 2015). ‘Can fish really feel pain?’ (Fish Fish, 2014).  In 2013 a team of neurobiologists, behavioral ecologists and fishery scientists published a rebuke in Fish and Fisheries:

‘We review(ed) studies claiming that fish feel pain and find deficiencies in the methods used for pain identification, particularly for distinguishing unconscious detection of injurious stimuli (nociception) from conscious pain. Results were also frequently misinterpreted and not replicable, so claims that fish feel pain remain unsubstantiated.’

‘God put these animals on earth for us to survive on,’ a commercial fisherman from Florida told The Washington Post. ‘Whoever’s coming out with “fish are tortured” or “fish feel pain,” they’re not playing with a full deck. I don’t want to be rude.’ Put otherwise: ‘It is very difficult to deduct underlying emotional states based on behavioural responses.’

Marco Evaristti—an artist whose previous works included a dinner party where he served agnolotti pasta with meatballs made with his own liposuctioned fat and works painted with human blood ‘and other materials’ acquired from car accidents in Bangkok—used live goldfish in an exhibition at Denmark’s Trapholt Museum he called ‘Helena & El Pescador.’ Ten blenders filled with water and a single goldfish in each one. Evaristti said it was an invitation to the gallery’s visitors to do ‘battle with their conscience…. A protest against what is going on in the world, against this cynicism, this brutality that impregnates the world in which we live.’

Someone pressed the button and killed at least one of the little orange goldfish. The button-pusher is unknown. No details survive in articles; if this individual was alone, with friends, a date, or even children. If they’d gone for the specific purpose of pressing the button or it had been an impulsive decision—something they’d done because they felt like it, because they could, for fun. If it ever troubled their conscience, or it became a story they loved telling, something they told strangers, no opportunity to tell it wasted.

People complained about ‘Helena & El Pscador.’ until the police ordered the museum to unplug the blenders. Evaristti refused to alter the exhibition or pay the fine for animal cruelty and was ultimately acquitted in a Danish courtroom, where Judge Preben Bagger ruled that the fish had been killed ‘instantly’ and ‘humanely.’ ‘It’s a question of principle,’ Evarsetti had told the court. ‘An artist has the right to create works which defy our concept of what is right and what is wrong.’

Back to the clown triggerfish, who had probably been stored in a net below the collector’s house. There are differences between the surface and the deep ocean currents; the density of the water is affected by salinity, temperature, and depth. The clown triggerfish would have been aware of the differences and the lack of anywhere to rest or look for food.  A fish’s memories can last up to five months. The goldfish in Evaristti’s blenders had had the ability to escape nets, navigate mazes, correlate actions with rewards, and remember other individual goldfish after periods of separation.

The middlemen of the aquarium trade travel for up to six hours to reach their collectors, navigating the trade winds and currents, squinting at the shards of sunlight reflecting off the waves, alert to gradations in the clouds and shark fins camouflaged in the ripples of the water. The current carrying water from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean is one of the largest movements of water on the planet. People say that days would only last 23 hours if the Indonesian Throughflow wasn’t slowing down the rotation of the Earth.

If the middleman has a good relationship with their collectors they often spent the night. The eponymous fish was scooped up with a net and placed in a plastic bag filled with 2 galloons of water. The middleman squeezed out the excess air, inserted a tube into the water and filled the bag with pure oxygen from a canister. In a YouTube video of the process the goldfish are opening and closing their mouths rapidly, indicating low oxygen levels in their environment. The clown triggerfish’s yellow mouth was lined with thin black and white rings, like circles painted by Joan Miró. It gaped open every few hours when the middleman re-oxygenated the bag, showing off pointy teeth.

The bag was packed in a styrofoam cooler with other bags of ornamental fish. The water had to stay cool because reduced temperatures affect a fish’s metabolic rates and decrease oxygen consumption. It was dark. The noise of confused fish packed in bags and the purr of the boat’s motor was very different from the sound of a reef. The fish didn’t have room to swim or corals to hide in. The clown triggerfish had no eggs to blow on, no food to catch, no harem, no territory to patrol. The middleman’s boat shot across large blue stretches of the map, past dolphin pods and  tankers and cargo ships and a hot pink and lavender sunset, or rain.

No records are kept—even today, detailed evidence on trade with marine resources in Indonesia is lacking or it is hardly accessible. Moreover, the exploitation of ornamental species seems to be mostly uncontrolled. The provenances of captive clown triggerfish remain elusive. Saltwater aquariums were an expensive, niche hobby in the 1970s—found in restaurants, hotels, and the bachelor pads of millionaires. A tank of undulating damselfish and yellow tangs was a signifier of prosperous glamour, like Jacuzzis and sable fur coats. It was a time of rapid expansion in Indonesia’s marine ornamental fish trade, which was centralized in Jakarta and Denpasar, Bali, where over 280 species of marine fish are traded. Firms still in operation were established fifty years ago— Jaya Aquarium has been exporting live fish from Jakarta since 1962.

Fish were originally transported by ship in large heavy-metal transport cans wrapped in insulating material. The fatality rates were excessive. Fish produce carbon dioxide when they respire, which reacts with water to form a weak acid—high levels will interfere with oxygen uptake in their blood. Ammonia build up which occurs as a result of fish metabolism can become toxic. The easiest way to reduce ammonia buildup is to stop feeding for up to 72 hours before transport.

The clown triggerfish was transferred to the custody of a regional middleman, who shipped catches to Jakarta or Denpasar, Bali. Transported by local dealers by bike or motorcycle, the fish spent weeks or even months being passed down the supply chain, held in tanks in holding facilities and enormous piles of plastic bags on storehouse floors, where they were sorted by species and graded by size. The fish was packed and re-packed on multiple occasions before it reached its final destination, a hardy, resilient fish who survived a dangerous capture and transport from a reef to the busiest airport in the world.


The people at every stage of the clown triggerfish’s passage to London are unknown. The collector, the first middleman and the regional middlemen, the forklift operators and supervisors in warehouses, the pilots, and the border inspection post officers supervising the entry of wildlife into Heathrow. The person who signed for custody of the boxes marked ‘Live Tropical Fish,’ and the UK dealers. About 117 billion people have existed on the planet, almost all of them anonymous—we have no idea who was responsible for selecting and transporting the clown triggerfish to Pinewood Studies in Buckinghamshire in the summer of 1971. The only people we know about in this story are the ones with IMDb pages and the stars, because a celebrity is their own species, as classifiable as an animal in a nature guide: Description. Feeding and Other Habits. Habitat and Range.

The movie star Sean Connery appeared in at least 69 movies and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000 for services to film drama. His first job was the local milkman and he joined the navy at the age of 16 and and worked as an artist’s model, a lifeguard, a cement mixer,  a steel bender, and a coffin polisher. He had two tattoos: ‘Mum & Dad’ in a bird’s mouth, and ‘Scotland Forever’ in a heart pierced by a knife. Connery placed third in the Mr. Universe contest in 1953, was People magazine’s oldest Sexiest Man Alive in 1989, and ten years later he beat Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in an Internet poll for the sexiest man of the century.

Connery was born in August 25, 1930 in Edinburgh and died in the Bahamas on October 31, 2020.  He owned homes in the South of France, Marbella, Florida, the Bahamas, London, and the upper half of a landmark-declared townhouse in Manhattan, where he spent a decade in litigation with the eye doctor who lived downstairs. The GQ article ‘A breakdown of every James Bond actor’s favourite car’ says he drove a second-hand Jenson C-V8 in the 1960s and later owned an Alpine White shark-nosed 1986 BMW 635CSi and a 1964 Aston Martin DB5 he never had the opportunity to drive.

Connery was protected by two Great Danes, he always ordered the green curry at Nahm-Jim restaurant in St. Andrew’s, and his favourite Bond film was From Russia With Love. He started smoking cigarettes when he was nine. ’I try not to drink too much because when I do drink I drink too much and too easily,’ he told The Guardian in December of 1971. ‘I gave up smoking three years ago a complete cut-off; when I smoked pot I found that I didn’t like it because, although it turned me on all right, it was too much like smoking cigarettes. I dehydrate very easily in high temperatures. I didn’t know this until I was in Japan and found that I was slowing down without realising it. They had to pump a pint of saline into me.’

He wasn’t the first choice to play the spy in the film versions of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. Cary Grant was offered the part but he refused to do sequels. The Daily Express launched a ‘Find James Bond’ contest. Fleming wanted David Niven as Bond and Noel Coward to play the villain in Dr. No, but Coward sent a telegram to the producers: ‘DR NO? NO! NO! NO!’ Connery nailed it after a lunch when the producers Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli and Harry Saltzman watched him walk back to his car—Saltzman said he moved like a jungle cat. The memory was stored in his hippocampus and reinforced whenever he talked about it, and eventually the story of Sean Connery getting the part after Broccoli and Saltzman watched him walk back to his car would outlive them all.

Between 1962 and 1967 Connery made five Bond movies and dropped out in 1969 when George Lazenby took over for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Lazenby took some bad advice from his agent and Connery was convinced to come back for $1.25 million dollars and a 10% cut of the gross. ‘Lazenby couldn’t do a good job because you have to have technique to get the character right,’ Connery told The Guardian. ‘I know he behaved like a prize shit, alienating people from what they tell me – I’ve never met him – but it wasn’t all his fault.’ The relationship between Saltzman and Connery had become so poor it was in his contract that Saltzman was barred from the set when Diamonds are Forever began production in the Nevada Desert in April of 1971.

Jill St. John played the diamond smuggler Tiffany Case. The main romantic interest, the woman Bond is kissing before the end credits. ‘She’s a very smart lady,’ St. John said when she discussed her character with The Miami News,‘She’s a survivor. In some ways she’s a lot like me.’  Half a century later typing ‘Did Sean Connery and Jill St John get along?’ into Google elicits:

People also ask:
Did Sean Connery sleep with Jill St John?
Did Jill St John date Tom Selleck?


Did Jill St John date Henry Kissinger?

(Yes. ‘A friend for life,’ St. John told the News).

The production spent eight weeks in America, filming neon cityscapes and a dusty pursuit through the desert. The International Hotel on Paradise Road stood in for the fictional Whyte House hotel. The Ford Motor Company provided eight cars and Freemont Street was closed for three nights so stunt performers could rehearse and shoot a car chase. They shot on the floors of real casinos. The carnival midway where Tiffany Case retrieved smuggled diamonds and a woman named Zambora, ‘captured near Nairobi’ turned into a gorilla for an audience of children looked mostly unchanged in a 2017 blog post revisiting the Circus Circus.

By June production had moved to Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire. ‘I never liked designing those kitschy Las Vegas sets,’ the production designer Ken Adam told Christopher Fraying. He designed the reclusive billionaire Willard Whyte’s penthouse and the Whyte House bridal suite where James Bond and Tiffany Case checked in as Mr and Mrs Jones. Their suite was furnished with rococo furniture, chandeliers, heavy drapes, and baroque vases filled with sheafs of wheat. Everything was white or gold. The pièce de résistance was an aquarium shaped like a circular bed at the top of a white carpeted staircase, flanked by two blackamoor statues holding feathers: the clown triggerfish’s new home.

‘I think it was Cubby’s idea,’ Adams said. ‘We had the waterbed sent over from the United States but there was no way I could get tropical fish inside it, so I designed a series of circular perspex tanks around the bed. We had Sean Connery and Jill St. John fornicating on the bed with the fish swimming in the foreground. The first problem was that the waterbed leaked onto my very expensive new carpet, so that leak had to be stopped.’


The fish bed. Clearly uncomfortable, along with Shirley Bassey’s theme song it would go on to become one of the less-terrible things people remember about Diamonds Are Forever.The tanks had been decorated with artificial pink corals and plants. The clown trigger’s new tank mates appeared to number indigo damselfish and black-and-white striped convict tang, dwarf crayfish, and glassy shrimp—the smaller fish would be difficult to identify as they jerked across the screen like crowds in a Charlie Chaplin film. The animals all generated a lot of waste; their tanks required a good filtration system and their water needed frequent changes.

Ornamental fish run an obstacle course to reach their final tanks. The fish at Pinewood had all endured weeks in cramped tanks and plastic bags. Their new aquarium, as packed as rush hour on a crowded reef, was stuffed with plastic flora and the studio lights were much brighter than any sunlight filtering through to their ocean habitats. It must have been quite an adjustment. The starfish and invertebrates had gathered in the bottom tank, the mattress part, where Sean Connery would lie on top of Jill St. John going numb on the hard perspex surface, their modesty protected by strapless adhesive thongs.

The collector and the middlemen would have known to keep the clown triggerfish isolated, but there was no Internet to warn the production team that it’s inadvisable to put a captive clown trigger in a tank with its prey. Aquarium hobbyists have stories about small juveniles who exist peacefully for years, right up until the day the clown triggerfish decides they’re big enough to kill their tank mates. The other fish should be chosen carefully—no small slow-movers or invertebrates. They can co-exist in large tanks with dog-faced puffers or white-spotted groupers who can hold their ground.

The two-story Whyte House bridal suite was a finely calibrated and extremely high maintenance set for what would result in 1 minute and 50 seconds of screen time. Saltwater aquariums require an air pump, a filtration system, and heaters. The construction crewmust have been relieved to have built the bed, salvaged the carpet, and plugged up the leak. The production was pressed for time—Connery’s contract had a clause which paid him $10,000 a week if shooting ran over 18 weeks. Ken Adam didn’t remember whether a security guard or the prop master was the last person on set the night they’d fixed the leak. The days were long and they were probably exhausted and running on automatic pilot. Checking to make sure everything was packed away correctly, every room empty, every light and switch turned off. This was not like the person who deliberately flicked on the blender in the Trapholt Musuem—the person who turned off the aquarium’s heating unit had simply made a mistake—but the consequences were the same.

If the water in a tank gets too cold it becomes stressful environment. Fish who are extremely sensitive don’t survive. They can’t regulate their internal body temperatures and the fish in the tank who were intolerably cold couldn’t swim away to a warmer patch of water. So the fish started dying. Biologists still cannot agree whether these fish would have felt any pain, or if the sudden deaths were stressful or confusing for the others. At call time on the day production was scheduled to shoot James Bond and Miss Tiffany Case post-fornication in the bridal suite at the Whyte House, the crew discovered that half of the fish in the bed were dead.

No one admitted to having switched off the heating but the person responsible must have known it was their fault, a lump of desperate, panicked shame forming in their throat or chest. Nobody wants to kill half an aquarium full of fish, and no one wants to lose their job. An assistant got out a telephone book and started making calls to fish dealers and pet stores. ‘We couldn’t get replacements,’ Adam remembered. ‘It was impossible.’ Someone suggested putting the dead fish on ice and putting them back in the tank for the shoot. Ice was ordered from the commissary, or a freezer was purchased or commandeered, and crew members scooped the dead fish out of the tanks for freezing.

‘There were deceased fish floating in the tanks?’ an incredulous Christopher Frayling asked 37 years later.

‘Not all of them,’ Adam said.

The assumption is that every fish died because the heating had been switched off. But those tanks had been full of prey. When Sean Connery rolled onto Jill St. John for some sexy repartee, she was lying on what appears to be a dwarf crayfish which was in turn lying on its own back, very obviously dead. It is difficult not to wonder, given the inadvisability of keeping a clown triggerfish in a tank with invertebrates—especially a discombobulated predator who’d spent weeks or months in isolated transit— if the clown trigger had acted according to instinct, making that dead crayfish under Jill St. John the victim of an actual deliberate killing on a James Bond set.

Crew members re-arranged the dead fish in the bed-shaped Perspex aquarium. Second unit shot close ups of the tank, focusing on the clown trigger, the largest and most beautiful fish in the bed, who appeared to be treading water; magisterial, tail steady, fins rippling like gossamer scarves in a breeze. The clown triggerfish would be a continuity nightmare for the film’s editors. They did the best they could with the footage but the clown trigger was always facing in the wrong direction.

Connery and St. John arrived on set. Basil Newall or Allan Snyder applied their makeup. A hairstylist brushed, sprayed, and tousled St. John’s red hair. The wardrobe master Ray Beck handed them their adhesive thongs. Connery, an amusing man, probably made a crack about the dead fish to Adam. They got along and would mark the last day of shooting with a game of golf. The principals dropped their robes and arranged themselves on the fish bed to wait until the clown triggerfish swam into the shot. Connery and St. John were filmed through the aquarium. Director Guy Hamilton called: ’Action.’

These are the things we know for sure about the clown triggerfish—the rock solid, unabridged facts: Our clown triggerfish swam in a small ‘u’ shape, inches from the head of the sexiest man of the 20th century as he recited the lines: ‘In order to form a more perfect union, sweetheart,’ in response to St. John’s question: ‘Darling, why are we suddenly staying at the bridal suite in the Whyte House?’ St. John’s line would be layered over footage of the clown trigger, the fish alone, who was granted 6 seconds of solo screen time and the honour of opening the scene.

The clown triggerfish was first seen by audiences when the film premiered in Munich, West Germany on December 14, 1971. Diamonds Are Forever opened at London’s Odeon Leicester Square on Friday, December 30, 1971. Fans were held back by bobbies and barriers at the premier, where 700 people had waited for hours in the cold to watch other people walk into a theatre. When they spotted someone they recognised, the crowd screamed in excitement. 

‘We step back to find that the whole system of justification and criticism, which controls our choices and supports our claims to rationality, rests on responses and habits that we never question,’  Thomas Nagel wrote in his 1971 essay The Absurd. ‘We see ourselves from outside, and all the contingency and specificity of our aims and pursuits become clear. Yet when we take this view and recognize what we do as arbitrary, it does not disengage us from life, and there lies our absurdity: not in the fact that such an external view can be taken of us, but in the fact that we ourselves can take it, without ceasing to be the persons whose ultimate concerns are so coolly regarded.

The clown triggerfish swam across the screen in Leicester Square five times a day, from 10:45 AM, with late night shows on Friday and Saturday. After thirteen weeks the clown triggerfish began swimming across the screen of the London Pavilion on Piccadilly Circus before it began swimming across screens all over the United Kingdom in March of 1972. Sean Connery saw the clown triggerfish again at the Gala Scottish Premiere. He’d brought his brother as his date and the proceeds from the evening were donated to the Scottish International Education Trust, the charity Connery founded with his million dollar fee. 

A lot of people ended up seeing that fish: 

‘United Artists announces the greatest 7 day gross in the history of motion pictures—with holiday playing time yet to come!’ an ad in the trade papers boasted. ‘$10,438, 536 first 7 days in 23 countries.’  It took in $7, 599,686 in the United States, where it opened in 530 theatres and $64, 156 over the first four days it showed in five theatres in the Philippines.

It’s unknown what happened to the clown triggerfish after the shoot. It was a valuable animal; there is every reason to be hopeful that the clown triggerfish made it back to the dealer and went on to live out the rest of its existence in a restaurant, or a hotel, or a millionaire’s penthouse. A captive clown triggerfish can live for up to 20 years. The fish might very well have lived until Diamonds Are Forever was released for VHS rental in 1983, or even until ‘87, when people could watch it swim across their set’s bulging, fishbowl screens at will when it was made available for purchase by Warner Home Video.

The first time the clown trigger was captured it was harvested from its reef. The second time was by the cinematographer Ted Moore, who used 35-millimetre Eastman colour negative film stock and a Panavision lens to preserve the clown triggerfish like a contemporary arthropod in amber. A process called telecine transferred the film stock to television, videocassette recorders, DVD, Blu-ray Disc, and computers. The clown triggerfish in the Whyte House bridal suite would remain gloriously alive for decades after its death, as long as people watched the movie, as long as it kept swimming across our screens, a Minoan octopus of the Jet Age; Tutankhamen’s jackal;  Leo the Lion roaring for MGM.

Louise Phillips

Louise Phillips

Louise Phillips lives in London. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Independent and Blizzard. Her fiction has been published in issues 99 and 108 of Litro, and most recently by Requited, failbetter, New World Writing, Columbia Journal, and 3AM Magazine.

Louise Phillips lives in London. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Independent and Blizzard. Her fiction has been published in issues 99 and 108 of Litro, and most recently by Requited, failbetter, New World Writing, Columbia Journal, and 3AM Magazine.

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